BEWARE THE GNATCATCHERS!

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:6-7 (NLT)]

red-shouldered hawkSeeing a red-shouldered hawk perched up in a nearby tree, I focused in on it only to see him suddenly duck his head to avoid being attacked by small bird and then drop again as another tiny bird swept down at him. Those two gnatcatchers boldly harassed the hawk as it kept bobbing and weaving to dodge them. Fiercely territorial, gnatcatchers are unafraid to confront predators and, apparently, the hawk was infringing on their territory. Eventually, the hawk admitted defeat and flew off to another tree. I later asked one of the Audubon docents why the large hawk didn’t fight back against the tiny birds and was told that the hawk knows it can’t win. Being so small, the fast and agile gnatcatcher easily can out maneuver the bigger bird. For the hawk, the energy spent trying to catch the gnatcatcher isn’t worth it; fleeing makes more sense than staying. After settling in another tree not far away, the hawk spotted a crayfish. After sweeping down to catch it, he returned to his new perch and enjoyed a peaceful breakfast (without any annoying gnatcatchers).

“Surely, there’s a devotion of some kind in this!” I thought. Seeing those tiny birds harass the hawk (who was more than 100 times their weight) seemed like a David versus Goliath moment. The more I thought about it, however, I thought the hawk was the innocent party. He hadn’t provoked the birds; he was just minding his own business and looking for breakfast when those birds started pestering him. What the gnatcatchers were doing is called “mobbing.” When birds mob, they make a distress call that attracts other birds (even different species) to join in the harassment. If the hawk hadn’t moved, chances are more birds soon would have joined in hounding and harassing him.

Since another word for harassing is “worrying,” I wondered if those gnatcatchers might be like the worries that seem to come at us from out of nowhere to vex, torment, and distress us. Like mobbing birds, worry calls its pals anxiety, fear, and apprehension to join in troubling us. The gnatcatchers kept the hawk from doing his work (finding breakfast) and worry keeps us from moving ahead, as well. Realizing those birds were not going to disappear, the hawk wisely moved away from them. Often, we’re not that smart; we remain smack dab in the middle of worry and allow it to continue attacking and pecking at us. While the hawk only needed to fly to a nearby tree, we need fly to God, thank Him for His goodness, ask Him for help, and leave our concerns with Him. “You can pick what you ponder,” says Max Lucado. We can perch ourselves in the midst of worry or we can perch ourselves in the promises of God.

Whether or not we worry, our problems will remain. Worry, however, accomplishes nothing. We may not have a lot of power over our problems, but we do have power over our thoughts. Like the hawk, we need to stop perching in the worry zone and get on with our lives, whether that involves catching crayfish in the swamp or giving our concerns to God and working at finding a solution to our problems!

Your problem is not your problem; it is the way you think about it. [Max Lucado]

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you. [Philippians 4:8-9 (NLT)]

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THE BEST WE CAN

Post this at all the intersections, dear friends: Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear. God’s righteousness doesn’t grow from human anger. So throw all spoiled virtue and cancerous evil in the garbage. In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life. [James 1:19-21 (MSG)]

Thompson's gazelleAs a teen and young adult, it was easy to be critical of my parents and their parenting. Vowing I’d never say or do some of the things they did, I was sure I’d never make any of their mistakes. Once I became a mother, however, I became far more forgiving and sympathetic. I understood that, all things considered, my parents had done the best they could. Granted, they didn’t always make the right decisions but I believe they thought they were the correct ones at the time. Parents want to keep their children from heartbreak, disappointment and harm; they want more and better for their children than they had. As a result, in spite of their best intentions, they can be over-protective, judgmental, enabling, dictatorial or stubborn. And, yes, I made some of the same mistakes my parents did (and plenty more of my own). Yet, looking at the finished products, I did just fine! Now, as parents, my children have the opportunity to make their own share of mistakes.

The vast majority of people don’t wake each morning intending to be unforgiving, unsympathetic, intractable, or indifferent. We don’t plan on being selfish, temperamental, hypercritical or rude. Rather, most of us probably wake up wanting to be kind and loving people. Unfortunately, we’re not always good at doing that! None of us are perfect; being human, we all make plenty of mistakes. People hurt us and we hurt others, but rarely do we or they do it on purpose. I never started the day planning to yell at my children or lose my temper, yet I often did. I certainly never begin the day intending to be impatient, inconsiderate, or negative, but that happens far too often. My prayer each morning is simply to be a better person that day than the one I was the day before and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, that is slowly happening.

When we remember that sometimes our best efforts are not nearly good enough, it becomes much easier to forgive others for their failings. Forgiveness doesn’t mean those actions are right or good; it doesn’t mean we approve of them or accept them. It simply means we forgive them. While we’re forgiving others, we should forgive ourselves for our shortcomings as well. Let’s release our regrets; we all could have done better, but what’s done is done. If God can forgive us, we ought to be able to do so, too.

Father, lift any hidden resentment and regret from our hearts and replace them with love and forgiveness. Help us accept that flaws, both ours and those of others, are part of being human. Show us how to learn from our mistakes and the mistakes of others. Fill us with your Holy Spirit so that we can be better people today than we were yesterday, and even better ones tomorrow.

Some days, doing “the best we can” may still fall short of what we would like to be able to do, but life isn’t perfect – on any front – and doing what we can with what we have is the most we should expect of ourselves or anyone else. [Fred Rogers]

I was wrong before. I’m smarter now. [Chris Bohjalian]

Most of all, love each other as if your life depended on it. Love makes up for practically anything. [1 Peter 4:8 (MSG)]

If you, God, kept records on wrongdoings, who would stand a chance? As it turns out, forgiveness is your habit, and that’s why you’re worshiped. [Psalm 130:3-4 (MSG)] 

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LET THERE BE PEACE – Memorial Day 2019

The Lord will mediate between nations and will settle international disputes. They will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will no longer fight against nation, nor train for war anymore. [Isaiah 2:4 (NLT)]

Commissioned in 1946, the USS Midway served the entire length of the Cold War, during the Vietnam War, and in Operation Desert Storm. Decommissioned in 1992, this retired Naval aircraft carrier is now a museum in San Diego. It was fascinating to wander through this floating city and see the flight deck, bridge, hangar bay, engine room, crew quarters, ready room, and sick bay and inspiring to speak with vets who actually served aboard the ship. Unfortunately, not all of the sailors who boarded that ship during its 46 years of service walked off it. For some, if they returned home at all, it was in a box.

While in California, we also visited the Mt. Soledad National Veteran’s Memorial. Set on a hill with panoramic views of San Diego and the Pacific Ocean, an impressive 27-foot concrete cross rises from its center. This unique memorial honors veterans from the Revolutionary War all the way to the current global war on terror. Over 3,500 black granite plaques are etched with the name of a veteran and most include a picture and a brief summary of the vet’s military experience. Although many of those named on the plaques safely came home, the stories on those plaques told me that some were killed in action.

In our Florida town, we often walk at a park where banners hanging from the light posts honor those who served in the armed forces. Names and dates of service are on the banners and most of those honored by the banners returned after serving our country. I hadn’t given them much thought until I looked up and noticed a banner honoring a beautiful young woman whose dates included “KIA.” This young woman was probably no more than thirty when she died in 2011. I don’t know if she was married or had children. I only know that she left behind some people who loved her enough to honor her with that banner.

I never knew any of the people who died while serving on the USS Midway or whose names were on those granite plaques. I never met the young woman whose face smiled down at me or any of the other dead whose pictures grace those banners. More important, not one of them knew me or you. Nevertheless, they gave their lives for us so that we can have the freedom to travel, walk in a local park, read or write a blog, donate to our favorite causes, vote the way we want, disagree with the government and one another, worship freely, and read whatever newspapers, books or magazines we want to read.

Memorial Day is more than a holiday to enjoy free time. It’s a day to remember people like that young woman and all those others who sacrificed their lives to help preserve the many freedoms we enjoy as Americans. Recently, five new walls were built at Mt. Soledad to accommodate 2,400 more names. Let us pray for peace so that, someday, we won’t have to keep adding plaques and banners to memorials!

Hear our prayer for those who put the welfare of others ahead of their own and give us hearts as generous as theirs. Hear our prayer for those who gave their lives in the service of others, and accept the gift of their sacrifice. Help us to shape and make a world where we will lay down the arms of war and turn our swords into ploughshares for a harvest of justice and peace. [Austin Fleming]

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DESPAIR AND DOUBT

Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening. Suddenly, there was a massive earthquake, and the prison was shaken to its foundations. All the doors immediately flew open, and the chains of every prisoner fell off! [Acts 16:25-26 (NLT)]

By 1658 in England, it had become illegal to conduct a religious service differing from the Church of England’s official liturgy or for “one not in Episcopal orders” to address a congregation. A Puritan, John Bunyan, was arrested for preaching the gospel without a license. After three months in the Bedford jail, he was offered his freedom if he’d agree not to preach publicly. He refused saying, “If I was out of prison today, I would preach the gospel again tomorrow by the help of God.” Bunyan spent twelve years imprisoned. During that time, he wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress. No country cub prison, the Bedford jail was overcrowded, unsanitary, unheated, and the plague of 1665 claimed forty prisoners as victims. Years later, Bunyan wrote: “Satan can make a jail to look like hell itself.” Although all looked hopeless for the man, he found strength in prayer and in his writing.

In The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian and Hopeful accidentally step out of the Way. Having trespassed on the grounds of Giant Despair, they are captured and taken to Doubting Castle. The Pilgrims are imprisoned in a dark dungeon, without bread or water, for nearly four days. The first day, Despair mercilessly beats the men with a club. The second day, telling them there is no escape, the giant urges the suffering men to kill themselves. Realizing that others have managed to escape, the men retain hope, refuse to end their suffering, and vow to battle Despair. The third day, to further destroy their spirits, the giant takes them into the castle yard, shows them the remains of those he’s destroyed, and pitilessly beats them again.

Around midnight Sunday morning, just as Paul and Silas did in their prison cell, Christian and Hopeful begin to pray. A little before dawn, Christian realizes what a fool he’s been. In his coat, next to his heart, is a Key called Promise and Christian is sure it will unlock the doors of Doubting Castle. Although Doubt and Despair caused them to forget the promises of God, prayer reminded the two men to recall and trust in God’s promises. The Key easily opens both the door to their cell and the one into the castle yard but the last lock, the one out of Doubting Castle opens hard. It’s not easy to escape from the depths of Doubt and Despair and I imagine that, during those twelve years he sat behind bars in abysmal conditions, Bunyan had many moments of doubt and despair.

Let us remember to keep the Key of Promise close to our hearts.  It’s unlikely that doubt and despair will come in the form of a giant or a castle dungeon, but they will come and they are capable of imprisoning us. While not using a club, despair will attack us mercilessly, try to strip us of hope, and imprison us in doubt. May we always hold tight the key to our freedom: the promises of God.

Lord, we pray for those imprisoned By Despair, who lie in grief;
Locked in Doubting Castle’s dungeon, Stripped of hope and its relief.
Father help them to remember In Your promise is the key;
Now unlock the door that bars them, In the Gospel, set them free.
[From “A Prayer for Pilgrims” by Ken Puls]

For all of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ with a resounding “Yes!” And through Christ, our “Amen” (which means “Yes”) ascends to God for his glory. It is God who enables us, along with you, to stand firm for Christ. He has commissioned us, and he has identified us as his own by placing the Holy Spirit in our hearts as the first installment that guarantees everything he has promised us. [2 Corinthians 1:20-22 (NLT)]

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TO BE STILL

God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble. … Be still, and know that I am God! I will be honored by every nation. I will be honored throughout the world. [Psalm 46:1,10 (NLT)]

When we’re told to “Be still” in Psalm 46, we tend to think in terms of stopping movement—our busyness, frantic activity, or agitated actions. We associate it with a director yelling, “Cut!” the ref blowing his whistle, or a frustrated parent’s “Cut it out!” Being still can entail all of that, but it is much more. The root of the original Hebrew word used for “still” is the verb rapa which means to be faint, forsake, or sink down. When used as the imperative ra’pha’h, as it is in Psalm 46, it means to drop or release our concerns, to become weak, or surrender. While most Bible versions translate this as “Be still,” some translate as desist, stop fighting, cease striving, be quiet, or be at peace. In short, we’re being told to stop anxiously fighting a situation and leave the matter to God—to relax our grip on things, stop worrying and let it be.

Forgetting that we can’t save ourselves, we often base our self-worth on what we can do—our strength, self-sufficiency and independence. It goes against the grain to accept that we must become weaker so that God can become stronger and that we must lose our lives to find them. But, it is when we loosen our grip, release our hold, and admit our helplessness that we finally understand that God is God and we are not!

Do we come to God with clenched fists or open hands? Do we come with hands clutching things like worry, fear, possessions, expectations, wealth, plans and goals or with open hands that have relinquished those things to God? “Be still,” we’re told—loosen the grip and surrender to God. Remember, just as clenched fists can’t release anything, they also can’t receive God’s blessings! Today, instead of bringing my hands together in prayer, I opened them and turned my palms upward in a symbolic gesture both of surrender and acceptance. I was still and knew that He is God.

When a train goes through a tunnel and it gets dark, you don’t throw away the ticket and jump off.  You sit still and trust the engineer. [Corrie ten Boom]

Trust in the Lord and do good. Then you will live safely in the land and prosper. Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you your heart’s desires. Commit everything you do to the Lord. Trust him, and he will help you. Be still in the presence of the Lord, and wait patiently for him to act. [Psalm 37:3-5,7a (NLT)]

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EXTEMPORANEOUS PRAYERS

Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere. [Ephesians 6:18 (NLT)]

great egretIn our pastor’s absence, I led worship for two Sundays. For me, giving the sermons was far easier than leading the prayers. Our pastor has a way with words that inspire, enlighten and lift my spirits and his extemporaneous prayers appear to flow effortlessly from his heart through his mouth to my ears and up to God. He always seems to have the perfect Bible verse up his sleeve, the wisest thoughts in his mind, and the power of the Holy Spirit in his words. The Holy Spirit has truly given him a beautiful spiritual gift and our entire congregation is blessed by it.

While I’m often the one asked to give a table blessing, saying grace among friends or family is a far cry from leading the congregation in opening and closing prayers and Communion. Knowing I’d be leading prayers, I spent nearly as much time composing the days’ prayers as I did writing the sermons and I was fully prepared those Sundays with a well-written script.

More often than not, however, we don’t know when we’ll be called on to say a prayer. We frequently have opportunities to offer a spontaneous prayer with family, friends, and even strangers. Sadly, we may let those opportunities slip by simply because we don’t think we have the right words.

As a writer, I like to carefully select, arrange, rearrange, and edit my words before committing them to paper. Feeling at a loss for the perfect words when leading an impromptu prayer, I used to tell someone I’d pray for them rather than offer to pray with them right then and there. Intercessory prayer, however, isn’t about me and finding the perfect most expressive words; it about the other person and lifting their concerns to God. I’ve finally realized that God isn’t bothered by awkward prayers and hesitant delivery and I doubt that whoever we’re praying for minds either.

When giving a gift, we’re often told, “It’s the thought that counts.” That philosophy goes for prayers, as well. While we may not be gifted at spontaneously leading prayer, we all can pray. While we might not readily inspire others with our language, we can encourage them with our faith. We may not be able to remember the perfect Bible verse for every situation, but we can take the words of the Bible into our hearts and souls and let them guide our prayers. While we may not speak fluent Holy Spirit, we can let Him speak for us.

Prayer is talking with God. God knows your heart and is not so concerned with your words as He is with the attitude of your heart. [Josh McDowell]

Prayer is simply talking to God like a friend and should be the easiest thing we do each day. [Joyce Meyer]

And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will. [Romans 8:26-27 (NLT)]

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