WALKING IN HOPE

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” [Revelation 21:3-4 [(NLT)]

dawnMy Advent devotional suggested taking a prayer walk while looking for signs of hope. I took my regular route and, since I often pray while walking, I wasn’t sure how this walk would be different. Nevertheless, I went in search of hope. The first thing I noticed was the sun rising in the east—a sure sign of hope with its promise of a new day and all of its possibilities. I spotted a family of ducks waddling down to the pond. The five youngsters were no longer little yellow fluffs of feathers but mama duck still kept her eyes on them. Mothers of every species hope to keep their children safe—even when they’re no longer children! I noticed the lilies, canna, and arrowhead that had been planted at waters’ edge last spring to prevent shoreline erosion. They were starting to bear their first flowers—another sign of hope because it means they took root and will serve their purpose. A few people had decorated their houses for the holiday; since not all the décor was secular, I found hope that some people still keep Christ in Christmas. Further on, a patient great blue heron stood absolutely still, neck fully extended, hoping to catch a tasty fish breakfast. It reminded me that we must remain patient in our hope—all things in God’s time. Seeing a few wood storks wading in the water also was a hopeful sign; once an “endangered” breed, their status has been upgraded to “threatened,” meaning there is hope for the survival of their species.

Since this was a prayer walk, I went through my prayer list of hope-filled prayers for what could be called happy endings—things like a successful surgery, passing grades, reconciliation, recovery from illness, sobriety, a new job, successful endeavors, the sale of a house, safe travels, a problem solved, and an obstacle surmounted. Sadly, for some of the names on my list, happy endings on this side of the grass don’t seem likely. Modern-day Jobs, the cards they’re holding are bad ones. Unlike Job who got a better hand in a re-deal and ended up with more than he’d had before, they appear stuck in their dismal situations with no new cards in sight. Barring a miracle, their circumstances aren’t likely to improve. In 1 Corinthians 13, the Apostle Paul mentions the three things that last forever: faith, hope and love. He calls love the greatest of the three; perhaps hope is the hardest.

Wondering about the purpose of my hope walk, I thought back to the day’s Advent readings from Revelation and Isaiah. Advent hope isn’t a wishful thinking/finger-crossing kind of hope, like hoping the pathologist’s report says “benign.” It’s more than hoping a good outcome for something about which we’re unsure. Our hope is in God and He’s already promised us a better future. Advent hope is knowing that, in spite of our circumstances, God eventually will work it all together for our good. While we hope for deliverance from our present troubles, we know that, ultimately, we will be delivered. Our hope isn’t in situations, people, medicine, or the stock market and we don’t need a knight in shining armor to rescue us from our woes. Our hope is in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit! Whether the hand dealt to us looks hopeless or not, we continue to maintain Advent hope by looking away from our circumstances to the One who holds our lives in His hands.

Our hope is in Immanuel, which means “God is with us”! He is with us in our birth and death, sickness and health, joy and sorrow, good times and bad. Let us remember that, if He is with us, then we are with Him—in His resurrection, ascension, and the glory of His second coming!

Optimism and hope are radically different attitudes. Optimism is the expectation that things—the weather, human relationship, the economy, the political situation, and so on—will get better. Hope is trust that God will fulfill God’s promises to us in a way that leads us to true freedom. [Henri Nouwen]

The Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’). [Isaiah 7:14 (NLT)]

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BEING GRATEFUL FOR WHAT WE HAVE – THANKSGIVING DAY 2019

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? [Matthew 16:24-26 (ESV)]

great blue heron with snake“As an inmate on death row, I am under many restrictions,” began the writer of my morning’s devotion. Realizing that he’d constantly been asking God for more, the prisoner prayed that God would help him be more grateful for what he already had. Curious about the author, a quick internet search told me that thirteen years ago he was convicted on one count of burglary and two of first-degree murder. His brutal crime was premeditated, there was no question of his guilt and one could say he was “as guilty as sin;” then again, so are we all! It was in prison that he found Jesus.

I pondered how a man, awaiting lethal injection, would choose to pray that God would help him be more grateful. Having lost his appeal to the state Supreme Court, wouldn’t he have some more pressing requests? Nevertheless, after praying for more gratitude, the inmate wrote of smelling the aroma of soup and being thankful that he had soup to satisfy his hunger. Mind you, that was prison food for which he was thankful, not a gourmet dinner! Writing that he sensed God’s pleasure at his gratitude, he understood that God had given him all he really needed and would continue to meet his needs; he was content with that knowledge.

Recently, a friend told me of her morning’s prayers. Although she has plenty more for which to be grateful than an inmate on death row, she was far from content. Admitting to a litany of complaints and entreaties, she was in the midst of her petitions when she distinctly heard the Spirit’s voice: “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” Immediately seeing that her way clearly was not God’s, the tenor of her prayers changed. Realizing that she had all she truly needed, she stopped fixating on what she lacked; gratitude and praise replaced her grievances and appeals.

Perhaps, because there are so many restrictions on what he can do and have, the death row inmate truly understands the rest of today’s verse: “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” His prison job earns him less than $3 an hour and he lives in a cell furnished with only a sink, toilet, bed, and wall-mounted writing table. With two officers monitoring him at all times, he has no privacy. Although he is allowed one visit (with no more than two visitors) per week, no physical contact is permitted. In prison until his execution or he dies of old age, he has already lost most of his life. There is little that he can hold on to but his soul. Perhaps, having so little, it was easier for him to give what little he had left to God.

If we took serious inventory, the vast majority of us are more like my complaining friend than the prisoner. Yet, even having more than enough and little about which to grumble, we tend to want more of something or a better version of what we already have. Our prayers tend to be more along the line of “My will be done” than “Thy will be done.”

Let our prayers today be ones of gratitude. May we join that prisoner in asking God to help us to focus on the gifts right in front of us rather than obsessing about what we lack. Let us find our contentment in Christ.

You say, “If I had a little more, I should be very satisfied.” You make a mistake. If you are not content with what you have, you would not be satisfied if it were doubled. [Charles Spurgeon]

But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. [1 Timothy 6:6-8 (ESV)]

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STANDING ON HIS PROMISES

Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks to God, and distributed them to the people. Afterward he did the same with the fish. And they all ate as much as they wanted. [John 6:11 (NLT)]

queen butterflyThe feeding of the five thousand is one of the more impressive of Jesus’s miracles. The gospels’ writers surely thought it important; other than the resurrection, this is the only miracle recorded in all four accounts. While small details vary, they all agree that Jesus had only five loaves and two fish when He said a blessing over the food. Although a typical Jewish blessing would have been something like, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth,” I think Jesus said something quite different. I don’t think He thanked God for five loaves and two fish and I don’t think He asked God for more provisions. In spite of not having sufficient food to feed even fifteen let alone more than five thousand, I think Jesus thanked our more-than-enough God for the more-than-enough food that would feed that multitude. I think the One who promised, “If you believe that you’ve received it, it will be yours,” thanked His Father in Heaven for His abundant provision before that food ever appeared!

We don’t know exactly how this miracle transpired but none of the gospels’ writers describe anything impressive like fish and bread falling from heaven, Jesus staggering from the weight of the food that appeared in His arms, or needing extra baskets to distribute it (although twelve baskets were needed for the leftovers)! This extraordinary miracle occurred without drama or fanfare; as the food was distributed, it never seemed to diminish and, even though everyone ate until full, food remained.

Giving thanks in advance really isn’t so odd. Back in August, when we celebrated our anniversary, our children gave us play tickets and a night’s lodging in a nearby town. Our reservations, however, weren’t until October. Nevertheless, we didn’t wait two months to thank them. Even though we’d not checked into the hotel, enjoyed dinner and a comedy, or been assured at check-out that all expenses were paid, we thanked them in advance because we knew them to be good to their word.

A pastor recently shared his own story of giving thanks in advance. When he accepted a new job, he knew there had been some financial irregularities and questionable practices under his predecessor. Nevertheless, he was shocked to discover the church was so far behind in mortgage payments that the bank was considering foreclosure. He then learned that the church also was in debt to several church members. Sure it couldn’t get any worse than an insolvent church, the pastor received a notice from the city that, unless their gravel parking lot was paved within thirty days, services could no longer be held. That Sunday, as he delivered the disturbing news to the congregation, the pastor made one request. He asked everyone to say a prayer as they walked to their cars and felt the gravel’s stones beneath their shoes. They were to thank God for the smooth new asphalt under their feet and to praise Him for His timely provision of a parking lot! That was faith! Together, pastor and church stood on God’s promises of provision and, within thirty days, that parking lot was paved (and paid for). Eventually, through faith, prayer, good stewardship, and God’s provision, all of their debts were paid and the church got back on solid financial ground.

After the pastor told his story, I recalled the chorus to an old hymn, “Standing, standing, standing on the promises of God my Savior…I’m standing on the promises of God.” I wondered if I only thank God after His provision, which is gratitude, or if I stand on His promises and thank Him in advance, which is faith. If I have enough faith in my children to thank them before receiving their gifts, I should be able to trust God enough to thank Him for blessings not yet received. Do I stand on the promises of God? Do you?

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “Have faith in God. I tell you the truth, you can say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. But you must really believe it will happen and have no doubt in your heart. I tell you, you can pray for anything, and if you believe that you’ve received it, it will be yours.” [Mark 11:22-24 (NLT)]

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FOR ALL THE SAINTS

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…[1 Corinthians 1:2a (ESV)]

The early Christians often marked anniversaries of the martyrdom of Christ’s followers. By the fourth century, however, there’d been so many martyrs that there weren’t enough days to honor them all and the idea of one feast day honoring all the martyrs began. In 609, Pope Boniface IV established an All Saints Day in May. After Christianity came to Ireland, the Roman church attached the Feast of All Saints to the already established pagan holiday of Samhain (a celebration of the end of the harvest) and, in 847, Pope Gregory IV formally rebranded this Celtic festival as All Saints Day. Today is All Saints’ Day: a day to commemorate all of the saints, not as determined by a Pope, but as defined in the Bible.

Biblically speaking, what is a saint? The word “saint” comes from the Greek word hagios meaning “consecrated to God, holy, scared, pious.” Sainthood isn’t conferred by people; it is granted by God to all who trust in Christ. When Paul addressed his letter to the Corinthians, it was to “those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…” Even though they were struggling with issues like immorality, jealousy, and divisiveness, those early Christians were saints because they’d been made holy when they united with Jesus.

Sainthood wasn’t reserved for the Corinthians; Paul also referred to the believers in Rome, Ephesus, Philippi, Colosse, and Thessalonica as saints. Simply put, saints were and still are the Christian church—the body of Christ. All Christians (as flawed as we are) are called to be saints—not just in heaven but right here on earth. No martyrdom, miracles, heroic virtue, or canonization is required. Simply by being followers of Christ, you and I—everyday garden-variety believers—are saints! As His saints, like the Corinthians, we are called to grow more and more like Christ every day. Scripture, however, never tells us to revere, worship or pray to saints. Rather, it tells us that the saints (meaning us) are to revere, worship, and pray to God alone.

For Roman Catholics, the focus of All Saints’ Day tends to be on the “official” saints (those people canonized by the Pope). Nevertheless, regardless of denomination, this is a day for all of the living saints (that’s us) to remember the saints who went before us. We have never been alone in our journey of faith; along with the Holy Spirit, we encountered believers (saints) who demonstrated their faith, pointed the way, urged us on, answered our questions, and corrected us when we strayed.

If we were to make a list of those who influenced our Christian walk, there might be some big name champion saints like the Gospels’ writers and Paul, the Wesleys, Martin Luther, Augustine, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, Corrie ten Boom, or Billy Graham. There are, however, many ordinary run-of-the-mill Christians who guided us on our journey: saints like our parents, grandparents, neighbors, schoolmates, teachers, friends, co-workers, pastors, or even strangers, whose faithfulness encouraged us on our journey. Today, in honor of all the saints of God, let’s remember the life and witness of those people, both known and unknown, who were a part of our personal salvation stories—the people who strengthened our faith by their words and actions and led us to where we are today.

Who are the heroes in your individual Christian history? Who would you acknowledge in your spiritual memoir? Let their examples of faith spur you onward.

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. [Ephesians 2:17-22 (ESV)]

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TAKING DELIGHT

Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you your heart’s desires. [Psalm 37:4 (NLT)]

jump for joyGreedy creatures that we are, when reading today’s verse, we tend to focus on the promise that God will give us our heart’s desires rather than the qualification: taking delight in the Lord. I usually think of a parent delighting in a child rather than a child of God delighting in his or her Heavenly Father. What does it mean to delight in God and how do we find our delight in Him?

When pondering delight, I thought of a recent weekend when six of the family met New York City (where my eldest grand attends university) to celebrate my son’s birthday. While I enjoyed the city sights, the high point wasn’t the Statue of Liberty or strolling through Central Park. My delight was in my family’s company. It wouldn’t have mattered where we’d met; that we had gathered together was all that counted! Every moment spent with them was precious and our joy in one another was unmistakable; we genuinely delighted in one another. When we delight in people, we’re no longer preoccupied with ourselves and our desires; instead, we concentrate on them and how to please them. We treasure them and their company and, because we value their presence, we make room in our busy lives to maintain our relationship. In short, we find joy in being with them.

Taking delight in the Lord is much the same thing: finding joy in His presence. We delight in Him: in His great love for us and in His power, goodness, wisdom, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, faithfulness, and grace. When the Psalmist tells us to delight in the Lord, He’s telling us to find our joy in God and to guard our time so that we spend it with Him.

Today’s verse isn’t about gratifying our desires. Although true delight brings contentment, it’s not in things; it’s contentment in the object of delight. This verse isn’t about getting what we want from God in return for lip service in prayers or praise. It’s about delighting in God so much that He becomes our greatest desire. Instead of expecting God to please us, we want to please Him and truly pleasing God means that our desires will conform to His will. When that happens, we will, indeed, get our heart’s desire!

The desires of God, and the desires of the righteous, agree in one; they are of one mind in their desires. [John Bunyan]

The one thing I ask of the Lord— the thing I seek most— is to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, delighting in the Lord’s perfections and meditating in his Temple. [Psalm 27:4 (NLT)]

Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. [Matthew 6:33 (NLT)]

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ASK

And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. [Matthew 6:7-8 (RSV)]

Our Father, whose predominant residence pattern is widely perceived as being in an exo-atmospheric environment, your name shall be treated, as a matter of course, in a reverential demeanor appropriate to existing protocol guidelines. It is to be hoped that, as an optimal result of the ongoing situational development, your form of governmental institution may be, in accordance with the appropriate procedures, finalized within the foreseeable future, in forms applicable to both bilateral and multilateral fora. [Anonymous]

climbing asterThese are the first lines of the Lord’s Prayer as if they were written by a lawyer and, having recently met with our attorney to update some documents, I don’t think they’re much of an exaggeration. With all of their circumlocution, it’s difficult to know what lawyers actually mean. They use vague abstract nouns rather than concrete ones and seem to go around a subject rather than straight through it. Why can’t they use straightforward language and directly say what they mean?

While our prayers probably are not as convoluted as the above version of the Lord’s Prayer, they frequently are as indirect and vague. Of course, the lawyer uses all of that language out of caution. He’s writing so that his words can’t be misconstrued: so that anyone seeking another meaning to his words can’t find it. God, however, is not an adversary who is trying to trap us into saying something we don’t mean or attempting to find a loophole in our prayers. In fact, He already knows what we need before we say it. Nevertheless, He’s waiting to hear it from us.

When Jesus was leaving Jericho, two blind beggars called out to Him with a rather ambiguous request: “Have mercy on us!” Did they want forgiveness, food, clothing,  or money? Any of those would have been acts of mercy. Surely Jesus knew what they really wanted but He responded by asking them, “What do you want me to do for you?” Only then were they direct and asked for what they really wanted: to see! It was not until they clearly asked that Jesus acted and they received sight.

We have been told to ask before we receive. Could it be that God answers our prayers based on our requests? Jesus promised that, if we ask for bread, we won’t get a stone and, if we ask for a fish, we won’t get a serpent. Unsaid, but certainly implied, is that, if we fail to ask for that bread or fish, we won’t get either one! Could receiving depend upon asking? Could there be blessings He has for us that we haven’t received simply because we never asked?

Like lawyers, perhaps we err on the side of caution: the less specific our prayers, the less likely it is that we’ll be disappointed. Vague prayers, however, don’t exhibit faith. If someone listened to our prayers, would they know what we mean or are our prayers filled with cautious language and ambiguous requests? I think of a child’s prayers and the long list of “God blesses” usually found at their end. Are our prayers as vague? How do we want God to bless those on our prayer list? What are their specific needs? What are ours? We don’t need a lot of words to be direct and specific with God. If Jesus were passing by right now, what would we call out to Him? What would we ask?

And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith. [Matthew 21:22 (RSV)]

Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? [Matthew 7:7-9 (RSV)]

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