WALKING IN HOPE

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” [Revelation 21:3-4 [(NLT)]

dawnMy Advent devotional suggested taking a prayer walk while looking for signs of hope. I took my regular route and, since I often pray while walking, I wasn’t sure how this walk would be different. Nevertheless, I went in search of hope. The first thing I noticed was the sun rising in the east—a sure sign of hope with its promise of a new day and all of its possibilities. I spotted a family of ducks waddling down to the pond. The five youngsters were no longer little yellow fluffs of feathers but mama duck still kept her eyes on them. Mothers of every species hope to keep their children safe—even when they’re no longer children! I noticed the lilies, canna, and arrowhead that had been planted at waters’ edge last spring to prevent shoreline erosion. They were starting to bear their first flowers—another sign of hope because it means they took root and will serve their purpose. A few people had decorated their houses for the holiday; since not all the décor was secular, I found hope that some people still keep Christ in Christmas. Further on, a patient great blue heron stood absolutely still, neck fully extended, hoping to catch a tasty fish breakfast. It reminded me that we must remain patient in our hope—all things in God’s time. Seeing a few wood storks wading in the water also was a hopeful sign; once an “endangered” breed, their status has been upgraded to “threatened,” meaning there is hope for the survival of their species.

Since this was a prayer walk, I went through my prayer list of hope-filled prayers for what could be called happy endings—things like a successful surgery, passing grades, reconciliation, recovery from illness, sobriety, a new job, successful endeavors, the sale of a house, safe travels, a problem solved, and an obstacle surmounted. Sadly, for some of the names on my list, happy endings on this side of the grass don’t seem likely. Modern-day Jobs, the cards they’re holding are bad ones. Unlike Job who got a better hand in a re-deal and ended up with more than he’d had before, they appear stuck in their dismal situations with no new cards in sight. Barring a miracle, their circumstances aren’t likely to improve. In 1 Corinthians 13, the Apostle Paul mentions the three things that last forever: faith, hope and love. He calls love the greatest of the three; perhaps hope is the hardest.

Wondering about the purpose of my hope walk, I thought back to the day’s Advent readings from Revelation and Isaiah. Advent hope isn’t a wishful thinking/finger-crossing kind of hope, like hoping the pathologist’s report says “benign.” It’s more than hoping a good outcome for something about which we’re unsure. Our hope is in God and He’s already promised us a better future. Advent hope is knowing that, in spite of our circumstances, God eventually will work it all together for our good. While we hope for deliverance from our present troubles, we know that, ultimately, we will be delivered. Our hope isn’t in situations, people, medicine, or the stock market and we don’t need a knight in shining armor to rescue us from our woes. Our hope is in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit! Whether the hand dealt to us looks hopeless or not, we continue to maintain Advent hope by looking away from our circumstances to the One who holds our lives in His hands.

Our hope is in Immanuel, which means “God is with us”! He is with us in our birth and death, sickness and health, joy and sorrow, good times and bad. Let us remember that, if He is with us, then we are with Him—in His resurrection, ascension, and the glory of His second coming!

Optimism and hope are radically different attitudes. Optimism is the expectation that things—the weather, human relationship, the economy, the political situation, and so on—will get better. Hope is trust that God will fulfill God’s promises to us in a way that leads us to true freedom. [Henri Nouwen]

The Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’). [Isaiah 7:14 (NLT)]

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CAUGHT IN THE HEADLIGHTS

He walked away, about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” Then an angel from heaven appeared and strengthened him. [Luke 22:41-43 (NLT)]

deer“It never occurred to me,” my friend said, “that I could outlive my wife.” Several years older than his spouse, overweight, diabetic and nearly blind, he always thought she’d be there to care for him. That, however, was before she suffered a stroke, had complications from carotid artery surgery, was diagnosed with cancer, had another surgery, and started a regimen of chemotherapy (all within a few months’ time.) Like a deer caught in the headlights, he was almost frozen in disbelief, bewilderment, and fear.

At some point in time, a “deer in the headlight” moment like that will happen to us all. Disease, disability, adversity and misfortune will slam into us and turn our version of life upside down. I think of a friend who was swindled by his trusted business partner and another one who was betrayed by her husband; neither of them ever envisioned such duplicity. When the young couple was told to expect twins, it never occurred to them that neither child would live to see his second birthday. When a friend’s wife beat cancer, her family never foresaw that, fifteen years later, it would return with such a vengeance that she’d be gone in less than a year. Such scenarios were never pictured by any of these people when asked about their hopes and dreams.

Although we are the main character in our life story, we eventually realize that we aren’t writing the script—God is the author and we don’t get consulting or editing privileges. We can’t choose the setting, rewrite the parts we dislike, dictate the ending, or decide the length of the tale. As Christians, we know that the play’s sequel will take place in God’s presence in heaven, where there will be no death, pain, crying or mourning. Nevertheless, sometimes that knowledge is of little consolation as we (or those we love) struggle to make it through the present act. All we can do is trust that our loving God will give His children the courage and strength necessary to get through it all, one day at a time.

Father, some of us are suffering and others of us are crying for those who are in the midst of difficult circumstances. If it is at all possible, please take away their cup of suffering. If not, help us all to accept what seems so unacceptable and to understand what seems so unreasonable. Strengthen our faith with trust and let us see hope on the horizon.

The truth is, in this world it’s a 100 percent guarantee that we will suffer. But at the same time, Jesus Christ is 100 percent certain to meet us, encourage us, comfort us, grace us with strength and perseverance, and yes, even restore joy in our lives. Your Savior is 100 percent certain to be with you through every challenge. [Joni Eareckson Tada]

And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age. [Matthew 28:20b (NLT)]

Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. [Romans 12:12 (NLT)]

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PUTTING IT IN PERSPECTIVE

I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn over what is going to happen to me, but the world will rejoice. You will grieve, but your grief will suddenly turn to wonderful joy. It will be like a woman suffering the pains of labor. When her child is born, her anguish gives way to joy because she has brought a new baby into the world. [John 16:20-21 (NLT)]

baby boyOn the night He was betrayed, Jesus forewarned the disciples of the grief and fear they’d encounter in the days ahead. In his short parable about labor and delivery, Jesus prepared the remaining eleven disciples for the emotions they would encounter over the next three days: their anguish and despair as He hung upon the cross, died, and was buried. For His followers, those three days would feel like an eternity of hopelessness. But, as happens when a woman beholds her newborn baby after hours of painful labor, their despair would turn to joy when they saw the resurrected Christ!

At the time, no one could have convinced me that I would forget the pain of my long labor and medication-free delivery but, when I held my first-born, I did. All women do (or every baby would be an only child)! Those first six months of sleepless nights spent comforting that colicky boy seemed endless; I didn’t know how I’d endure them but I did. Yesterday, he celebrated his 50th birthday and the 24-hours he spent making his way into this world make up only 1/18,251th of his life and just 1/26,406th of mine! Even the six exhausting months he spent crying in my arms every night are only 1% of his life and less than .7% of mine! While putting my labor and sleepless nights into perspective, I realized my fractions are wrong because I can’t determine the true length of my life; rather than ending here on earth, it will continue forever in God’s heavenly Kingdom.

Jesus’s parable applies to more than those three days the disciples hid in a room following his crucifixion. It applies to the suffering and pain endured by all of His children (which often lasts far longer than 24 hours, 3 days, or even six months). Anguish of any kind seems interminable and unbearable but, when put in perspective, it is but a blip on our eternal lifeline. For now, we live in a world of tears, weariness, frustration, anxiety, confusion, disappointment, loss, fear, and affliction but, on the other side of this earthly life, there is a place without pain, sorrow, grief or tragedy! Although it’s of little comfort to those hurting, our present suffering must be viewed in the light of eternity. As heavy as the weight of our present pain may be, when put on a scale and weighed against the eternal joys of heaven, it is no more than a feather. That doesn’t mean anyone’s pain is small; it simply means that eternity is absolutely enormous! Let us remember—all that’s wrong in this fallen world is temporary and will be forgotten when we joyfully behold His face in eternity!

The best we can hope for in this life is a knothole peek at the shining realities ahead. Yet a glimpse is enough. It’s enough to convince our hearts that whatever sufferings and sorrows currently assail us aren’t worthy of comparison to that which waits over the horizon. [Joni Eareckson Tada]

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. [1 Corinthians 4:17-18 (NLT)]

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WHEN PUSH COMES TO SHOVE

Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously. [Matthew 5:38-42 (MSG)]

water lilyThe billboard’s message read, “When push comes to shove, don’t!” It was sponsored by a nonprofit foundation that uses a variety of media sources to encourage positive values, good role models, and a better life. “Hard to argue with a goal like that,” I thought before discovering that some people took exception to their peaceful message. Re-tweeting it, one rock musician told his fans just to “shove harder.”

Recently, the management of our home association sent an email regarding the previous night’s annual meeting. Being out of town, we’d missed it but, apparently, pushes had come dangerously close to shoves. Because it had deteriorated into arguments, shouting and name calling, the management company found it necessary to inform the home owners that such future behavior would not be tolerated. They warned that, if it recurred, the meeting immediately would be adjourned. I was shocked that such an email was found necessary. These weren’t enemy nations or small children on a playground; neighbors and adults, they all knew better.

When we think we’re not being heard, we tend to get louder and, instead of communicating, we end up with a shouting match. Feeling a bit “holier than thou” while reading about the contentious meeting, the Spirit’s convicting voice reminded me I’m not much different. Last month, my husband took a quick trip. When dropping him off at the airport, I’d asked where he wanted to be picked up and we agreed on the lower/arrivals level. Upon his return, he called to say he was waiting at the far end of the terminal by the Jet Blue door. I parked there and waited and waited. I finally gave him a call and we both heatedly asked where the other was. Back and forth it went—him saying he was right there and me insisting he wasn’t, our voices getting just a little louder with each exchange. My husband eventually paused and asked whether I was at arrivals or departures. “Exactly where you told me: on the lower level at arrivals!” I replied. “Oh,” he quietly said, “I’ll be right there!” You guessed it; he’d been waiting upstairs. If, instead of accusing one another of being wrong, one of us had simply asked where the other was, we could have avoided a rather tense homecoming! Granted, we didn’t call one another names but, on a smaller scale, we were no different than our irate neighbors.

In today’s angry world, rather than have a civil discussion, people frequently intimidate, attack, and demonize anyone who thinks differently. What happened to being able to disagree without being disagreeable? For a civilized people, we seem to have lost all civility. Epictetus said, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” He also said, “It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.” Of course, in some cases, that man (or woman) doesn’t want to learn anything that goes contrary to what he desires.

We are called to be peace makers and we do that by being humble, patient, and using our ears twice as much as we do our mouths. Not pushing back when push comes to shove doesn’t mean we lie down and allow someone to walk all over us. Not pushing back means we continue to stand, but we stand with civility, kindness, patience, and love. Another billboard sponsored by the same group says, “Always be a little kinder than necessary.” If we were, there might not be so many pushes, shoves, and angry tweets!

Post this at all the intersections, dear friends: Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear. God’s righteousness doesn’t grow from human anger. So throw all spoiled virtue and cancerous evil in the garbage. In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life. [James 1:20-21 (MSG)]

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FREE WON’T

Live like free people, but don’t use your freedom as an excuse to do evil. Live as those who are serving God. [1 Peter 2:16 (ERV)]

red-bellied woodpecker“Get Fuzzy,” a comic strip drawn by Darby Conley, chronicles the life of Rob and his somewhat eccentric pets: Bucky Katt, a temperamental feline with “cat-attitude,” and the gentle Satchel Pooch who frequently is the butt of Bucky’s jokes and the target of his bullying. In one comic, Satchel pondered the concept of free will. “Having free will means you also have the freedom to not,” says the dog, who then resolves, “I choose to exercise free won’t and not get mad.”

In studying the human brain, neuroscientists have discovered that there is a brief instant between when the brain tells the body to get ready to act and the action itself. That nanosecond is when our mind can implement its veto power—when it truly can exercise “free won‘t”!

We are usually so busy touting all of the things we’re free to do, that it is refreshing to consider the things we’re free not to do. Unfortunately, we don’t exercise that freedom nearly enough. Eve and Adam tasted the forbidden fruit, the Israelites worshipped a golden calf, David pursued Bathsheba, Jacob stole his inheritance, Judas betrayed Jesus, and Lot’s wife took a last look. Sadly, they didn’t exercise their freedom to say “No!” Admittedly, I frequently fail at implementing my “free won’t.”

The ability to not choose a thought or action is as important as the ability to choose them. We don’t have to indulge our every notion or whim. Remembering that we can veto as easily as we can approve, all of our choices should be conscious ones—ones where we deliberately choose between will or won’t.

Unfortunately, by the end of the comic strip, Satchel, who had been sorely vexed by Bucky, exclaims that, “I’m starting to get a little free maybe-the-*@#!-I-will after all!” His frustration sounds a bit like us when we try to exercise self-control solely on our own. Fortunately, unlike Satchel, we have a secret weapon: the Holy Spirit. Through God’s power, when tempted, we can exercise the freedom to not respond and make our free will become free won’t!

So, my brothers and sisters, we must not be ruled by our sinful selves. We must not live the way our sinful selves want. If you use your lives to do what your sinful selves want, you will die spiritually. But if you use the Spirit’s help to stop doing the wrong things you do with your body, you will have true life. The true children of God are those who let God’s Spirit lead them. [Romans 8:12-14 (ERV)]

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WHERE IS HE?

As the deer longs for streams of water, so I long for you, O God. I thirst for God, the living God. When can I go and stand before him? Day and night I have only tears for food, while my enemies continually taunt me, saying, “Where is this God of yours?” [Psalm 42:1-3 (NLT)]

white-tailed deer - FloridaNot so long ago, it was hard to face my computer with any enthusiasm. Every beginning led to a dead end or took me down a rabbit hole of confusion. The paragraphs over which I’d struggled had come to nothing and my hours at the keyboard seemed an exercise in futility. It’s as if I had little scraps of useless fabric but couldn’t find a way to quilt them together. I wondered where God was when I so desperately needed His guidance.

The best place to go when feeling hollow or hopeless is God’s word and Psalms is where I usually begin. David certainly had plenty of times of downheartedness and he wasn’t afraid to express his exhaustion, frustration, or despair and yet there always seems to be a ray of hope in his words. I turned to Psalm 42 and, having hit a “dry spell,” I knew what the psalmist meant when comparing himself to a deer panting for water and thirsting for God. Like him, I felt like I was dying of thirst.

It was the psalm’s mention of enemies with their taunts of, “Where is this God of yours?” that really hit home. I don’t share David’s flesh and blood enemies but all of us share a common unseen enemy: the doubt and anxiety that comes from spiritual depression.

The palmist asks why God has forgotten him and I think we all know that feeling. While I can get it when I’m staring at an empty page, that sense of desolation may visit others as they wait for the return of a prodigal, sit in a hospital room, endure chronic pain, look at the empty chair once occupied by a spouse, or have too much month left at the end of their money. We’ve all had times when it feels like God has turned a deaf ear to our prayers or has closed His eyes to our situation.

“Where is this God of yours?” is the enemy’s voice. Wanting us to lose faith or wallow in despair, he causes us to question God’s presence in our lives. God hasn’t forgotten about us; even the psalmist, as depressed as he was, acknowledges that God pours out His unfailing love each day. Nevertheless, sometimes, it feels as if God is looking the other way. Feeling defeated, discouraged, lonely, weary, or insecure, it’s easy to forget that our feelings can’t always be trusted. God, however, always is steadfast and trustworty!

In a gentle reproach, the psalmist asks why he is so downcast and reminds himself of the hope he has in God. That we don’t sense God’s presence, feel His love, see His hand, or hear His voice doesn’t mean that our loving God isn’t there. When asked, “Where is this God of yours?” let us never forget that He dwells, not just in heaven above, but also in our broken spirits. There always will be dark valleys to traverse but we are never alone; we have hope in God and, for that, we praise him.

A loss of the present sense of God’s love is not a loss of that love itself; the jewel is there, though it gleams not on our breast; hope…expects the promised boon though present providence stands before her with empty hands. [Charles Spurgeon]

Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again—my Savior and my God! [Psalm 42:11 (NLT)]

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