ADMITTING WEAKNESS, ACCEPTING GRACE

Though the Lord is great, he cares for the humble, but he keeps his distance from the proud. [Psalm 138:6 (NLT)]

No one enjoys feeling weak, whether it is emotionally, spiritually or physically. There is something within the human spirit that wants to resist the thought of weakness. Many times this is nothing more than our human pride at work. Just as weakness carries a great potential for strength, pride carries an equally great potential for defeat. [Charles Stanley]

corkscrew swamp sanctuaryHere I am again, with a broken ankle and wearing a knee-high air-boot for the next eight to ten weeks! We have guests visiting next Friday and, since they’re avid gardeners, we’d initially planned on taking them to the Botanic Gardens. Yesterday, I suggested a change in plans since a stroll through the gardens is beyond my walking ability. When my husband suggested pushing me in one of the garden’s wheelchairs, I began protesting until I recalled a similar situation over six years ago when my foolish pride almost prevented me from accepting the help I needed.

That time, another fractured ankle kept us from taking our regular walk through the swamp/bird sanctuary and we were going a bit stir-crazy. When my husband suggested pushing me along the boardwalk in one of their wheelchairs, I recoiled. Unwilling to acknowledge my weakness and need, I protested that only old people and invalids needed wheelchairs (even though I qualified on both counts). My vanity and foolish pride were keeping me from accepting my husband’s offer. After hearing an inner voice whisper, “Silly woman, think again!” I realized how foolish and self-centered I’d been. Eating my pride, I allowed my husband to do for me that which I couldn’t do for myself.

After joking with a little boy in a stroller that my stroller was bigger than his, we stopped to chat with Jack and Mary, an elderly couple we frequently saw there. Every morning (and some afternoons), Jack pushed his frail and ailing wife along the boardwalk. Unlike me, Mary accepted her diagnosis and dependence without complaint. In fact, she radiated peace and joy and her beautiful smile reminded me that I needed an attitude adjustment. I realized how incredibly fortunate we both were to have husbands who loved us enough to push us around the swamp. Both Mary and I were experiencing our husbands’ grace—which simply is love in action! And to think I almost missed that wonderful day (and many more like it) simply because of pride!

Just as I’d resisted my husband’s offer because I pridefully didn’t want to admit my need, we often find ourselves missing out on God’s grace – what Matthew Henry calls “the free, undeserved goodness and favor of God” – for the same reason. With His endless supply of mercy, love, healing, goodness, joy, peace, and forgiveness, there is no limit to God’s grace; it is sufficient for our every need. The only catch is that we must come to Him with a humble and contrite heart willing to admit our need and powerlessness. Pride, however, can keep us from acknowledging our vulnerability or deficiency. Just as I couldn’t make that swamp walk until I admitted I couldn’t do it on my own, none of us can successfully walk through life without accepting and depending on God’s beautiful grace and amazing power. It is only when we admit our weakness that we become strong!

A man does not get grace till he comes down to the ground, till he sees he needs grace. When a man stoops to the dust and acknowledges that he needs mercy, then it is that the Lord will give him grace. [D.L. Moody]

Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong. [2 Corinthians 12:8-10 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

THE PEACE POLE – WORLD PEACE DAY

God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God. [Matthew 5:9 (NLT)]

Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone. … Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good. [Romans 12:18,21 (NLT)]

peace poleCOVID kept us from the Botanic Gardens for well over a year. When we finally returned to one of our favorite places, we came upon a peace pole planted among the palms, bamboo and bromeliads. Although a similar pole is in the city park downtown, I don’t remember seeing one here when last we visited. These poles are just two of the more than 250,000 that have been erected in over 180 nations.  Symbolizing the oneness of humanity, the words “May Peace Prevail on Earth” are written in eight different languages. The languages chosen for this pole were English, Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Hawaiian, Hindi, Japanese, and Spanish—the languages of people who, like us, live at the 26th parallel north. Peace poles stand as a visual reminder to pray for peace on earth and to think, speak and act in the spirit of harmony and peace.

Forty years ago, the United Nations designated today as the annual International Day of Peace (commonly called World Peace Day). In 2011, the General Assembly unanimously voted to designate it as a day of cease-fire and non-violence. They ask every person and nation to halt hostilities and fighting for this one twenty-four-hour period. Unfortunately, I doubt the world can make one hour, let alone twenty-four, without aggression, hostility and bloodshed. Hopefully, you and I can go longer than twenty-four hours without conflict or violent behavior!

The causes of world conflict are many and, according to the UN, include poverty, social inequality, hunger, dwindling natural resources, water scarcity, environmental decline, disease, corruption, racism, and xenophobia (an intense fear of foreigners). This year’s theme, “Recovering Better for an Equitable and Sustainable World,” continues the UN’s focus on finding ways to overcome those causes. Indeed, as our world struggles to recover from what seems to be a never-ending pandemic, we can see how the underprivileged and marginalized have been hit the hardest. In the last eighteen months, we have seen both the best and the worst of our fellow travelers on this planet. This day is a reminder that instead of fighting with one another, we should join in fighting mankind’s common enemies!

As Christians, we have the peace of God—the peace that passes understanding—but we must be more than possessors of peace. Jesus calls us to be makers of peace but erecting a peace pole is not enough! We can start by bringing peace to our little corner of the world, beginning at home and then moving on to work, school, church and community. Our peacemaking efforts, however, can’t stop at the borders of our neighborhood or even our nation. We must take Christ’s message of peace out into the world by thinking, speaking, and acting in the cause of peace. While we each have an obligation to improve the various conditions that promote conflict, changing people’s circumstances is just a beginning. For true peace, the peace that is found in a relationship with God, we must change people’s hearts.

World peace, while a lofty goal, is not something I expect to see in my lifetime. Nevertheless, we each must do our part.

We hear much of love to God; Christ spoke much of love to man. We make a great deal of peace with heaven; Christ spoke much of peace on earth. [Henry Drummond]

I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity. [1 Timothy 2:1-2 (NLT)]

But 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)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

FARMA – Part 3

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?” He said to them, “An enemy has done this.” [Matthew 13:24-28 (ESV)]

sunflowerWhile we usually reap what we sow, we also can receive unexpected and undeserved harvests! When we lived in the north, courtesy of God and nature, wildflower seeds took root in the field next to our house and Spiderwort, Sunflowers, Dame’s Rocket, and Wild Bergamot grew there without any effort on my part. Although I hadn’t sowed them, I never protested those beautiful wildflowers; I just thanked God for them. None of us are likely to complain to God about the many undeserved blessings He regularly bestows on us!

While we certainly don’t object when we get a harvest of blossoms, we’re sure to protest when we receive an unexpected (and seemingly undeserved) harvest of life’s thistles. Like the farmer who sowed high-quality seeds only to discover weeds growing in his field, we were distressed the year we discovered our beautiful field of wildflowers had been invaded by thistles. Although we hadn’t planted the invasive weeds, the unwelcome thistles were there!

Shortly before his eviction from Eden, Adam was told that the ground would yield thistles and thorns along with grain. That warning was both literal and figurative. Satan will spread his seeds wherever and whenever the opportunity arises and the enemy’s seeds of evil can invade people’s lives no matter how many good seeds they’ve sown. We can sow the seeds of love and fidelity but still be betrayed by an unfaithful spouse, we can work carefully and industriously but get downsized, we can drive cautiously and courteously but get hit by a drunk driver, and, even though we pray for and love our enemy, he may continue to hate us!

While we should expect more of the same when we sow thistle seeds, we’re perplexed when we’ve sown seeds of righteousness and get things like misfortune, difficulty, suffering, or loss. That’s the enemy assaulting us and we can’t allow his seeds of hatred, anger, resentment, doubt, or violence to take root in our hearts. Rather than wonder why, our job is simply to faithfully tend our fields and keep sowing seeds of righteousness. When the time is right, God will take care of the weeds and we’ll be part of a wonderful harvest.

If I ask, “Why me?” about my troubles, I would have to ask, “Why me?” about my blessings. … I take the good with the bad, and I try to face them both with as much calm and dignity as I can muster. [Arthur Ashe]

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. [1 Corinthians 15:58 (ESV)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

THE RAINBOW’S END

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:38-39 (NLT)]

rainbowDays bled into weeks, weeks into months, and every day seemed the same for much of the last eighteen months. Life became a series of postponements, rebookings, cancelations, setbacks, inconveniences, letdowns, and disappointments. Visiting Grandma meant waving at her through a window, final farewells were FaceTime calls on a nurse’s cell phone, and we mourned from a distance while attending celebrations of life virtually. Weddings were postponed, family reunions put on hold, shut-downs and travel restrictions kept loved ones apart, theaters and concert halls went dark, vacations were delayed, businesses closed, jobs were lost, and junior year abroad became junior year on Zoom.

Many of us had something specific to which we looked forward in the COVID-free future. It was anticipation of that reward that helped sustain us through the dreary months. When vaccines rolled out and numbers dropped, we began to think the end was in sight and we finally saw the end of the rainbow! Plans resumed for family reunions, the delayed semester abroad, or the cruise of a lifetime. Vacations were scheduled, wedding venues rebooked, businesses set dates for returning to the office, and nursing homes and hospitals again allowed visitors. With the surge in cases and the return of restrictions, however, many of those plans have been pushed back yet again or cancelled altogether. We’re frustrated and disappointed because the future we hoped for isn’t the one we got!

In C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape strategizes with his nephew Wormwood on methods of capturing a young man’s soul. The senior demon suggests using time as a weapon. Screwtape explains that the “enemy” (God) wants man to focus on only two times: eternity (which means attending to God) or the present in meditation, obedience, service, receiving grace, or giving thanks. Having found tempting someone to live in the past to be of “limited value,” Screwtape advises a far better approach is to tempt the man to attend to the future. God, he says, “does not want men to give the future their hearts, to place their treasure in it,” but the demons definitely do! He adds that, “We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end.” Rather than being faithful, kind, happy, or thankful in the present, the demons want people to miss the gifts of the present day while looking for them in the future. “Gratitude,” says Screwtape, “looks to the past and love to the present,” but, the demon adds, it is things like fear, desire, greed, materialism, and ambition that look to the future.

As Christians, we can’t let our disappointment in the future we’d anticipated dominate our life or cause us to lose hope. Keeping our eyes on the real hope found in eternity with God, let’s not allow our disappointment in tomorrow steal today’s joy. As followers of Jesus, we live with a hope that isn’t dependent on pandemics, positivity rates, restrictions, weather, or finances because we know how the story ends. Yes, we’re disappointed now but, ultimately, we won’t be disappointed by what God has waiting for us.

Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.  [Mother Teresa]

That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. [2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

TOO HEAVY

My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts. [Isaiah 55:8-9 (NLT)]

mockingbirdAfter Jane Marczweski’s stunning performance on America’s Got Talent last June, I posted a devotion (It’s Okay) about her. Known as Nightbirde, the 30-year-old vocalist (and three-time cancer survivor) sang an original song called “It’s Okay” and received the “golden buzzer” from judge Simon Cowell. Last week, the brave young woman had to withdraw from the competition because her health has taken a turn for the worse. In an interview on CNN with Chris Cuomo, she shared that her metastatic breast cancer has now invaded both lungs and liver and her fight with cancer is demanding all of her energy and attention.

When we see a young person like Nightbirde, a beautiful person both inside and out who seems so deserving of good future, it’s easy to ask the age-old question of “Why?” Why do some of the best people, the ones with the most to offer, seem to suffer the most or have their futures cut short when many of the worst and worthless seem to breeze along without a problem? Why, when life begins to look up does God so often pull out the rug? “Life doesn’t always give breaks to those that deserve it,” said the singer while adding, “but we knew that already.” Indeed, we did; nevertheless, we don’t like it!

When Cuomo asked Nightbirde if she ever wonders, “Why?” the young woman replied, “I try not to occupy myself with questions that are too big for myself to answer. It’s a waste of time. You know, just because it’s a mystery doesn’t mean it’s the absence of meaning. Sometimes, the mystery means there is more meaning there than we can even understand and so I accept that and I let go of the question because it’s too heavy.”

Indeed, much in our lives seems inexplicable and far beyond our comprehension. But, as the young singer pointed out, incomprehensible or unknowable doesn’t mean meaningless or pointless. It’s a mystery why Nightbirde’s promising future probably will be cut short; then again, it’s a mystery why my mother died when I was fifteen, why my brother was struck with inoperable cancer at the moment his life finally took an upturn after years of trouble, and why the God-fearing believers on my prayer list have been burdened with things like mesothelioma, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, MS, schizophrenia, and chronic pain. This young woman’s words remind us all that our lack of understanding of God’s purpose doesn’t mean that what happens is without meaning.

I can’t understand quantum physics any more than I can understand the ways of God. The difference between the two is that, given enough time, effort, and tutoring, I eventually could understand quantum physics but I will never be able to fully understand God. While we can come to know and love Him, we never will be able to comprehend His mysterious ways. Indeed, some questions are so weighty that we’d never make sense of God’s answer even if He explained it to us!

This optimistic young woman says she’s planning for her future rather than her legacy and says, “I want to be the bird that sings in anticipation of the good things that I trust are coming.” As a Christian, Nightbirde doesn’t need to ask God “Why?” because she knows good things are coming, whether in this world or the next!

Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways! For who can know the Lord’s thoughts? Who knows enough to give him advice? And who has given him so much that he needs to pay it back? For everything comes from him and exists by his power and is intended for his glory. All glory to him forever! Amen. [Romans 11:33-36 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

IN THE FIRE – Polycarp (Part 1)

Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. [Isaiah 43:1-2 (ESV)]

athabasca falls - canadaHaving refused to bow down and worship Nebuchadnezzar’s gold statue, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego bravely stood before the king. Even when offered a second opportunity to save themselves from incineration in the blazing furnace, the young men were confident the Lord they loved more than life itself would save them. “But, even if he doesn’t,” they added in what are some of the most heroic words in Scripture, “We will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.” Furious at their refusal, the king had them tied up and tossed like logs into the fiery furnace—a fire so hot that the soldiers who threw the men into the furnace were killed. The men’s faith was well-founded; in spite of their bindings, they could be seen walking about freely in the flames (with an angel of the Lord) and the three emerged unscathed from the inferno.

Because they wouldn’t worship the emperor, Christians were considered disloyal to Rome. Moreover, Romans feared that the Christians’ refusal to make sacrifices to their various gods would cause disaster to fall upon the nation. Hated by the Romans, Christianity was considered an “illegal superstition” until 313 AD. Polycarp (ca. 69-155 AD), who was said to have been taught by the Apostle John, was appointed by some of the original apostles as bishop of Smyrna. Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the bishop was arrested and faced a choice between God and incineration.

Like Nebuchadnezzar, the Roman Proconsul offered his prisoner a second chance and promised to set Polycarp free if he would curse Christ, declare Caesar as Lord, and offer a bit of incense to Caesar’s statue. Even though Polycarp knew his refusal to deny Jesus meant he’d be burned at the stake, he said, “86 years have I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” When the soldiers prepared to nail him to the stake, the old man stopped them by saying, “Leave me as I am. For he who grants me to endure the fire will enable me also to remain on the pyre unmoved, without the security you desire from nails.” Did the bishop think he might escape death as did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? If so, he was seriously mistaken. Unlike them, he died a martyr’s death.

In the first story, three men walked out of a furnace untouched by fire and, in the second, an equally righteous man, died at the stake. Nevertheless, both stories illustrate faith—people’s faith in God and God’s faithfulness to His people and both stories are a call for all of God’s people to be faithful witnesses to Him. All four men clearly exhibited their faith in God by refusing to bow down to anything or anyone but God and all four men are examples of being faithful witnesses to God. Obviously, in the case of the fiery furnace, God showed his faith in His people with the men’s supernatural escape from death; even Nebuchadnezzar recognized that God’s angel had rescued the men. But, since no angel saved Polycarp from the flames, how can his story demonstrate God’s faithfulness to his people?

God showed his faith in His people more than a century earlier when He offered His one and only son so that all who believed in Him would not perish, but have everlasting life. Polycarp knew God already had demonstrated His love and faith through Jesus; whether he lived or died, Polycarp knew there was nothing to fear. “You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and is then extinguished, but you know nothing of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly,” warned the bishop before courageously adding, “Bring on whatever you want.” Could we do the same?

You can kill us, but you cannot harm us. [Justin Martyr]

And just as each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment, so also Christ was offered once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him. [Hebrews 9:27-28 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.