UH-OH!

Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way. [James 1:2-4 (MSG)]

double rainbowThe most obvious way God speaks is through the Bible. Sometime, however, He whispers to us in the “Aha!” moments. Serendipitous, they are God’s love notes that gently remind us of His presence, His love for us, and the magnificence of His creation. While they vary from person to person, I tend to find them in things like butterflies dancing among the flowers or a double rainbow after a spring storm.

God speaks louder with those wonderful “Oh, yes!” moments—the joyful times when all seems right with the world. We recognize His voice when the healthy baby arrives, the surgeon says the word “benign,” or the prodigal returns home. Along with the welcome “Oh, yes!” moments are the unwelcome “Oh, no!” ones—times when the bottom falls out of our world. They come with words like “malignant” or “inoperable,” a phone call in the middle of the night, or in the ICU. In all of these occasions, we quickly seek God with either our incredible feelings of thanks and praise or in our deep sense of desperation and need. The only way we can make sense of either the awe or the awfulness of life is to believe and trust in our all-powerful and loving God who knows exactly what He’s doing.

While I can find God in the “Aha,” awesome and awful, my problem comes with God’s ”Uh-oh!” moments—the unexpected and unasked for minor frustrations of life. It seems easier to turn to God in the extremes than in the routine detours, roadblocks, and nuisances of everyday life. We all have them—waiting on hold for ten minutes only to get disconnected, losing the car keys, anything that involves technical support or the DMV (and possibly the post office), waiting all day for the repairman who never shows or engaging in wrap rage while trying to open a child-proof package! These are the moments when my fruit looks far more like impatience, peevishness, self-pity, childishness, and rudeness than anything produced by the Spirit.

We often talk about the joy and peace we have as Christians but rarely about how we deal (or fail to deal) with irritation and frustration. While the emotion isn’t sinful, often how we act in response to it is. The enemy doesn’t have to tempt us with a cannon when an annoying barrage of pellets from his BB gun will make us forget who we are and in whose arms we are held!

I doubt that I’m the only one who has difficulty maintaining perspective and patience in the face of the little aggravations that are part and parcel of living in our world. Perhaps it’s because we think those minor annoyances are solely our concern when, in actuality, like everything else, they belong to God! Focusing on whatever is upsetting us simply makes it grow in importance but focusing on God shrinks it back to size. Let us remember that our God listens—not just to our praise, thanks and heavy-duty pleas, but also to our prayers for perspective, patience and peace. It’s by focusing on God that we can turn those “Oh-oh” moments into “OK!” ones!

So if you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it. Pursue the things over which Christ presides. Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ—that’s where the action is. See things from his perspective. [Colossians 3:1-2 (MSG)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

 

EXTRA WEIGHT

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” [Matthew 11:28 (NLT)]

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. [Isaiah 41:10 (NLT)]

Are we weak and heavy-laden, cumbered with a load of care? Precious Savior, still our refuge — take it to the Lord in prayer. [“What a Friend We Have in Jesus” by Joseph Scriven]

Indian PaintbrushBecause of my foot surgery, I was stuck in an air boot (and “air” definitely does not mean “light as air”) for five weeks. Weighing just a little over three pounds, it felt more like thirty by the end of each day. Wearing a cumbersome boot that never quite matched the height of any of my shoes took its toll on me. Eventually, my foot didn’t hurt as much as did my knee, hip, and back from hobbling along in my heavy unmatched footwear. Carrying extra loads of anger, resentment, worry, heartache, guilt, or regret can weigh us down in much the same way that boot affected my body and gait. Instead of walking with confidence and strength, we limp along in fear, discomfort and doubt. The difference, of course, is that there was purpose to my burdensome boot but there is no purpose in being saddled with emotional baggage. Jesus asks us to give Him our burdens; with Him in our lives, we don’t have to carry any extra weight in our hearts.

Now that I’m out of the boot, my toes, foot, ankle and leg are sore. In spite of doing physical therapy during recovery, my muscles got weak and tight from lack of use and it’s taking time and effort to regain my strength and flexibility. Nevertheless, I go walking, increasing the distance incrementally each time, and it becomes a little easier every day. Healing of both body and soul takes patience, effort, and time.

Like other muscles, our hearts weaken when we don’t exercise them. Our capacity to give and forgive, to love and share, to be compassionate and understanding can atrophy from lack of use. Maybe that’s what happened to the Grinch’s heart when it became “two sizes too small.” Fortunately, like the Grinch, we can strengthen and expand those shriveled parts of our hearts. It requires prayer and effort and probably won’t happen overnight. That first bit of forgiveness given after a long stretch of blame probably will be a struggle, a show of generosity after a period of stinginess could hurt a little, a gesture of compassion after a bout of indifference might cause discomfort, and the hand of friendship may not extend easily if it hasn’t been stretched out recently. Take heart; it gets easier the more we do it. And, even better than a physical therapist, we have the Holy Spirit to strengthen and empower us.

O Holy Spirit, descend plentifully into my heart. Enlighten the dark corners of this neglected dwelling and scatter there Thy cheerful beams. [St. Augustine]

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. [Hebrews 12:1 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

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)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

 

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)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

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)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

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)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.