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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IN ALL THINGS

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)]

Swamp lily - Corkscrew swampAfter the Apostle Paul established the church in Thessalonica, he encountered persecution from both the Jews and city officials so he abruptly fled with Silas. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul sends words of comfort, edification, and encouragement to the new church. Along with some practical advice on Christian living, he reassures the new converts in their persecution and 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 are some of my favorite verses.

A common theme in Paul’s letters is that our joy, prayers and thanks shouldn’t depend upon our circumstances. In this letter to the Thessalonians, Paul’s short sentences have a forceful tone and, rather than merely suggesting, the Apostle is almost ordering them to rejoice, pray and give thanks! While we should rejoice in what Matthew Henry calls our “creature comforts,” rather than an emotion, this joy is an attitude of delight in the Lord rather than in our condition. Instead of “always,” the King James translation says “evermore” and, for the believer, rejoicing forevermore is possible. We can rejoice in anticipation of our future when our joy truly will be never-ending.

One of the ways to always rejoice is to pray without ceasing! Prayer is conversing with God and, if we’re talking with Him, we can’t help but be joyful. Yet, looking at Paul’s example of working as a tentmaker during his ministry, I don’t think Paul means we should be on our knees and praying incessantly 24/7. Nevertheless, we should be continually aware of God’s presence in our daily lives. Rather than do nothing but pray, we should allow nothing to hinder our perseverance and faithfulness in prayer. With attentiveness to God’s will for us, our lives should be a continual prayer and all of our actions should honor, worship and praise the Almighty!

Then we get to Paul’s third command: “Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you…” Because most modern translations tend to group these three verses together in one paragraph, I took the last part of this sentence to mean that it is God’s will that we rejoice, pray and give thanks in all circumstances. Indeed, I’m sure it is but, reading his words in the light of the trials facing the Thessalonians gives them deeper meaning.

Considering that they were being persecuted and “all circumstances” for them included suffering, prosecution and intimidation, Paul’s words tell them to look beyond their hardship because all that was happening was within God’s will for them! Paul knew that God is at work on behalf of His people in any and all circumstances. It is because of that, we can be thankful in scarcity, hardship, loss, peril, and sickness and as well as in plenty, opportunity, gain, security, and health.

We can rejoice forever, make our lives a continual prayer, and give thanks in all circumstances because we know that our situation, no matter how dire, is within God’s plan for us and is for our good. Knowing that “this is the will of God for you who belong to Christ Jesus,” we can, indeed, joyfully give thanks!

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

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BEARING FRUIT (Part 2)

Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. [John 15:4-5 (NLT)]

concord grapesBeing the branches on the vine of Jesus means that we are extensions of Him and a good branch is one that produces fruit. In Galatians 5, Paul told us that fruit should look like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Our fruit doesn’t come by following guidelines or obeying laws; it comes from a relationship with God through Jesus Christ; it comes from staying connected to the vine.

My son lives in California and has several beautiful trees in his yard. Not an arborist, I didn’t know what kind of trees they were until I saw their fruit. It was only by the orange persimmons, yellow lemons, and dark figs that I recognized the trees. As with my son’s fruit trees, it is by our fruit that we are recognized as Christ followers. Our responsibility as Christians is to bear godly fruit and, if we’re not producing fruit that looks and tastes a whole lot like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, we’re not connected to the vine!

As with any orchard, it takes time for trees and vines to grow and fruit to ripen and mature. Moreover, being a Christ follower doesn’t mean we’ll never sin. Admittedly, in spite of the Holy Spirit, often my behavior is anything but Christ-like and, frequently, there’s a shortage of good fruit in my orchard. There will be people and situations that challenge our capacity to act as would Jesus. Things will try our patience, test our faith, cause us to question our ability to love our neighbor, and challenge us to curb our anger. There will be times we’re exasperated, irritated, distressed, offended or worried. We’ll fail to turn the other cheek, lose our tempers, and say things we shouldn’t.

Because our behavior in these instances is a clear indication of where we are in our faith walk and how connected we are to the vine, I call them our “Jesus meters;” a bad score on the Jesus meter tells us we’re not walking His walk! When that meter indicates rotten fruit (or none at all), we repent, ask forgiveness, take comfort in God’s grace, reconnect with the Holy Spirit, learn from our errors, and continue to grow on His vine.

Just as I know my son’s trees by their fruit, Jesus know us by ours. If we’re bearing the Fruit of the Spirit, people will see some of Christ in us. If there were a litmus test for Christlikeness, it would not be pious words, powerful preaching, grandiose gestures, or even extraordinary feats; it would be the presence of the Fruit of the Spirit. If love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control aren’t evident in our lives, we may be talking the talk but we’re clearly not walking the walk.

Being reborn takes only a moment but becoming a Christian, now that takes a lifetime. Every life bears fruit of some kind. The question for each of us is, “What kind of fruit is mine?”

When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father. [John 15:8 (NLT)]

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EXTRA WEIGHT

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” [Matthew 11:28 (NLT)]

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. [Isaiah 41:10 (NLT)]

Are we weak and heavy-laden, cumbered with a load of care? Precious Savior, still our refuge — take it to the Lord in prayer. [“What a Friend We Have in Jesus” by Joseph Scriven]

Indian PaintbrushBecause of my foot surgery, I was stuck in an air boot (and “air” definitely does not mean “light as air”) for five weeks. Weighing just a little over three pounds, it felt more like thirty by the end of each day. Wearing a cumbersome boot that never quite matched the height of any of my shoes took its toll on me. Eventually, my foot didn’t hurt as much as did my knee, hip, and back from hobbling along in my heavy unmatched footwear. Carrying extra loads of anger, resentment, worry, heartache, guilt, or regret can weigh us down in much the same way that boot affected my body and gait. Instead of walking with confidence and strength, we limp along in fear, discomfort and doubt. The difference, of course, is that there was purpose to my burdensome boot but there is no purpose in being saddled with emotional baggage. Jesus asks us to give Him our burdens; with Him in our lives, we don’t have to carry any extra weight in our hearts.

Now that I’m out of the boot, my toes, foot, ankle and leg are sore. In spite of doing physical therapy during recovery, my muscles got weak and tight from lack of use and it’s taking time and effort to regain my strength and flexibility. Nevertheless, I go walking, increasing the distance incrementally each time, and it becomes a little easier every day. Healing of both body and soul takes patience, effort, and time.

Like other muscles, our hearts weaken when we don’t exercise them. Our capacity to give and forgive, to love and share, to be compassionate and understanding can atrophy from lack of use. Maybe that’s what happened to the Grinch’s heart when it became “two sizes too small.” Fortunately, like the Grinch, we can strengthen and expand those shriveled parts of our hearts. It requires prayer and effort and probably won’t happen overnight. That first bit of forgiveness given after a long stretch of blame probably will be a struggle, a show of generosity after a period of stinginess could hurt a little, a gesture of compassion after a bout of indifference might cause discomfort, and the hand of friendship may not extend easily if it hasn’t been stretched out recently. Take heart; it gets easier the more we do it. And, even better than a physical therapist, we have the Holy Spirit to strengthen and empower us.

O Holy Spirit, descend plentifully into my heart. Enlighten the dark corners of this neglected dwelling and scatter there Thy cheerful beams. [St. Augustine]

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. [Hebrews 12:1 (NLT)]

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DISCONTENT

Keep a sharp eye out for weeds of bitter discontent. A thistle or two gone to seed can ruin a whole garden in no time. Watch out for the Esau syndrome: trading away God’s lifelong gift in order to satisfy a short-term appetite. You well know how Esau later regretted that impulsive act and wanted God’s blessing—but by then it was too late, tears or no tears. [Hebrews 12:15-17 (MSG)]

Discontent is the first necessity of progress. [Thomas A. Edison]

snowy egretA certain amount of discontent seems to be built into us, which isn’t all bad. It can be creative and the source of change and improvement. Dissatisfaction with the harpsichord’s inability to vary the intensity of its sound led Bartolomeo Cristofori to invent the piano around 1708. Benjamin Franklin’s annoyance at having to switch between two pairs of glasses led to his invention of bifocals and it probably was his discontent with a cold house that led to his invention of the metal-lined Franklin stove. Discontent with the traditional wheelbarrow is what led James Dyson to reinvent it as a Ballbarrow using a rust-proof plastic bin and a ball-shaped shock-absorbing wheel that wouldn’t sink into soft soil or sand!

Discontent with harsh taxes and lack of representation in Parliament is what led to the Revolutionary War and the formation of our nation. The abolitionist, women’s suffrage, environmental, anti-apartheid, and civil rights movements were the result of social discontent. Jesus certainly was discontent with much He found in Judah and He made His feelings known to the Pharisees and scribes. God wants us to be dissatisfied with sin, injustice, inequity, intolerance, discrimination, malice, and evil. Constructive discontent is far better than self-righteous satisfaction.

While God wants us to be discontent with the wrongs in our world, He doesn’t want us to be people of discontent. Focusing on the petty frustrations or material things of life leads us to the land of “if only:” if only we had a larger house, a prettier wife, a richer husband, brighter children, a better body, nicer in-laws or more money, power, or influence. The grass always seems greener in the land of “if only.”

Why is it so difficult to be content with God’s blessings? Eve was in a paradise and yet, in spite of all she had in Eden, she wanted something more. Discontent is what led Esau to trade his birthright for stew, David to desire Bathsheba, Sarah to give Hagar to Abraham, the prodigal to ask for his inheritance, the Israelites to complain incessantly to Moses, the angels to rebel against God, Miriam and Aaron to criticize Moses, and Korah to protest the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Things didn’t end well for any of them!

Discontent is the enemy’s voice telling us we deserve more and better. Like a slap in God’s face, our discontent tells God He made a mistake and His mercies and gifts aren’t enough. It makes us think we know better than God and that our plan makes more sense than His.

When in elementary school, I remember the teacher’s admonition to keep our eyes on our own papers. That remains good advice today only, instead, of our schoolwork, we need to keep our eyes on the gifts God has given us rather than what He may have given to others. There always will be someone who has more or better and some place where the grass looks greener. Looking at others’ papers during a test was cheating but looking at others’ lives can lead to discontent and envy (and that’s sinning!)

Satan loves to fish in the troubled waters of a discontented heart. [Thomas Watson]

You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought. … You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world. [Matthew 5:5,8 (MSG)]

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SMELL THE FLOWERS/HEAR THE MUSIC

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)]

As a friend’s father used to say, “I couldn’t have made the day any better myself!” The temperature was perfect, the humidity had dropped, the pink of the sunrise tinged the early morning sky, and the aroma of jasmine made every breath a pleasure. When I looked one way, I still could still see the full moon and, when I looked the other, I saw the golden fire of the rising sun. Like a mirror, the lake reflected the clouds and colorful sky. Mocking birds were singing their joyful songs, rabbits were munching the grass, squirrels were chasing one another, ducks effortlessly glided through the water, and a few woodpeckers were tapping on the palms. It seemed like God had given me the beautiful morning as a special birthday gift. Of course, I know He didn’t do it just for me but it felt that way. I was especially appreciative of these little everyday things because I knew it would be my last walk for many weeks; the following day I was having foot surgery and faced a long recovery. As I tried to gather in the morning’s memory to keep me content for the next several weeks of inactivity, I wondered why I didn’t appreciate every morning as much as that day’s.

We’re often so busy rushing through life that we ignore its many unexpected blessings. Back in 2007, violin virtuoso Joshua Bell sat at the entrance to a Washington D.C. metro station during rush hour. The famed violinist played his 1713 Stradivarius (reportedly purchased for $3.5 million) for about 45-minutes. Just three days prior, Bell had performed before a full house in Boston’s Symphony Hall (where moderately good seats cost $100). This day 1,097 people passed by him but only seven paused long enough to listen. The unnoticed street musician received a total of $32.17 from 27 passersby. This experiment wasn’t an anomaly. Back in 1930, a similar one was conducted when violin virtuoso Jacques Gordon, dressed in beggar’s attire and using another prized Stradivarius, gave a curbside concert on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. Hundreds of busy people rushed by him as his beautiful music fell on deaf ears. The musician’s take was $5.61.

If we don’t have a minute to stop and listen to one of the finest musicians in the world, what else are we missing? Do we take the time to perceive beauty and value the day’s gifts? I wonder how many other equally wonderful mornings I’ve sped through without stopping to delight in God’s glory both in the sky and here on earth. I treated that morning special because I knew it would be the last of such mornings for several weeks. In actuality, we never know what morning will be our very last one! Every day is a beautiful day simply because God made it. Let us seize it with praise and thanksgiving and never miss an opportunity to stop and smell the jasmine or listen to the music!

Seize life! Eat bread with gusto, Drink wine with a robust heart. Oh yes—God takes pleasure in your pleasure! Dress festively every morning. Don’t skimp on colors and scarves. Relish life with the spouse you love Each and every day of your precarious life. Each day is God’s gift. It’s all you get in exchange For the hard work of staying alive. Make the most of each one! Whatever turns up, grab it and do it. And heartily! This is your last and only chance at it, For there’s neither work to do nor thoughts to think In the company of the dead, where you’re most certainly headed. [Ecclesiastes 9:7-10 (MSG)]

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