A TERRIBLE TEMPTATION

O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way? How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand? [Psalm 13:1-2 (NLT)]

The BadlandsWhile some of us may have become couch-potatoes during his time of sheltering in place, that’s not truly the sin of sloth. Thought of as one of the seven “deadly sins,” sloth originally was two sins: acedia (meaning absence of care) and trisitia (meaning sorrow). A 4th century monk, Evagrius of Ponticus, listed them (along with gluttony, lust, greed, anger, vainglory, and pride) as the “terrible temptations” of life. Acedia and sadness were seen as particularly dangerous threats to the ascetic life of a monk living in the Egyptian desert, as was Evagrius. The monks easily could grow despondent, lonely, weary or discontented as they prayed, fasted, and labored in their harsh and isolated setting.

While not in a desert monastery, the new normal of COVID-19 can seem as desolate as one and tempt us with sloth’s spiritual lethargy. With the pandemic’s disruption of routine—the unstructured time, depressing news, monotony, isolation, financial challenges, uncertainty, and loss of purpose and community—acedia and tristia can set in as it did for those ancient monks. We may experience worry or fear, dullness to our prayers, emptiness in our hearts, unproductive study, an inability to give thanks in all things, and even apathy toward God’s word. Joy can seem but a distant memory.

Unlike wrath, lust or greed, sloth is subtle and difficult to spot until it has taken hold. During a dark time several years ago I struggled with sloth. Calling it compassion fatigue, I was emotionally spent and felt hopeless, discouraged, and despondent. I imagine I’m not the only person facing this “terrible temptation” again today.

Jesus told us the most important commandment was to love God but sloth keeps us from doing that. It makes us focus on ourselves and our emptiness rather than God and His abundance. When discussing this sin, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that “spiritual sloth goes so far as to refuse the joy that comes from God.” Sloth’s rejection of God’s gift is like a slap in His face—it’s no wonder Evagrius called it a “terrible temptation.”

David’s psalms indicate that he frequently experienced spiritual emptiness. In Psalm 13, we find him asking God, “How long?” not once, but four times in a row! Having lost the sense that God was there, life felt like an endless struggle; troubled and discouraged, he’d begun to doubt God’s plan. Yet, after asking God to “restore the sparkle to my eyes,” [13:4] he finished the psalm with words of trust and even joy.

In times like these, the enemy tries to steal our zeal, keep us from experiencing the joy of the Lord, and sabotage our sense of purpose with spiritual lethargy and inner emptiness. Whether or not sloth will be allowed to linger, however, is our choice. Like David, let us trust in God (even when it seems He isn’t there) and persevere in praying for relief from our emptiness and despair. He will restore the sparkle to our eyes!

But I trust in your unfailing love. I will rejoice because you have rescued me. I will sing to the Lord because he is good to me. [Psalm 13:5-6 (NLT)]

The Lord is my strength and shield. I trust him with all my heart. He helps me, and my heart is filled with joy. I burst out in songs of thanksgiving. [Psalm 28:7 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

PUSHING THE ROCK

“When you put on a luncheon or a banquet,” he said, “don’t invite your friends, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors. For they will invite you back, and that will be your only reward. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then at the resurrection of the righteous, God will reward you for inviting those who could not repay you.” [Luke 14:12-14 (NLT)]

utahI recently read about Derek Black, a young man who grew up immersed in white nationalism. The heir apparent to the WN movement, by the age of twenty, he’d already created a racist website for children and was co-hosting a national radio show advocating prejudice and hostility toward blacks, Jews, immigrants, and other minorities. During college, Black gradually recognized the ugliness of his beliefs but it wasn’t confrontation, heated debate, or ostracism that led to his transformation; it was the hand of friendship!

One of those who reached out to Black was Matthew Stevenson, an orthodox Jew, whose father had advised him to “reach out and extend the hand, no matter who’s waiting on the other side.” Each Friday night, Matthew welcomed friends at a Shabbat dinner. Only one other guest was Jewish; the rest were an assorted mix of faith, race, and nationality. Realizing the best way to enlighten Black was to introduce him to another way of thinking, the orthodox Jew invited this man—someone who regularly spewed anti-Semitism—to Shabbat dinner! Shunned by nearly everyone else on campus, Black accepted.

This was not an effort to ambush or “convert” Black and politics were not discussed. The group simply shared Shabbat prayers, wine, kosher food, and casual conversation. Derek Black’s thinking didn’t change overnight and, after more than a year of such dinners with no change in his views, one of the group suggested no longer inviting him. Matthew wisely responded, “The basic principle is that it’s our job to push the rock, not necessarily to move the rock.”

White nationalism was embedded in all of Black’s childhood memories, his sense of self, and nearly every relationship he’d ever had. Extricating himself from all that he’d known, but gradually recognized as wrong, was not easy. Eventually, however, the rock was ready to move and Derek Black publicly disavowed white nationalism.

This message isn’t about white nationalism. It’s about extending our hand “no matter who’s waiting on the other side” in the same way that Jesus extended His hand to tax collectors, Gentiles, sinners and those considered “unclean.” Every person we meet has been made by God in His image and can teach us something about life. The only label we should use for anyone is that of “neighbor” because everyone (regardless of race, religion, or politics) is our neighbor and someone we are to love.

If we expect anyone to listen to us, we must be as willing to listen to them as the Shabbat group was with Derek. While we may consider some people’s beliefs to be in error, we must remember that they think them to be true and, most likely, find reassurance in them. We can’t berate or condemn people into belief and, if we expect our beliefs to be respected, we must respect those held by others. In light of the increasingly polarized political climate in our nation, we must learn to extend our hands “no matter who’s waiting on the other side.”

Looking beyond his label of white nationalist, Black’s dinner companions didn’t see him as a problem needing fixing and the non-believers we meet are more than projects needing salvation. The Shabbat group was patient, not pushy and, while they never were false to their own beliefs, they never condemned Derek for his. While the end goal of Christian evangelism is conversion, our job merely is to give the rock a push. Whether or not the rock moves is between that person and God. We may be the messengers but it is Jesus who saves!

Live wisely among those who are not believers, and make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone. [Colossians 4:5-6 (NLT)]

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GROUNDHOG DAY…AGAIN

Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow.  So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. [James 1:2-4 [(NLT)]

ground squirrel - chipmunkWith each new day feeling like yesterday, we decided to watch the 1993 movie Groundhog Day. In it, the discontented TV weatherman Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray, is trapped in a time loop and keeps reliving February 2. At first, he takes advantage of never having to reap the consequences of his selfish actions but grows tired of his hedonistic life. When the predictability of the day causes boredom, depression, and cynicism to set in, he commits suicide several times—only to wake again and again on the same February 2. Eventually, Phil comes to grips with his situation and decides to make the most of it. Among other things, he learns to to play jazz piano, speak French, memorize the life story of everyone in town, sculpt ice, and master the art of flipping cards into an upturned hat. As he betters himself, he begins to better the lives of the people around him. The time loop eventually ends when the changed man finally gets the day right by caring more about others than himself.

Although many people have tried to estimate how many Groundhog Days Phil experienced, even co-author Danny Rubin wasn’t sure. He said the point of the movie “was that you had to feel you were enduring something that was going on for a long time… I don’t know. A hundred years. A lifetime.”  Psychologists actually have named the feeling that we’re caught in a rut the “Groundhog Day Syndrome” and, with this self-quarantining, we may feel as trapped as was Phil Connors.

Even though they can’t agree on what it means, people from various religious backgrounds view Groundhog Day as a spiritually meaningful movie. Buddhists see samsara or continuing rebirth and Hindus see reincarnation. With good deeds begetting more good deeds, Jews see the fulfilling of the Torah’s 613 mitzvoth while Roman Catholics see Phil’s situation as purgatory. Psychiatrists see it as a metaphor for psychoanalysis, soldiers as a film about boredom, motivational speakers as an illustration of transformational self-improvement, and one film critic saw the groundhog as symbolic of the risen Christ! Sometimes, however, a movie is just a movie.

Perhaps the meaning of Groundhog Day comes down to the words in Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” After all, even though Phil changes, his circumstances and the people of Punxsutawney don’t. But, once Phil starts changing the only thing over which he does have control, which is himself, the weatherman finds that his circumstances eventually do improve.

Whether it was Max Lucado or Mark Batterson who originally said, “The circumstances we ask God to change are often the circumstances God is using to change us,” they’re right. Phil’s circumstances changed him for the better and God can use our circumstances to change us—if we let Him. Let us remember that, until our last day, we are works in progress; even though we can’t change what is happening around us, our hearts and minds can change. As they do, we may just find the world around us changing, as well. COVID-19 will still be here, just as Punxsutawney and the groundhog were still there for Phil. Nevertheless, Phil’s life changed and, just as he found joy in his circumstances, we can, too!

We have little control over the circumstances of life. We can’t control the weather or the economy, and we can’t control what other people say about or do to us. There is only one area where we have control—we can rule the kingdom inside. The heart of every problem is the problem in the heart. [Warren Wiersbe]

So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you must endure many trials for a little while. These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world. [1 Peter 1:6-7 (NLT)]

Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

GOD’S WAREHOUSE

And this same God who takes care of me will supply all your needs from his glorious riches, which have been given to us in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:19 (NLT)]

mute swanWith all the online shopping we’re doing during this time of sheltering in place, can you imagine how busy it is in Amazon’s various warehouses? Even though basic items like hand sanitizer, bleach wipes, disinfectant spray and face masks are on back order, we still can get a vast assortment of products like a package of 9,000 ladybugs (along with a ladybug life cycle poster), a “daddy saddle” for piggy back rides (complete with horn and stirrups), a potty putter for our favorite golfer, or even a talking toilet paper spindle.

As busy as Amazon must be, picture God’s heavenly prayer fulfillment center. Instead of going to customer service, our prayer requests would go directly to God. How He manages to keep those requests straight is a wonder; fortunately, He is in the miracle business. After being processed and approved, our prayers would get sent over to the warehouse for order implementation.  God’s warehouse would be larger than any of Amazon’s or Walmart’s and extend further than the eye can see. But, unlike our earthly warehouses, it wouldn’t be filled with sports equipment, electronics, clothing or books. Instead, there would be crates of courage and wisdom, shelves piled high with love and kindness, and bins of patience and forgiveness. Perhaps the angels would be in charge of shipping and receiving. They’d bar code and inventory items as they moved in and out of heaven and nothing would ever get lost or misplaced. Can you imagine an angel driving a fork truck around to various locations to get an extra-large box of faith, a package of humility, or a crate of joy especially ordered just for you? Unlike Amazon, God’s warehouse never runs out of anything and the spiritual needs of those in Jesus Christ will always be filled. Let us remember, however, that while we can give an order to Amazon, we only give requests to God!

Amazon’s warehouse is filled with stuff but God’s is filled with the real necessities of life. While we can’t expect a carton of bleach wipes or Lysol, we can expect that He’ll provide us with all that we truly need: things like courage, strength, forgiveness, faith, peace, wisdom, hope, compassion, self-control, humility, patience, guidance, and salvation. Nothing is ever put on back-order and shoddy substitutions are never offered. Best of all, returns are unnecessary since everything is exactly right. Moreover, on-time delivery is guaranteed; that perfect timing, however, is according to God’s schedule and not ours!

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? [Romans 8:31-32 (NLT)]

So the Lord must wait for you to come to him so he can show you his love and compassion. For the Lord is a faithful God. Blessed are those who wait for his help. … He will be gracious if you ask for help. He will surely respond to the sound of your cries. [Isaiah 30:18,19b (NLT)]

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CATALOG OF JOY

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! Know that the Lord, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. [Psalm 100:1-2 (ESV)]

The surest mark of a Christian is not faith, or even love, but joy.[ Samuel M. Shoemaker]

great blue heronWhen we retired, we joked that our pill boxes were the only way we knew the day of the week. Now that we’re sheltering in place, that is more true than funny. For young and old alike, the days are blending one into the other with the only difference between yesterday and today being the news (which just seems to gets worse).

While COVID-19 is an enemy lurking at our door, chances are another enemy has already entered our lives: common garden variety depression—what I call the glums and gloomies. As the days wear on, it’s harder to see the bright side of life. Built for community, we now live in a world where kisses are weapons and we show our love by staying away from one another! Instead of hoarding toilet paper and bleach wipes, we wish we’d stockpiled hugs. We’d happily trade a bottle of hand sanitizer just to cuddle with a grand for a minute or shake a friend’s hand.

This prolonged isolation reminds me of a winter spent at our mountain home back in 1997. Having broken my knee the first day on the slopes, my mobility was severely limited. In spite of having hung up my skis for the season, I maintained good spirits until my husband and son departed for two weeks on business. Although they left me well stocked with food and a stack of library books, it was just me, my crutches, and the four walls for the duration and the glums and gloomies descended in full force. In one of those beautiful God-incidences, I happened upon an Oprah show about keeping a gratitude journal. Since my days were all the same, writing down five things for which I was grateful every day was a challenge at first. But, once I started, it got easier as I found joy in little everyday things: seeing a cardinal on the back deck, getting a phone call, reading a good book, or sipping cocoa by the fire on a snowy night! That gratitude journal was my life-line to sanity (and continues to be one today) because it moved my focus from me and my misery to God and His goodness.

When the glums and gloomies visited one of my friends fourteen years ago, she made a list of the things that gave her joy and ended up with about fifty things—none of which cost money. As with my gratitude journal, her entries weren’t deep spiritual thoughts: just simple things like hearing her little grand’s giggle, balancing her checkbook on the first try, or seeing her golf ball miss the water hazard. Although she’s made a few revisions and additions to the list through the years, she still pulls out her catalog of joy whenever she feels depression knocking at her door! I imagine she’s been looking at it a lot nowadays.

It’s easy to be grateful when life is good but, when life takes a downhill slide into discouragement or despair, gratitude doesn’t come naturally—certainly not easily. Nevertheless, it’s worth the effort. Even though the world has gone topsy turvy, we can be thankful because our sovereign God, a God who loves and cherishes us, is firmly in control. We can be thankful that, even though we are apart from one another, we are not alone; we are united in Christ with other believers. We can be thankful because we have the hope given to us by Jesus. We may not feel grateful for all that has occurred but we can be grateful by choosing to look beyond our circumstances. We don’t have to be thankful for this pandemic but we can practice being thankful in the midst of it.

Between the horror of this pandemic and the sameness of our days, we must be intentional about gratitude and joy and open our eyes to God’s many blessings. An attitude of gratitude, even in our trials, is what distinguishes us as Christians. What would you write in a gratitude journal today? What would be in your catalog of joy?

The Christian who walks with the Lord and keeps constant communion with Him will see many reason for rejoicing and thanksgiving all day long.[Warren Wiersbe]

Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name! For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.  [Psalm 100:4-5 (NLT)]

 Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

THE OTHER DAUGHTER (Mark 5:21-43 – Part 2)

And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace. Your suffering is over.” [Mark 5:34 (NLT)]

moon flowerThe daughter of Jairus wasn’t the only daughter in yesterday’s story. Concealed by the crowd surrounding Jairus and Jesus was a woman who had suffered with a bleeding disorder for twelve years. Because of Jewish law, she was ritually unclean and excluded from all social contact. The Talmud describes some eleven treatments for menstrual disorders and she had tried them all. Having spent everything she had to find a cure, her hemorrhaging had only gotten worse. Nevertheless, sure that just touching the rabbi’s clothing would heal her, she furtively pushed her way through the crowd to make contact with Jesus’ robe.

Immediately after touching the hem of His garment, the woman felt the bleeding stop. Although she’d hoped to go unnoticed, Jesus stopped and asked who’d touched His robe. He didn’t have to bring the woman’s touch to everyone’s attention but Jesus wanted to commend her faith. Afraid to admit she’d broken Jewish law, the woman hung back. It was her responsibility not to contaminate others with her uncleanness and she’d made the good rabbi unclean just by touching his clothing!

When the woman fell at His feet and confessed what she’d done, Jesus’ reaction was not one of anger at being tainted by her touch but one of compassion. Calling her “daughter,” He said her suffering was over and told her to go in peace. I picture Him touching her cheek, gently lifting her bowed head, and looking into her tearful eyes as He spoke. By publicly acknowledging her touch, Jesus showed His willingness to be identified with the unclean. Quite likely, His was the first hand to touch her in twelve years and His was the hand of God! Instead of defiling Jesus with her touch, she’s been made clean by His!

This encounter comes in the midst of Jairus’ urgent mission to save his daughter. Can you imagine his anxiety as Jesus talked with this woman? Did he pace or pull at Jesus’s robe? As ruler of the synagogue, Jairus was important enough to be named but the woman was an anonymous nobody. He was in the center of society while she was a social outcast who wasn’t allowed to attend the synagogue. While he and his daughter had twelve years of happiness, she’d had twelve years of misery and, while Jairus had friends and family, the bleeding woman had lost them all. Their only common ground was their faith in Jesus’ power and their desperate need for healing which caused them both to cast caution to the wind and fall at His feet.

As Jesus was calling one woman “daughter,” Jairus received news that his daughter was dead. While a woman who’d been as good as dead regained her life, his child had died. Although we’d expect the prominent Jairus to react in anger at the rabbi’s delay caused by this insignificant woman, there is no record of accusations or harsh words. Instead, Jesus tells him to have faith and the two men continue onto Jairus’ house. Was it the woman’s miraculous healing that enabled this father to react so calmly, to still believe in the power of Jesus? He’d originally come to Jesus to heal his daughter but now he needed Him to resurrect her! Jesus, however, is in the resurrection business and, just as His power returned the bleeding woman to life, His touch brought Jairus’ daughter back to life!

When it seems like God is ignoring our need or that He must be busy elsewhere, let us remember that Jesus was never in a rush and recall His words to Jairus, “Don’t be afraid. Just have faith.” [Mark 5:36] It is in Jesus, that we have life!

So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows. [Matthew 10:31 (NLT)]

I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. [John 11:25-26 (NLT)]

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