LIKE A NEWCOMER

“Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” Then he took the children in his arms and placed his hands on their heads and blessed them. [Mark 10:14b-16 (NLT)]

pipevine swallowtail butterflyWhen we moved to southwest Florida several years ago, everything was new and strange—we didn’t know which farmer’s market had the finest produce, the best routes to avoid traffic, the amenities of each beach, the fun activities available, or where to hike or bike. Rather than be confused and discouraged, we got out the guidebooks and maps and enthusiastically started exploring—churches, parks, theaters, markets, beaches, and museums. Every day became an adventure and, as we got to know our community, we came to love it.

I continue to be amazed at the number of people we meet who’ve lived here for decades or more who haven’t been to the Conservancy, zoo, or free band concerts in the park. They’ve never gone to the county museum or walked the boardwalk through the mangroves, visited the nearby state parks, wandered the old town alleys, or hiked any of the land trust trails. They’ve missed seeing the orchids and butterflies at the Botanic Gardens, the spoonbills at the bird sanctuary, and the giant gingerbread house at the Ritz. Taking the local attractions for granted, many old-time residents have ignored the beauty and opportunities right in their front yard.

It’s not just our surroundings about which we can get jaded; it also can be our faith. While new believers are usually enthusiastic about prayer and Bible study and excited about getting to know Jesus, old believers may get blasé and lax in exercising their faith. Our Bible study can get humdrum, prayer time repetitive, meditation wearisome, and worship unexciting. Familiarity may not breed contempt but it can breed boredom. Jesus, however, is anything but dull and uninspiring

I’ve encouraged my neighbors to look at our town with the fresh eyes of a tourist or newcomer. Perhaps we should do the same with our faith and look at Jesus with the heart and mind of a new believer. Could that be what receiving the Kingdom of God “like a child” means—coming to Jesus with the unbridled enthusiasm of a youngster? Children, like newcomers to town, are fully aware of how little they actually know. Inquisitive and eager to learn, they want to discover all there is to see; they seek so that they can find!

When Mrs. Zebedee asked her boys about their day, I doubt that John and James responded with a bored, “Same old, same old—a big picnic lunch, several healings, and some parables.” Eager to learn more about Jesus, every day was an adventure in faith for them. It can be for us, as well.

If our faith has become lackluster or monotonous, it’s not God’s fault. We’ve just become unaware of His presence, blind to His works, and deaf to His voice. It’s time to open our hearts and minds, renew our acquaintance with Jesus, and experience His glory the way a child or new believer would. We wouldn’t want boredom or indifference to cause us to miss experiencing all that Jesus offers: direction, strength, peace, joy, redemption, reconciliation, forgiveness, salvation, an abundant life today and an eternal life tomorrow.

I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. [Ephesians 3:16-19 (NLT)]

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WAITING WITH JOY

May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy! He that goes forth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him. [Psalm 126:5-6 (RSV)]

sara longwing butterflyColors have been used to differentiate liturgical seasons since the 4th century and, by the 12th century, Pope Innocent systemized their use in the church. Originally Advent was about penance, prayer and fasting in preparation for baptism so purple (the color associated with sacrifice and repentance from sin) was its liturgical color. Like the Advent wreath, however, liturgical colors are merely traditions and have no basis in Scripture. Most denominations have added more colors to the original five.

Representing the traditional Advent color of penitence, three of the four candles on our wreath are purple. This Sunday’s candle, however, is pink—the traditional color of joy and happiness—and the day’s Scripture readings are joyful ones. They start with the good news for the oppressed found in Isaiah 61 followed by the psalmist’s promise of a harvest of joy in Psalm 126. In the gospel, the good news of Isaiah 40 is repeated by John the Baptist and, in the epistle, Paul tells the Thessalonians always to be joyful. After the somber and apocalyptic readings of the last two Sundays, these readings are a welcome change. In the Roman Catholic Church, this Sunday is known Gaudete Sunday. The name comes from the Latin translation of Philippians 4:4—Gaudete in Domino sempe  meaning “Rejoice in the Lord always”—which were the first words of the introit for mass on the third Sunday of Advent.

Those words, however, shouldn’t be limited to this one Sunday because Paul’s words weren’t a suggestion; they were a command! Reasons to rejoice, however, seem to be in short supply right now and, rather than rejoicing, many are grieving. While some may grieve the actual loss of loved ones, we’re all grieving the loss of our sense of normalcy. Christmas is a holiday filled with long-standing traditions, many of which won’t be observed this year. In a season when friends and family are front and center, we won’t be home for the holidays or gathering with those we love. A malicious virus will keep us from travel, festive parties, visits to Santa, holiday parades, crowded candlelight Christmas Eve services, Christmas markets, neighborhood potlucks, cookie exchanges, and the annual sing-along Messiah. This pandemic seems to have stolen Christmas the way the Grinch did when he terrorized Whoville by stealing all the Christmas presents, food, and decorations.

But, let’s remember—when the Grinch heard every Who down in Whoville sing joyfully on Christmas morning, he realized that Christmas didn’t come from a store! The lighting of this candle of joy will remind us of that same thing. Christmas isn’t about enjoying family and friends and observing decades old traditions. It’s about rejoicing in the good news that a Savior was born—rejoicing that because Jesus atoned for our sins, rather than being separated from God, we are His sons and daughters. It’s rejoicing that Heaven will be our home someday. It’s rejoicing that, even though we plant in tears, we will harvest in joy! Whether or not you light the candle of joy on an Advent wreath, be sure to rekindle the candle of joy in your heart!

Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (RSV)]

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. [Philippians 4:4-5 (RSV)]

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IMPEDIMENTS OR AMBASSADORS?

Celebrate your hope; be patient in suffering; give constant energy to prayer; contribute to the needs of God’s people; make sure you are hospitable to strangers. [Romans 12:12-13 (NTE)]

Don’t forget to be hospitable; by that means, some people have entertained angels without realizing it. [Hebrews 13: 2 (NTE)]

blanket flowerThe story was told of a devout Christian woman who, after moving to a new town, visited the local church: the Church of Holier than Thou. When the children’s choir sang the prelude, she was so happy to hear their angelic voices that she applauded at the end of their song. An usher came up and whispered in her ear, “Ma’am, we don’t applaud in this church.” She apologized for the disturbance and the service continued. When the pastor gave his sermon, she was so moved by his words that she shouted out an “Amen!” in response. The usher returned to her side and again sternly instructed her, “You’ll have to restrain yourself here in the Church of Holier than Thou.” Chagrined, the woman promised to behave and the service continued. The choir rose and sang a beautiful medley that included God of our Fathers and How Great Thou Art. Overcome by the words of praise, the woman shouted out “Hallelujah” and “Praise God!” at the song’s conclusion. The usher strode up to her and said, “Lady, you’re causing a disturbance. You’ll have to leave!” The poor woman responded, “I just couldn’t help myself; I was overcome by the joy of the Lord!” In a huff, the usher responded, ‘Well, you sure didn’t get it here!”

A good friend preached several times at our Colorado church and even served briefly as a pastor for a local parish when they were without an ordained minister. This man, filled with joy in the Lord, is a mature and knowledgeable Christian, but that wasn’t always the case. When he became a Christian many years ago, he was totally unfamiliar with the Bible and didn’t even know there were several different translations and publications of this one book. He couldn’t understand why chapter and verse had to be mentioned when just a page number should do. What would have happened to him if he’d attended the Church of Holier than Thou (or others like it)? I think God might have lost a child to disillusionment and doubt.

One friend told of an experience while searching for a church. She’d just settled into the pew when an irate couple told her she had to move because she was in their pew! When we first moved here and were “church shopping,” we attended a madrigal dinner at a local church in hope of meeting members of the congregation. In spite of getting there early and the large number of empty chairs, we had trouble finding a seat because everyone seemed to saving those chairs for the people they already knew. Sadly, I’ve seen the same thing at Tuesday Bible study when a newcomer has difficulty finding a place to sit among all the empty (but saved) chairs! Although the church is supposed to be a place of welcome, it frequently isn’t.

It has been said that there are two reasons people don’t become Christians. First, they haven’t met one. The second reason, of course, is that they have! What kind of Christians are we? Are we impediments or ambassadors? Are we filled with the joy of the Lord or are we holier than thou? Do we welcome others to worship and study with us? Are willing to enlarge our circle to receive someone new? If Jesus stopped by, would He have trouble finding a place to sit?

To all my nonbelieving, sort-of-believing, and used-to-be-believing friends: I feel like I should begin with a confession. I am sorry that so often the biggest obstacle to God has been Christians. [Shane Claiborne]

Welcome one another, therefore, as the Messiah has welcomed you, to God’s glory. [Romans 15:7 (NTE)]

So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” [2 Corinthians 12:20 (NTE)]

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HAPPINESS STARTS WITH A SMILE

We were filled with laughter, and we sang for joy. And the other nations said, “What amazing things the Lord has done for them.” Yes, the Lord has done amazing things for us! What joy! [Psalm 126:2-3 (NLT)]

Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy. [Thich Nhat Hanh]

clownIn the Pearls Before Swine comic drawn by Stephen Pastis, Pig may be a little naïve but, sometimes, the sweet fellow has the right idea. In a recent strip, when asked why he was wearing an enormous hat decorated with a smiley face, he explained it was “the hat o’ great happiness” and he wore it as a way of sending happiness to others. I thought of Pig’s silly hat of happiness while viewing an ad made by Coca-Cola as part of their 2015 Belgian “Choose happiness” campaign.

It began with people walking into a subway tram. Among the commuters was a man who stood in the middle of a crowded car. Wearing ear buds and looking at his tablet, he suddenly erupted in laughter. Ignoring the stares of the people around him, he continued to laugh—not polite little giggles but loud and unembarrassed guffaws. Hidden cameras filmed the reactions of his fellow commuters. As his laughter increased, they began to smile and then their smiles turned into laughter. A promotional team from Coke revealed themselves and handed out cans of Coke with a leaflet linking laughter and happiness. The ad closed with the words, “Happiness starts with a smile, what are you waiting for?” followed by the hashtag “choosehappiness.” Filmed over two days on 17 trains and six different metro lines, the commercial brought laughter to over 4,000 commuters! Millions more have caught themselves laughing as they’ve viewed the video since it first aired. (You can find it on YouTube.)

Scientific studies actually have found that actions like yawning, smiles, and laughter are contagious. Because of a primitive reflex in the cortex of our brains, the urge to mirror another person is triggered by something called echophenomena: the automatic imitation of another’s words (echolalia) or actions (echopraxia). Moreover, other studies have found that a smile brings hidden blessings by releasing a cocktail of body chemicals that relax the body, lower the heart rate and blood pressure, decrease stress levels, and serve as antidepressants and mood lifters!

The joy we have in Jesus should be obvious and as contagious as any yawn, smile, laugh, or virus. Like Pig, we need to find ways to send happiness to others and we don’t need a silly hat or a fit of laughter on a train to do that. Just as the Lord smiles upon us, we must smile upon all who cross our path (even if that smile is hidden by a mask). We have to make that smile pass into the rest of our body: our face, eyes, voice, hands, and heart. Like Pig, let us find ways to send happiness and joy to those around us; we just might find our spirits lifting as we do!

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around. [Leo Buscaglia]

They longed for me to speak as people long for rain. They drank my words like a refreshing spring rain. When they were discouraged, I smiled at them. My look of approval was precious to them. [Job 29:23-24 (NLT)]

A cheerful look brings joy to the heart; good news makes for good health. [Proverbs 15:30 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

RAINBOWS OF JOY (Part 3)

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)]

rainbow at sunrise

While Joshua thought his 48-hour day was long, for most of us, these last seven months have seemed like a year. Unlike Joshua, we’ll need more than another 24 hours before declaring victory on the enemy. Back in March, I naively thought life would be back to normal about now. By the time May rolled around, I realized that what first seemed like a marathon run had turned into an Ironman triathlon. I now see it more as a grueling trek along the Pacific Crest or Appalachian Trails. It’s been a long haul with steep hills and dark valleys; without the end in sight, we’re growing weary and morale is low.

Be that as it may, it’s not all bad and there’s been some “trail magic” along the way. Trail magic is a term long-distance hikers have for those unexpected experiences along the trail that inspire awe or lift their spirits. It can be nature’s gifts like a rainbow after a day of rain, a field of wildflowers, or seeing a doe with her fawn on the trail. It also can be a kindness like an encouraging note or a cache of soda or candy bars left beside the trail. Rather than trail magic, a friend who’s been working from home since last March calls these moments “little rainbows of joy.” For her, one such rainbow has been having the opportunity to finally teach her 12-year old how to ride a bike and being able to take a daily ride with him.

A pastor friend found a rainbow of joy in in her new normal because it’s meant having more time with her children than she’s had in years. Another pastor friend finally found the time to adopt a dog. A corporate attorney, whose busy schedule had her on the train by 6:50 AM, expressed her joy at being home and able to make breakfast for her family (they love her French toast). An accountant friend finally had time to share his love of woodworking with his children and show them how to use tools. My son has been teaching his daughter how to use the sewing machine (and admits that reading blueprints is easier than sewing patterns). His wife has discovered a love of baking; she and the children have made some fantastic cakes. People are again finding time to fish, hike, bake bread, play games with one another, and garden.

There are rainbows of joy in the technology that allows on-line church, concerts, Bible studies, doctor’s appointments, book clubs, and even virtual happy hours with colleagues. Grandparents are playing Yahtzee or reading bedtime stories to their grands courtesy of Zoom or FaceTime. We’ve been reconnecting with old friends via email, phone calls, or video chatting. There was even a bit of trail magic in the Celebration of Life I attended last week. Even without COVID, the distance would have meant I couldn’t be there but, because of Vimeo, I could. A family member who couldn’t attend had her own trail magic when two eagles landed on a tree outside the window while On Eagle’s Wings was sung during her mother’s memorial. There are sprinkles of joy scattered throughout even our hardest days.

We are told to be thankful in all circumstances but it’s hard to be thankful unless we find some joy hidden in those circumstances. Regardless of what you call these blessed moments, the key is to find them in the midst of the darkness and challenges surrounding us. They’re found by lowering our expectations from the impressive to the inconsequential but beautiful experiences found in our everyday lives. They’re found by celebrating our little successes—whether it’s making spring rolls or pizza dough from scratch, finishing a 500-piece puzzle or building a bird house, defeating your spouse in a game of Rummikub or seeing a rainbow on the morning’s walk. Let us open our eyes and find the joy that is hidden in this long journey through COVID-19.

The unthankful heart… discovers no mercies; but let the thankful heart sweep through the day and, as the magnet finds the iron, so it will find, in every hour, some heavenly blessings! [Henry Ward Beecher]

This is the Lord’s doing, and it is wonderful to see. This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it. [Psalm 118:23-24 (NLT)]

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THE HALLEL

Praise the Lord! Yes, give praise, O servants of the Lord. Praise the name of the Lord! Blessed be the name of the Lord now and forever. Everywhere—from east to west—praise the name of the Lord. [Psalm 113:1-3 (NLT)

Southern MockingbirdSeveral years ago, our mountain church hosted a concert sponsored by the small Jewish congregation in town. I vividly remember the end of the program as Jews and Gentiles sang Hava Nagila, joined hands, and danced the hora around our large sanctuary. Impressed by the performer’s energy, passion, and love of God, I purchased one of his recordings. Yesterday, after sorting through some old books and CDs, I listened to it for the first time in over 10 years. The music was composed and performed by a man who still performs today but the Hebrew words he sang were those of the Hallel and over 2,000 years old.

Hallel means “praise” and the Hallel is a liturgical prayer found in Jewish prayer books today that consists of all or parts of Psalms 113 through 118. Considered the cornerstone of Jewish liturgy, it testifies to the glorious miracles performed by God. Except for the solemn days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the jubilant Hallel is said or sung on all major Jewish holidays.

The author or authors of the six psalms of the Hallel are unknown but the psalms share a common theme: the events surrounding the exodus, God’s covenant with Israel, and the people’s obligation of praise and thanksgiving for God’s loving-kindness and sovereignty over Israel and all nations.

It opens with the simple song of praise found in Psalm 113 which begins and ends with “Hallelu yah” meaning “Praise the Lord.” Psalm 114 follows with a poetic description of the exodus and all of nature reacting in dance to God’s great work. Psalm 115 is an appeal for God’s assistance, not for Israel’s sake, but to bring honor and glory to God’s name among the pagan nations. The next psalm is one of gratitude by someone who, in a time of trouble, called upon God and was saved. Ending with a commitment to serve the Lord, it is followed by the shortest of all the psalms with a call for all nations to praise the Lord. The final psalm, 118, begins with thanksgiving followed by recounting God’s salvation in troubled times. It echoes the words Moses and the people sang after crossing the Red Sea: “The Lord is my strength and my song; he has given me victory.” [Exodus 15:2] This last psalm ends as it began—with thanksgiving.

Until now, I don’t think I appreciated the psalms as what they are: an ancient hymnbook. Reciting or singing the Hallel was a well-established part of the Jewish Passover, Pentecost, and Sukkoth celebrations by the first century. When I’ve sung or spoken the psalms in unison at church, I didn’t think about Jesus singing or saying those very same words (in Hebrew, of course). That Jews continue to sing the same hymns of praise sung by Jesus and the disciples when they worshiped—the same songs they sang together during the seder on the night He was betrayed—is mind boggling. That we still have those beautiful words of praise and thanksgiving, words we can say or sing any time, is a blessing. Praise the Lord!

Praise the Lord, all you nations. Praise him, all you people of the earth. For his unfailing love for us is powerful; the Lord’s faithfulness endures forever. Praise the Lord! [Psalm 117]

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