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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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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