BEWARE THE GNATCATCHERS!

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:6-7 (NLT)]

red-shouldered hawkSeeing a red-shouldered hawk perched up in a nearby tree, I focused in on it only to see him suddenly duck his head to avoid being attacked by small bird and then drop again as another tiny bird swept down at him. Those two gnatcatchers boldly harassed the hawk as it kept bobbing and weaving to dodge them. Fiercely territorial, gnatcatchers are unafraid to confront predators and, apparently, the hawk was infringing on their territory. Eventually, the hawk admitted defeat and flew off to another tree. I later asked one of the Audubon docents why the large hawk didn’t fight back against the tiny birds and was told that the hawk knows it can’t win. Being so small, the fast and agile gnatcatcher easily can out maneuver the bigger bird. For the hawk, the energy spent trying to catch the gnatcatcher isn’t worth it; fleeing makes more sense than staying. After settling in another tree not far away, the hawk spotted a crayfish. After sweeping down to catch it, he returned to his new perch and enjoyed a peaceful breakfast (without any annoying gnatcatchers).

“Surely, there’s a devotion of some kind in this!” I thought. Seeing those tiny birds harass the hawk (who was more than 100 times their weight) seemed like a David versus Goliath moment. The more I thought about it, however, I thought the hawk was the innocent party. He hadn’t provoked the birds; he was just minding his own business and looking for breakfast when those birds started pestering him. What the gnatcatchers were doing is called “mobbing.” When birds mob, they make a distress call that attracts other birds (even different species) to join in the harassment. If the hawk hadn’t moved, chances are more birds soon would have joined in hounding and harassing him.

Since another word for harassing is “worrying,” I wondered if those gnatcatchers might be like the worries that seem to come at us from out of nowhere to vex, torment, and distress us. Like mobbing birds, worry calls its pals anxiety, fear, and apprehension to join in troubling us. The gnatcatchers kept the hawk from doing his work (finding breakfast) and worry keeps us from moving ahead, as well. Realizing those birds were not going to disappear, the hawk wisely moved away from them. Often, we’re not that smart; we remain smack dab in the middle of worry and allow it to continue attacking and pecking at us. While the hawk only needed to fly to a nearby tree, we need fly to God, thank Him for His goodness, ask Him for help, and leave our concerns with Him. “You can pick what you ponder,” says Max Lucado. We can perch ourselves in the midst of worry or we can perch ourselves in the promises of God.

Whether or not we worry, our problems will remain. Worry, however, accomplishes nothing. We may not have a lot of power over our problems, but we do have power over our thoughts. Like the hawk, we need to stop perching in the worry zone and get on with our lives, whether that involves catching crayfish in the swamp or giving our concerns to God and working at finding a solution to our problems!

Your problem is not your problem; it is the way you think about it. [Max Lucado]

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you. [Philippians 4:8-9 (NLT)]

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SLOW THINKING

sliders - turtlesBut the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere. And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness. [James 3:17-18 (NLT)]

Someone has a small rubber ball tucked into the palm of his hand and you have just one minute to do whatever it takes to get the ball away from him. What would you do? If you were an inner city youth, chances are you’d start by trying to pry his hand open. Your efforts may even escalate into a wrestling match. I’m not sure you’d have to be an at-risk youngster to have that same response; my husband responded the same way. Imagine his reaction when learning that all he needed to do was ask for the ball and it would have been his!

That is just one of the exercises in a program called “Becoming a Man”®, a cognitive behavioral program offered in cities like Boston and Chicago. Knowing that small slights often can lead to pulling a trigger, the program is designed to help young men avoid life’s pitfalls and develop the social and emotional skills necessary for success: integrity, accountability, positive anger expression, self-determination, respect for women, and visionary goal setting. Young women are not exempt from needing life skills and a similar program called “Working on Woman”™ cultivates the core values of self-awareness, emotional intelligence, healthy relationships, visionary goal-setting, and leadership.

Instead of life skills, as Christians, we might call these faculties “Christ skills”, as does a local Christian school in my town. Instead of a formal code of conduct, the school’s teachers make a covenant with the students to live up to ideals listed as Christ skills: trustworthiness, cooperation, truthfulness, courage, organization, curiosity, patience, effort, perseverance, flexibility, pride, common sense, problem solving, caring, resourcefulness, personal best, responsibility, no put-downs, sense of humor, active listening, initiative, friendship, and integrity. With the goal of growing more like Christ, students learn to evaluate their choices and their consequences based on these skills.

All of these programs teach youngsters that there is power in slow thinking—in living deliberately rather than impetuously. Automatic thinking, such as assuming we have to force the ball out of a person’s hand, can mean the difference between life and death in the inner city but it can have bad consequences everywhere. Our typical weapons of anger and irritation may be less lethal than a gang member’s Smith & Wesson but none of us are exempt from needing to learn to think before acting or speaking.

We don’t need to live in the inner city to know it’s an angry, rude, intolerant, and violent world: a world of road rage, air rage, middle finger waving, swearing, bullying, pushing and shoving, domestic violence, tweet rants, peaceful demonstrations that turn violent, school shootings, child abuse, heckling, bickering, heated arguments, fights between students in school, fights between fans at the game, indignant outbursts, name calling, and a “do unto others before they do unto you” kind of mentality. Perhaps we all need a course in cognitive behavioral therapy or a list of desired Christ skills to emulate.

Even so, under our own power, we still will tend to act impulsively and heedlessly. On our own, we’ll never be the people God means for us to be. Maybe, instead of a list, we need a whole lot more of Jesus and the Fruit of the Spirit (love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) and a whole lot less of self. Along with the power of slow thinking, let’s tap into the power of the Lord!

If someone claims, “I know God,” but doesn’t obey God’s commandments, that person is a liar and is not living in the truth. But those who obey God’s word truly show how completely they love him. That is how we know we are living in him. Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did. [1 John 2:4-6 (NLT)]

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LEARNING TO WALK

So put away all malice and all guile and insincerity and envy and all slander. Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation; for you have tasted the kindness of the Lord. [1 Peter 2:1-3 (RSV)]

toddlerWatching a friend’s video of her grandbaby’s first steps, I thought back to my children’s first faltering steps. They teetered and tottered, often fell, got up, and fell again. Eventually, the wobbly legs of my eldest became the confident legs that take him down mountain slopes on a snowboard, the awkward steps of my daughter became the graceful ones of a dancer in toe shoes, and the child who took forever to walk now runs marathons. It took time and maturity, however, before they could carry themselves with such strength and assurance.

A pastor friend told me of a young woman, Anne, who recently joined his church. Tuesday mornings, a group meets in the sanctuary to pray over the weekend’s prayer requests. Although Anne is a brand new Christian and self-conscious about offering prayers in a group, she feels called to come on Tuesdays and be a part of this ministry. One morning, she arrived late. With Bible in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other, Anne rushed down the aisle only to stumble. As the coffee spilled over her blouse and onto the floor, what came out of Anne’s mouth definitely was not a nice church lady, “Oops!” Having uttered words not typically heard in church, her face turned red with embarrassment. Mortified at her misstep, I imagine she would have given anything to rewind the previous sixty seconds. Instead of gasps of horror and scornful frowns, however, the prayer warriors in the sanctuary chuckled and reassured her. Like Anne, they once were baby Christians and experienced their share of missteps and lapses. They didn’t approve of her language but, having “been there and done that” (and probably much worse), they understood and reacted with love rather than judgment.

When we first accept Christ, we’re really just baby Christians. Babies aren’t born with all the knowledge and skills they need and we’re not reborn with all the knowledge and skills we need either. There will be stumbles and missteps as we learn to how to walk the Christian way. Like Anne, the new Christian is often torn between the old way of thinking, speaking and acting and the new Spirit-led way of living. Sometimes old habits and attitudes are hard to break. Nevertheless, the baby Christian welcomes the Holy Spirit, follows His lead, listens to His conviction, prays, studies Scripture, and gradually grows more like Christ. Like a toddler, when she falls, she just gets back up and keeps going and growing.

Babies don’t remain babies forever nor would we want them to. We want our children to mature and become all they’re meant to be. That doesn’t happen by being critical, judgmental and unforgiving whenever a child falls. Growth happens with encouragement, patience, love, and through example. While the prayer warriors at my friend’s church understood that, not everyone does.

When our Bible study leader announced that we’d be discussing Nicodemus the following week, the woman beside me asked who he was. I saw her shrink in embarrassment when another woman condescendingly replied, “How could you not know who Nicodemus is?” I quickly looked in my Bible’s index and, reassuring her that she wasn’t alone in her question, told her she’d find his story in John 3. I can only hope she’ll return next week.

Not everyone who attends a Bible study or church is a mature believer; some are brand new disciples while others are seekers or just testing the water. Let’s always be as reassuring, forgiving, and welcoming to baby Christians as we are to our little children and grands!

Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins. Practice hospitality ungrudgingly to one another. [1 Peter 4:8-9 (RSV)]

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast. [Ephesians 2:8-9 (RSV)]

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MY TREASURE

But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” [Luke 10:40-42 (ESV)]

As we sang carols at the beach Christmas Eve, Sarah’s grand sat on her lap while finishing off a holiday cookie. By the time the little one was done with the cookie and cuddling her gram, Sarah’s shirt was a wrinkled mess of frosting, crumbs and cookie drool. I couldn’t help but think of the gospel story of parents bringing their children to Jesus for a blessing. Even in the first century, I imagine little children meant grubby hands, sticky fingers, and runny noses. From what we know of Jesus, though, I picture him welcoming those children onto His lap along with all of the mess that came with them. Perhaps some even left drool on his robe.

A few days later, I tiptoed into the kitchen for my early morning latte only to be greeted by dirty dishes in the sink, an open box of crackers on the counter, crumbs on the floor, and phones, sunglasses, and crayons strewn across the breakfast bar. “Why can’t they put anything away?” I silently grumbled. As an empty nester, I’m used to having things my version of perfect and it’s an adjustment when children and grands visit bringing their noise, toys, and disorder with them.

Jesus rebuked Martha for being overly concerned with the preparation and formalities that come with guests. He reminded her that those things were trivial when compared to having a relationship with Him. That having a relationship is more important than being the perfect host and having everything flawless is true when it comes to other guests, as well. Before voicing more complaint, I remembered how happy I was to have family visiting for the holidays and asked myself which I treasured more: a quiet neat house or a noisy, messy, energetic and happy family.

Again, I thought about Jesus and the small children He blessed. The One who was born in a manger, welcomed shepherds and sheep into His nursery, touched lepers, wrote in the dirt, put a mud poultice on a blind man’s eyes, washed the feet of the disciples and held sticky-fingered children on his lap wouldn’t be concerned about a disorderly house – a disordered life, yes – but a disorderly house, no!

Thinking of the many Bible verses that remind us how fleeting life is, I asked myself how I want to be remembered. I’ve never heard a eulogy that extols someone’s spick-and-span kitchen, perfectly set table, immaculate cars, spotless windows, or neatly folded towels. As I straightened up the kitchen, I understood that fingerprints on every mirror, Legos on the floor, and endless laundry are just the price we pay for family and I’m more than willing to pay it! In fact, I treasure the opportunity to do it!

Thank you, God, for children of all ages and the beautiful mess that comes with them!

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. [Luke 12:34 (ESV)]

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. [Philippians 4:8 (ESV)]

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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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