SWIMMING WITH HOPE

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. [1 Peter 1:3-5 (RSV)]

sabatiaIn a gruesome experiment done back in 1957 (before PETA existed), Curt Richter put wild rats in an enclosed jar of water. When the rats realized there was no chance for escape, they gave up swimming and drowned in about 15 minutes. In a second experiment, other rats were pulled out of the water after a few minutes and then re-immersed several times. Later, when these rats were placed in the water jar and not rescued, they didn’t give up in 15 minutes as did the first group. Instead, they lasted 40 to 60 hours before dying. (I said the experiment was gruesome!) Having experienced previous rescues, these rats had hope of being rescued again and so they kept swimming. Unfortunately, they eventually drowned in exhaustion. I suppose Richter’s study applies to people as well as rats—if we have hope, we can survive (or at least survive longer) but, without hope, we will surely give up and drown.

In chapter 13 of his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul wrote of the great three: faith, hope and love. Frequently read at weddings, 1 Corinthians 13 could be called the Bible’s love chapter. Perhaps Hebrews 11 would be considered the Bible’s faith chapter. In it, Paul both defines faith (”the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen…assurance about things we cannot see”) and then lists numerous people in what could be called the “Faith Hall of Fame.”

What then of hope; is there a definitive chapter on it? It could be 1 Peter 1. Directed to early Christians scattered throughout the world, Peter offers joy and hope in the midst of their many trials. He’s not writing about wishful thinking; he writes of a living hope—a confident expectation that our God is present, faithful and will do as He says. That hope is based on the facts and promises in the Bible. It isn’t just for today; it is for all time! Nevertheless, I don’t think there is a definitive chapter on hope—from the creation story through the last words of Revelation, the entire Bible is a message of hope (faith and love, as well).

After those preliminary rescues, the rats had hope. The scientists, however, were just manipulating them to see how they’d react. God isn’t toying with us and we aren’t subjects of a cruel experiment. He doesn’t give us hope only to snatch it away; the hope He gives us is both living and lasting. As Christians, we have good reason to keep swimming in the midst of our trials and difficulties. Even if we’re not rescued from our problems in this life, we still have hope. Whether we continue to swim or sink, we’ve already been saved and have another, far better life, yet to come!

Faith is not a contradiction of reality, but the courage to face reality with hope. [Robert H. Shuller]

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. … Through him you have confidence in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God. [1 Peter 1:6-7,21 (RSV)]

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EATING ELEPHANTS

The rain and snow come down from the heavens and stay on the ground to water the earth. They cause the grain to grow, producing seed for the farmer and bread for the hungry. It is the same with my word. I send it out, and it always produces fruit. It will accomplish all I want it to, and it will prosper everywhere I send it. [Isaiah 55:10-11 (NLT)]

 How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time! [Anonymous]

elephant - TanzaniaBack in January, many people made resolutions to read the Bible. If you pledged to read the entire Bible this year, good for you. Like many who make that resolution, however, you may already have fallen behind schedule and are tempted to quit. Having tried to do it in a year, I feel your pain. After finally getting through Leviticus, Jeremiah nearly did me in with his doom and gloom. It’s not just the reading that takes time; it’s the understanding, the digesting, of what we’ve read that can slow us down. After all, there’s no point of reading it if we don’t understand it! I could read the words in a college astrophysics text but, if I didn’t understand them, I’d know no more about astrophysics on the last page than I did on the first. This year, I’m reading the Bible in chronological order and, in spite of my goal to do it in a year, it will probably take longer. For those who are discouraged or soon will be, I thought I’d rerun a previous devotion for you.

When in Africa, four hunters each bagged an enormous elephant. The elephants weighed 14,000 pounds apiece and, after butchering and processing, the men ended up with 7,000 pounds of edible meat in each of their freezers. Resolving to eat their elephants in one year’s time, they had to consume about nineteen pounds of meat a day. Within a day or two, George, realizing there was no way he could eat all that meat every day, quit. Tom made good headway until he got to the elephant’s trunk. It had a gamey taste and, with its 100,000 muscles, was tough to chew; discouraged, he also quit. Abe tried hard but he was a slow eater and only averaged five pounds a day. Knowing he’d never meet the deadline at that rate, Abe also quit. Ted, however, understood that some is better than none so he ate a little bit every day. If he was hungry, he ate more and if he wasn’t, he ate less and just picked up where he’d left off the previous day. When he encountered the chewy trunk, he moved over to the tender tasty ear for a while before returning to the tough part. One look at the calendar told him he’d never be done in a year but he didn’t let that bother him. He just kept eating the elephant, one bite at a time, until it was all gone.

That one bite at a time philosophy goes for reading the Bible as well as for eating elephants! While it’s nice to have a goal, sometimes that goal isn’t feasible. Not achieving your day’s objective, however, isn’t a reason to quit. As Ted learned, some is better than none if you want to accomplish anything. Like the elephant’s trunk, some parts of the Bible are really tough and hard to digest. When Ted got to the trunk, he took a break and moved to something easier to chew before returning to the tough part; we can do the same with our reading. Ruth, Esther and James are far easier to digest than Chronicles, Lamentations or Isaiah and we can move around in our reading when things get tough. Some people read slower and some parts of the Bible take a whole lot longer to digest than others. While setting a target date is admirable, it may be unrealistic; struggling to maintain an unrealistic pace can turn what should be uplifting into drudgery. Ted changed his objective from consuming his elephant in 365 days to polishing it off eventually and he achieved his goal. The same philosophy works for our Bible reading. If we read a little a day, taking it one page at a time, sooner or later, we will come to the end.

I have hidden your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. I praise you, O Lord; teach me your decrees. … Be good to your servant, that I may live and obey your word. Open my eyes to see the wonderful truths in your instructions. [Psalm 119:11-12,17-18 (NLT)]

P.S. No elephants were harmed during the writing of this devotion!

Copyright ©2018 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

TEFILLIN

So commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these words of mine. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. Teach them to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. [Deuteronomy 11:18-19 (NLT)]

Blue jayFor thousands of years, during their weekday morning prayers, observant Jews have worn tefillin. Sometimes called phylacteries, they are small black leather boxes attached to leather straps. Inside the boxes are four sections of the Torah from Exodus and Deuteronomy. The verses pronounce the unity of one God in what’s called the Shema, the promise of blessings for obedience and warning of retribution for disobedience, the obligation to remember the Jews’ bondage in Egypt, and the responsibility to transmit their faith to their children. One box is strapped on the left arm so to be near the heart and the other is strapped on the forehead. The placement symbolizes that God’s word is to be impressed upon both the heart and soul.

I don’t have words from Exodus and Deuteronomy written on parchment and placed on my body, but I do have sticky notes with Bible verses stuck on my bathroom mirror and on the wall by my desk, along with a verse-filled envelope in my purse, and lists in my journal and by my bed. Struggling with my Lenten discipline of memorizing Bible verses, I’d put them in a box on my forehead if I thought that would help! A few days ago, however, I realized part of my problem—the verses I was memorizing were someone else’s choice and not mine!

Several years ago, admitting my inability to quote Scripture, I asked how a church friend always seemed to have the perfect Bible verse on the tip of her tongue. “Verses are easy to memorize,” she replied, “when they mean something to you.”  Recalling that conversation, I scrapped the ready-made list of Bible verses I was using and selected some verses of my own.

While all Scripture is worthy of memory work, we each have verses that speak to us personally, as if God spoke those words just for us (and, indeed, He did.) We’ve probably underlined them in our Bibles or written them down in our journals. These are the words that speak directly to us about something in our lives and they’re the ones we want to be able to pull out of our memory banks. While it’s still difficult to memorize the verses I’ve selected, it’s gotten easier. Instead of my Lenten practice feeling like a burden, it has become a joy. The point of this memory work, however, is not to impress someone with my ability to quote Scripture at the drop of a hat. The point is to internalize those words—to make them truly a part of me.

One of my pastors suggested that, no matter how we choose to observe Lent, we should make its six weeks different from the other forty-six in the year. While I’m making these six weeks of Lent different from the previous 3,674 weeks of my life, I hope to continue memorizing meaningful verses in all the remaining weeks God chooses to give me. Rather than putting those verses in tefillin, however, I will slowly, but joyfully, tuck them into my heart and soul.

I have hidden your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. … How sweet your words taste to me; they are sweeter than honey. … Your word is a lamp to guide my feet and a light for my path. [Psalm 119:11,103,105 (NLT)]

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DID YOU HAVE A MOSES?

They forgot God, their savior, who had done such great things in Egypt—such wonderful things in the land of Ham, such awesome deeds at the Red Sea. So he declared he would destroy them. But Moses, his chosen one, stepped between the Lord and the people. He begged him to turn from his anger and not destroy them. [Psalm 106:21-23 (NLT)]

corkscrew swamp sanctuaryOur small group is studying personal evangelism and the study guide suggested writing a note of gratitude to the person or persons who helped point our way to Christ. After all, the single greatest gift any of us can give someone is an introduction to Jesus. Since mine was a gradual journey and, other than my mother, no one immediately came to mind, I skipped this simple step. After finishing the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, I’m reconsidering.

While reading through the story of the exodus, I was struck by the Israelites’ ingratitude. When they made and worshipped that golden calf, God threatened to destroy all of them but Moses interceded; although 3,000 died, the nation survived. When God cursed Miriam with leprosy for her rebellion against Moses, it was Moses who interceded for her and begged God for her healing. When the Israelites failed to believe God’s promises and refused to enter Canaan, an angry God threatened to destroy them with a plague. Again, it was Moses who interceded and saved them. Frankly, by that time, I would have been tempted to tell God to kill the whole lot of them!

When a contingent of 250 Israelite leaders confronted Moses and Aaron with false accusations and complaints, an angry God again threatened to destroy them all. It was Moses and Aaron who fell on their faces and pled with God not to judge the whole nation for their sin. After Moses told the people to move away from the rebels, the ringleaders were swallowed by the earth and God’s fire consumed the others. The next day, instead of thanking Moses for saving the rest of them, the people accused Moses of being responsible for the previous day’s deaths. An angry God told Moses and Aaron to move away from them so that He could consume the ungrateful mob. Yet again, Moses and Aaron fell to the ground in prayer and supplication. Seeing a plague starting, Aaron filled a censer with incense and ran into the crowd to stop the plague by atoning for their sin. Apparently slow learners, when the Isarelites grew impatient and again spoke against God and Moses, the Lord sent poisonous snakes among them. Once again, Moses prayed for the salvation of his people and saved the day.

For over forty years, Moses led a thankless lot of “stiff-necked” people through the wilderness and continually interceded on their behalf to God. Although we read of Moses leading them in offering thanks to God, we never read of any of them thanking Moses for his service. The Israelites mourned for him when he died but it seems they never thanked him when he lived.

Many of us had a Moses and Aaron, more likely several, who led us on our faith journey through the wilderness into the Promised Land—the Kingdom of God. While I can’t single out one specific person who pointed the way, I remember several people who welcomed me when I felt ill at ease, loved me when I felt unlovable, encouraged me on difficult parts of my journey, offered guidance when I started to lose my way, lifted me when I began to fall, challenged me to be all that God wants me to be and, like Moses, interceded for me in prayer. I thank God for them but, today, I also thank them. Did you have a Moses and Aaron who led you into the Promised Land? Have you thanked them?

None of us got to where we are alone. Whether the assistance we received was obvious or subtle, acknowledging someone’s help is a big part of understanding the importance of saying thank you. [Harvey Mackay]

Through the angel who appeared to him in the burning bush, God sent Moses to be their ruler and savior. And by means of many wonders and miraculous signs, he led them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and through the wilderness for forty years. [Acts 7:35b-36 (NLT)]

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MAKE IT PERSONAL

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38-39 NLT

white peacock butterflyI recently read a devotion that suggested substituting our own personal anxieties and concerns for the troubles listed by Paul in Romans 8. Perhaps your version would read: “And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither old age nor loss of loved ones, neither cancer nor dementia, neither our fears for our wayward children nor our worries about finances—not even the powers of terrorism and hate can separate us from God’s love. No hurricanes or earthquakes—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Then again, maybe widowhood, heart disease, migraines, foreclosure, floods, stroke, bullies, loneliness, crime, hunger, depression, fires, hard times, debt, anger, betrayal, homelessness, violence, or tornadoes would be on your list. However you fill in the blanks, Paul’s words remain true and bear repeating. Nothing—absolutely nothing—can separate us from God’s love as shown in Jesus Christ.

That God is for us, however, doesn’t mean we have no enemies. In fact, Paul’s words were written to the Roman church, a church that underwent tremendous persecution for the following 300 years. We encounter threats from both physical and spiritual enemies daily. What it does mean is that those enemies, no matter how powerful they are, can’t turn God against us. Because God gave His only son to save us, we can be sure, not just of his unchanging and everlasting love, but of our salvation.

What troubles would you substitute for Paul’s in Romans 8? No matter what they are, rest assured in the promise that the battle is already over and overwhelming victory is ours through Christ our Lord!

What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? … overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. [Romans 8: 31b-32,37b (NLT)]

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STRANGERS IN A STRANGE LAND

Then the Lord said to Moses, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have now allowed you to see it with your own eyes, but you will not enter the land.” So Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, just as the Lord had said. [Deuteronomy 34:4-5 (NLT)]

southern fogfruitWe all know the story: when she could keep him hidden no longer, Moses’s mother put him in a waterproof basket and laid him in the reeds of the Nile where he was found by Pharaoh’s daughter. Moses’ sister appeared, offered to find a wet nurse for him, and Moses and his birth mother were briefly reunited. When he was older, the boy was returned to Pharaoh’s daughter who adopted him. Logically that would have been when he was weaned (around two or three). Unfortunately, with only eleven verses of Scripture about his childhood, there’s no way of knowing how much contact he had with his birth family or what he knew of his Hebrew heritage. Nevertheless, Moses must have been torn by the knowledge that he was living a privileged life in the palace of the man who was mercilessly oppressing his people. A Hebrew boy being raised as an Egyptian prince, was Moses ever fully accepted by those in Pharaoh’s court? Did he feel he belonged or and was he too much of a Hebrew to be considered an Egyptian?

When he was grown, Moses went out “to visit his own people” but we don’t know why. Was he visiting his birth family, supervising some labor, or merely curious? Scripture only tells us that Moses killed an Egyptian he saw abusing a Hebrew slave. The next day, Moses returned again to his people and saw two Hebrews fighting. When he tried to intervene, he was sarcastically rebuffed: “Who appointed you to be our prince and judge? Are you going to kill me as you killed that Egyptian yesterday?” Apparently, Moses was too much of an Egyptian to be considered a Hebrew by his own people!

To escape Pharaoh’s wrath over the homicide, Moses fled to Midian. The man who was too much a Hebrew to be Egyptian and too Egyptian to be Hebrew was now a stranger in a strange land. Although his unique background was perfect preparation for the task given him, Moses didn’t know that. It’s easy to understand why he was so reluctant when God told him that he’d be the one to lead the Hebrews to freedom. What did Moses know of his people and God’s covenant with Israel? He hadn’t even circumcised his son Gershom!

Part of me finds the story of Moses incredibly sad. Having spent a third of his life as an outsider in Pharaoh’s palace, a third as an exile in Midian, and a third as a nomad in the wilderness, he was a man who never really belonged anywhere. Although he was the one who led his people to their home in Canaan, Moses never stepped into that Promised Land; he only viewed it from a distance. Yet, isn’t this what the Apostle Paul was talking about when he gave his examples of faith in Hebrews 11? He wrote of faithful people like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who, like Moses, only viewed God’s Promised Land from a distance. True faith, however, allows us to see beyond what is right in front of us. We’re all strangers in a strange land because this world is not our home. The Promised Land is not a piece of soil; it is the Kingdom of God and a piece of eternity.

All these people died still believing what God had promised them. They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it. They agreed that they were foreigners and nomads here on earth. … But they were looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland. That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. [Hebrews 11:13,16 (NLT)]

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