THE BACK BURNER

For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven. … Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. [Ecclesiastes 3:1,11 (NLT)]

red-bellied turtleWhen we spent winters in the mountains, our early morning walk took us by a gourmet restaurant. Occasionally, we’d get a whiff of a delectable mouth-watering aroma as we passed. What we smelled was a large pot of roasted beef and veal bones that had simmered on the back burner overnight. In this day and age of microwaves, Instant Pots, mixes and prepared foods, it’s difficult to understand a chef simmering stock for over 12 hours to concentrate it into a rich demi-glace. That, however, is how the restaurant’s chef gets the flavorful base she uses in her delicious sauces.

Sometimes prayer is like making stir-fry: put the ingredients in a hot wok, stir, and get quick results. Other times, prayer is more like making a demi-glace. We put it all together and then let it do a slow simmer on the back burner with just an occasional check to skim off the fat or impurities. Back-burner prayers are those far-reaching ones that take a long time coming, like the restoration of a ruptured relationship, the salvation of a child, a loved one’s sobriety, or a prodigal’s return.

When we put our prayers at a low simmer on the back burner, we trust God to do the work. As tempted as we are to fret, panic, meddle or intervene, God really doesn’t need us to keeping lifting the lid, stirring the pot, or adding ingredients. In fact, if we were making a demi-glace, our stirring would just slow things down by making the stock cloudy and greasy. The same thing usually happens when we try to do God’s job for Him!

I think of Sarah. Rather than leaving God’s promise of a child to simmer on the back burner until the time was right, she decided to stir the pot by giving Hagar to Abraham. Her interference didn’t turn out well for anyone! On the other hand, David, who’d been a teen when anointed king by Samuel, spent at least fifteen years waiting for the crown. Twice during that time he passed up the opportunity to speed things along by killing King Saul. Instead, he chose to trust in God’s timing saying, ”Surely the Lord will strike Saul down someday, or he will die of old age or in battle.” [2 Samuel 26:10]

God answers our prayers the moment we speak them; it’s just that we don’t immediately know His answer. It could be “Yes!” or, if what we asked isn’t in His will, “No!” After all, God might have something better in store for us! Sometimes, however, God’s answer is, “Not right now!” Those prayers go on the back burner to simmer until God’s time is right (or He tells us, “No!”)

Putting prayers on the back burner doesn’t mean we stop praying them any more than putting that stock pot on the back burner means the chef turned off the stove or forgot about it. It simply means that we have given our prayer over to the fullness of God’s time.

Persistent praying never faints or grows weary. It is never discouraged. It never yields to cowardice. It is motivated and sustained by a hope that knows no despair, and a faith that will not let go. Persistent praying has patience to wait and strength to continue. It never prepares itself to quit praying, and it refuses to get up from its knees until an answer is received. [E. M. Bounds]

Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. [Ephesians 3:20 (NLT)]

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LOST AND FOUND

After three days they found Jesus sitting in the Temple with the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. … When Jesus’ parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why did you do this to us? Your father and I were very worried about you and have been looking for you.” Jesus said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” [Luke 2:46-49 (NCV)]

nativity

Last month, during my pre-dawn walks, I enjoyed seeing the bright holiday lights decorating many of our community’s homes. One morning, I passed by a beautifully lit arbor surrounding a nativity scene. Even though the twinkle lights and star didn’t fully illuminate the figures below them, I took a photo and hoped that a little Photoshop magic would result in a picture for a future devotion. When I finally got around to editing the photo, I discovered that Jesus was missing from the scene!

The missing baby reminded me of when my daughter’s family visited us several years ago. The young cousins were playing together at my son’s home. While the adults talked, the girls investigated the many toys in Mali’s toy chest. When Bree discovered parts from the Fisher Price Noah’s ark and nativity sets, she and Mali started rummaging through the box to find their various pieces. Bree started explaining the two stories to her younger cousin as they organized the figures. After digging to the bottom of the box, they realized one figure was missing. The girls jumped up and frantically dashed through the house toward Mali’s bedroom shouting, “We’ve lost baby Jesus!” Fortunately, after a thorough search, the missing baby was found among a few dust bunnies under Mali’s bed.

Mary and Joseph lost Jesus after they’d been in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. The city’s population had quadrupled as caravans of Jews from all over came to observe the holiday. Somehow, in the mayhem of people gathering to return to Nazareth, Mary and Joseph lost track of their boy and left Jerusalem without Him. Perhaps the people with the missing figure in their nativity had overlooked Jesus in a dark corner of their attic or lost him in the confusion of cartons and crates when they came to Florida. Like Mary, Joseph, and the little cousins, they didn’t notice they’d lost Jesus until they wanted Him! The same thing can happen to us in the challenges and chaos of our busy lives. Sometimes, we forget to bring Jesus with us and don’t even notice He’s missing until we need Him.

It’s important to remember that even though Mary and Joseph lost Jesus, they didn’t lose their relationship with Him. He remained their son but, by leaving Him behind, they lost His presence. The same thing can happen with us. When we lose Jesus, we don’t lose the salvation that comes with our relationship but we do lose His fellowship, our sense of His presence, and His peace and joy.

When the sheep can’t find the shepherd, it’s not the shepherd who is lost. The good shepherd is exactly where He belongs; it’s the sheep that have strayed. In actuality, Mary and Joseph were the ones who were lost, not Jesus. He was where He belonged—in His Father’s house studying God’s word. Our Lord promises He’ll never leave us but that pesky thing called free will allows us to leave Him and walk off on our own. When we feel empty or alone, when we wonder where Jesus is in our trouble, Jesus hasn’t forgotten about us. We are the ones who forgot and lost Him!

Yesterday, I walked by the house with the missing baby Jesus and was pleased to see that he’d been found and was in his rightful place. When Jesus is missing in our lives, like Joseph, Mary, Bree, Mali, and the people with the nativity scene, we must search until we find Him. Rather than looking in dark corners or under the bed, the first place to look might be where we’d expect to find Him—in His Father’s house and in His word.

If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the Lord. [Jeremiah 29:13-14a (NLT)]

Search for the Lord and for his strength; continually seek him. [Psalm 105:4 (NLT)]

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IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES – THANKSGIVING 2020

Enter his gates with thanksgiving; go into his courts with praise. Give thanks to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good. His unfailing love continues forever, and his faithfulness continues to each generation. [Psalm 100: 4-5 (NLT)] 

turkeyWhen an irrevocable law was signed that prohibited praying to anyone but King Darius, Daniel prayed! Knowing he’d be thrown into a den of lions for doing so, the devout man went home, opened the windows, and prayed to God just as he always had done. Rather than starting with a fervent plea for God’s help, however, Daniel began with a prayer of thanks. His prayer of thanksgiving showed Daniel’s faith in a good God who was present in all circumstances!

Back in the 1630s, in the midst of the Thirty Years’ War when all of Europe was in turmoil, a Lutheran minister named Martin Rinckart also understood the importance of thanking God in all circumstances. Life seemed hopeless, especially in the walled city of Eilenburg where Rinckart lived. Refugees overcrowded the city, people were starving, and the city was surrounded by enemy soldiers. Poverty, famine and disease reigned. Mercenary soldiers committed atrocities, looted, and extorted tribute. Rinckart had to quarter soldiers in his house and endure their plundering of his possessions and stocks of grain. Diseases like typhus, dysentery, and scurvy already were widespread when the plague took control and devastated the population in 1637. And we think we have it tough in 2020!

Rinkart faithfully served the sick and dying. As the last living pastor in town, he performed as many as fifty funerals a day and buried over 4,400 townspeople, including his own wife. It was during this horrific time, one of the darkest in Europe’s history, that Rinckart counted his blessings and wrote a beautiful family prayer of thanksgiving. We know that joyful prayer as the popular Thanksgiving hymn Now Thank We All Our God. Martin Rinckart, like Daniel, offered thanks to God in the midst of challenging circumstances. Can we do anything less?

I saw a cartoon in which the heavy-set husband, after looking down at his skimpy plate of dieter’s salad, looked up at his wife and said, “You better say grace this time. If I do it, God will know I’m lying.” Unlike Daniel and Martin Rinckart, most of us are like him: blind to the blessings of life and deficient in our thanks to God for those blessings, however great or small. Today, as we celebrate our national day of thanks, let us remember that every day should be a day of giving thanks—even if, instead of sweet potatoes, stuffing, turkey, and pumpkin pie, our plates have only lettuce, carrots and celery!

Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
who wondrous things has done, in whom this world rejoices;
who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
with ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us;
and keep us still in grace, and guide us when perplexed;
and free us from all ills, in this world and the next.
All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given;
the Son, and him who reigns with them in highest heaven;
the one eternal God, whom earth and heaven adore;
for thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore. [Martin Rinckart)]

Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5:18 (NLT)]

Come, let us sing to the Lord! Let us shout joyfully to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come to him with thanksgiving. Let us sing psalms of praise to him. [Psalm 95:1-2 (NLT)]

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HOLIDAY GATHERINGS

zebras - serengettiAvoid foolish controversies, arguments about genealogies, quarrels, and fights about Moses’ Teachings. This is useless and worthless. [Titus 3:9 (GW)]

Four years ago, our Thanksgiving weekend was a busy one, in large part to the celebration of my mother-in-law’s 100th birthday. While the results of the presidential election weren’t disputed four years ago, the political mood that November was just as divisive as it is today, making for some awkward and challenging gatherings. Today’s contentious political climate can be problematic at holiday get-togethers this year, as well. With the rhetoric even more heated, conspiracy theories running wild, and the prevalence of vicious postings on social media, even Zoom calls with family could be challenging!

Recognizing that the next several weeks will require diplomacy, tact, restraint, and a great deal of love, I thought I’d repeat the following devotion that was first published on Thanksgiving eve, 2016.

“Our days are few, and far better spent in doing good than in disputing over matters which are, at best, of minor importance,” were the words in my morning’s devotion by Charles Spurgeon. Although they were in reference to Paul’s words to Titus regarding divisive arguments in the early church, they are words to remember as we gather with family and friends at our tables tomorrow. Let’s face it, for the next several weeks, we’ll be thrown together with a wide assortment of people, all of whom will have at least one opinion that differs from ours. Moreover, while we share genealogy and genes with family members, we often have little else in common. Some people say Thanksgiving dinner without an argument or two is like turkey with no stuffing or Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade without helium balloons. Nevertheless, I’m not so sure acrimony has to ruin our day of national thanks. Remembering Paul’s words to Titus can help us through tomorrow and the rest of the holiday season.

All of us have dropped our anchors on certain issues and we’re not about to change our opinions on those. Let’s honor the rights of others to drop anchor on their beliefs, as well. There are, however, far more issues where, rather than dropping anchor, we could tie up to the pier and quietly listen to the person berthed across the dock; we just might have more in common than we realize. Fearless listening occurs when we’re not afraid to truly hear another person’s point of view.

Keep in mind that holiday get-togethers are not debate stages or battle grounds and a friendly discussion should remain amicable. Although a friendly discussion is never about winning, I have one friend who actually prepares for disputes by packing news articles supporting her viewpoints in her purse and suitcase. Although out-of-tune pianos can be tuned, some minds can’t be changed and it is foolish to even try. Moreover, even when people have well-founded opinions, many differences will never be reconciled. Wisdom is knowing when to stop a discussion and true wisdom is knowing enough not to start!

We will gather with twenty-eight people tomorrow and seventy-five the following day. In spite of the old saying never to talk about religion or politics, considering the recent election, there is sure to be discussion of at least one of those topics. In addition to people with diverse (and strong) opinions, any holiday gathering has its share of conspiracy theorists, whiners, complainers, nitpickers, and over-indulgers. Getting through a holiday dinner can be like traversing a mine field!

Being a vegetarian, I’m used to politely saying, “Thank you, no,” when the shrimp, turkey, gravy and sausage stuffing are urged on me. Being a follower of Christ, I’ll silently say, “Thank you, no!” every time an opportunity for dissension, anger, criticism, pettiness, or insult comes passing my way. I’ll also pray a lot! Personally, I’ve found, “Please, God, put your arm around my shoulder and your hand over my mouth!” to serve me well.

Blessings, peace, and joy to you tomorrow!

Our business is neither to ask nor answer foolish questions, but to avoid them altogether. [Charles Spurgeon]

Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments. You know they cause quarrels. A servant of the Lord must not quarrel. Instead, he must be kind to everyone. He must be a good teacher. He must be willing to suffer wrong. [2 Timothy 2:23-24 (GW)]

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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OUR KEEPER (Psalms of Ascent – Part 1)

I lift up my eyes to the hills. From whence does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved, he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. [Psalm 121:1-4 (RSV)]

zion - court of the patriarchsPsalms 120 through 134 have the superscription A Song of Ascents. What that means exactly, no one really knows. The original word translated as ascent was “stair” or “step” and some scholars believe the title refers to the temple’s fifteen steps leading from the Court of the Women into the Court of the Sons of Israel. Jewish tradition holds that Levites sang a different one of these psalms as they climbed the steps to the temple. Other scholars posit that the title of the psalms has to do either with the rising moods or thoughts in the psalms’ words or their rising pitch as they were sung.

Written by several different authors and ranging from the time of David to post exile, these fifteen beautiful psalms were at one point a separate temple songbook that later was incorporated into the Psaltery. Some scholars attribute the collection to King Hezekiah who, when laying on his deathbed, was granted another 15 years of life. He supposedly compiled these 15 psalms to represent those additional years. Psalm 126, with its reference to returning from exile, disproves that theory since it had to have been composed after Hezekiah’s death.

Because Jerusalem was on a hill, all roads leading to it went uphill and some scholars believe these psalms were sung during the journey back from Babylon as the exiles ascended the hill to Jerusalem. Another commonly held belief is that these psalms were brought together to be sung by Jews returning to Jerusalem to celebrate the pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles.

One of my favorite psalms, Psalm 121, is in this collection. Perhaps giving credence to the theory of pilgrims walking up to Jerusalem’s gates, the psalmist looks to the hills and asks from where his help comes. When he asked that, was he looking at the hillside with its threats from wild animals, pagan enemies, and bands of robbers? Or, was he confidently looking up toward Mt. Moriah and the temple? With his answer of, “My help comes from the Lord,” I think he was looking beyond the mountains to the God who made them. The psalmist is so confident in the Lord, the one who “keeps” Israel, that he doesn’t even mention what is troubling him!

In this eight verse psalm, the Hebrew word shamar is used six times. Usually translated as keep or preserve, it meant to have charge of, protect and guard as would a watchman. For many pilgrims, the trip to Jerusalem was an arduous one taking several days. With its promise that the one who watched over them never slumbered, this psalm would have been reassuring to the pilgrims as they made camp in the wilderness each night.

We’re not Levites ascending the temple’s stairs nor are we pilgrims journeying up to Jerusalem and we’ll never know why these psalms are songs of ascents. Nevertheless, we’re all on a journey that often seems like an uphill climb. The psalmist’s faith and strong conviction that God will come to his aid certainly makes my spirit ascend. Let us take comfort in knowing the Lord is our keeper, watchman, and protector; He is the God who never sleeps!

The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not smite you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and for evermore. [Psalm 121:5-8 (RSV)]

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