HE CARRIES US

Praise the Lord; praise God our savior! For each day he carries us in his arms. [Psalm 68:19 (NLT)]

carrying his childMy daughter-in-law sent photos of the family’s day at the apple orchard. The grands picked apples, pet the farm animals, climbed the tractors, raced the pedal karts, did the zip-line, raced through the corn maze, traversed the goat bridge, and enjoyed their fill of donuts and apple cider. It was a fun-filled but exhausting day. The last picture was of my son carrying the youngest grand (who’d fallen asleep on the ride home) into the house.

The photo brought me back to my childhood when, like my grand, I’d fall asleep in the car on the way home from a family outing. Once home, my father would scoop me up in his strong arms to carry me into the house and up to my room. I remember feeling safe and loved as he carried me in his arms.

The oversized La-Z-Boy in our den was my father’s chair but, when he wasn’t home, my mother and I would snuggle there and talk for hours. I’d pour out my troubles, questions, hopes, and fears. She would quietly listen and then comfort, guide, encourage and pray with me. Holding me in her arms, she’d dry any tears and reassure me that life would eventually work out for the best.

Those childhood days are long gone; my parents passed away more than half a century ago and all that’s left are fond memories. Nevertheless, there still are times I’d like to shed the duties of adulthood and be a child again: to be the one carried instead of the one doing the carrying—the one falling apart instead of the one putting it together again. I don’t think I’m the only person who’s ever wanted to resign from adulthood. The responsibilities that come with maturity can weigh on us all.

In these troubled times, today’s responsibilities feel especially heavy. Every day seems to bring another challenge. We may be grown up but we haven’t outgrown the need to be nurtured, encouraged, comforted and restored. Many of us, however, seem to have outgrown the willingness to stop and admit our vulnerability and need. Just because we’re adults doesn’t mean we can’t rest in the arms of our Heavenly Father and let Him carry us when we’re weary. Although we can’t return to childhood, we have a Father in Heaven who loves each of us as if we were His only child. He will hold and comfort us as only a loving parent can. Rather than bandaging skinned knees and feeding our bodies, He bandages wounded hearts and nourishes our souls. He may not carry us up to our rooms but He we will carry us close to His heart for the rest of our days.

Snuggle in God’s arms. When you are hurting, when you feel lonely, left out. Let Him cradle you, comfort you, reassure you of His all-sufficient power and love. [Kay Arthur]

He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart. [Isaiah 40:11 (NIV)]

Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you. [Isaiah 46:4 (NIV)]

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THE PEACE STORE

I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world. [John 16:33 (NLT)]

Peace Store - Key West, FLBetween demonstrations that turn into brawls or rioting, incidents of mask rage, shootings, negative and misleading political ads, quarrelsome legislators, nations accusing one another of espionage and fraud, and the assorted armed conflicts throughout the world, I wish we could purchase peace as easily as we can items from Key West’s Peace Store. Actually, given the anger and nastiness so prevalent in the world today, I’m afraid wearing one of their tee-shirts politely requesting “Peace Please” or a face mask with the peace symbol could cause conflict rather than promote peace! Real peace, however, is more than the absence of conflict and it’s not something that can be purchased in Key West or anywhere else.

The Greek word usually translated as peace in the New Testament is eirēnē. In classic Greek, it meant the absence of war but, when found in the New Testament, eirēnē has a far broader meaning. This expanded meaning is because Jesus didn’t speak Greek and the word He would have used was shalom, which meant well-being in the widest sense of the word. In the Hebrew Scriptures, along with the lack of conflict, shalom was used for prosperity, physical health, contentedness both when going to sleep and at death, good relationships between nations and people, and salvation. When Gideon built an altar to the Lord, he named it Yahweh-Shalom, which meant “the Lord is peace.” For a Jew, shalom was the sense of general well-being that came from God alone.

When Jesus promised us peace or shalom, along with absence of discord, He included a sense of wholeness, health, welfare, safety, rest, soundness, tranquility, prosperity, perfectness, fullness, freedom from care, acceptance, and harmony. If we could purchase any or all of those at the Peace Store, their website would crash, the line out the door would be a mile long, and the store owners would be among the Fortune 500!

We can’t purchase peace because Jesus, the Prince of Peace, purchased it for us; shalom is ours simply for the asking. That peace doesn’t mean lack of hardship, sickness, death, grief, or difficulties. In fact, Jesus pretty much guaranteed we’d have those. He did, however, promise peace in every one of those situations.

If you’re ever in Key West, you can check out the Peace Store where they say, “Peace is always in fashion.” If, however, you’re looking for true peace, the kind of peace that far exceeds our understanding, you’ll find that only in a relationship with God. If we remain in Christ, keep the Holy Spirit within us, are obedient to His word, study and pray, serve and love, the shalom promised by the Prince of Peace will remain bright within our hearts and souls. Calling Key West “the gateway to paradise,” the Peace Store was wrong; the true path to paradise is found only in Jesus and His gospel of peace.

God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing. [C.S. Lewis]

I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid. [John 14:27 (NLT)]

This is the message of Good News for the people of Israel—that there is peace with God through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. [Acts 10:36 (NLT)]

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A LONG SABBATH 

Martha was frantic with all the work in the kitchen. “Master,” she said, coming in to where they were, “don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work all by myself? Tell her to give me a hand!” [Luke 10:40 (NTE)]

madagasgar periwinkleNo one has remained untouched by the trials and misfortune of this challenging year. That’s why my friend admitted feeling uncomfortable when acknowledging that she’s come to enjoy the downtime and slow pace of sheltering in place and social distancing. I had to agree with her. You see, pre-pandemic, we’d been more like Martha than Mary and our lives were filled with activities and obligations. I never seemed to have quite enough time and often felt overwhelmed by obligations. In an odd way, we both feel blessed by the slower pace of this quieter time.

When Jesus came to dinner, Martha was honored to host the famous rabbi. Fulfilling cultural expectations, she busied herself with her domestic duties. Wanting to impress her guests, she probably did whatever the 1st century equivalent was of setting the table with the finest tablecloth, Lenox china, sterling silver, Waterford goblets, flower centerpiece, and candles while preparing a four course gourmet dinner and baking a triple berry pie from scratch. Breaching society’s expectations, however, her sister Mary sat with the men at the feet of Jesus.

Translated as distracted or frantic, the Greek word used to describe Martha’s state of mind is periespato. Meaning drawn away, it indicates being pulled in different directions at once, just as a hostess is when she’s got meat on the grill, rolls in the oven, a pot boiling on the stove, water glasses to fill, and guests in the living room! Not knowing which way to turn and thinking Mary was the solution, Martha complained to Jesus. When He told her only one thing mattered, He may have meant one simple dish was all the men needed. It’s more likely that He meant spending time in His presence was the important thing, which was what Mary was doing. While busy Martha was working to feed Jesus, contemplative Mary was feeding on His words.

Life has taken on a simpler shape during this pandemic and I’ve learned that activity doesn’t necessarily mean accomplishment. Like Martha, I’d become distracted while trying to serve the Lord. Now, with my calendar cleared of concerts, plays, date nights, guests, fund raisers, lectures, assorted appointments, classes, tours, and get-togethers, I’m taking the time to be like Mary: to be with Jesus at His feet.

On the seventh day of creation, God rested from His work, blessed the day and made it holy. When He gave us the Sabbath, it was to be a day of rest, refreshment, and recuperation dedicated to the Lord. Sheltering in place is like a very long Sabbath. Requiring us to depend on God’s provision, it affords us a beautiful opportunity to step out of our normal routine and into God’s presence. Let us all make the most of this extended Sabbath. May it become a blessed opportunity to become less like Martha and more like Mary.

“Martha, Martha,” he replied, “you are fretting and fussing about so many things. Only one thing matters. Mary has chosen the best part, and it’s not going to be taken away from her.” [Luke 10:41-42 (NTE)]

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HE EXISTS

Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good! And evening passed and morning came, marking the sixth day. [Genesis 1:31 (NLT)]

The Lord is good to everyone. He showers compassion on all his creation. [Psalm 145:9 (NLT)]

tri-colored heronPeople often argue against God’s existence because of evil and suffering. With so much that is wrong in the world, they question how there could there be a god. Christian apologist C.S. Lewis was once an atheist who reasoned that such a cruel and unjust world proved the absence of God until he questioned where he got the idea of what was good or evil, just or unjust. He realized that something cannot be wrong or evil unless there is standard for what is right or good. In a universe with no God, there would be no standard for justice or injustice, good or evil, right or wrong: simply personal preferences. That standard, Lewis realized, is rooted in God. As a result, the very argument he used against God’s existence provided Lewis with proof of His presence!

Nevertheless, acceptance of God’s existence in a world with evil leads people to question how this loving God of ours could allow so much of it in the world. Unable to see how a loving, good and powerful God can coexist in world so filled with pain and suffering, people often ascribe any evil that befalls to God but none of the good. Granted, bad things happen but, if they’re used as evidence against a good God, then all of the good things that occur must be considered as evidence for Him!

The preponderance of the evidence tells us that there are more years of rain than drought, more harvests than famine, more fair weather days than hurricanes, more love than hate, and pandemics are not a regular occurrence. On a more personal level, I’ve encountered evil, injury and pain and, if I were asked to make a list of the suffering in my life, I could. But, if asked to record the good things I’ve experienced, I couldn’t—simply because there would be far too many to list! I’ve avoided more accidents than I’ve been in, favorable circumstances have aligned more often than not, more good people than bad have touched my life, my joys outweigh my sorrows, and God has accompanied me through every dark valley I’ve traversed. Moreover, I’d probably have to cross off most (or all) of the items on the list of bad things because God redeemed them by bringing good out of the pain and suffering.

When life feels anything but good, it’s easier to focus on evil and suffering than to remember that God is good. Yes, we live in a fallen world but it’s not the world God intended; our good God did not create evil and suffering. When man chose to disobey in Eden, both moral and natural evil entered into what was a perfect world. God may allow evil but it is our free will that has made it possible. We can’t hold God responsible for our mistakes.

Non-believers and believers alike wrestle with how a good loving God can allow the presence of evil and suffering. Nevertheless, the existence of suffering doesn’t negate God. In fact, it is God’s existence that gives meaning to our pain and suffering! We’ll never fully understand it. Nevertheless, when I think about those two lists and all that God has done for me, I know that God exists and that He is good!

God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil to exist. [Saint Augustine]

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. [John 3:16 (NLT)]

Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens. He never changes or casts a shifting shadow. [James 1:17 (NLT)]

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GRIEF IS PERSONAL

The thought of my suffering and homelessness is bitter beyond words. I will never forget this awful time, as I grieve over my loss. Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this: The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning. I say to myself, “The Lord is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him!” [Lamentation 3:19-24 (NLT)]

gardenias“Once, when my feet were bare, and I had not the means of obtaining shoes, I came to the chief of Kufah in a state of much dejection, and saw there a man who had no feet. I returned thanks to God and acknowledged his mercies, and endured my want of shoes with patience.” The Persian poet Sadi wrote those words in 1258 AD and his words are the source of the adage, “I was unhappy about having no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.” When unsympathetic to what I considered my children’s trivial grievances, I often uttered those words or something similar.

While praying for a husband and wife who’d lost their son to COVID-19 and couldn’t even attend his funeral because they were hospitalized with the same virus, I remembered that old maxim. Thinking of all they’d suffered, I rebuked myself for the tears I’d shed over the small things I’ve lost to this pandemic. Then I remembered a book I read about loss that spoke of the importance of not comparing grief. We are one of a kind and the way we experience emotions, whether grief, love, or joy, differs from person to person. Our unique pasts, along with our hopes, dreams and expectations for tomorrow, profoundly affect how we experience today; what distresses one person may seem but a drop in the bucket to another.

What I’d missed when unsympathetic to my children’s complaints was that their grievances were real to them at the time. While missing senior skip, picnic and award days along with cancelled prom, parties and graduation seems heartbreaking for today’s high school seniors, it’s not the end of the world; but try telling that to an eighteen-year old whose prom dress remains unworn in her closet because of COVID-19. While some people grieve not being able to attend ball games or see their new grandbaby, others grieve not being able to visit their parent in a nursing home or attend a friend’s funeral. Some couples grieve the loss of their wedding and honeymoon, others grieve the loss of their jobs or homes, and still others grieve the loss of a loved one. We may grieve things like spontaneity, travel, feeling safe in stores, family gatherings, working as a team, worshiping together, or not seeing smiles because they’re concealed by masks. As we adjust to our incredibly abnormal “new normal,” we all grieve in one way or another and the things we grieve are as different as the ways we do it. While some grieve with tears, others are stoic; some grieve with busyness, others with lethargy; and some grieve with anger while others with dark humor.

Saying, “I was unhappy about having no shoes until I met a man who had no feet!” helps remind us to appreciate the value of what we have but it fails to acknowledge our feelings. We must never compare the things we grieve or the way we do it with other people’s grief because grief is experienced at 100%, whether it’s over missing one’s senior year of high school, losing a breast to cancer, not being able to visit one’s family, or losing a child to COVID. Our feelings are ours alone and the way we handle them is as unique as our fingerprints.

Because grief of any kind is a personal journey, we should respect our grief as well as that of others, even if ours seems trivial by comparison. If you are grieving right now, your sorrow is real. Rather than berating yourself for it, accept it. It is only by experiencing our grief that we can come to terms with whatever we’ve lost and move on to our new normal, whatever that may be. We have a God who understands sorrow; after all, even though He knew He’d raise Lazarus from the dead, Jesus wept at the man’s grave. We are told that there is, “A time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to grieve and a time to dance.” [Ecclesiastes 3:4] Let us not be hesitant to do both!

You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing. You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy, that I might sing praises to you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever! [Psalm 30:11-12 (NLT)]

God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted. [Matthew 5:3-4 (NLT)]

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PROTECT THEM, LORD

I love you, Lord; you are my strength. The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my savior; my God is my rock, in whom I find protection. He is my shield, the power that saves me, and my place of safety. I called on the Lord, who is worthy of praise, and he saved me from my enemies. [Psalm 18:1-3 (NLT)]

mockingbird chick

Back when parks were open and the world seemed a safer place, we witnessed a parent’s nightmare. While the father was changing his toddler’s diaper, his four-year old daughter wandered away and disappeared in the zoo! We saw him frantically asking people, “Did you see a little girl in a pink bike helmet?” As he went racing down the path toward the alligators and lions, we went toward the lemurs and play area. Fortunately that pink helmet made her easy to spot as she stood watching the black bears lumber through their enclosure. While walking her back to her father, I said a prayer of thanksgiving that she would return safely home that day.

I thought of that anxious father the following day when reading Pearls Before Swine, a comic drawn by Stephan Pastis. Goat was extending sympathy to Pig for his grandma’s death when Pig carried him off. In the next few frames, Pig carted off his friends Duck and Cat. All of Pig’s friends were stuffed in a box labeled “Bad things stay away!” A sign above them read, “SAFE PLACE WHERE I CAN KEEP AN EYE ON EVERYONE I LOVE SO NOTHING BAD CAN HAPPEN TO THEM.” In the last frame, Goat tried to explain that life doesn’t work that way but Pig said, “Don’t distract me. I’m standing guard.”

Like Pig, I wish I could keep bad things from happening to those I love. Of course, if parents and grandparents could, we’d erect a wall of protection around our loved ones to shield them, not just from death, but also from pandemics, heartache, injury, disappointment, and pain.

It would be a miracle if the worst that happens to that little girl is getting lost at the zoo. While her pink bike helmet may protect her when she falls off her trike, it’s of little use elsewhere! We live in a fallen world: a world with disease, defiance, pain, sorrow, falseness, mistakes, greed, betrayal, loss, violence, malice, and death. Chances are that our children and grands will wander further astray than to the bears’ enclosure at the local zoo.

We protect our gates, are cautious of what we allow into our homes, wear masks, sanitize, wash our hands, and stay alert to the dangers around us but what about when our loved ones leave home to lead their own lives? Unlike Pig, we can’t stuff those we love in a box and stand guard over them night and day. Instead, we teach, encourage, warn, guide, lead, love, discipline, forgive, pray, equip them, and then let them go. Although we provide them with God’s armor, we can’t make them accept or wear it. Sadly, there is no fool-proof way to protect our loved ones from Columbines or Sandy Hooks any more than we can from pandemics, disappointment, grief, cancer, mental illness, rejection, failure, or death.

I used to ask God to be with my children and grands until I realized how silly my request was; He’s with them always! I now ask God to guard them from evil by making His presence known to them and His voice heard by them. As I pray God’s blessing of protection over my loved ones, I give them to Him, trusting that He will bring them safely home, if not in this world, then in the next!

But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them sing joyful praises forever. Spread your protection over them, that all who love your name may be filled with joy. For you bless the godly, O Lord; you surround them with your shield of love. [Psalm 5:11-12 (NLT)]

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