HEAR AND UNDERSTAND

Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand. … The seed that fell on the footpath represents those who hear the message about the Kingdom and don’t understand it. Then the evil one comes and snatches away the seed that was planted in their hearts. … The seed that fell on good soil represents those who truly hear and understand God’s word and produce a harvest of thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times as much as had been planted! [Matthew 13:9,19,23 (NLT)]

While there’s nothing wrong with my hearing, I can’t always understand what’s being said. For example, when my husband tells stories, he prefers pronouns to nouns. Yesterday, I didn’t know whether the “he” to whom he was referring was the newsman, Uber driver, passenger, angry motorist, shooter, or police officer. Without knowing which man did what, the story was confusing so I kept asking for clarification. As it turned out, the Uber driver, who was also a policeman, shot the gun!

With their heavy accents and unfamiliar cultural references, I sometimes have difficulty understanding my son’s Indian in-laws and must ask them to repeat or explain before I finally get their meaning. My brother-in-law has Parkinson’s and speaks slowly, softly, and often stops in the middle of a sentence. But, if I give him my undivided attention and am patient during his long pauses, I can follow what he’s saying. I even have trouble with friends from the deep South who manage to make a one syllable word have two, a two syllable word have one, and use a charming set of unfamiliar idioms! Nevertheless, these are people I love so I try to understand them.

I’m the first one to admit it’s not always easy to understand Scripture. Then again, it’s not always easy to understand my family and friends but I take the time to do it. Understanding Scripture is no different than trying to understand people’s voices and, as happens with people, sometimes it take a little (or a whole lot) of effort to comprehend what is being said. Admittedly, with family and friends, there are times (as with the newsman/Uber driver/passenger/angry motorist/shooter/police officer story) when all that effort really isn’t worth it. However, I’ve never felt that way about anything written in Scripture; there, the message is always worthwhile!

Admittedly, some days I finish my Bible study more confused than when I began and there are times I want to give up. Yet, if I’ll make an effort to understand the people I love, it only makes sense that I’ll do the same thing with the God I love. God was pleased when Solomon asked for wisdom so I’m sure He’ll give us the discernment, self-discipline, patience, and ability to understand His word if we ask. He’s already provided us with countless study Bibles, assorted translations, plenty of commentary, pastors, teachers, and study groups to help us on our way.

Jesus told us to hear and understand. The best place to hear Him is in Scripture but, unless we open our Bibles and read them, we won’t hear Him. If we don’t hear Him, how can we ever understand?

“Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.” Then he added, “Pay close attention to what you hear. The closer you listen, the more understanding you will be given—and you will receive even more. To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given. But for those who are not listening, even what little understanding they have will be taken away from them.” [Mark 4:23-25 (NLT)]

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PLAYING WITH HEART

For see, today I have made you strong like a fortified city that cannot be captured, like an iron pillar or a bronze wall. You will stand against the whole land—the kings, officials, priests, and people of Judah. They will fight you, but they will fail. For I am with you, and I will take care of you. I, the Lord, have spoken! [Jeremiah 1:18-19 (NLT)]

white tailed deerI thought of locker room speeches today when reading the book of Jeremiah. God calls Jeremiah to be His prophet and gives him the task of bringing a message of both judgment and blessings to the nations. Telling him to get ready for action and not to be afraid, God gives the prophet the Biblical equivalent of a locker room speech and tells him that he will be invincible, as unconquerable as a fortress, and promises to care for him. God’s words had to be encouraging and reassuring to the young prophet.

We all have our favorite motivational movie speeches. Perhaps it’s the one from Hoosiers when Gene Hackman’s character tells his team to play to their potential and not get caught up in thinking about winning or losing. Another great speech is when the groundskeeper in Rudy tells the young man that giving up, while easier than perseverance, leads to regret. It is pushing through that leads to triumph. My favorite scene is probably when the coach in We Are Marshall tells his team that the opponents don’t know their heart. “We cannot lose,” he says, adding that, while they may be behind on the scoreboard when the game ends, they cannot be defeated. Perhaps I like these speeches because none of the coaches said that winning the game was what determined the players’ victory. Victory would be achieved by playing the game with heart. When God encouraged Jeremiah, like these coaches, He never promised a win.

Jeremiah was Judah’s primary prophet during the dark days preceding their conquest by Babylonia. Known as the “Weeping Prophet,” many would say Jeremiah was a failure. He labored over forty years and, at best, his audience was apathetic and ignored him; at worst, they were antagonistic and hostile. His neighbors wanted to kill him, his family plotted against him, and he was banned from the Temple. He was arrested, whipped, put in stocks, and ridiculed at a city gate. After another flogging, he was imprisoned and then lowered into a cistern where he sunk into mud. Even after his prophecy proved true and Jerusalem fell, he was disregarded and ridiculed. Taken against his will to Egypt, tradition holds that Jeremiah’s fellow countrymen stoned him to death there.

A sportscaster would say that Jeremiah lost the game in an agonizing and humiliating defeat. The reforms of Judah that started with Josiah stopped there and it was downhill from then on. By the time Jeremiah wrote Lamentations, Jerusalem had fallen, the temple was destroyed, and his people slaughtered, tortured or taken captive. Nevertheless, Jeremiah did his utmost and never lost heart. Quitting certainly would have been easier but he persevered. His triumph was not in changing the minds of Judah but rather in following the will of God. Let us never forget that God’s idea of victory has nothing to do with winning or the numbers on the scoreboard but everything to do with how we play the game. Like Jeremiah, may we always play it with heart, faith, and obedience.

For every child of God defeats this evil world, and we achieve this victory through our faith. And who can win this battle against the world? Only those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God. [1 John 5:4-5 (NLT)]

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SEIZE THE DAY

Even so, I have noticed one thing, at least, that is good. It is good for people to eat, drink, and enjoy their work under the sun during the short life God has given them, and to accept their lot in life. And it is a good thing to receive wealth from God and the good health to enjoy it. To enjoy your work and accept your lot in life—this is indeed a gift from God. [Ecclesiastes 5:18-19 (NLT)]

great egretFrom the viewing platform at the marsh, I watched a Cooper’s hawk soar high in the sky. When I turned to leave, I looked down and saw several white egret feathers on the ground below. Whether it was the hawk, a raccoon, or some other predator, the park had one less egret in the pond. Those beautiful white feathers were a stark reminder of how precarious life is, not just for wild birds, but for us all. I was reminded of Ecclesiastes: “For people and animals share the same fate—both breathe and both must die.” [3:19]

Beginning with the words, “Everything is meaningless,” much of Ecclesiastes expresses disappointment, discontent, and a cynical world-weariness. The world is a fallen place where life is unfair: good happens to the bad and bad befalls the good. The future is unknown and filled with uncertainties and satisfaction is not guaranteed. We can strive for a goal and never reach it or attain the goal and discover it wasn’t worth the effort. The pursuit of pleasure, possessions, wealth, achievements, wisdom, or power comes to nothing. As disheartening as the author’s words are, I’m not sure we can really argue with them. Life is capricious and frequently makes no sense and the same destiny—death—awaits both the righteous and wicked. Sadly, sometimes, our efforts really do feel like an exercise in futility.

Yet, hidden in those sobering verses are nuggets of beauty and comfort. Just because life is hard and its meaning is hard to find doesn’t mean life is meaningless. Granted, some seasons of life are perplexing, challenging, or downright unpleasant but, as much as we wish we could control or understand them, they are beyond human control and understanding. The seasons of life are not in our hands but God’s. Rather than knowledge and comprehension of His plan, however, God gives us sort of a consolation prize: the ability to find enjoyment in life. While we can’t control the seasons, we can accept and find contentment in them.

Those feathers on the ground were a reminder to live life with gusto—to accept and enjoy whatever we’ve been given—to seize the day! Yet, Ecclesiastes is not an “eat, drink, and be merry because tomorrow you die!” promotion of hedonism. Woven throughout its verses is one more theme—that of fearing God. We can’t find the meaning to life apart from God and we certainly can’t live life on our own terms. The enjoyment of life neither permits us to disobey God not does it exempt us from His law. Telling us to enjoy life, Ecclesiastes also tells us to fear (i.e., obey, revere, love, serve, honor and worship) God while doing so!

Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. So I concluded there is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we can. [Ecclesiastes 3:12 (NLT)]

That’s the whole story. Here now is my final conclusion: Fear God and obey his commands, for this is everyone’s duty. Go will judge us for everything we do, including every secret thing, whether good or bad. [Ecclesiastes 12:13 (NLT)]

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DAMAGED GOODS

But when the teachers of religious law who were Pharisees saw him eating with tax collectors and other sinners, they asked his disciples, “Why does he eat with such scum?” When Jesus heard this, he told them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” [Mark 2:16-18 (NLT)]

white peacockWhile looking through the day’s photos, I came to several of a white peacock butterfly. As I enlarged the photos, I realized this butterfly had seen better days; its once beautiful wings were ragged after a run-in with some predator. Damaged goods, I didn’t think the flawed creature’s photos worth editing and began to delete them (just as I have of similarly damaged butterflies).

Broken things and damaged goods—we tend to discard them without giving them another thought. What if God deleted us because of our imperfections and defects? What if He stopped caring for us when we no longer were flawless and beautiful? It’s not lizards or hungry birds that leave their marks on us but rather things like illness and injury, loss, dysfunctional families, abuse, broken relationships, addiction, financial crises, and sin. The resulting damage is less visible; instead of tattered wings, we are marred by pain, shame, regret, rejection, disappointment, anger, apathy, loneliness and fear. Let’s face it; we all are damaged goods. Our scars may not be as obvious as the butterfly’s; nevertheless, they are there.

Rather than abandoning them, Jesus loved and forgave damaged goods: sinners and outcasts, the woman caught in adultery, the traitorous taxmen Matthew and Zacchaeus, the woman at the well, the demon-possessed, the repentant thief on the cross, the sinful woman who anointed His feet, the disciple tiger swallowtailwho denied Him, the one who doubted Him, and even the one who betrayed Him. Jesus didn’t come for the perfect; He came for the broken, damaged, and sinful. Although the butterfly’s wings will never heal, Jesus can heal the brokenness in our hearts and souls.

When I’d taken the photos, I hadn’t detected the creature’s ripped wings; it flitted about so quickly that I barely had time to focus before it flew off to another flower. It may have been damaged, but it certainly wasn’t defeated. I took another look and saw its battle scars as things of beauty. That ragged butterfly was as exquisite as any of its untouched brothers and sisters; perhaps more so, because it hadn’t allowed its tattered wings to deter it from making the most of the sunny day. Instead of hiding under a leaf feeling sorry for itself and complaining about the unfairness of life, it had been dancing in the flowers and sipping sweet nectar! If a butterfly can have purpose and fortitude, this one certainly had it! Rather than being deleted, it belonged in a butterfly hall of fame.

Now, when I come across a damaged butterfly, I’m reminded that God loves all of His beautiful children, imperfect and broken creatures that we are. No matter how flawed, He will never discard us or toss us in the trash heap! Moreover, wounded butterflies remind me never to surrender to life’s challenges. I can be battered by this world but, because God’s grace is more than sufficient, I won’t be broken. If tattered wings can carry a butterfly through the flowers, I know God can carry me through anything.

That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. [2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (NLT)]

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WORK THE PROGRAM

Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. [Matthew 7:7-8 (NLT)]

naples doorwayThe gospels relate two stories of Jesus telling the disciples where to cast their nets and of the record catches that resulted. Jesus fed thousands with a mere basket of food, healed lepers, walked on water, gave sight to the blind, and turned water into wine. A miracle worker like that easily could fill their boats with fish without the disciples lifting a hand. As awestruck as they were by their overflowing nets, imagine their astonishment if the fish had jumped right into their boats! Nevertheless, Jesus chose to have them work for their blessing; He provided the fish but the men did the heavy lifting.

Sometimes God seems silent regarding a prayer when He’s already answered; we’ve simply missed His answer because we stopped at the asking and forgot about the rest of His promise. When asking, we often pray for an easy solution; God’s answer, however, usually involves work. We ask for a plentiful harvest but are disappointed when all we find are seeds, bags of fertilizer, a hoe and a shovel. When the bills are overwhelming, we ask for relief. He gives us overtime, a second job, or credit counseling and we wonder why He hasn’t answered us with a winning lottery ticket. We pray for recovery from the stroke but think God silent when we’re faced with hours of physical, occupational and speech therapy instead of a miraculous healing. We pray for good grades but think He’s ignored us when all we see is a tutor and more hours spent studying. We pray for sobriety but, when faced with rehab, a counselor and twelve steps to work, we don’t think He cares. We’d much prefer a God of instant solutions but most of God’s solutions come disguised as work.

The disciples wanted fish, but they had to cast their nets to get them. When the Israelites asked for food, God gave them manna but they had to go out and gather it. God tumbled down Jericho’s walls, but it was the Israelites who marched around the city thirteen times before that happened. To be healed of his leprosy, Naaman had to wash himself in the Jordan seven times and, when Jesus healed the two blind men, they’d followed him down the road and right into the house where He was staying. Those 3,000 converts on Pentecost didn’t happen by themselves—the disciples had to go out and do the preaching!

God answers our prayers with His spiritual power but that power usually has to be converted into physical power on our part. He works the miracle but, for the most part, it comes through us as we turn His promises into reality with our actions. In answer to our prayers, God gives us His wisdom in Scripture, His guidance through the Holy Spirit, and people and opportunities; what we do with those gifts is our choice. Never stop at the asking—remember to do some serious seeking and knocking, as well!

Pray as if everything depended on God and work as if everything depended on you. [Attributed to St. Ignatius Loyola]

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work. [Thomas Alva Edison]

Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Don’t be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you. [1 Chronicles 28:20 (NLT)]

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STORMS (Mark 5:1-18 – Part 1)

But if I am casting our demons by the Spirit of God, then the Kingdom of God has arrived among you. For who is powerful enough to enter the house of a strong man like Satan and plunder his goods? Only someone even stronger—someone who could tie him up and then plunder his house. [Matthew 12:28 (NLT)]

lake lpouise - canadaMark and Luke tell of Jesus and the disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee to the region of the Gerasenes where they encountered a demon-possessed man. He’d been banished to live in the tombs and was so violent and strong that even shackles couldn’t restrain him. The demoniac would cut himself with sharp stones and his shrieks could be heard night and day. When Jesus restored the man, He sent the demons into a herd of swine that plunged down the steep hillside and drowned in the lake.

Just before arriving in the Gerasenes, Jesus and the disciples had departed Capernaum in clear weather to sail across the Sea of Galilee. We know Jesus wanted to get away from the crowd, but why sail to the Gerasenes? Jesus never seemed to do anything by chance and going five miles across the lake to a predominately Gentile region (one where pigs grazed) seems an odd choice for Jewish rabbi. But this is the rabbi who told of the Good Shepherd—the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to save the one lost sheep. Perhaps this trip across the lake to the Gerasenes was a shepherd’s journey to save one of his flock. When Jesus set foot in that boat in Capernaum, I think He knew exactly where He was going, what He would find there, and what He would do about it.

It seems that Jesus deliberately set out for a confrontation with the enemy and Satan did his best to deter Him. Was that squall just another unexpected violent Galilean storm or were those twenty foot waves Satan’s attempt to prevent Jesus from getting to shore and saving the lost soul waiting there? Our good shepherd will go to great lengths to save His children and not even a hurricane can stop Him! Calming the storm revealed Jesus’s divinity and His power over nature but I think it also revealed His power over the spiritual realm. The confrontation between good and evil started in a storm on the lake, long before Jesus set foot on land and sent those demons into the swine.

As Jesus was departing, the healed man begged to go with Him. Jesus, however, told him to go home to his family and tell everyone all that the Lord had done for him. That nameless once demon-possessed man became the first Gentile missionary. Throughout the Decapolis, an alliance of ten cities southeast of the Sea of Galilee, he proclaimed “the great things Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed at what he told them.” [Mark 5:20] Just as he did 2,000 years ago, the enemy loves to send storms our way to discourage us from doing God’s work. Satan, however, is no match for Jesus. Our Lord wouldn’t let a storm deter Him and neither should we!

What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us? … No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in al creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:31,39 (NLT)]

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