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)]

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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)]

Copyright ©2018 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

LEAVE THEM WANTING MORE 

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. [1 Peter 3: 15b-16a (NLT)]

dubble tulipHaving heard that I write Christian devotions, the man looked across the dinner table and asked, “Have you always been religious?” The unexpected question from a Jewish man I barely knew caught me off guard. While I knew he wasn’t asking for a long salvation story, I needed to answer his simple question. I faltered through a brief explanation that I couldn’t remember a time I didn’t consider myself a Christian but that my faith grew deeper as it carried me through some really rough spots in life. Having no idea where I’d go from there, I heaved a sigh of relief when the table’s conversation moved to another topic.

Describing our salvation experience was one of the topics this past week in our small group. There will be times, as there was at that dinner, when we’re given a brief opening to tell it and we’d best be prepared with a good but short answer. Pastor Bill Hybels suggests keeping that first answer to 100 words or less. In actuality, the shorter the answer, the more likely there will be a follow-up question later. As P.T. Barnum said: “Always leave them wanting more.”

When we ask someone, “How are you?” unless we’re a nurse or physician, we’re probably not interested in a detailed accounting of blood sugar, weight, bowel movements or blood pressure. When a non-believer asks about our faith, they’re not looking for a dissertation about the historical accuracy of the Bible, a sermon about salvation, or a blow by blow account of a faith journey that has probably taken years. They certainly don’t want to hear Christian buzz words like justification, conviction, propitiation, and sanctification or about the time God spoke to us in the grocery store.

When someone asks a simple and straightforward question about our faith, they expect a simple and straightforward answer. If someone is really interested in learning more, there will be additional opportunities to share the particulars. In actuality, for many of us, our salvation story is rather ordinary—we weren’t healed supernaturally, there were no burning bushes, the sky didn’t open, and a voice from heaven was not heard. Nevertheless, our lives changed. Unless we’ve thought about how to succinctly communicate that change, we may blow an amazing opportunity to share a little of God’s amazing grace. That time at the dinner party, I wasn’t well prepared; next time, I will be!

Jesus summarized the Ten Commandments into less than twenty-five words and Stephen managed to summarize the entire Old Testament into about 74 sentences for the High Council.  With a little effort, we should be able to put our faith story into 100 words. What’s your story? Can you tell it in 100 words or less?

When you communicate your personal faith story with sincerity, you will see supernatural sparks fly as God uses it for his glory and your listener’s good. [Bill Hybels]

So never be ashamed to tell others about our Lord. [2 Timothy 1:8a (NLT)]

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CLOSE ONLY COUNTS IN HORSESHOES

For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that every one who believes in him shall not be lost, but should have eternal life. … Any man who believes in him is not judged at all. It is the one who will not believe who stands already condemned, because he will not believe in the character of God’s only Son. [John 3:16,18 (PHILLIPS)]

prairie coneflower - grey-headed coneflowerWe have friends who attend what I call the church of “what’s happening now.” While they acknowledge a “higher power,” it may or may not be God. There may be an afterlife or reincarnation and, then again, maybe not. Although they look to the Bible for wisdom, much of it is considered mythical and legendary. They also find spiritual inspiration in texts like the Bhagavad Gita (Hindu), Dhammapada (Buddhism), and Tao Te Ching (Taoism). Theirs is an eclectic mix of beliefs with each person having his or her own personal truth. They are loving caring people who believe in good things like justice, compassion, peace, protecting the environment, and the dignity of the individual. Nevertheless, while some of their thinking may be correct, their conclusion is wrong.

C.S. Lewis asserts that while many non-Christian religions have good ideas and may not be entirely erroneous, they most definitely are not correct. He points out that, while some math answers might be closer to being correct than others,  there is only one correct answer to the problem. If, for example, we had to determine the volume of a cone, we’d begin with the formula (1/3 x b x h). Before starting, however, we’d have to figure out b, the area of the base (pi x r2). What with two formulas, several multiplications and one division, there are plenty of opportunities to get the final answer wrong. If the wrong formulas are used, no matter how accurate the figuring, the answer is wrong. If both the formulas and math are correct but the wrong number for pi is used, the answer is wrong. If everything is done correctly but the decimal is misplaced, while nearly correct, the answer still is wrong. Although a nice math teacher may give us some credit for being partially correct, I’m not so sure God works that way. As Lewis points out, although some of the answers offered by other religions are closer to being right than others, Jesus Christ is the only correct answer to the problem.

A mathematician is given a set of axioms and postulates (mathematical truths) on which he is to base his figuring. They are his foundation—the starting point for reasoning and truth. While mathematicians may arrive at the same answer in different ways, they share a belief in the same basic truths. Within those basics, they are free to measure, calculate, and theorize to their heart’s content but they must abide by those basic truths until one of them is proved wrong.

Our creeds are the axioms and postulates of Christianity. These basic truths of our faith are based, not on the works of Aristotle or Euclid, but on the Bible and the words of God. Within those uncompromisable Christian truths, we are free to make choices. Some people worship on Saturday and others on Sunday, some baptize with a sprinkle of water while others are fully immersed, some kneel when praying and others stand, some observe Lent when others don’t, and some have two sacraments while others observe five additional ones. Nevertheless, our Christian creeds are just that—Christian—and they clarify and encompass our universal beliefs so that we all share the one and only right answer!

You all belong to one body, of which there is one Spirit, just as you all experienced one calling to one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God, one Father of us all, who is the one over all, the one working through all and the one living in all. [Ephesians 4:4-6 (PHILLIPS)]

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APPROVAL RATINGS

Obviously, I’m not trying to win the approval of people, but of God. If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant. [Galatians 1:10 (NLT)]

rabbitsI’d just returned from the dentist’s when their email arrived asking, “Would you recommend us?” Thinking the question theoretical, I answered in the affirmative only to be taken to hyperlinks for both Google and Facebook to do just that. The following day, I got a longer survey regarding my visit. It again asked if I would recommend his services and requested use of my name in a testimonial. Clearly, my dentist wants the approval of his patients.

Like my dentist, we all want to be noticed, liked, approved, applauded and endorsed but, unlike him, we don’t employ a company to do surveys for us. Nevertheless, we tend to measure approval in other ways—the quantity of Christmas cards sent or received, “friends” on Facebook, hits on the website or likes on the posting. Approval is determined by the number of invitations extended or accepted, memberships (and offices held) in various organizations, honors awarded, and followers on Twitter or Instagram. We judge admiration on the number and expense of gifts received, the reviews on Yelp or Trip Advisor, the size of the obituary and the length of the line to pay condolences.

In the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes (drawn by Bill Watterson), there were several instances (usually after having been disciplined or given a chore) in which the precocious Calvin informed his father that his approval ratings were dangerously low (especially with six-year olds and stuffed tigers). To Calvin’s surprise, his dad seemed unconcerned about his approval ratings’ ups and downs. This comic strip father knew that a parent’s purpose wasn’t to gain his child’s approval. Would that other parents were so wise!

We all seek approval but by whom? Like Calvin’s dad, our job is not to please our children; nor is it to please any other person. Jesus warned us that we can’t be servants to both God and the world (its wealth, possessions, fame, popularity, status, or praise). Our job is to please God; His approval rating of us is the only one that truly counts! When we try to please both the world and God, the interests of our two masters eventually will collide. When that happens, and it will, whose approval will we seek—man’s or God’s?

For we speak as messengers approved by God to be entrusted with the Good News. Our purpose is to please God, not people. He alone examines the motives of our hearts. [1 Thessalonians 2:4 (NLT)]

No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. [Matthew 6:24a (NLT)]

Copyright ©2018 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

EASY COME

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. [John 3:16 (NLT)]

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. [Ephesians 2:8 (NLT)]

little bue heron“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” asks the comedian. “Practice, practice, practice,” is his answer. “Nothing ever comes to one, that is worth having, except as a result of hard work,” said Booker T. Washington, a man who truly knew the value of hard work. Most of us, having been raised with a strong work ethic, would agree with Washington’s words. If we want something we must work for it. If we want to be musicians, we practice; if we want to get on the team, we train; if we want a scholarship, we study. Success comes through determination and lots of hard work. We’ve heard all the maxims; there’s no elevator to success so we have to take the stairs. We know there’s no such thing as a free lunch, we must work our way up the ladder, and we’ve got to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Success is never handed to you and it’s only in the dictionary that success comes before work.

If we get to Carnegie Hall by practicing, the Olympics by training and Harvard by studying, how do we get to Heaven? What do we have to do? Here’s the rub—unlike just about everything else in the world, we can’t earn our way, practice our way, study our way, work our way or even buy our way into Heaven. All we really have to do is believe our way through those pearly gates but that just seems so un-American! Surely everything has a price—there’s got to be something noble we can accomplish, someone we can impress or bribe, some special words we can say, or a way we can pay to guarantee a spot. In fact, we’re just a bit suspicious of a deal that seems too good to be true. Surely, there’s a catch but, truly, there isn’t. Jesus paid the price long ago; all we have to do is accept His gift of salvation!

Religion is spelled ‘D-O’, because it consists of the things people do try to somehow gain God’s forgiveness and favor. But the problem is that you never know when you’ve done enough. But thankfully, Christianity is spelled differently. It’s spelled ‘D-O-N-E’, which means that what we could never do for ourselves, Christ has already done for us. To become a real Christian is to humbly receive God’s gift of forgiveness and to commit to following His leadership. [From “Becoming a Contagious Christian” by Bill Hybels]

“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved. [Acts 16:30-31a (NLT)]

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