A WONDERFUL LIFE

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. [Romans 12:1 (NLT)]

irisAround this time of year, I frequently return to Bedford Falls and get reacquainted with the conflicted George Bailey, the money-grubbing Mr. Potter, and Angel 2nd Class, Clarence Odbody. This year’s version of It’s a Wonderful Life was somewhat different. Rather than seeing the movie, I attended a theatrical production set in a New York City radio station in the 1940s. The well-known story unfolded as if it were a live radio broadcast. Just five actors took on all of the roles (along with producing the various sound effects required for a radio show). In spite of the unusual adaptation, the production remained true to the original movie’s message.

George Bailey, a building and loan banker, is an unlikely hero. Having abandoned his dreams for a life in Bedford Falls, he feels that life has passed him by. About to be thrown into jail because of his uncle’s carelessness (and Mr. Potter’s dishonesty), George realizes he’s worth more dead than alive. The other unlikely hero is Clarence Odbody, an ineffective guardian angel desperately trying to earn his wings by helping this despairing man on the brink of suicide. In spite of the story’s incredibly flawed angel theology, it’s a good tale. When George wishes he’d never been born, Clarence shows him what an ugly depraved community Bedford Falls would have been had he never lived. When George Bailey realizes how many lives would have been ruined, lost, or never even have happened, he chooses life.

While George’s perspective changes and there is a happy ending, it’s not a happily-ever-after one. Unlike Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, the evil Mr. Potter doesn’t transform. We know he’ll persist in trying to take over the town and that George will continue to have too little money at the end of the month. The challenges, disappointment, and disillusionment of George’s life don’t disappear. His sacrifices cost him dearly; his aspirations were surrendered, he lost his hearing, never attended college or traveled, worked in a job he hated, and endured financial hardship. Nevertheless, it’s a happy ending because George finally understands the sacrifice was worth it! He realizes the most important work we do is not the work we ever planned on doing.

The missing $8,000 wasn’t what caused George’s despair. He was unhappy and unfulfilled because he was concentrating on the life he wanted to live rather than loving the life he was leading. Like George, most of us have given up opportunities, hopes and dreams or endured hardship of some kind or another for the sake of others. If not, we should have because that’s what God tells us to do. Jesus made it clear that our lives were to be ones of sacrifice. We belong to Jesus rather than to ourselves. Following Jesus means we surrender to His purposes, which inevitably means we don’t always get what we wanted! We do, however, get something better (but often don’t recognize it).

The difference between George Bailey and a Christian is motivation. Bailey sacrificed out of a sense of duty to family, friends and town. Although family, friends, and community often benefit from our sacrifice, the Christian sacrifices out of love and obedience to God. George’s sense of duty was to Bedford Falls; ours is to Jesus! Our Lord was the suffering servant; can we be anything less? In spite of the difficulties encountered along the way, when we sacrifice ourselves to God, we will find such joy and peace that we’ll have no need for an angel to show us that it’s been a wonderful life!

All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away. [The motto Peter Bailey’s office in “It’s a Wonderful Life”]

If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross daily, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. [Luke 9:23-24 (NLT)]

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TRUE CHARACTER

I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. [Romans 7:18b-19 (NLT)]

smooth roseYears ago, we were acquainted with “Henry, dear” and “Mary, darling.” We called them that because we never heard them refer to one another any other way. They always were so sweet and charming in public that halos seemed to hover over their heads. My husband and I often wondered what they called one another behind closed doors and, as we got to know them better, we realized our wariness was well-founded. As noble as they appeared in public, there always seemed to be an ulterior motive behind their kindness and, while “Henry, dear” was patting your back, his other hand probably was reaching into your back pocket. While we never knew what they called one another in private, we knew that what the public saw was not what they actually got.

I thought of them the other day when watching A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a movie about Fred Rogers. Having read books both by and about him, there truly was nothing artificial or superficial about the man; what you saw actually was what you got. Rogers once said, “The greatest gift you ever give is your honest self,” and that’s exactly what he did!

Recently, my day began with bad news and sped downhill from there. In my frustration, my words and actions were not those of a “church lady.” I may write Christian devotions but what you see is not always what you get and the Fruit of the Spirit was nowhere to be found on my tree! Whether in public or private, Mr. Rogers’ faith was evident in all that he did or said. Mine, however, frequently gets obscured by my reaction to circumstances beyond my control. Like the Apostle Paul, “I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.” [Romans 7:15]

Both Fred Rogers (and the movie) were clear that, just like the rest of us, he was no saint. The difference is that, while many of us seem to think we can become good people effortlessly, Fred Rogers actually worked at being the very best person that he could be. One of the ways he did that was through self-discipline. He faithfully read the Bible, reflected and prayed every day, and his prayers continued all day long. He was disciplined in the way he cared for his body with healthy habits. He was disciplined about meeting his commitments, remembering his friends, and expressing gratitude. It’s not that he didn’t have emotions; it’s that he was disciplined enough to choose safe outlets for the negative ones. It’s not that he didn’t know any four-letter words; he just was disciplined enough to use words like “mercy, me!” instead of them! Rogers understood that while circumstances may be beyond our control, our reaction to them is not. He was disciplined in his faith, obedient to God, and saw everyone as his neighbor and a valued child of God. He didn’t give lip service to the power of the Holy Spirit; He lived, breathed, trusted and depended on the Spirit.

The difference between the “Henry, dears” and “Mary, darlings” of the world and Fred Rogers is that while they wear masks so they’ll look like good Christians, Mr. Rogers developed the strength of character to be a good Christian! Through self-discipline and the power of the Holy Spirit, he actually became good (or at least a whole lot better than many of us). The church would call that process sanctification. We can’t do it by ourselves and God doesn’t do it for us; rather, it is combining our efforts with God’s power to grow more and more like Christ. Spiritual progress doesn’t happen overnight and sanctification is not a passive process; it requires effort, discipline and obedience. Only then will people be able to say of us, “What you see is what you get!”

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. [Romans 12:1-2 (NLT)]

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CHANGE OF ATTITUDE

If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. [Romans 12:18 (ESV)]

dilophosaurusThere was a bit of a kerfuffle behind us during church last week; it started during the Old Testament reading and continued to the Gospel. As best as I can figure, a bottle of water had leaked onto the pew. The women behind me sat on the damp cushion and made quite a production of detecting, discussing, and complaining about it first to her husband and then to her neighbor (whose water it had been). There was room enough to move down in that pew and plenty of other pews (with dry cushions) available, but the couple never moved. Nevertheless, throughout the rest of the service, I felt the woman’s breath on my neck every time she exhaled another loud sigh of misery.

Upon returning to our pews after receiving Communion, I realized she’d left church rather than go forward for the bread and wine. When her husband returned to the pew, I heard the woman whose water had spilled whisper her heartfelt apology once again. She asked what she could do to make it right. He casually said, “Nothing. Life happens; it was an accident and she has to get over it.” He then confided, “I’m sorry; she doesn’t handle things well.”

I thought of the story of David, Nabal, and Abigail in 1 Samuel 25. David and his men were hiding from King Saul in the wilderness of Maon when they came across Nabal’s shepherds tending his 3,000 sheep and 1,000 goats. Rather than stealing any animals for themselves, David’s men formed a line of protection around the shepherds and animals so that no harm came to them. At sheep shearing time, a time of celebration when the shepherds would get paid, David sent wishes of peace and prosperity to the wealthy Nabal. Explaining that he and his men had warded off both Bedouin raiders and predators, David asked Nabal to share some provisions with his men as payment for their protection. While their services had been unsolicited, David’s request was not unreasonable.

Nabal’s name meant “fool,” and the man lived up to his name; he not only refused but did so by insulting the slayer of Goliath. Upon hearing Nabal’s rude response, the angry David and his army headed out with the intention of killing every man in Nabal’s household. Fortunately, a servant told Nabal’s wife, Abigail, of David’s service and Nabal’s rashness in offending him. The wise woman quickly packed a large quantity of food and wine and went to David. Humbly apologizing for Nabal’s bad manners and offering the provisions to David and his men, she assuaged David’s anger and defused a dangerous situation.

I imagine Abigail frequently had to make amends for her husband’s churlish and stingy behavior and, from the way that husband handled the situation at church, I suspect that he is no stranger to apologizing for his wife’s peevish conduct. Living with someone who makes mountains from molehills, overreacts to minor annoyances, or takes every slight as a personal insult can’t be easy and I immediately prayed for him.

It was not until later that I thought to pray for his wife. It’s easy to pray for the Abigails and Abners—the long-suffering spouses—in situations like that. They have both our admiration and sympathy as they regularly repair any damage left behind by their spouse. After giving it more thought, however, I also prayed for his wife and others like her—the Nabals and Mabels of life. How sad it must be to go through life choosing misery over joy, tightfistedness over generosity, resentment over forgiveness, turmoil over peace, and complaint over praise. May we all be wary of behaving as a Nabal; it didn’t end well for him. When he discovered what his wife had done, Nabal had a stroke and died!

If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. [Maya Angelou]

The vexation of a fool is known at once, but the prudent ignores an insult. …The beginning of strife is like letting out water, so quit before the quarrel breaks out. …Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense. [Proverbs 12:16,17:14,19:11 (ESV)]

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SACRED

And yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, and you are the potter. We all are formed by your hand. [Isaiah 64:8 (NLT)]

What sorrow awaits those who argue with their Creator. Does a clay pot argue with its maker? Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying, “Stop, you’re doing it wrong!” Does the pot exclaim, “How clumsy can you be?” [Isaiah 45:9 (NLT)]

turk's cap lilyI used the Lenox bone china that belonged to my mother and some of the stoneware that belonged to my husband’s grandparents at our Thanksgiving dinner. While the Lenox was special ordered from the city’s finest department store as a wedding gift in 1938, the stoneware was purchased in 1929 at the local five-and-ten-cent store. The ornate gold-rimmed Lenox is translucent and elegant; used only on special occasions, it still looks new after eighty years. The stoneware is opaque, less formal and meant for daily use; having been used every day for more than forty years, a few pieces are chipped or stained. When compared, people might think the Lenox more valuable than the stoneware, but they’d be wrong. Both are equally precious because they tell the story of generations gathering together for good food and fellowship and both sets of china served their specific purposes well.

As I laid out the plates for our holiday dinner, I thought of Isaiah’s words using the metaphor of God as a potter and us as His clay. Do we get to complain that we’re not fancy china with gold trim? Do we feel short-changed if we’re pottery instead of porcelain? We shouldn’t; God created and designed each one of us perfectly for our specific purpose. While our general purpose is to glorify God, each of us has been given a special way to accomplish that goal with our unique personalities, talents and gifts. Some, like the busy Martha, are as practical as Corningware and designed for everyday use while others, like her sister Mary, seem as impractical as the gold-rimmed Lenox that should be hand-washed. All of us, however, are special and, unlike my china, we’re not part of a set. No one else has the exact same pattern; we are one-of-a-kind limited editions!

Although the word “sacred” is usually used in a religious context, anything that is set apart is said to be sacred. For example, motherhood is a sacred calling, Wrigley Field is sacred territory to Cubs’ fans, and, for many, a roast turkey is sacred to Thanksgiving dinner. Something that is sacred can also be said to be consecrated to or belonging to God. In both uses of the word, we are sacred beings. We belong to God and He has set us apart for a specific purpose. As we celebrate our sacred uniqueness, we should be aware of everyone else’s uniqueness, as well. If we have a divine purpose, so do they; if we are sacred, so is everyone else we meet! If God’s thoughts about me are precious, so are His thoughts about my neighbor. Moreover, it’s not just my name that He’s etched into the palm of His hand—everyone’s are!

As we move into this holiday season and deal with the challenges of traffic, crowded malls, long lines at the grocery, short-tempered wait staff and sales clerks, difficult and demanding customers and bosses, meeting impossible deadlines, and the other demands that accompany Christmas, let us look at one another with the eyes of Jesus—eyes that see the sacredness and beauty of each individual, even if they have a few chips or are a little rough around the edges!

Sympathize with each other. Love each other as brothers and sisters. Be tenderhearted, and keep a humble attitude. Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t retaliate with insults when people insult you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God has called you to do, and he will grant you his blessing. [1 Peter 3:8-9 (NLT)]

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CHRISTMAS IS LOVE

mourning dovesLove never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, Doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, Isn’t always “me first,” doesn’t fly off the handle, Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel, Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything. Trusts God always, always looks for the best, Never looks back, but keeps going to the end. [1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (MSG)]

I just received my first Christmas card and letter. While reading about the family’s year of stellar accomplishments and fantastic vacations, I was reminded of my all-time favorite holiday letter. Several years ago, a friend reported that his eldest boy had founded the Young Entrepreneur Club at his high school and was in the process of patenting an investment model based on quantum economics. The middle child had received an award from the Nevada Humane Society for his efforts to find homes for dogs deserted in the desert and the youngest boy had designed a Lego-themed online game and been granted a summer internship at Legoland in California. Amazed by his sons’ achievements, I read on. In the next paragraph, when I read that the boys’ mom had become a cheerleader for the Lingerie Football League, I finally realized the letter was all in fun. Indeed, in the last paragraph, my friend continued with a more accurate depiction of his family.

Remembering his letter got me thinking about the Christmas cards and letters we receive and the social media postings we see. Sometimes they’re no more accurate than my friend’s tongue-in-cheek missive. We’re led to believe that everyone else’s children and grands are future Olympians or Nobel Prize winners, that it never rains on vacations, families never disagree, everyone else’s child is on the honor role, they all entertain like Martha Stewart, pipes never break, toilets never back-up, nobody has any debts, and the family photograph didn’t require hours of preparation and several retakes!

Granted, none of us want to read the gruesome details of someone’s surgery or bout with shingles but let’s never make the mistake of comparing our lives to holiday letters or social media “reality.” It’s not the awards, triumphs, possessions, gourmet meals, or holidays that hold a family together; it’s love.

It’s love that endures a partner who snores, toddler temper tantrums, teen-age angst and rebellion, and gets us through a diagnosis of Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, dirty bathrooms, harsh words, and the loss of a job. It’s love that helps us survive flooded basements, the in-laws, sleepless nights, dirty diapers, piles of laundry, muddy floors, broken arms and broken hearts. Love is what helps with homework, spends hours sitting on hard bleachers cheering a child who plays for three minutes, and forgives the forgotten anniversary or the over-drawn checkbook. That’s love teaching a boy to ride a bike, caring for a handicapped spouse, emptying bedpans, saying “No,” to an addicted daughter, refusing to write a child’s book report for him, waiting up for the high schooler, and grounding him when he’s late. It’s love that doesn’t complain about a scorched shirt, getting hopelessly lost, or a misplaced key. Love attends dance recitals and grade school band concerts, sits for hours at a hospital bedside, and patiently listens to the same story the umpteenth time.

While none of those things are Facebook or holiday letter worthy, they are far more important. As this holiday approaches, let us remember to look further than the cards and letters, decorations, Christmas tree, music, and gifts. Let us remember Christmas is about love: a God who loved the world so much that He gave His only Son so that all who believed in Him would not perish but have eternal life!

Christmas, my child, is love in action. Every time we love, every time we give, it’s Christmas. [Dale Evans Rogers]

Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. [1 John 3:18 (NLT)]

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DOUBT AND UNBELIEF

The secret things belong to the Lord our God; but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.  [Deuteronomy 29:29 (RSV)]

purple coneflowerGod makes Himself known through His creation, His word, and in the still small voice of His Spirit and the things He has revealed to us are what make our faith possible. Nevertheless, there is much that He has not made known to us, which is why faith is necessary. A day will come when our questions will be answered; when that time comes, our hope will turn into reality and what we believe will be seen. But, until then, there will be occasions of doubt. Doubt, however, doesn’t mean we’ve lost our faith; we can’t doubt what we don’t believe!

John Piper likens our faith journey to driving a racecar and doubt to an opponent splashing mud on our windshield. We don’t quit the race because of a little mud; instead, we slow down, turn on the windshield wipers, and clean off the muck! Questioning how the man who’d been nailed to a cross and sealed in a tomb could rise from the dead, the Apostle Thomas had reason for his doubt. Although the others claimed to have seen Jesus, Thomas hadn’t and questioned their claim. Had they seen and touched the wounds in His hands or the gash in His side? Thomas thought he needed that kind of proof to be sure it was Jesus. But, like a good racecar driver, in spite of the mud on his windshield, he didn’t quit the race. Thomas was still with the disciples when, eight days later, Jesus appeared and offered his maimed body to the doubting man. Perhaps, simply hearing the Lord’s voice and seeing Him standing there was all the disciple really needed. We never read of him actually touching Jesus before exclaiming, “My Lord and my God!”

While doubt comes from a troubled spirit and a questioning mind, unbelief is an act of the will. A deliberate choice, unbelief is the opposite of faith! It says, “I hear you, but I choose not to believe you!” The story is told of an atheist and Christian who were debating the existence of God and the truth of Scripture. At the end of their discussion, the atheist asked the Christian, “What happens if you faithfully live your Christian life and, when you die, you discover that you’ve been wrong all this time?” The believer answered, “Having lived a good life of joy and love, I simply will remain dead.” He then asked the atheist, “But, what if I am right and you’re wrong?” The atheist replied, “Then I will have made the greatest mistake of my life!” That mistake will have eternal repercussions!

Faith is a journey and we all will wrestle with doubt along the way, as I did in yesterday’s devotion about evil. “I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!” said the father who asked Jesus to heal his son; I echo his prayer. Jesus doesn’t demand enormous faith before He acts on our behalf. He said a tiny mustard seed of genuine faith is all that we need to move mountains. When moments of doubt occur (and they will), let us continue to pray, “I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!” God, the creator and sustainer of our faith, will give us faith when we ask. He will help clean the spattered mud off the windshield of our car so we can finish the race.

Sometimes we need to go through the foyer of doubt to get into the sanctuary of certainty. [Greg Laurie]

If ours is an examined faith, we should be unafraid to doubt… There is no believing without some doubting, and believing is all the stronger for understanding and resolving doubt. [Os Guinness]

Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” [John 20:29 (RSV)]

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. [Hebrews 11:1 (RSV)]

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