TUMBLEWEED AND COTTONWOODS

This is what the Lord says: “Cursed are those who put their trust in mere humans, who rely on human strength and turn their hearts away from the Lord. They are like stunted shrubs in the desert, with no hope for the future.” [Jeremiah 17:5-6 (NLT)]

Russian thistle - tumbleweed

Russian thistle – tumbleweed

Because Judah had trusted in false gods and foreign alliances rather than God, Jeremiah pronounced God’s judgment on the southern kingdom. After saying their sins were as if they’d been etched on their stony hearts with a diamond-pointed iron chisel, he compared them to a stunted shrub. That shrub may have been the tumble thistle, a common plant found in Israel’s grasslands. I’ve never been to Israel but I’ve seen a similar plant in the western states: the Russian thistle, commonly known as tumbleweed or wind witch. Both kinds of weeds begin with flowers on a spiny plant. As their seeds mature, the entire plant dries and breaks from its roots at the soil surface. Shaped like a ball and rootless, the wind blows and rolls these plant “skeletons” across the prairie.

In stark contrast to a stunted shrub, Jeremiah likened those who trust in the Lord to deep-rooted trees planted by the riverbank—trees untroubled by heat or drought. I’m reminded of our hardy American cottonwoods found near rivers, lakes, and irrigation ditches throughout the nation. The fastest growing trees in North America, cottonwoods can grow to over 100-feet tall, with a trunk diameter of 6-feet, and a leaf canopy over 75-feet wide. Instead of being blown by the wind like tumbleweed, the cottonwood’s size makes it an excellent windbreak. When we trust in ourselves and false gods, we’ll be blown every which way like a tumbleweed but, when we trust in God, we can withstand life’s headwinds like a cottonwood.

Growing on the water’s edge, cottonwoods typically survive adverse conditions and prairie fires. Few plants can survive the scorching heat, scant rainfall, relentless winds, blowing sand and poor soil of New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument but the deeply rooted Rio Grande cottonwood thrives there! When we trust in God and sink our roots deep in His word, like the cottonwood, we will flourish and have a full life, even in harsh conditions.

Dubbed “the pioneer tree,” the cottonwood was a welcome sight for settlers crossing the plains because it meant shade from the heat, fuel for a fire, and a source of water. Those same settlers considered tumbleweeds a menace. They leeched nutrients from the soil, crowded out forage grass and, being highly flammable when dry, could become flying fireballs and spread a grass fire. Just as pioneers found refuge in the cottonwood, those who trust in the Lord find refuge in Him. Those who trust only in man are as worthless as a noxious weed and as dangerous as burning tumbleweed.

When we put our trust in man, false gods, or empty ideologies, we’re no different than a tumbleweed: dry and rootless, rolling in whatever direction the wind is blowing, and with no hope for the future. When we trust in the Lord, we’re like the cottonwood: deeply rooted in His word, fed by His living water, and able to survive, even thrive, in the bleakest of situations.

But blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence. They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water. Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought. Their leaves stay green, and they never stop producing fruit. [Jeremiah 17:7-8 (NLT)]

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SWEET JESUS

Taste and see that the Lord is good. Oh, the joys of those who take refuge in him! [Psalm 34:8 (NLT)]

The religion of Jesus Christ is not ascetic, nor sour, nor gloomy, nor circumscribing. It is full of sweetness in the present and in promise. [Henry Ward Beecher]

tri-colored heronThe Synsepalum dulcificum is a West African fruit better known as the “taste berry” or “miracle fruit.” This almost tasteless red berry can make lemons, Dijon mustard, Brussels sprouts, pickles and even vinegar taste sweet. A protein in the berry temporarily binds to the tongue’s taste buds and causes sour or acidic foods to taste sweet. Miracle fruit tablets, powder, freeze-dried berries and plants can be purchased from several websites. Along with suggesting using the berry as a way to get fussy eaters to eat their fruits and vegetables, sellers suggest hosting “flavor-tripping parties” where guests get a berry and a strange buffet of foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, radishes, grapefruit, cheap tequila, goat cheese, vinegar, and Tabasco sauce. Why anyone would want to alter the delicious flavors of kiwi, pineapple, strawberries, Granny Smith apples, grapes, or tomatoes is beyond me and I certainly have no desire to drink pickle juice or Sriracha chili sauce.

Miracle berries really aren’t miraculous because they don’t change anything; they merely change the user’s perception of a food. Although the berry neutralizes the flavor in the mouth, the food is still acidic as it goes down and the after-effects of indulging in hot sauce as if it were frosting or drinking straight lemon juice often include stomach upsets and mouth ulcers.

Rather than changing the taste of food, it would be nice to have something that miraculously could transform the bitterness, disappointment, and distress of life into something palatable and sweet. When I remember the words of Psalm 34 to “Taste and see that the Lord is good!” I realize we already have it! When we taste of the Lord, we see His goodness, receive the power of His Holy Spirit, and experience the true sweetness of life. Jesus truly does perform a miracle—the miracle of changed lives. He transforms shame, sorrow, bitterness, resentment, meanness, hate, and rage into acceptance, joy, contentment, forgiveness, generosity, love and peace. The miracle berry’s effect lasts for only a few hours but the miracle of Jesus lasts into eternity. Taste and see.

Souls are made sweet not by taking the acid fluids out, but by putting something in—a great love, a new spirit, the Spirit of Christ. Christ, the spirit of Christ interpenetrating ours, sweetens, purifies, transforms all. [Henry Drummond]

Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation. Cry out for this nourishment, now that you have had a taste of the Lord’s kindness. [1 Peter 2:2-3 (NLT)]

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FOLLOWING HIM

Then, calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me.” [Mark 8:34 (NLT)]

cross country skiingOur pastor recently did a sermon series called “Following Jesus” which reminded me of our first time backcountry skiing in Colorado more than forty years ago. As novices, we knew enough not to venture into the wilderness by ourselves so we hired Wyatt to be our guide. Insisting we delay our trek several days until we’d acclimated to the high altitude and were ready for such a trip, he gave us a long list of items we had to carry in our packs. When I asked why we needed all the survival gear along with additional food, water, and clothing, he said we had to be prepared to spend the night. Protesting that I didn’t want to spend the night out in the cold and snow, he explained, “Neither do I, but we better be prepared to do it.”

Before starting out, Wyatt examined our backpacks to make sure we had everything on his list. Our packs were heavy but his was much heavier with a tent, extra ski tips, ax, first aid kit, shovel, and more. Because falling in several feet of Colorado powder is far different than falling in a few inches of Midwest snow, Wyatt insisted on teaching us a new way of getting up after a fall and made us practice the technique several times before we began.

Once we got started, Wyatt did the hard part by breaking trail in the deep snow and keeping us clear of any slopes posing avalanche danger. To allow us to fully experience the wilderness, we waited until the skier ahead was just out of sight before starting out. Winding our way through both open meadows and woods in this great expanse of white, we would have been hopelessly lost if we hadn’t been following Wyatt’s tracks. Without seeing each other, I felt alone in the wilderness but I never was. Wyatt frequently stopped to check on us and made us rest and hydrate before continuing. We followed his tracks to a picturesque spot for lunch where he showed us how to stomp out a place for a fire and use our skis as chairs. As pleasant as our lunch in the forest was, Wyatt didn’t let us linger too long since he wanted us back to our car before dusk.

Late that afternoon, some tired but happy skiers made their way back toward the road. Just as we caught sight of our car, a winter storm blew in and, by the time we’d stowed our gear, our tracks were completely covered by snow. Caught in that unexpected whiteout, I finally understood why Wyatt had insisted we be prepared to spend the night in the mountains. Had we started out a half hour later, lingered over lunch, or skied back a little slower, we would have been caught in the blinding storm and might well have spent the night on the mountain. Without his guidance, what should have been a delightful day up on the pass could have had a bad ending but, because we followed a good guide, we returned safely home that night.

Even though Wyatt merely guided us on a high mountain pass and Jesus guides us through life, I can’t help but see parallels between following a mountain guide and following Jesus. In either case, we must recognize our inability to make the journey on our own and submit to the guide’s directions, requirements, and timeline. Both prepare us for the challenges ahead, point out hazards, teach us new skills, and never take us beyond our ability. Knowing we’ll fall, they show us how to get up again and, while we may carry a heavy pack, they carry the heaviest one and do most of the work. Keeping us from danger, both mountain guide and Jesus lead the way so we can follow in their footsteps. Even when we feel alone and can’t see them, we can have faith in both guide and Jesus, secure in the knowledge that neither will ever abandon us. Although they’ll make us rest, they’ll urge us on when we should get moving. Most important, just as our choice to follow Wyatt meant the difference between a good or bad outcome, our choice to follow Jesus means the difference between life and death.

There are, of course, some major differences between a mountain guide and Jesus. Even a guide as experienced as Wyatt can get lost but Jesus never will! To Wyatt, we were just paying customers but, to Jesus, we are beloved friends and children of God! Jesus wants us to follow Him, weather every storm, and arrive safely home not because it’s His job, but because He loves us! Through the years, we took several more backcountry tours until we learned enough to venture into the wilderness without a guide but we know that we’ll never be skilled enough to journey through life without following Jesus!

Hang this question up in your homes – “What would Jesus do?” and then think of another – “How would Jesus do it?” For what Jesus would do, and how He would do it, may always stand as the best guide to us. [Charles Spurgeon]

The Lord says, “I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you. [Psalm 32:8 (NLT)]

Show me the right path, O Lord; point out the road for me to follow. Lead me by your truth and teach me, for you are the God who saves me. All day long I put my hope in you. [Psalm 25:4-5 (NLT)]

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PREFECT TIMING

God makes everything happen at the right time. Yet none of us can ever fully understand all he has done, and he puts questions in our minds about the past and the future. [Ecclesiastes 3:11 (CEV)]

Big Cypress Fox SquirrelSaturday mornings we usually walk through a nearby park that is home to a unique subspecies of squirrel found here in southwest Florida: the Big Cypress fox squirrel (or BCFS for short). Larger than a common gray squirrel, the BCFS has a black head and back, buff sides and belly, white ears and nose, and a long bushy tail.

We’re always on the lookout for these black-masked critters, but they are cautious and secretive and it had been two years since spotting one. Thinking the endangered rodent no longer inhabits the park, I’d given up hope of seeing one again. Recently, while trying to focus my camera on some holly berries, the shaking branches above them caused me to look up. A large BCFS was staring down at me and even stayed long enough for a photo! Our brief encounter was exactly what I needed to lift my spirits after several discouraging weeks. As I thanked God for the “Aha!” moment, I pondered how God’s timing is both unpredictable and perfect.

I’m not sure David thought God’s timing perfect while spending fifteen years on the run hiding from Saul and his army and I suppose the Israelites questioned God’s timing as they waited 400 years in Egypt and 40 more in the desert before entering the land promised to them. Joseph may have questioned God’s timing during the years he spent as a slave in prison before becoming Pharaoh’s second in command. Sarah and Abraham waited twenty-five years between God’s promise of a son and Isaac’s birth and, after waiting decades, Zechariah and Elizabeth had given up any hope of a child when she became pregnant with John. I look at my prayer list and see that God often seems painfully slow. Nevertheless, the squirrel’s unexpected appearance reminded me that God is present whether or not we see Him. Rather than losing hope, we must trust in His perfect timing.

Rather than providing photo ops, the squirrels’ lives revolve around berries, seeds, nuts, one another, and avoiding predators. They’ve been in the park all the time but, because my timing isn’t perfect, I missed seeing them. God’s timing, however, always is perfect. Like the squirrels, His purpose is not to satisfy or entertain us. God wants to teach us to trust Him as we grow more like Christ. While we may not always understand or appreciate His timing, the appearance of that BCFS was a reminder that faith in God means faith in His presence, plan, and timetable.

If the Lord Jehovah makes us wait, let us do so with our whole hearts; for blessed are all they that wait for Him. He is worth waiting for. The waiting itself is beneficial to us: it tries faith, exercises patience, trains submission, and endears the blessing when it comes. The Lord’s people have always been a waiting people. [Charles Spurgeon]

The Lord says: “My thoughts and my ways are not like yours. Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, my thoughts and my ways are higher than yours. [Isaiah 55:8-9 (CEV)] 

Dear friends, don’t forget that for the Lord one day is the same as a thousand years, and a thousand years is the same as one day. [2 Peter 3:8 (CEV)]

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THE MIRACLE OF MIRACLES

And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. [Luke 1:41-42 (KJV)]

Yesterday, I mentioned Dr. Frank Crane’s comments about the wonders of everyday life. After saying, “The miracle of miracles is life,” Crane adds, “The most amazing, baffling, mysterious thing in all the universe is a seed.” While cutting into an orange this morning, I looked at the seeds hidden in the juicy fruit and recalled his words. Think how a single orange seed can grow into an orange tree that produces countless flowers that almost miraculously transform into oranges that will then produce even more seeds. The amazing power and potential held in the core of one small seed is there because it was designed by God.

It was my granddaughter’s 17th birthday recently and, since I couldn’t be with her, I looked through old photos of her instead. I recalled the day I first saw her. Only a day old and small enough to fit in a Christmas stocking, Bree was in her mother’s arms. The sight of the two of them took my breath away. For some odd reason, I recalled Elizabeth’s greeting to the Virgin Mary, “Blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” I’d read and heard that phrase countless times yet I’d never really considered it. But there, right in front of me, was my daughter, the child who’d been the fruit of my womb, and she was holding her own child, the fruit of her womb. By extension, that infant also was the fruit of my womb along with my mother’s and grandmothers’ and the wombs of their mothers before them. That little girl’s DNA held fragments of people she’d never know. Both past and future were locked within her being. Remembering that sense of wonder I felt upon seeing her, I thought of Crane’s words about the miracle of miracles: the life within a seed. How does God pack soul, blood, hair, skin, teeth, eyes, bones, nerves, talent, heart, personality, imagination, sense of humor, fingernails, and the ability to love, laugh, and cry into the two microscopic cells that join to become a human being?

We just celebrated the miracle of Jesus’ incarnation when God took on human flesh. He became a fetus in a woman’s body—the fruit of her womb—and was born. In some miraculous way, the hand of God touched a virgin and impregnated her. How He did this is a matter beyond our comprehension and yet He did. As Christians, we attest to the virgin birth in both the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds. There are, however, some people who accept all of Scripture’s miracles except for this one. Yet it really is no more amazing than God’s many other miracles. Parting the Red Sea, manna from heaven, Jericho’s destruction, turning water into wine, stilling a storm, the sun standing still, feeding a multitude, giving sight to the blind, walking on water, resurrecting the dead, and ascending into heaven all defy the laws of nature.

We don’t have to look to Scripture to be witnesses to God’s ability to do the unbelievable; just look at the miracle of miracles—life itself! The birth of a child, even when conceived the usual way, is miracle enough to convince me that the author of nature’s laws can rewrite them any time and any way He wants. The Human Genome Project spent thirteen years mapping all 3.1 billion base pairs in human DNA—the entire genetic blueprint of a human being—and yet they never found the innate sense of right and wrong that exists within each one of us from the moment we’re born or the very essence of humanity. What is the DNA of an immortal soul? My 23andMe report doesn’t say and the Human Genome Project still doesn’t know!

For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. [Nicene Creed]

Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us. [Matthew 1:23 (KJV)]

Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. [Luke 1:34-34 (KJV)]

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THE WONDERS OF THE WORLD

Men know about God. He has made it plain to them. Men cannot say they do not know about God. From the beginning of the world, men could see what God is like through the things He has made. This shows His power that lasts forever. It shows that He is God. [Romans 1:19-20 (NLV)]

alstromeria - Peruvian lilyIn one of his four-minute essays, Dr. Frank Crane posited that that the Seven Wonders of the World weren’t the most wonderful things in the world; the wonders of everyday life were! I have to agree. The seven wonders are man-made and, of the original seven, only the great pyramid in Giza remains. On the other hand, the night sky has been there since God created it when time began. Within our galaxy there are some 300 billion stars. The Milky Way, however, is just one of some 2 trillion galaxies (making for a total stellar population of roughly 70 billion trillion.) Since that’s just in the observable universe, there probably are plenty more that haven’t yet been detected. That those trillions of stars are orbiting around an ever expanding universe boggles the mind! Nothing made by man even comes close.

I look over at the Alstroemeria (Peruvian lilies) my husband brings me each week. How is it possible that no two of those flowers are exactly alike? Yet, there’s no duplication in them or in snowflakes, zebras, fingerprints, butterflies, and those 70 billion trillion stars either!

As wondrous as God’s creation is, I wonder if we appreciate it. In 2007, a young man exited the metro station in Washington, DC, took out his violin, and began to play. The violinist was virtuoso Joshua Bell and his instrument, made by Antonio Stradivari in 1713, was worth $3.5 million. Bell played for three minutes before anyone even turned a head, another half-minute before someone dropped a dollar into his open violin case, and six minutes before anyone stopped for a moment. Sure that people would notice and recognize Bell, crowd control had been the initial concern for this experiment. There was no need to worry. Although 1,097 people passed by Bell during his 43-minute concert, only seven stopped for at least a minute to listen to a man who easily commands $1000 a minute to play a concert and for whom standing ovations are the norm.

Later, when viewing a video of the experiment, Bell said he understood why a crowd didn’t gather—after all, it was rush hour and people had to get to work. What mystified the violinist was that people didn’t even notice him; it was if he were invisible. There was no applause or acknowledgement of his music until near the end when one woman passed by him. Having been to one of Bell’s concerts, she recognized the violinist and stopped to listen. When he’d played his last note, she thanked him before continuing on her way to work.

Those commuters in DC have become so accustomed to the noisy busy world around them that they totally missed seeing and hearing Joshua Bell. Like them, has the noise and busyness of our lives dulled our senses so much that we no longer see or hear the wonders around us? We don’t need to leave our homes to see the wonders of the world. The Great Wall of China doesn’t hold a candle to the sky on a clear night. As impressive as is Brazil’s Christ the Redeemer statue, it’s really no match for a field of summer wildflowers and the marble structure of the Taj Mahal pales in comparison to the structure of the human genome.

Because God hasn’t hidden His glory from our senses, the Apostle Paul says there is no excuse for not knowing of His existence. Yet, just as people were deaf and blind to Joshua Bell, even those who know God are often as deaf and blind to His glory. We have eyes and ears but, in our rush, we neither see nor hear. Like Bell, God is an artist whose handiwork is worthy of a standing ovation yet, like those commuters, we frequently fail to acknowledge His presence in the everyday wonders of the world. The next time you hear a bird sing, smell a flower, see a rainbow, or bite into a juicy piece of fruit, thank God for the intricacy, beauty, and wonder of His creation. He’s a virtuoso!

O Lord, how many are Your works! You made them all in wisdom. The earth is full of what You have made. … I will sing to the Lord all my life. I will sing praise to my God as long as I live. May the words of my heart be pleasing to Him. As for me, I will be glad in the Lord. [Psalm 104:24, 33-34 (NLV)  

When I look up and think about Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have set in their place, what is man, that You think of him, the son of man that You care for him? [Psalm 8:3-4 (NLV)]

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