LEADING THE HERD

sheepDo not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” Come to your right mind, and sin no more. [1 Corinthians 15:33-34 (RSV)]

You’ve probably heard of herd mentality or herd behavior: when people’s natural desire to be part of the crowd affects their decisions. When herd behavior occurs, rather than relying on their own judgment, values, or natural instinct, people allow themselves to be influenced by the behavior of those around them. While copying what others are doing can be useful at times (it gets our garbage out the right nights), challenges arise when our personal beliefs contradict what the crowd is doing.

A few years ago, when we were in Chicago, my husband wanted to purchase his favorite cheddar/caramel popcorn mix at Garrett’s. While he waited in line inside the crowded store, I remained outside. The queue of customers eventually extended out the door and partway down the street. When a couple visiting from France asked me why people were waiting, my reply of popcorn surprised them. Telling me they could understand lining up for chocolate or ice cream but certainly not popcorn, I expected they’d continue walking. Instead, they decided to follow the herd and joined the long line.

Even though that couple weren’t fans of popcorn, they joined the herd, but do we only follow the herd when there are more of them than us? According to an experiment done in 2008 at Leeds University, the answer is no. 200 subjects were told to walk in a totally random path around a large hall without communicating with one another in any way. Unknown to them, however, a group of walkers had been given detailed instructions on where to walk. In a short time, the “random” walkers started following the ones who seemed to know where they were going and a long snake-like line formed. When the experiment was over, those “random” walkers admitted not realizing that they’d become followers. The researchers found that it took only 5% of the people to walk purposefully to get the other 95% to follow. Apparently humans, like sheep and birds, will subconsciously gather in flocks and follow a minority if that minority appears to know what they’re doing!

Scripture warns that bad company can corrupt good character but, if we consider herd behavior, could good company improve bad character? Believing their findings could be used when planning traffic flow in emergencies and crisis situations, the Leeds’ researchers called the people who were followed “informed individuals.” The world appears to be in crisis and, as Christ’s followers, we are the “informed individuals.” Could this be our call to lead the herd?

Jesus left His church in the hands of just a few followers and yet there were over 3,000 believers by the first Pentecost and the church continued to grow rapidly. In those early years, Christianity was illegal, believers were persecuted, and there were no church buildings, public ceremonies, famed evangelists, or mass media. Nevertheless, the church steadily expanded in the first 300 years. It spread because people saw the lives of Christ’s followers: that Christians walked with a sense of purpose in a different and better way. Knowing the route to take, the informed minority led the herd to Jesus. Do we walk as “informed individuals” or like someone with a bumper sticker reading, “Don’t follow me—I’m lost, too!”  Let our lights shine brightly that we might lead the way to the Lord!

We formerly rejoiced in uncleanness of life, but now love only chastity; before we used the magic arts, but now dedicate ourselves to the true and unbegotten God; before we loved money and possessions more than anything, but now we share what we have and to everyone who is in need; before we hated one another and killed one another and would not eat with those of another race, but now since the manifestation of Christ, we have come to a common life and pray for our enemies and try to win over those who hate us without just cause. [Justin Martyr describing Christians to Emperor Antoninus Pius in 153 AD]

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. [Matthew 5:14-16 (RSV)]

Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world. [Philippians 2:14-15 (RSV)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

IT’S NOT FOUND UNDER THE SUN

I observed everything going on under the sun, and really, it is all meaningless—like chasing the wind. … So I came to hate life because everything done here under the sun is so troubling. Everything is meaningless—like chasing the wind. [Ecclesiastes 1:14, 2:17 (NLT)]

queen butterfly

The story is told of a great king who ruled a large prosperous kingdom. Rich, powerful and considered wise, he lived in a splendid castle, was attended to by many servants, and surrounded by nobles and beautiful women. Lacking nothing, he drank only the most exquisite wine and ate only the most delectable food. The king, however, never felt content. Even though he kept his servants busy searching for more gorgeous flowers for his garden, better chefs for his kitchen, finer tailors for his robes, faster horses for his stable, and larger rubies for his crown, true happiness and peace escaped him.

Despairing of ever feeling content, the king finally sent his servants in search of the happiest man in the kingdom whose coat they were to bring back to the castle. The discontented monarch was sure that, by possessing the coat of that happy man, he finally would find peace and contentment. Although the royal servants searched high and low, they returned empty-handed to the king. When he asked why they couldn’t find the happiest man, one servant hesitantly admitted to finding him. When the angry king demanded, “Then why didn’t you bring me his coat?” the servant meekly replied, “Because he has no coat!”

Although God gave Solomon the gift of wisdom early in his kingship, that wisdom didn’t prevent him from ignoring the advice of his father (David), making poor choices, filling his life with worldly goods, and disobeying God. Like burn ointment or hand sanitizer, even Solomon’s wisdom was useless when not applied! Filled with regret at the end of his life, Solomon used the word “meaningless” at least forty times in Ecclesiastes. With its message, Solomon wanted to spare future generations the bitter lesson that life only lived “under the sun” is meaningless and empty; the meaning of life cannot be found apart from God.

If the king in my story had read Ecclesiastes, he would have known that security, contentment, and happiness will never be found by wearing the coat of a happy man. They can’t be found in wealth like Solomon’s, possessions, achievements, learning, power or pleasure. The last chapter of Ecclesiastes, however, tells us how they can be found: by seeking our fulfillment “above the sun” in God. We don’t need the wisdom of Solomon to know that true contentment, peace and even joy can be found only in a relationship with God.

We must learn to live on the heavenly side and look at things from above. To contemplate all things as God sees them, as Christ beholds them, overcomes sin, defies Satan, dissolves perplexities, lifts us above trials, separates us from the world and conquers fear of death. [A.B. Simpson]

Remember your Creator now while you are young, before the cord of life snaps and the golden bowl is broken. … Here now is my final conclusion: Fear God and obey his commands, for this is everyone’s duty. [Ecclesiastes 12:6a,13 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

FEELING GUILTY

He is the Rock; his deeds are perfect. Everything he does is just and fair. He is a faithful God who does no wrong; how just and upright he is! [Deuteronomy 32:4 (NLT)]

For I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose. [Exodus 33:19b (NLT)]

sunflowerShe washes her hands with soap and water but, doubting the brown liquid coming from the faucet (water that’s unsafe to drink) could rid her hands of germs, my friend also uses hand sanitizer. She’s not in a third world country but at a Native American pueblo less than a half hour from a major American city. One third of its residents live in “poverty” and the rest aren’t much better. Several generations live together in overcrowded homes, no one has appliances like washers, dryers or dishwashers, and cell service is iffy at best. In spite of all they lack, the people she meets are kind and generous. Never apologetic for their homes, they welcome her and always offer food and bottled water; proud of their heritage, they invite her to their feasts. Serving this indigenous nation in a medical capacity, she tries to shake off the feeling of guilt as she pulls into her driveway. She knows that her ethnicity is much of the reason she enjoys a life easier than theirs.

The next day, she visits a juvenile detention center. In spite of its name, it’s a prison. The youth incarcerated there have committed serious crimes and many will move into the adult prison when old enough. She tries not to look at their criminal records but she can’t help seeing their troubled histories. In most cases, they are from broken homes or victims of physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse. Some were given drugs and alcohol or turning tricks as young children. The dysfunction in their families makes the Gallaghers on Shameless look functional. My friend recognizes how different her life would have been had she not been born into the family God gave her. She knows she didn’t deserve her good childhood any more than those youngsters deserved their bad ones and she again feels a pang of guilt!

I understand my friend’s feelings; she is not alone. We’ve all thought, “There, but for the grace of God go I!” It’s often easier to feel forgiven and free of guilt for our sins than not to feel guilty for God’s blessings. While both forgiveness and blessed circumstances are undeserved—all believers get the one but not all believers get the other. God’s blessings seem inequitable at best; some people face seemingly endless obstacles and crises while others seem to breeze through life with only minor setbacks. It’s not just that bad things happen to good people and good things to bad but that we don’t all start out from a level playing field. Life, however, is not fair; if it were, Jesus never would have died for our sins!

The parable of the gracious landowner tells us that God is sovereign, righteous, and free to dispense His blessings any way he wants. Some inequities can be part of God’s design; for example, even before they were born, God chose Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau. Most inequities, however, are because we live in a world with sin: one cursed with things like disease, prejudice, deception, pain, poverty, defect, injury, hate, suffering, and poor decisions.

We’re told to be like children and (whether or not they deserve it) I’ve never heard any child say, “You shouldn’t have!” when receiving a gift. Blessings should only generate thanks and praise. We always should be humble about God’s gifts but never ashamed of them. Yet, many of us feel guilty for our undeserved blessings and then even guiltier for feeling that way! Guilt of any kind is a gift from Satan, the accuser, and one we’re not meant to keep! Let us replace any guilt with gratitude.

The book of Job makes it abundantly clear that we will never understand the “why” of God’s ways. Instead of feeling guilty about our blessings and wondering why we’ve been given the life we have, let us accept it with joy. Our task is to be good and faithful stewards both by using our blessings wisely and by redistributing them to others. My friend does that every time she visits the pueblo or prison and brings both her medical training and the light of Jesus with her. We should only feel guilty about our blessings if we’re hoarding them rather than giving them away!

Nobody has a right to take credit for what he or she was born with—only for what they have done with it. [Sydney J. Harris]

Who and what you now are is a gift from God in King Jesus, who has become for us God’s wisdom – and righteousness, sanctification and redemption as well; so that, as the Bible puts it, “Anyone who boasts should boast in the Lord.” [1 Corinthians 1:30-31 (NTE)]

What about people who are rich in this present world? Tell them not to think of themselves too highly, and to set their hopes, not on something so uncertain as riches, but on the God who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous and eager to share. That way, they will treasure up for themselves a good foundation for the future, and thereby come to possess the life which really is life. [1 Timothy 6:17-19 (NTE)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

THE REAL QUESTION

So, my dear family, this is my appeal to you by the mercies of God: offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. Worship like this brings your mind into line with God’s. What’s more, don’t let yourselves be squeezed into the shape dictated by the present age. Instead, be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you can work out what God’s will is, what is good, acceptable and complete. [Romans 12:1-2 (NTE)]

agoseris (orange) - mountain dandelionLike Job, we want to know “Why?” Wanting to understand the inexplicable, there are some who claim this pandemic is a sign of the end times; indeed, it is a terrifying time. When Jesus spoke of the end times, however, He warned His disciples to be wary about the signs and not to be misled. When we start looking for signs, we begin reading meanings into things that aren’t necessarily there. While we know that chaotic and difficult times will pave the way for Jesus’ return, we also know that chaos, difficulty, and even pandemics have been characteristics of life since the exile from Eden. I don’t know if this is a sign of the end times but I am cautious of doomsday prophets who claim to know what God is doing. Let us remember Jesus’ own words: ”No one knows the day or hour when these things will happen not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows.” [Matthew 24:36] If neither Jesus nor angels knew, I doubt a mere mortal does! Whether or not the Australian wildfires, African locusts, and COVID-19 are precursors of things to come doesn’t change what’s happening or our reaction to them.

“Do you suppose,” said a friend, “that God got so sick and tired of our bickering, conflicts, and complaint that He’s sent us all to our rooms as punishment?” Indeed, there are some who say this pandemic is God’s judgment upon his sinful children. He’s used plagues before and it wasn’t just the Egyptians who suffered them at His hands. After the Israelites worshiped the golden calf, God sent a plague upon them; when they complained of no meat, He struck them with another plague; and, when they complained about Moses and Aaron, a plague that killed 14,700 quickly followed. When David sinned against God by taking a census, 70,000 innocent people died in a plague. Since God used plagues to discipline His children in the past, we might wonder if COVID-19 is His punishment for our sins. We simply don’t know and I would be cautious of anyone who claims to know the answer; Job’s friends got in trouble for that very thing! God made it clear to Job that the “why” is really not ours to know.

Perhaps, rather than sending us to our rooms as punishment, our loving Father has given us a “time out” for an attitude adjustment. Could this be God’s version of a “market correction” when, following a drop of 10%, the value of over-priced stocks are adjusted to more accurate levels? Instead of stocks, however, could this be a time to correct our priorities: a time to reevaluate their value and adjust them to more godly levels? When viewed in the light of this pandemic, many of the things we once thought important have become meaningless and some things we took for granted have become precious. Just as a stock market correction is a reminder for investors to reassess their holdings, this pandemic may be a time for us to reassess our priorities and values. What is worth keeping and what should we let go?

Jesus told us that wherever our treasure is, there will be our heart. Perhaps we’ve been sent to our rooms to examine our hearts: to see ourselves in a spiritual mirror to determine how much like Christ we look, how attached we’ve become to the things of the world, and determine who and what comes first in our lives.

None of us can divine God’s purpose; He didn’t tell Jesus or Job so I don’t think we can expect to know. Rather than asking “why?” theologian and author Timothy Keller says the question we should be asking is this: “Is God to whom I look to and trust in when bad things happen?”

You must keep all earthy treasures out of your heart, and let Christ be your treasure, and let Him have your heart. [Charles Spurgeon]

“Don’t let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus continued. “Trust God – and trust me, too! … I’m leaving you peace. I’m giving you my own peace. I don’t give gifts in the way the world does. Don’t let your hearts be troubled; don’t be fearful. … I’ve said these things to you so that you can have peace in me. You’ll have trouble in the world. But cheer up! I have defeated the world! [John 14:1,27,16:33 (NTE)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

HAUGHTY EYES

Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. For you will be treated as you treat others. The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged. [Mattew 7:1-2 (NLT)]

peacockWhile I learned about international finance and Brexit at a women-only seminar, I also learned something more important by my reaction to two of the attendees. Their plumped up lips, wrinkle free faces, and curvaceous shapes indicated the work of a plastic surgeon and their perfect coifs and make-up caused me to wonder if they’d been professionally done that morning. Dressed from head-to toe in designer wear, it was obvious they shop at stores like Louis Vuitton, Ferragamo, and Fendi rather than Kohl’s, T.J Maxx, or Old Navy. One woman’s long cardigan sported Gucci’s trademark red and green stripes and her purse, belt and shoes all displayed the designer’s gold double G logo. The other woman, with her very blond hair, heavy make-up, lavender rabbit fur vest, matching silk blouse, swanky jewelry, and glittery Lucite heels, looked like she belonged in an episode of The Real Housewives of New Jersey.

Granted, their appearance was over-the-top for a meeting that called for “business casual” but the women did nothing to justify my negative reaction to them. Later, a quick internet search told me that they run in a far different circle than do I and frequently attend local charity fundraisers (the kind where tickets range from $350 for lunch upwards to $1000 and more for dinner). While their lifestyle is significantly wealthier than mine, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. That they choose to spend money in a way that seems extravagant to me doesn’t mean they aren’t intelligent, compassionate, generous, kind, or even devout Christians. For all I know, along with their affinity for designer clothes, they also tithe to the church, volunteer at the homeless shelter, and regularly go on mission trips!

I thought of Jesus’ words about judging others. I certainly didn’t want someone to judge my value based on my attire and I had no right to do the same with theirs. Then, realizing I would have been more accepting of someone arriving at that same meeting in jeans, scruffy sneakers, and sweatshirt, I recalled the Apostle James’ words about discrimination. Written to the early church, he told them not to show partiality to the rich. If it’s wrong to favor the rich over the poor, isn’t it as wrong to favor the poor over the rich or the ordinary over the flashy? Granted, James didn’t want the early church to show favoritism to the wealthy in hope of getting financial assistance and this situation was different. Nevertheless, his point was that prejudice and discrimination is wrong. The rich and poor have the same value to their Father in Heaven!

Self-righteous, I’d pridefully compared my modest attire with their showy display of wealth which, in their circle, probably isn’t showy at all! Other than their wealth, I really knew nothing about the women and yet I’d instantly viewed them as one-dimensional stereotypical “trophy wives” rather than individuals. I’d even shared catty comments with the woman beside me. While looking down on these two women instead of looking at them, I’d judged others without noticing the huge log of haughtiness in my own eyes! Although the Lord detests “haughty eyes,” [Prov. 6:16-17] I’d been looking through them and it was my haughty, arrogant, self-righteous eyes that caused me to belittle those women.

We shouldn’t judge people by their economic status any more than we should by their race, religion, gender, age, nationality, accent, politics, disability, appearance, or marital status. It is as wrong to fault the rich for their wealth as it is to discount the poor for their poverty. Everyone is our neighbor, a child of God, and someone to love.

Yes indeed, it is good when you obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law. [James 2:8-9 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

SECRET KINDNESS

deptford pink flowersDo nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. [Philippians 2:3-4 (RSV)]

While we usually think of charity as giving to the poor, Biblical charity means love or agape: absolute love of God and universal good will to men. Not limited to gifts of money or goods, charity is any act of kindness or generosity to others. Perhaps Paul gave us the best definition of charity in his words to the Philippians—charity starts with caring for others more than we care for ourselves!

My next exercise in learning how to live an abundant life was one of charity, with the additional element of anonymity; I was to secretly do something kind and not get caught! This seemed better suited for another century when people left May baskets on doorstep. Nowadays, with surveillance cameras at every doorway and corner, it’s difficult to do anything without getting caught (and possibly shot)!

While I’d like to think we all regularly do kind things, we usually don’t keep our actions secret. “Kindness is the law of Christ’s kingdom,” said preacher Matthew Henry and our motivation for any kindness should be our desire for God’s approval rather than man’s. Nevertheless, we rarely make anonymous donations to charities and we often point out favors we’ve done so they don’t go unacknowledged! When Jesus said to keep the left hand from knowing what the right has done, he was telling us to keep our giving a secret. [Matthew 6:1-4] This exercise of doing a secret kindness, albeit a small one, was a way to understand what He meant. As Matthew Henry explained, “Do it because it is a good work, not because it will give thee a good name.” Giving, whether of money, goods, or good turns, is not a spectator sport.

I wondered how this exercise in anonymous kindness would lead to better experiencing the abundant life promised by Jesus until I remembered Jesus’ words found in Luke 6:38: “Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” The blessings given to us from God are far greater than any we could possibly give and yet it appears from His words that our blessings depend on the generosity of our spirit. Jesus, however, never promises those blessings will come back in kind. Leaving someone a May basket doesn’t mean we’ll get a basket on our doorstep and writing a check to a charity doesn’t mean we’ll get a larger check in tomorrow’s mail. Nevertheless, Jesus promises that we’ll get back more than we give. When we freely give of our love, joy, kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and grace while expecting neither recognition nor acknowledgement, God will refill our stockpile until it overflows. That is abundance!

If you want love and abundance in your life, give it away. [Mark Twain]

And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work. [2 Corinthians 9:8 (RSV)]

 One man gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want. [Proverbs 11:24-25 (RSV)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.