FOR ALL THE SAINTS

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…[1 Corinthians 1:2a (ESV)]

The early Christians often marked anniversaries of the martyrdom of Christ’s followers. By the fourth century, however, there’d been so many martyrs that there weren’t enough days to honor them all and the idea of one feast day honoring all the martyrs began. In 609, Pope Boniface IV established an All Saints Day in May. After Christianity came to Ireland, the Roman church attached the Feast of All Saints to the already established pagan holiday of Samhain (a celebration of the end of the harvest) and, in 847, Pope Gregory IV formally rebranded this Celtic festival as All Saints Day. Today is All Saints’ Day: a day to commemorate all of the saints, not as determined by a Pope, but as defined in the Bible.

Biblically speaking, what is a saint? The word “saint” comes from the Greek word hagios meaning “consecrated to God, holy, scared, pious.” Sainthood isn’t conferred by people; it is granted by God to all who trust in Christ. When Paul addressed his letter to the Corinthians, it was to “those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…” Even though they were struggling with issues like immorality, jealousy, and divisiveness, those early Christians were saints because they’d been made holy when they united with Jesus.

Sainthood wasn’t reserved for the Corinthians; Paul also referred to the believers in Rome, Ephesus, Philippi, Colosse, and Thessalonica as saints. Simply put, saints were and still are the Christian church—the body of Christ. All Christians (as flawed as we are) are called to be saints—not just in heaven but right here on earth. No martyrdom, miracles, heroic virtue, or canonization is required. Simply by being followers of Christ, you and I—everyday garden-variety believers—are saints! As His saints, like the Corinthians, we are called to grow more and more like Christ every day. Scripture, however, never tells us to revere, worship or pray to saints. Rather, it tells us that the saints (meaning us) are to revere, worship, and pray to God alone.

For Roman Catholics, the focus of All Saints’ Day tends to be on the “official” saints (those people canonized by the Pope). Nevertheless, regardless of denomination, this is a day for all of the living saints (that’s us) to remember the saints who went before us. We have never been alone in our journey of faith; along with the Holy Spirit, we encountered believers (saints) who demonstrated their faith, pointed the way, urged us on, answered our questions, and corrected us when we strayed.

If we were to make a list of those who influenced our Christian walk, there might be some big name champion saints like the Gospels’ writers and Paul, the Wesleys, Martin Luther, Augustine, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, Corrie ten Boom, or Billy Graham. There are, however, many ordinary run-of-the-mill Christians who guided us on our journey: saints like our parents, grandparents, neighbors, schoolmates, teachers, friends, co-workers, pastors, or even strangers, whose faithfulness encouraged us on our journey. Today, in honor of all the saints of God, let’s remember the life and witness of those people, both known and unknown, who were a part of our personal salvation stories—the people who strengthened our faith by their words and actions and led us to where we are today.

Who are the heroes in your individual Christian history? Who would you acknowledge in your spiritual memoir? Let their examples of faith spur you onward.

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. [Ephesians 2:17-22 (ESV)]

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TRANSFORMING PUMPKINS

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. [Romans 12:2 (NLT)]

The Food Network’s “Outrageous Pumpkins” features remarkable pumpkin artistry as it pits four pumpkin carvers against one another in a three-round competition. Competitors create traditional Jack O’Lanterns, 3-D pumpkin carvings, and then their own free-style pumpkin masterpieces. Using everything from melon ballers to huge saws, they make intricate designs and sculpt extraordinary and intricate works of art. As someone who is severely pumpkin-challenged (and eventually purchased a permanent Jack O-Lantern that came with an electric light), I am impressed by the skill of these pumpkin artists.

Watching those carvers transform what is nothing more than a large gourd into a work of art, I couldn’t help but think of another artist who is in the business of transformation: God. There are both similarities and differences between transforming pumpkins into Halloween décor and transforming people into Christians. In both cases, the finished product bears little resemblance to what it once was (but, instead of becoming something frightening and macabre, the Christian becomes more beautiful)!

Both carvers and God start by making a selection but, unlike the pumpkin artists, God isn’t looking for perfection. He’ll take any color, size, condition or age. Scratches, bruises, blemishes, a dried up stem, and even a little mold or rot won’t keep anyone from His workshop. Just as the carvers cut into the pumpkins and scrape out all of the slimy stuff inside, God opens us up but, rather than scooping out our guts, He scrapes away things like fear, anger, despair, doubt, hate, pride and greed. Instead of an X-Acto knife, vegetable peeler, saw, or drill, God’s tools consist of His word, the church, and both blessings and challenges. Just as those artists’ imaginative creations surpass the toothy smile and triangle eyes of the typical Jack O’Lantern, each one of God’s creations is a one-of-a-kind custom design. The pumpkin carvers, preferring something frightening or creepy, usually give their creations a menacing face. Although the Christian’s outward appearance may not change, God wants His handiwork to spread faith, hope and love rather than terror or dread so He gives us a far nicer demeanor. Occasionally, the carvers make small mistakes; when that happens, they either alter their designs or use a toothpick to reattach a piece. Unlike the carvers, God never makes a mistake; every one of His creations is a masterpiece.

Although the carvers leave their pumpkins hollow, God fills His people with the Holy Spirit and His gifts. Wanting their creations to glow from the inside out, both the carver and God insert lights. While the carver uses either a candle, light bulb or flashlight, the Christian’s light comes from the Holy Spirit. Eventually, the pumpkin’s light will cease shining; God’s light, however, lasts a lifetime. While the “Outrageous Pumpkins” competitors perform their artistry in hope of winning $10,000 and a gold medal (along with bragging rights), God transforms His children out of love. Unlike carvers in the competition, God has no time limit and continues tweaking us until our dying day.

The “Outrageous Pumpkins” competition is held for a few weeks around Halloween, but God transforms people all year long. Although the pumpkins have no choice about being chosen, washed, and carved, we are free to reject God’s hand in transforming our lives. It’s wise to remember, however, that any pumpkins remaining in the patch after harvest eventually rot and decompose; the same goes for us. Alas, in spite of all their artistry, those fantastic pumpkin creations are temporary. Even when dipped in a mild bleach mixture, they soon will turn moldy and soft; eventually, they’ll end up in the trash. Not so with God’s handiwork! Unlike carved pumpkins, Christians tend to improve over time; in fact, they last forever.

This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (NLT)]

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ONCE AND FOR ALL – YOM KIPPUR

On that day offerings of purification will be made for you, and you will be purified in the Lord’s presence from all your sins. …This is a permanent law for you, to purify the people of Israel from their sins, making them right with the Lord once each year. [Leviticus 16:30,34 (NLT)]

goat

Today is the tenth day of Tishri (the seventh month in the Hebrew calendar) and the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur. For our Jewish brothers and sisters, this day, with its themes of atonement and repentance, is the holiest one of the year.

The book of Leviticus describes the rituals the Israelites were to perform on this holy day every year. In ancient Israel, this was the only time the high priest could come into the Holy of Holies (the innermost sacred area of the tabernacle or temple) where the Ark was housed. Before he could come into the presence of God and the Ark to begin the ritual of atonement, he had to ritually cleanse himself from sin by bathing and dressing in spotless plain linen garments. He then atoned for his own sins and those of his family with the sacrifice of a bull.

Two unblemished male goats were taken from the community and lots were cast to determine which goat would be given to the Lord. The first goat was sacrificed and its blood sprinkled on the mercy seat of the Ark. This was the sin offering and made to appease the wrath of God and atone for the sins of the people. Then, having received forgiveness, the second goat was brought before the altar. As a way of transferring the sins of the people to the goat, the priest laid his hands on its head and confessed all of the peoples’ sins and transgressions. This goat, the “scapegoat,” was then sent out into the wilderness to carry those sins into the wasteland.

In this ceremony, the blood of the first goat ritually provided propitiation by appeasing God’s wrath and the second goat provided expiation by atoning for and removing those sins. This atonement ritual was to be repeated year after year. Without a temple in Jerusalem, there no longer are animal sacrifices or scapegoats, but Jews throughout the world continue to observe this day with about 25-hours of fasting, intensive prayer, and repentance.

Unlike the yearly sacrifice of goats, the sacrifice of Jesus upon the cross had to be done only once. Christ was both our sinless high priest and the unblemished sacrifice. When He gave himself up for us, Jesus took God’s wrath upon himself as His blood dripped on the ground beneath Him. When He suffered and died on the cross, Jesus was both the propitiation and expiation of our sins for all time. By dying, this sinless man took on God’s wrath—the wrath we sinners deserved. Rather than take our transgressions into the wilderness, He “removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west” for all time. [Psalm 103:12] Thank you Jesus!

We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are. For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. [Romans 3:22-24 (NLT)]

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TRUE LOVE

Love never gives up. Love never cares more for others than for self. Loves doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, Doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always “me first.” Doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, Doesn’t revel when others grovel. Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, Puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, Never looks back, but keeps going to the end. [1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (MSG)]

8-19-1967When I married my husband, I was only twenty years old. Although I would never have admitted it then, I had no real concept of what true love actually entailed or the seriousness of the vows I was taking. Standing in front of a minister and 200 guests, I promised to “love him, comfort him, honor, and keep him in sickness and in health” and to forsake all others. I vowed, from that day forward, to “have and to hold…for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health,” and to love and cherish him until we parted at death. I said those words without the vaguest understanding of just how bad “for worse” could get or how little money “for poorer” might be. I didn’t consider that sickness would mean much more than a case of the flu or how long it could be until death would separate us. Having known each other for less than a year when we wed, neither of us had any idea how difficult it actually is to cherish someone whose words or actions hurt us or with whom we disagree. I doubt we’re the only ones who entered into marriage so naively.

Today is our anniversary and, in the fifty-two years since our wedding day, we’ve experienced good and not so good times, periods of plenty and sparseness, illness and well-being, tragedy and joy, fullness and emptiness, anger and forgiveness, excitement and tedium, labor and leisure, turmoil and peace, discontent and satisfaction. We know from experience that it’s not always easy to love, comfort, honor, forsake, and cherish.

We used to joke that we only stayed together because of the children (neither of us wanted custody of them) and the grands (neither of us would risk losing them)! But, that isn’t it. Paul’s words about love in 1 Corinthians 13 were read at our wedding and those words have guided us ever since that day. Early in our marriage, we realized that love is more than a feeling; it isn’t something one falls into or out of. Love is a conscious choice and one we choose to make every day. None of us are loveable all of the time; we can, however, choose to be loving all of the time!

Father in heaven, let your love fill our hearts and lives. Thank you for giving us people to love, comfort, honor, and cherish. Thank you also for placing people in our lives who somehow manage to love, comfort, honor and cherish us, as well. Shower your blessings upon them.

O God … look mercifully upon these thy servants, that they may love, honour, and cherish each other, and so live together in faithfulness and patience, in wisdom and true godliness, that their home may be a haven of blessing and of peace. [From the Solemnization of Matrimony in “The Book of Common Prayer” (1952)]

Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love. [1 Corinthians 13:13b (MSG)]

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FREEDOM OF RELIGION – Independence Day 2019

American FlagsWe are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. [2 Corinthians 4:8-9 (NLT)]

In 2014, I wrote about Meriam Ibrahim, a 27-year-old Sudanese mother of two who, at that time, was facing execution for refusing to renounce her Christian faith. Eight months pregnant when she appeared in court on charges of apostasy and adultery, she was given three days to reject Jesus and accept Islam. Upon her refusal, she was found guilty of apostasy and sentenced to death under Sudan’s Sharia law. Meriam, however, had never rejected Islam; she’d always been a Christian. Although her father is Muslim (technically making her Muslim), he was absent during her childhood and she was raised as an Orthodox Christian by her Christian mother. Under Sharia law, marriage between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man is illegal and Meriam, married to a Christian man, was also found guilty of adultery and sentenced to flogging (100 lashes). Muslim law did not allow her execution while was pregnant and the shackled woman waited in prison for her child’s life to begin and hers to end. When writing about her, I wondered if I’d be as strong as Meriam and reminded readers that Christian persecution did not end in ancient Rome.

Curious as to her whereabouts today, I learned that the time the pregnant woman waited for her execution saved her life. It allowed Meriam’s plight to be made public and, because of international pressure, she was eventually released and settled in New Hampshire. Later that year, however, two Christian pastors from the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church were charged with spying and undermining the constitutional system. Facing death sentences, they were imprisoned for eight months. In June of 2015, Christian girls walking home from church were charged with indecent dress and forced to strip out of their trousers and skirts. Five of the girls received fines and one girl had to suffer through twenty lashes. Since then, Sudanese Christians have continued to face discrimination and persecution; churches were demolished and Christians intimidated, attacked and arrested. Although Sudan’s brutal president Omar al-Bashir left office in April of this year, there is no assurance that his replacement will be any better. Unfortunately, it’s not just in Sudan where Christianity is illegal, forbidden, or punishable. Rounding out the top ten countries where human and religious rights are being violated are North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Eritrea, Yemen, Iran and India. According to Open Doors, 2018 saw 4,136 Christians killed for their faith; 2,625 Christians detained without trial, arrested, sentenced and imprisoned; and 1,266 churches or Christian buildings attacked. They estimate that one in nine Christians experience “high levels of persecution worldwide.”

Many of our nation’s first colonists came here to escape religious persecution in their homelands. On this day, when we celebrate our nation’s Declaration of Independence and our “inalienable Rights” to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” may we truly appreciate the freedom of religion we enjoy. In our nation, no one is a second-hand citizen because of religion, no regime tries to make any of us renounce our faith, nor must we conceal our beliefs to be safe. My Jewish friends can wear a Star of David pendant as openly as I wear my cross. As freely as I observe Easter and Christmas, my Muslim friends can observe Ramadan, my Jewish friends Passover and Hanukah, and my Hindu friends Diwali, while my atheist neighbors can choose to believe in nothing.

On this national holiday, let us thank God for the freedom we have to worship Him openly and without fear. May we never take that freedom lightly. As we count our numerous blessings, remember to pray for those who don’t enjoy the many freedoms we often take for granted.

Our prayers can go where we cannot… There are no borders, no prison walls, no doors that are closed to us when we pray. [Brother Andrew (founder of Open Doors)]

I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. [1 Timothy 2:1 (NLT)]

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LIVING THE WORD – Father’s Day 2019

A righteous man who walks in his integrity—blessed are his sons after him! [Proverbs 20:7 (RSV)]

Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it. [Proverbs 22:6 (RSV)]

Yesterday, when writing about various translations of Scripture, I was reminded of a story about four ministers who were discussing their preferred Bible translations. The first pastor said he favored the King James because, in spite of the archaic language, its words conveyed divine power with their elegance and majesty. The second pastor noted that he preferred the Amplified Bible because its alternate readings helped clarify and broaden the meaning of the original text. Explaining that his church was made up of new believers, the third pastor said he liked the Living Bible because its modern paraphrase of traditional Scripture was easily understood by his congregation. The three men then turned to the fourth minister and asked what Bible version he favored. The man answered that his favorite translation was his father. “You see,” he explained, “He put God’s word into practice which is the best translation of Scripture that I’ve ever seen!”

Shortly before our pastor’s first mission trip, his grandfather gave him a book about ministerial ethics and morals. Although he still has that book, I think he had an even better book in the examples of both his grandfather (a man who truly served “the least of these”) and his evangelist/pastor father. Both men’s lives witnessed the truth of the Gospel message. Some of us were blessed with fathers or grandfathers like his: godly men, the salt of the earth, men who embody the message of God’s word in their daily walk. Sadly, others may not have been so fortunate. Nevertheless, through the power of the Holy Spirit, every one of us can translate God’s word into practice. A popular saying is, “You may be the only Bible some people read.” Indeed, we may be the only glimpse of Jesus seen by some.

Sunday is Father’s Day, a day when we honor the men who raised us. Let’s remember to honor our spiritual fathers, as well: those men we’ve know who didn’t just profess their faith but truly lived it. The best way to honor any of them isn’t with t-shirts, books, baseball caps, or after shave. It’s by living the way our Father in heaven wants us to live: with faith, generosity, joy, love, mercy, fairness, gentleness, compassion, honesty, wisdom, forgiveness, peace, humility, patience, kindness, and self-control. In honor of God the Father, let us all be faithful translations of His holy word.

There are five Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the Christian—but most people never read the first four. [Rodney “Gypsy” Smith]

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you. [Philippians 4:8-9 (RSV)]

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