HOPE

It is the same way with the resurrection of the dead. Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. [1 Corinthians 15:42-43 (NLT)]

lake lucerne sailboatThe anchor, the Christian symbol of hope, is the most prevalent of all the Christian symbols found in the Roman catacombs. In fact, all of the symbols, paintings, mosaics, and reliefs found in the miles of labyrinth-like narrow tunnels and thousands of graves in the catacombs reflect hope in some way. Instead of the dark funereal images you might expect in an underground cemetery, the white walls of the Christian catacombs feature living things like flowers and birds along with Bible stories expressing hope in God’s plan of salvation. Prominent themes from the Old Testament include Daniel emerging untouched from the lions’ den and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego exiting unharmed from the fiery furnace. Frequently depicted are the stories of Noah, who escaped from the flood, and Jonah who was delivered from the sea monster. Continuing the theme of deliverance are many images of the good shepherd so frequently mentioned in Psalms. New Testament stories usually showed Jesus raising the dead (with over fifty representations of Lazarus), healing people, and feeding the multitude. The art of the catacombs is all about man’s hope in God’s deliverance, provision, and plan of salvation.

As I read about the displays of hope found in this ancient place of grief and death, I thought of my mother’s final days. I was only fifteen when I sat at her hospital bedside. Even though she knew her end was near, my mother had no tears. Instead of worry or fear, she radiated a sense of peace and hope. I recall my father reaching under the plastic of her oxygen tent, brushing back her hair, caressing her face, and saying, “You look like an angel tonight.” Indeed, no angel could have been more beautiful that she was that night. My mother smiled back at him and said in a voice filled with hope, “Maybe tomorrow, I’ll be with them!” She could say those words so confidently because my mother was a believer and, like those early Roman Christians, she knew Jesus and trusted the promises of God.

The stories and symbols found in those ancient catacombs remind us that, for a Christian, death is not something to fear. Going beyond the here and now, Christian hope reaches past the grave into the glorious tomorrow promised by God! Death, for a Christian is not an end but a beginning; it is like emerging from the trials of a lion’s den, fiery furnace, or whale’s belly unharmed. When that last breath is taken, the Christian simply pulls up anchor and sets sail for a new land—one where tears, pain, and sorrow are replaced by peace, joy, and praise. That is the hope seen in the art found in the catacombs of Rome and the hope I saw firsthand in a Detroit hospital room nearly sixty years ago.

Death to the Christian is the exchanging of a tent for a permanent palace. Here we are as pilgrims or gypsies living in a frail, flimsy home subject to disease, pain and peril. But at death we exchange this crumbling, disintegrating tent for a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. [Billy Graham]

And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. [Romans 8:23 (NLT)]

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FILL THE TANK

Hungry and thirsty, they nearly died. “Lord, help!” they cried in their trouble, and he rescued them from their distress. … Let them praise the Lord for his great love and for the wonderful things he has done for them. For he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things. [Psalm 107:5-6,8-9 (NLT)]

Trumbull cemetery - OhioMy father had what’s often described as a Type-A personality. An impatient workaholic, he always took on more than he could handle. Life, for him, was one crucial task after another, none of which anyone else could do, at least not correctly. Always in a hurry, he never wanted to stop for anything, even when his gas gauge read precariously close to empty. Something more pressing always took precedence over a brief stop for gas. As a result, his car was often left on the roadside while he trudged off with a gas can to find the nearest service station. Instead of saving time, his refusal to stop cost him time. Living that way actually cost him his life; he died of a massive coronary at the age of fifty-six. It’s often been said that your in-box still will be full when you die and, indeed, his was. None of us can accomplish everything on our to-do list and we may well destroy both our relationships and ourselves while trying.

Unlike my father, most of us will stop at a gas station when our cars need fuel. Having spent hours stranded on country roads waiting for my father to return with a can of gasoline, my gas tank is never less than half full. But, like my father, I’m not always so careful about keeping my spiritual tank full. No matter how organized I try to be, my to-do list seems to get longer while the days remaining get shorter. Sometimes, I feel like I’m just running on fumes and I don’t think I’m the only one!

Unfortunately, just as my father ignored his gas gauge, we often ignore signs like anger, worry, sadness, impatience, and temper that tell us our supply of spiritual fruit is dangerously low. It often takes a squabble, blow-up or crisis before we finally stop and refuel with God. Of course, the wiser choice is to top off our tanks with daily prayer and meditation so we never run low!

When asked about his plans for the following day, it’s been said that theologian, professor, author, Bible translator, reformer, pastor, husband and father Martin Luther replied: “Work, work from early until late. In fact, I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” If we’re too busy to stop for gas, we’re busier than we should be. Martin Luther knew that, if we’re too busy to pray, we’re busier than God wants us to be.

Heavenly Father, sometimes we allow the challenges of everyday life to keep us from spending time with you and we run precariously low of the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control your Spirit so graciously provides. Help us accept that we can’t do it all and that there will always be another task waiting right around the corner. Guide our priorities, Lord so that you’re on the top of our to-do list every day. Remind us that you are all we really need and help us see a brighter tomorrow in your promises. Lead us to that peaceful place of your presence. Refresh and renew us and let your Holy Spirit fill us up again.

No one ever said at the end of his days, “I have read my Bible too much, I have thought of God too much, I have prayed too much, I have been too careful with my soul. [J.C. Ryle]

The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need. He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams. He renews my strength. He guides me along right paths, bringing honor to his name. [Psalm 23:1-3 (NLT)]

I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit. [Romans 15:13 (NLT)]

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FOLLOWING HIM

Then, calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me.” [Mark 8:34 (NLT)]

cross country skiingOur pastor recently did a sermon series called “Following Jesus” which reminded me of our first time backcountry skiing in Colorado more than forty years ago. As novices, we knew enough not to venture into the wilderness by ourselves so we hired Wyatt to be our guide. Insisting we delay our trek several days until we’d acclimated to the high altitude and were ready for such a trip, he gave us a long list of items we had to carry in our packs. When I asked why we needed all the survival gear along with additional food, water, and clothing, he said we had to be prepared to spend the night. Protesting that I didn’t want to spend the night out in the cold and snow, he explained, “Neither do I, but we better be prepared to do it.”

Before starting out, Wyatt examined our backpacks to make sure we had everything on his list. Our packs were heavy but his was much heavier with a tent, extra ski tips, ax, first aid kit, shovel, and more. Because falling in several feet of Colorado powder is far different than falling in a few inches of Midwest snow, Wyatt insisted on teaching us a new way of getting up after a fall and made us practice the technique several times before we began.

Once we got started, Wyatt did the hard part by breaking trail in the deep snow and keeping us clear of any slopes posing avalanche danger. To allow us to fully experience the wilderness, we waited until the skier ahead was just out of sight before starting out. Winding our way through both open meadows and woods in this great expanse of white, we would have been hopelessly lost if we hadn’t been following Wyatt’s tracks. Without seeing each other, I felt alone in the wilderness but I never was. Wyatt frequently stopped to check on us and made us rest and hydrate before continuing. We followed his tracks to a picturesque spot for lunch where he showed us how to stomp out a place for a fire and use our skis as chairs. As pleasant as our lunch in the forest was, Wyatt didn’t let us linger too long since he wanted us back to our car before dusk.

Late that afternoon, some tired but happy skiers made their way back toward the road. Just as we caught sight of our car, a winter storm blew in and, by the time we’d stowed our gear, our tracks were completely covered by snow. Caught in that unexpected whiteout, I finally understood why Wyatt had insisted we be prepared to spend the night in the mountains. Had we started out a half hour later, lingered over lunch, or skied back a little slower, we would have been caught in the blinding storm and might well have spent the night on the mountain. Without his guidance, what should have been a delightful day up on the pass could have had a bad ending but, because we followed a good guide, we returned safely home that night.

Even though Wyatt merely guided us on a high mountain pass and Jesus guides us through life, I can’t help but see parallels between following a mountain guide and following Jesus. In either case, we must recognize our inability to make the journey on our own and submit to the guide’s directions, requirements, and timeline. Both prepare us for the challenges ahead, point out hazards, teach us new skills, and never take us beyond our ability. Knowing we’ll fall, they show us how to get up again and, while we may carry a heavy pack, they carry the heaviest one and do most of the work. Keeping us from danger, both mountain guide and Jesus lead the way so we can follow in their footsteps. Even when we feel alone and can’t see them, we can have faith in both guide and Jesus, secure in the knowledge that neither will ever abandon us. Although they’ll make us rest, they’ll urge us on when we should get moving. Most important, just as our choice to follow Wyatt meant the difference between a good or bad outcome, our choice to follow Jesus means the difference between life and death.

There are, of course, some major differences between a mountain guide and Jesus. Even a guide as experienced as Wyatt can get lost but Jesus never will! To Wyatt, we were just paying customers but, to Jesus, we are beloved friends and children of God! Jesus wants us to follow Him, weather every storm, and arrive safely home not because it’s His job, but because He loves us! Through the years, we took several more backcountry tours until we learned enough to venture into the wilderness without a guide but we know that we’ll never be skilled enough to journey through life without following Jesus!

Hang this question up in your homes – “What would Jesus do?” and then think of another – “How would Jesus do it?” For what Jesus would do, and how He would do it, may always stand as the best guide to us. [Charles Spurgeon]

The Lord says, “I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you. [Psalm 32:8 (NLT)]

Show me the right path, O Lord; point out the road for me to follow. Lead me by your truth and teach me, for you are the God who saves me. All day long I put my hope in you. [Psalm 25:4-5 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

WORRYWARTS

Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life. [Philippians 4:6-7 (MSG)]

Here’s a little song I wrote, You might want to sing it note for note,
Don’t worry, be happy. In every life we have some trouble
But when you worry you make it double. Don’t worry, be happy,
Don’t worry, be happy now. [Bobby McFerrin]

water lily“Don’t worry, be happy,” sang Bobby McFerrin. Right now, for many of us, that’s easier sung than done. This pandemic has turned our lives upside down. Between rising numbers of COVID cases and concern about on-line schooling, money troubles, closing businesses, political divisiveness, and quarantining, it’s hard not to worry!

The word “worry” comes from the old English wyrgan meaning “to strangle” which led to the Middle English meaning “to slay, kill or injure by biting and shaking the throat” (as a dog or wolf might to a lamb). By the 17th century, the verb “worry” also meant “to bother, distress or persecute” and, by the 19th century, the noun meant “anxiety arising from cares or troubles.” All of these meanings ring true. Worry can strangle us with fear and indecision or seize and tear us apart by destroying our confidence, health and relationships. With the ferocity of a wolf, it can intimidate us, attack our plans, shake our faith, and hound our every thought. Fretfulness, sleepless nights, stress, and angst—all come from worry.

While “worrywart” is often used to describe someone who worries excessively by dwelling on the possibility of trouble or difficulty, it originally meant something else entirely. In 1922, Out Our Way, a comic strip depicting rural American life drawn by J.R. Williams, made its debut and a recurring character was the Worry Wart, a young boy (who frequently was accompanied by his mangy dog). Worry Wart wasn’t a worrier; instead, he was a pest who frustrated and worried his parents. Oblivious to the world around him, his schemes and foolhardy actions annoyed others and caused them anxiety!

The term “worrywart” may have gotten its present meaning in 1956 when it was used by Ivan Belknap in a book outlining problems in state mental hospitals. “Worrywart” was used to describe a particularly delusional kind of patient who’d abandoned all reasonable thinking. We don’t have to be patients in an asylum to abandon reasonable thinking; all we have to do is worry! With worry, a simple problem can turn into a major disaster and fill our minds with all sorts of horrible and improbable scenarios. Worse, because our worry often causes those around us their own stress and anxiety, we become as disruptive and bothersome as the original Worry Wart. Worry doesn’t just drive us crazy; because it’s as contagious as measles or COVID, it drives everyone around us crazy, too!

Every day we have a choice; trust God or worry. When we’re unwilling to trust Him to handle things, worry is the inevitable result. Since worry does nothing but steal our joy and rob us of a good night’s sleep, trust seems the better choice. Trusting God with the future, however, means ceding control of tomorrow (and every day after) to Him. That’s difficult if we secretly harbor the belief that we are the ones running the universe. Fortunately, we’re not—that’s God’s job, and His alone. Today, let’s hand Him our worries and choose to trust Him with our concerns.

Father, keep us from worry and from causing others to grow anxious. Lighten our heavy hearts and the hearts of those around us. Help us all to surrender our concerns, burdens and fears to you. Fill us with your peace.

Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow; it empties today of its strength [Corrie ten Boom]

For peace of mind, resign as general manager of the universe. [Larry Eisenberg]

People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes. [Matthew 6:32-34 (MSG)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

THE SLANDERED (Psalms of Ascent – Part 2)

wild phloxRescue me, O Lord, from liars and from all deceitful people. … How I suffer in far-off Meshech. It pains me to live in distant Kedar. I search for peace; but when I speak of peace, they want war! [Psalm 120:2,5-6 (NLT)]

When we are slandered it is a joy that the Lord knows us, and cannot be made to doubt our uprightness he will not hear the lie against us, but he will hear our prayer against the lie. [Charles Spurgeon]

While many of the fifteen psalms designated A Song of Ascents display the sense of joy and pride in Israel that we’d expect from people returning to their homeland, a few express distress, looming peril, or trials. One such psalm is the first in the collection: Psalm 120. It is the individual lament of someone who seems to have become the victim of slander—the prayer of someone who is surrounded by warlike people.

While I’ve never been the victim of slander, I have a friend who was. His reputation was deliberately damaged by falsehoods, misrepresentations, and innuendo. Until I studied this psalm, I don’t think I truly understood how isolated and defenseless he must have felt. Like the psalmist, he longed for peace but felt like a stranger in the midst of a hostile nation.

The psalmist expresses his distress at such deceit and pleads for relief. He then describes the destiny of the liar’s tongue: being pierced by fiery arrows, like those used in sieges to set places on fire. This is a bit of irony since Scripture frequently likens deceivers’ tongues to a bow that shoots out harmful words. In effect, the psalmist is asking that his enemies receive a dose of their own medicine! Having shot their vindictive words at him, in a bit of divine justice, God will shoot his own flaming arrows of judgment at them!

What follows is a lament about living in both Meshech and Kedar among people who hate peace. The psalmist is speaking figuratively since these pagan nations were in opposite directions and he couldn’t be in both places at once. The people of both nations, however, were ferocious and aggressive barbarians. Living among the ungodly—people who prefer war to peace—the psalmist feels like an outsider. The psalm’s final line expresses the psalmist’s desire for peace and the deceitful people’s desire for war. Maligned and slandered by people who wanted to make his life difficult, the psalmist asks the Lord for peace, for His shalom.

It’s easy to wonder why such a psalm would be among this collection of hopeful and encouraging psalms until we realize that, unlike most psalms, this one is somewhat backwards. Instead of beginning by stating his plight and following with a plea for deliverance, the psalmist begins by telling us that God already has answered his prayer. From the first verse, we know that the Lord has dealt with the problem and delivered him from his enemies. Rather than a lament, this is a psalm of thanksgiving. The psalmist found refuge and peace in a hostile world because God answered his prayers. Let us take comfort knowing that we have a God who answers our prayers!

When we fight our battles on our knees, we win every time. [Charles F. Stanley]

I took my troubles to the Lord; I cried out to him, and he answered my prayer. [Psalm 120:1 (NLT)]

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RAINBOWS OF JOY (Part 3)

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

rainbow at sunrise

While Joshua thought his 48-hour day was long, for most of us, these last seven months have seemed like a year. Unlike Joshua, we’ll need more than another 24 hours before declaring victory on the enemy. Back in March, I naively thought life would be back to normal about now. By the time May rolled around, I realized that what first seemed like a marathon run had turned into an Ironman triathlon. I now see it more as a grueling trek along the Pacific Crest or Appalachian Trails. It’s been a long haul with steep hills and dark valleys; without the end in sight, we’re growing weary and morale is low.

Be that as it may, it’s not all bad and there’s been some “trail magic” along the way. Trail magic is a term long-distance hikers have for those unexpected experiences along the trail that inspire awe or lift their spirits. It can be nature’s gifts like a rainbow after a day of rain, a field of wildflowers, or seeing a doe with her fawn on the trail. It also can be a kindness like an encouraging note or a cache of soda or candy bars left beside the trail. Rather than trail magic, a friend who’s been working from home since last March calls these moments “little rainbows of joy.” For her, one such rainbow has been having the opportunity to finally teach her 12-year old how to ride a bike and being able to take a daily ride with him.

A pastor friend found a rainbow of joy in in her new normal because it’s meant having more time with her children than she’s had in years. Another pastor friend finally found the time to adopt a dog. A corporate attorney, whose busy schedule had her on the train by 6:50 AM, expressed her joy at being home and able to make breakfast for her family (they love her French toast). An accountant friend finally had time to share his love of woodworking with his children and show them how to use tools. My son has been teaching his daughter how to use the sewing machine (and admits that reading blueprints is easier than sewing patterns). His wife has discovered a love of baking; she and the children have made some fantastic cakes. People are again finding time to fish, hike, bake bread, play games with one another, and garden.

There are rainbows of joy in the technology that allows on-line church, concerts, Bible studies, doctor’s appointments, book clubs, and even virtual happy hours with colleagues. Grandparents are playing Yahtzee or reading bedtime stories to their grands courtesy of Zoom or FaceTime. We’ve been reconnecting with old friends via email, phone calls, or video chatting. There was even a bit of trail magic in the Celebration of Life I attended last week. Even without COVID, the distance would have meant I couldn’t be there but, because of Vimeo, I could. A family member who couldn’t attend had her own trail magic when two eagles landed on a tree outside the window while On Eagle’s Wings was sung during her mother’s memorial. There are sprinkles of joy scattered throughout even our hardest days.

We are told to be thankful in all circumstances but it’s hard to be thankful unless we find some joy hidden in those circumstances. Regardless of what you call these blessed moments, the key is to find them in the midst of the darkness and challenges surrounding us. They’re found by lowering our expectations from the impressive to the inconsequential but beautiful experiences found in our everyday lives. They’re found by celebrating our little successes—whether it’s making spring rolls or pizza dough from scratch, finishing a 500-piece puzzle or building a bird house, defeating your spouse in a game of Rummikub or seeing a rainbow on the morning’s walk. Let us open our eyes and find the joy that is hidden in this long journey through COVID-19.

The unthankful heart… discovers no mercies; but let the thankful heart sweep through the day and, as the magnet finds the iron, so it will find, in every hour, some heavenly blessings! [Henry Ward Beecher]

This is the Lord’s doing, and it is wonderful to see. This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it. [Psalm 118:23-24 (NLT)]

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