LET THE VINEYARDS BE FRUITFUL

We give thanks for the cup of blessing, which is a sharing in the blood of Christ. And the bread that we break is a sharing in the body of Christ. Because there is one loaf of bread, we who are many are one body, because we all share that one loaf. [1 Corinthians 10:16-17 (NCV)]

Let the vineyards be fruitful, Lord,
And fill to the brim our cup of blessing.
Gather a harvest from the seeds that were sown,
That we may be fed with the bread of life.
Gather the hopes and dreams of all;
Unite them with the prayers we offer now.
Grace our table with Your presence, and give us
A foretaste of the feast to come. [John W Arthur]

monarch butterfly - common milkweedWhen the ushers brought the offering plates forward, the congregation rose and sang “Let the Vineyards be Fruitful.” Often used in Lutheran churches as an offertory hymn when the gifts are presented at the altar, its references to vine, bread, and table make it especially appropriate on Communion Sundays.

As I sung those familiar words about fruitful vineyards, seeds and harvest, I was struck by the somewhat incongruous words in the middle of the song: “Gather the hopes and dreams of all; Unite them with the prayers we offer now.” I envisioned the congregation’s hopes, dreams, needs, and concerns piled high on top of the offering envelopes in those plates and realized we were presenting more than our checks and cash; we were offering our petitions for things like healing, reconciliation, peace, guidance, recovery, relief, purpose, increase, wisdom, strength, and restoration. While the particulars differed from person to person, our various hopes and dreams were being gathered, united into one prayer, and given to God. It wasn’t until I re-read the hymn’s words after church that I understood what that prayer asked or that our words referred both to the day’s simple meal of wafer and wine as well as to the eternal feast at Christ’s return. In our unified prayer, we were asking that Jesus grace us with His presence and give us a preview of the magnificent banquet that is yet to come in the Kingdom of God.

I’ve probably sung the words to this simple hymn hundreds (if not thousands) of times but last Sunday, as those words exited my mouth, they also settled into my heart and mind in a new way. I doubt that I will sing it again without picturing the congregation’s assorted prayers spilling over the sides of the collection plates and then melding into one unified prayer for both His presence and the coming of His Kingdom. Just as reading a book of the Bible once (or even several times) doesn’t mean we’ve fully grasped the meaning of the passages, the same goes for the hymns we sing or the liturgy we recite during worship. When Jesus warned us about meaningless repetition or babbling on in our prayers, repetition wasn’t necessarily the problem. After all, both the persistent neighbor and widow in His parables repeated their pleas and He repeated the same prayer three times in Gethsemane. The problem occurs when we repeat our words mindlessly or automatically. Let us always remember that knowing the words by heart doesn’t necessarily mean our hearts know the depth of their meaning.

The Lord All-Powerful will prepare a feast on this mountain for all people. It will be a feast with all the best food and wine, the finest meat and wine. On this mountain God will destroy the veil that covers all nations, the veil that stretches over all peoples; he will destroy death forever. The Lord God will wipe away every tear from every face. He will take away the shame of his people from the earth. The Lord has spoken. [Isaiah 25:6-8 (NCV)]

Copyright ©2018 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

THE HACKER

Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Stand firm against him, and be strong in your faith. [1 Peter 5:8-9b (NLT)]

red shouldered hawkAfter asking us how we protect our personal safety, the cyber-security specialist asked how we protect ourselves from cyber attacks. One woman proudly told how Microsoft had recently saved her from a hacking attempt. After a message popped up telling her to call them, she gave them remote access to her computer. The necessary patch and technical advice only cost $700 and now her computer was secure. Until the speaker told her, she didn’t know the hack was the $700 she’d spent, access to her credit card, and possible malware now active on her computer. While she never would have allowed a complete stranger into her home, she unwittingly opened the door to a criminal and welcomed him into her life.

Following the seminar, I couldn’t help but think about Satan. Scripture describes him as a serpent, lion, liar, thief, and tempter with adjectives like prowling, cunning and crafty. Those same words describe a hacker rather well. Both Satan and the hacker want to take over our lives and they can do it without our even realizing it’s been done. The weakest link in both cases is the user—us. Outside consultants regularly try to hack into our bank and the good news is that their security software works. Unfortunately, in every test, someone (who clearly knows better) was conned into replying, hyperlinking, or opening an attachment. When Satan comes trolling, how often do we err by ignoring God’s guidelines, not examining the source of the message, going somewhere we shouldn’t, or letting curiosity get the best of us?

Our speaker spoke of maintaining the security of the devices and networks we use. Since new hacking techniques are developed continually, once secured doesn’t mean forever secure; software must be updated to stay current with new threats. Once saved doesn’t mean forever safe, either. We must keep updating our soul’s software with regular prayer, Bible study, and church. Where we use our devices and the sort of data we transmit and receive affects their safety and where we go and what we put into our minds affects our souls. We don’t hang around dangerous neighborhoods but, sometimes, that’s exactly what we do with our computers and phones or our friends and media choices! When the considering the importance of backing up data, I thought of the value of Christian friends who have our backs and both encourage and support us in times of trouble—times when we’re most vulnerable to Satan’s attack.

Two-factor authentication (2FA) was another security feature discussed. Although a website can use 2FA to make sure it is us, we should use 2FA to make sure those great ideas we get have come from God rather than the enemy. A little two-factor authentication in the way of seeing whether those thoughts match up with God’s word and Jesus’s actions could keep us out of a lot of trouble.

Good cyber-security habits include malware protection, virtual private networks, cloud storage, secure routers, password protection, 2FA, and common sense. None of those, however, will protect us if we fail to use them. The same goes for the armor of God. We’ve been given the best protection money can’t buy but God’s armor won’t defend us from the enemy if we don’t put it on!

A final word: Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. [Ephesians 6:10-12 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2018 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

FULLY AWARE

For I hold you by your right hand—I, the Lord your God. And I say to you, “Don’t be afraid. I am here to help you.” [Isaiah 41:13 (NLT)]

cousinsScientists have found that even a simple hug or the holding of hands can lower both blood pressure and heart rate in stressful situations. Gentle touch also causes a decrease in the stress hormone cortisol and an increase in oxytocin (often called the “cuddling hormone”). Where cortisol might give a “fight or flight” response, oxytocin causes more of a “tend and befriend” one by increasing feelings of trust and connection. Since we were at a funeral and the previous ten days had been a roller coaster of emotion and tension for everyone, the priest’s request to join hands as we stood in prayer benefitted us physically and psychologically as well as spiritually.

While holding hands during prayer wouldn’t be unusual in many evangelical Protestant churches, apparently it is in Roman Catholic ones (especially when done during every prayer) and it has become a point of contention in some dioceses and parishes. Being a rather touchy-feely Protestant, I enjoyed the hand holding and the feeling of solidarity in prayer that came with it. The priest, however, asked us to do more than simply join hands. “Take the hand of the person beside you,” he instructed, “and, fully aware of the soul you are touching, join in prayer.” As I held the hand of the stranger beside me, I thought of those words: “fully aware of the soul you are touching.” I didn’t know the man and will never see him again. From his rosary, I knew we do not attend the same church. Nevertheless, I knew we worshipped the same God and were there for the same reason: to celebrate the life of the man whose body lay in a casket near the altar. As I became more aware of the soul I was touching, my thoughts turned from my own personal sorrow to the sorrow shared by all who were present in the sanctuary. We were one community, united in our thanksgiving for the man we mourned, in our intercessions for his family, in our love for God, and in our belief in the resurrected Christ and the life everlasting.

I appreciate that some people are uncomfortable with the intimacy of holding hands and find doing it during worship an unwelcome innovation. Whether or not we touch one another during prayer is not as important as being fully aware of one another: not just of the people with whom we pray but of all with whom we interact. Fellow travelers through this troubled world, they are struggling as much as we are to navigate the challenges, sorrow, and pain in their paths. Is there some way we can make their journey easier? Sometimes, we find that answer in a simple touch. While we probably won’t bring healing to their bodies, we may bring some healing to their souls.

At the conclusion of the funeral, the deceased’s family followed the casket out of the sanctuary and his sister passed by our pew. My husband stepped into the aisle beside her and they joined hands as they walked out together. Although we hardly know her, fully aware of her mournful soul, he knew her need to be supported during that difficult walk.

Lord, teach us to be fully aware of the souls we encounter each day. Let our words be kind, our actions helpful, and our touch gentle and supportive.

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. [Henri Nouwen]

As it happened, Publius’s father was ill with fever and dysentery. Paul went in and prayed for him, and laying his hands on him, he healed him. [Acts 28:8 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2018 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

HEARING THE SHEPHERD

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will watch over; I will feed them in justice. [Ezekiel 34:15-16 (RSV)]

lambThroughout the Bible, there are many references to the Lord as our shepherd and mankind as His sheep. Sheep are not the brightest bulbs in the pasture and, considering the state of the world, it seems a fitting comparison! I came upon a true story that illustrates the need sheep have for a shepherd. In 2005, more than 400 sheep in Turkey died when they followed the lead sheep off a cliff and fell 15 meters. The death toll would have been greater except those first 400 cushioned the fall of the next 1,100 sheep that were stupid enough to follow them! Clearly, that herd of sheep needed someone to tell them when to stop. Unfortunately, mankind seems as willing to blindly follow the lead sheep wherever he leads us, only we call it belonging, accepting, keeping up, staying current, maintaining the status quo, or not rocking the boat, making waves or causing trouble.

I happened upon a cartoon by Mike Waters in which a sun-glassed sheep is relaxing in a lounge chair and wearing ear phones connected to the iPod at his side. The TV is on, a computer rests on his lap, the radio is blaring, and he’s got a copy of Sheep Digest in his hands. Hidden under the stack of magazines at his side is a Bible. In the background, a shepherd is calling. The sheep says, “I wonder why I don’t hear from the shepherd anymore!” The words in the caption beneath the comic are from John 10:27: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” Of course, the sheep need to hear the shepherd to know his voice and nowadays we seem to be listening to everything but our shepherd’s voice (and reading everything but His word)! Worldly distractions, concerns, desires and possessions have drowned out His voice.

In the case of the unfortunate demise of the Turkish sheep, the problem wasn’t that they weren’t listening to the shepherd. The village’s shepherds had briefly abandoned the flock while they enjoyed breakfast. Unlike the Turkish shepherds, our Shepherd never takes a coffee break or goes off duty! He’s more like the shepherd in the cartoon—on the job and calling his flock. Like those suicidal sheep in Turkey, however, we rarely know enough to stop on our own. Fortunately, our Shepherd will step in and lead us. Of course, for that to happen, we have to be listening for His voice.

I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. … My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. [John 10:14-15,27-28 (RSV)]

 Copyright ©2018 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

OUR PRAYERS

Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises! For God is the King over all the earth. Praise him with a psalm. [Psalm 47:6-7 (NLT)]

O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, All because we do not carry Everything to God in prayer! Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere? We should never be discouraged, Take it to the Lord in prayer. [“What a Friend We Have in Jesus” by Joseph Scriven]

ZINNIA“That’s more like it!” I thought as I read Psalm 47; I certainly preferred it to the curses of the previous set of Psalms I’d read. I’m reading the Bible in chronological rather than in canonical order which means that the various books and chapters have been divided and rearranged. As a result, the psalms of lament and complaint were grouped together during David’s trials and the praise psalms were placed after the chapters outlining the duties in the Temple. These psalms of worship, adoration and thanksgiving seem more appropriate for Israel’s book of hymns than the earlier ones about wickedness, treachery, calamity and vengeance.

Although I prefer the joyful psalms, there is a reason Israel’s prayer book has lasted over 3,000 years and continues to be our prayer book today. Rather than a sappy feel-good book of poetry, Psalms reflects the gamut of human experience and emotions. When the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, I’m surprised He didn’t tell them they already knew and direct them to the Psalms for guidance. The Psalms’ words are intense, raw and honest; they conceal nothing. If the Psalmist is suffering, fearful, angry, depressed, or exhausted, he says so as readily as when he expresses his elation, adoration and thanksgiving. Never pretending that all is well when it isn’t, he fearlessly lays out his emotions before God. Wretchedness and joy, pain and jubilation, wickedness and virtue, despair and hope, grief and thanksgiving, fear and confidence: all are articulated. It is in that depth of personal expression and experience that we find words of consolation, faith, trust, and hope.

When I seriously evaluate my own prayer life, I’m nowhere near as honest and bold as the psalmists. Of course, God knows my personal struggles but, unlike David and the rest of the psalmists, I’m not as willing to lay them so passionately or openly at His feet. When Joseph Scriven wrote the words, “Take it to the Lord in prayer,” he meant all of it, not just the pretty stuff. I’m sure God would prefer honest words of grievance to false words of praise any day.

A human heart is like a ship on a wild sea, driven by the storm-winds from the four quarters of the world. Here it is struck with fear, and worry about coming disaster; there comes grief and sadness because of present evil. Here breathes a breeze of hope and of expectation of happiness to come; there blows security and joy in present blessings. These storm-winds teach us to speak with earnestness, and open the heart, and pour out what lies at the bottom of it. … What is the greatest thing in the Psalter but this earnest speaking amid these storm-winds of every kind? Where does one find such words of joy as in the psalms of praise and thanksgiving? … On the other hand, where do you find deeper, more sorrowful, more pitiful words of sadness than in the psalms of lamentation? … And, as was said, it is the best thing of all that they speak these words to God and with God. [Martin Luther, Preface to the Psalter]

The Lord is close to all who call on him, yes, to all who call on him in truth. [Psalm 145:18 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2018 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

IN EVEN THE BEST FAMILIES

mute swansBut Samuel’s sons did not live the same way he did. Joel and Abijah accepted bribes. They took money secretly and changed their decisions in court. They cheated people in court. [1 Samuel 8:3 (ERV)] 

Not all dads did as well with their boys as did my father-in-law. Eli and Samuel, for example, were both high priests and judges; while they were good at their jobs, neither is known for his parenting skills. Samuel’s sons, Joel and Abijah, were corrupt judges who took bribes. Eli’s boys, Hophni and Phinehas, were no better. They took advantage of their position to appropriate the best portion of every sacrifice for themselves and to have sexual relations with the sanctuary’s serving women. Even David had problems with his boys: Amnon was a rapist, Absalom a murderer and rebel, and Adonijah tried to seize his brother Solomon’s crown.

Clearly, being a godly parent doesn’t guarantee godly children. Were Eli and Samuel so busy with their temple duties that they failed to spend time with their boys? David had at least nineteen sons and probably several more with his concubines. Between the battlefield and his obligations as king, did he neglect being a father to his many children? In their busyness, did these men overlook their obligation to train their children in proper values? Were they as attentive as they should have been? I’m not pointing fingers because, at some time or another, we all have disregarded some of our parenting duties and short-changed our children with our time, attention, and affection.

Eli and Samuel knew their sons were corrupt and David knew of Amnon’s rape of his sister but the men did nothing about these offences. Perhaps, not wanting to face the unpleasant truth about their boys, they ignored their parental responsibility to discipline. At some time or another, in spite of evidence to the contrary, most of us have refused to believe our children are anything less than perfect, as well. Sometimes, we find it easier to ignore the elephant in the room than to address it.

These fathers were far from perfect but, then again, so are we. Nevertheless, we must remember that the failings of a child are not necessarily because of poor parenting. Even the best parent makes plenty of mistakes. We just do our best and pray (a whole lot). We’ll never know exactly what went wrong with those boys. After all, Solomon came from the same household as his malicious elder brothers and the same home that produced the honorable President Jimmy Carter, a Nobel peace prize winner, gave us his troubled and somewhat embarrassing brother, Billy.

Home may be a child’s first classroom but he continues to learn when he steps into society. As the church, we need to fill the voids in the spiritual, emotional and physical needs of our community’s children. Not all of us are parents, but we all share in the awesome responsibility of raising the next generation.

Lord, guide us in our homes, community, and churches so that all of your children become people of faith and good character.

My son, remember your father’s command, and don’t forget your mother’s teaching. Remember their words always. Tie them around your neck and keep them over your heart. Let this teaching lead you wherever you go. It will watch over you while you sleep. And when you wake up, it will give you good advice. [Proverbs 6:20-24 (ERV)]

Copyright ©2018 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.