FASTING THOUGHTS

You have heard that our ancestors were told, “You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.” But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! … You have heard the commandment that says, “You must not commit adultery.” But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. [Matthew 5:21-22a,27-28 (NLT)]

bue birdShortly before the start of Lent, I got an email advertisement for a Christian book that asked “What if you fasted regret? What if your friends fasted comparison? What would be the fruit of fasting stinginess?” Those questions certainly got me thinking about our thoughts.

The one place we have total freedom is our mind. Even though we have freedom of speech, we can’t shout “Fire” in a crowded theatre or “Bomb” in the security line at the airport. We can, however, shout anything we want at anyone anywhere in the silence of our minds. The father of those three abused gymnasts was free to wreak all sorts of revenge on their abuser in his mind but he couldn’t touch the man in court. We can be charming and polite to the woman who stole our husband and amazingly civil to the man who betrayed our trust when, in our imaginations, they suffer every disaster and tragedy that can befall man or beast.

Since our thoughts are far less easy to control than our actions, we’d like to think of them as less important. When we entertain wicked thoughts, we think we’re not sinning because we’d never actually do the terrible things about which we’re thinking. Since we won’t burn down the house of the man who deceived us or climb in bed with the sexy hunk at work, we think we’re innocent of wrongdoing. But are we? Remember the words of Jimmy Carter that nearly cost him the 1976 election: “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” Upon reading Jesus’s words in Matthew 5, it would seem that Carter’s confession, while ill-advised, was true! While thoughts and actions can have different results, Our Lord made it quite clear that thoughts are as important as actions. Jesus knew the evil thoughts of the Scribes and he knows ours.

Fortunately, Jesus telling us to get rid of our hands or eyes if they cause us to lust was hyperbole or Jimmy Carter (and much of the rest of the world) would be minus both hands and eyes. He is, however, telling us that our evil thoughts can be controlled. We can renounce every one of them and replace them with godly thoughts. Max Lucado describes it this way: ”You can be the air traffic controller of your mental airport. You occupy the control tower and can direct the mental traffic of your world.” When we keep the runway filled with godly thoughts, the bad ones circling around have no place to land. Our thoughts are as much a part of whether or not we love our neighbor as are our actions.

What would our lives be like if we fasted from things like anger, lust, envy, animosity, haughtiness, disdain, revenge, irritation, and impatience, not just in our actions, but also in our thoughts and, not just during Lent, but all of the time?

We use God’s mighty weapons, not worldly weapons, to knock down the strongholds of human reasoning and to destroy false arguments. We destroy every proud obstacle that keeps people from knowing God. We capture their rebellious thoughts and teach them to obey Christ. [2 Corinthians 10:4-5 (NLT)]

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. [Philippians 4:8 (NLT)]

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MEMORY WORK REDUX

Whenever you fast, don’t be sad-faced like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so their fasting is obvious to people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! But when you fast, put oil on your head, and wash your face, so that you don’t show your fasting to people but to your Father who is in secret. [Matthew 6:16-18a (HCSB)]

sunflowerA young pastor friend admits to not being good at reciting Bible verses from memory. A product of the computer/Internet age, he just taps in a key word or topic and, almost instantly, the verses are right in front of him in whatever translation he wants. There’s no need to memorize verses when, with just a few keystrokes, the words appear. I may read the Bible every day and predate the age of computers but I’m no better at knowing verses by heart than he. If I  remember my passwords for both computer and Internet, I can find whatever verses I need. While that works when I’m researching or writing, my desk is not where most witnessing opportunities occur. I could plead age as an excuse but I didn’t memorize Bible verses even when my brain was younger and possessed far less useless trivia than it does now. My pastor friend and I both profess to love God’s word and yet we don’t seem to love it enough to learn it by heart.

For decades, I have given up some thing or things for Lent, often sweets and alcohol. I know those minor denials have nothing to do with my salvation or righteousness. They are just a way to remind me Christ’s difficult days in the wilderness and what God gave up when He sacrificed His only son for my sins. Although Jesus told his followers that fasting should be private, I often found myself needing to explain my refusal to partake in the host’s decadent dessert or the great bottle of wine he purchased in Napa. I also admit to occasionally feeling a sense of self-righteous pride when I denied myself chocolate chip cookies or a glass of pinot noir. Since self-denial should be private and never lead to self-righteousness, God and I decided to rethink my Lenten practices.

Last June, in a devotion called “Memory Work,” I wrote about four-year old Tanner Hemness who memorized a Bible verse for every letter of the alphabet. At that time, I downloaded the twenty-six verses he memorized with the intention of doing the same thing. Somehow, my good intention got side-tracked and I stopped after “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” [Matthew 7:7]

Rather than a season of fasting, this Lent will be my season of growth. There will be no need to worry about looking sad or explaining why I won’t eat someone’s homemade pie. Rather than a period of self-denial, it will be one of self-discipline. If four-year old Tanner could memorize those twenty-six verses in seven months, even with my neuron-challenged brain, I should be able to do it in the forty-six days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. After all, I’ve already learned one! We are to put God’s word to work in our lives and the first place to start is by putting His word into our hearts. God’s word in my heart can only put a smile on my face and His promises on my lips.

Bible memorization is absolutely fundamental to spiritual formation. If I had to choose between all the disciplines of the spiritual life, I would choose Bible memorization, because it is a fundamental way of filling our minds with what it needs. This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth. That’s where you need it! How does it get in your mouth? Memorization. [Dallas Willard]

This book of instruction must not depart from your mouth; you are to recite it day and night so that you may carefully observe everything written in it. For then you will prosper and succeed in whatever you do. [Joshua 1:8 (HCSB)]

I have your decrees as a heritage forever; indeed, they are the joy of my heart. [Psalm 119:111 (HCSB)]

Copyright ©2018 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

OBSERVING LENT – Ash Wednesday 2018

“We have fasted before you!” they say. “Why aren’t you impressed? We have been very hard on ourselves, and you don’t even notice it!”
“I will tell you why!” I respond. “It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves. Even while you fast, you keep oppressing your workers. What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling? This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me. You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like reeds bending in the wind. You dress in burlap and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the Lord?” [Isaiah 58:3-5 (NLT)]

ibis - great egret - corkscrewEvery evening, a man went to the local pub and ordered three beers. When asked why three, he explained that he ordered the two extra beers in honor of his two dear brothers who lived far away. One evening, he ordered only two beers. Assuming the worst, the bartender extended sympathy for the loss of a brother but the man explained that both brothers were fit as fiddles. The beers he’d ordered were for them. “It’s me that’s not drinking tonight,” he added, “You see, I’ve given up beer for Lent!”

Yesterday, I wrote about Jesus being tested in the wilderness. Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, a period of forty days (not counting Sundays) that commemorate those forty days of His fasting and temptation in the desert. Traditionally it is a time to repent, reflect, and prepare for the observance of both Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. Some people fast or give up certain habits or behaviors during this season. Others add additional Bible study or prayer time. For those who observe it, Lent becomes a season of self-discipline.

While some denominations observe Lent, many others don’t. Since Lent’s observation isn’t founded in Scripture, the choice to observe Lent really is a personal one. What we must never do is make the mistake of thinking that God will love us more for our Lenten sacrifice or that giving up something like gum, candy, alcohol, meat or television has any bearing on our salvation. Jesus took care of our salvation on the cross and God’s love could never be greater than it is right now. No amount of sacrifice can earn God’s free gift of grace.

Although Jesus fasted, he never commanded us to do so. His words on fasting tend to focus on people’s hypocrisy when fasting—they often fasted to impress people with their holiness rather than grow closer to God. Self-sacrifice is not to be done ostentatiously but humbly, quietly, and privately. However we choose to observe Lent, unlike the man at the bar, it should be done sincerely. God sees into our hearts and knows when we’re repentant and genuinely seeking Him or just going through the motions!

No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help. [Isaiah 58:6-7 (NLT)]

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GIVING THANKS

Make thankfulness your sacrifice to God, and keep the vows you made to the Most High. … But giving thanks is a sacrifice that truly honors me. If you keep to my path, I will reveal to you the salvation of God. [Psalm 50:14,23 (NLT)]

It’s one thing to be grateful. It’s another to give thanks. Gratitude is what you feel. Thanksgiving is what you do. [Tim Keller]

Black-crowned night heronYesterday I happened upon a wood stork enjoying a fish breakfast. I was astonished as the stork swallowed the whole wriggling fish in one big gulp. “I’ll have to put that in my gratitude journal,” I thought as I walked on. Later, I spotted two woodpeckers hammering away at a tree and got up close and personal with a pond snail laying eggs. Two more for the journal, I thought. Did I put those little blessings in my journal last night? Shamefully, I forgot to write in it at all; worse, I totally forgot about them in my nightly prayers!

When I look back at the rest of yesterday, all sorts of wonderful little things happened for which I was grateful and yet failed to thank God. Without having one red light, I got to an appointment with time enough to take a short walk on the beach. I’m not self-centered enough to think God turned all those lights green just for me; nevertheless, my day went better because of it and it deserved thanks. I met a delightful young couple at cooking class. Did God put them there just for me? I don’t know, but I was thankful to have them as cooking partners for the afternoon. There was a beautiful cooling breeze and the sunset was magnificent. Did God arrange the weather to my wishes? I doubt it, but I should have told Him how much I appreciated it! I was remiss in acknowledging God’s presence or thanking him for the day’s numerous small blessings.

Today, I set out again and spotted a black-crowned night heron hiding in the bushes. While getting a photo, I thought, “I’ll have to put that in my gratitude journal.” This time, however, that small voice reminded me how lackadaisical I’ve gotten with my journal and asked me why I was waiting to thank the creator of all those beautiful moments. That gave me pause. If I’d been walking with someone else, I would have shared those sightings. Although I wasn’t walking with another person, I was walking with God. Why wasn’t I talking to Him? Why wasn’t I sharing my joy with the one who gave it to me? God was right beside me and He shouldn’t have to wait until I get around to thanking him or writing in my journal, especially since I’m not good about remembering to do so. Thanks should be speedy and sincere.

We thank God through our prayer. We don’t need church, a table blessing or a gratitude journal to do so. We certainly don’t need to wait until our regular prayer time to offer thanks and, most especially, we shouldn’t wait until November for Thanksgiving Day! Our whole day, every day, should consist of a prayer of thanksgiving. God is with us as we take our daily walk; let us remember to thank him for the joy we find along with way.

We need to discover all over again that worship is natural to the Christian, as it was to the godly Israelites who wrote the psalms, and that the habit of celebrating the greatness and graciousness of God yields an endless flow of thankfulness, joy, and zeal. [J.I. Packer]

And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. [Ephesians 5:20 (NLT)]

 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever. [1 Chronicles 16:34 (NLT)]

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PEACE ON EARTH

Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying, “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.” [Luke 2:13-14 NLT)]

Naples botanic gardenWhile visiting a church recently, the pastor announced a new security precaution: ten minutes after the service started, the outside doors would be locked from the inside and no one could enter the building. Yesterday afternoon, another church offered a four hour class for their congregation. Led by a private security company, topics included ways to identify threats, how to develop layers of security, and techniques for conflict resolution. While talking with my daughter about a recent school shooting in her area, I learned that my grand’s school has regular “lock-down” drills in preparation for such an attack. Is no place safe from violence?

In 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists created what is known at the Doomsday Clock. Designed to show the world how close it is to destroying itself with technology, the clock was originally set to 7 minutes before midnight with midnight being catastrophe—the end of the world as we know it. After the Soviet Union tested their first atomic bomb in 1949, it was reset to three minutes before the hour and, by 1953, it was down to two minutes. I was in first grade at the time; rather than “lock-down” drills, we had air-aid drills and practiced ducking under our desks in case a bomb was dropped. In 1991, with the end of the Cold War, the clock’s hands were set back to seventeen minutes before midnight. Since 2007, disruptions from climate change have figured into the calculations. This past year, the clock was set to only two and half minutes until midnight. Locking down a church or school, ducking under a desk, or building a bomb shelter won’t protect any of us if the minute hand reaches the twelve.

The world is in turmoil; we’re no closer to peace now than two thousand years ago. We live in a divided and troubled world and it grows more brutal daily. It’s no longer just atomic bombs that threaten us—cyber warfare, biologic weaponry, thoughtless rhetoric, fake news and catastrophic weather events all contribute to the danger. Where is this peace on earth we sang about these last several weeks?

Scripture tells us wars and violence will continue (and even get worse) until Jesus returns and establishes true lasting peace. Indeed, the end times appear to be on the horizon but what are we to do until then? I suppose we’ll continue having lock downs, going through metal detectors, getting luggage x-rayed and handbags searched, securing church doors, and meeting with security companies but that’s merely trying to stay safe. It’s not enough.

When we accepted Jesus, His Holy Spirit brought a fruit basket as a house-warming gift. In it we find peace along with several other qualities that will help us be peaceful: love, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, calmness and self-control. We all got the same beautiful basket and, as Christians, we’re all capable of letting His peace rule our hearts, actions and words. While our behavior may not move the hands of that clock backward, we might be able to make our little corner of the world a kinder, gentler, and better place.

Over two thousand years ago, the angels sang, “Peace on earth.” Let our lives continue that song as we move into this new year. Heavenly Father, let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.

And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful. [Colossians 3:15 (NLT)]

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DIGGIN’ UP BONES – NEW YEAR’S DAY 2018

Sunrise - Duluth MN harborNo, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. [Philippians 3:13-14 (NLT)]

I’m diggin’ up bones, I’m diggin’ up bones
Exhuming things that’s better left alone
I’m resurrecting memories of a love that’s dead and gone
Yeah tonight I’m sittin’ alone diggin’ up bones. [Randy Travis]

I was listening to Randy Travis sing, “I’m diggin’ up bones, exhuming things that’s better left alone.” It seemed an appropriate song for this time of year when we tend to dwell on the past—not just past loves, but past losses, mistakes, oversights, misunderstandings, injuries and pain. As one year ends and another starts, we often dig up all the grievances, regrets, and ”if onlys” of our yesterdays.

The word Randy Travis uses is “exhuming” and that’s a powerful word. When we exhume something, we’re not just digging in the dirt for weeds or post holes—we’re digging a corpse out of its grave and that’s a gruesome ghoulish thought. Once a body is buried, it’s meant to be left undisturbed; that also goes for all those old memories of things dead and gone.

When we dig up the past, we’re trying to rewrite history. Even if we could, we would do no better the second time; we’d just make different mistakes and still have regrets! From any time-travel novel or movie, we know that time-traveling is complicated; small changes in the past can have major, and often bad, ramifications. In Back to the Future, Marty McFly nearly erases himself when he accidentally becomes his mother’s high school romantic interest. In Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63, after the protagonist prevents JFK’s assassination, he sadly discovers that the world is worse off because of his actions. Moreover, it’s our history—all of those sad, terrible, painful, embarrassing, frightening, and distressing experiences, along with all the good ones—that make us who and what we are today. We’re us, not in spite of the past, but because of the past.

If we don’t like who or where we are in life, that’s not the past’s fault and it’s certainly not God’s. Today is the start of a brand new year and we can start fresh. The good thing about God’s mercy, love and forgiveness is that we don’t need to wait another 365 days before we can start fresh again. God specializes in fresh starts and we can begin anew any moment of any day. Each minute we waste digging up the bones of the past is a minute we’ve lost to the wonders of the here and now. The only moment we have is this one; let us use it wisely and leave the old bones where they belong—dead and buried.

 The only way to get rid of your past is to make a future out of it. [Phillips Brooks]

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you. [Philippians 4:8-9 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2018 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.