MEMORY WORK REDUX

Whenever you fast, don’t be sad-faced like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so their fasting is obvious to people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! But when you fast, put oil on your head, and wash your face, so that you don’t show your fasting to people but to your Father who is in secret. [Matthew 6:16-18a (HCSB)]

sunflowerA young pastor friend admits to not being good at reciting Bible verses from memory. A product of the computer/Internet age, he just taps in a key word or topic and, almost instantly, the verses are right in front of him in whatever translation he wants. There’s no need to memorize verses when, with just a few keystrokes, the words appear. I may read the Bible every day and predate the age of computers but I’m no better at knowing verses by heart than he. If I  remember my passwords for both computer and Internet, I can find whatever verses I need. While that works when I’m researching or writing, my desk is not where most witnessing opportunities occur. I could plead age as an excuse but I didn’t memorize Bible verses even when my brain was younger and possessed far less useless trivia than it does now. My pastor friend and I both profess to love God’s word and yet we don’t seem to love it enough to learn it by heart.

For decades, I have given up some thing or things for Lent, often sweets and alcohol. I know those minor denials have nothing to do with my salvation or righteousness. They are just a way to remind me Christ’s difficult days in the wilderness and what God gave up when He sacrificed His only son for my sins. Although Jesus told his followers that fasting should be private, I often found myself needing to explain my refusal to partake in the host’s decadent dessert or the great bottle of wine he purchased in Napa. I also admit to occasionally feeling a sense of self-righteous pride when I denied myself chocolate chip cookies or a glass of pinot noir. Since self-denial should be private and never lead to self-righteousness, God and I decided to rethink my Lenten practices.

Last June, in a devotion called “Memory Work,” I wrote about four-year old Tanner Hemness who memorized a Bible verse for every letter of the alphabet. At that time, I downloaded the twenty-six verses he memorized with the intention of doing the same thing. Somehow, my good intention got side-tracked and I stopped after “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” [Matthew 7:7]

Rather than a season of fasting, this Lent will be my season of growth. There will be no need to worry about looking sad or explaining why I won’t eat someone’s homemade pie. Rather than a period of self-denial, it will be one of self-discipline. If four-year old Tanner could memorize those twenty-six verses in seven months, even with my neuron-challenged brain, I should be able to do it in the forty-six days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. After all, I’ve already learned one! We are to put God’s word to work in our lives and the first place to start is by putting His word into our hearts. God’s word in my heart can only put a smile on my face and His promises on my lips.

Bible memorization is absolutely fundamental to spiritual formation. If I had to choose between all the disciplines of the spiritual life, I would choose Bible memorization, because it is a fundamental way of filling our minds with what it needs. This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth. That’s where you need it! How does it get in your mouth? Memorization. [Dallas Willard]

This book of instruction must not depart from your mouth; you are to recite it day and night so that you may carefully observe everything written in it. For then you will prosper and succeed in whatever you do. [Joshua 1:8 (HCSB)]

I have your decrees as a heritage forever; indeed, they are the joy of my heart. [Psalm 119:111 (HCSB)]

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LEAVE THEM WANTING MORE 

And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. [1 Peter 3: 15b-16a (NLT)]

dubble tulipHaving heard that I write Christian devotions, the man looked across the dinner table and asked, “Have you always been religious?” The unexpected question from a Jewish man I barely knew caught me off guard. While I knew he wasn’t asking for a long salvation story, I needed to answer his simple question. I faltered through a brief explanation that I couldn’t remember a time I didn’t consider myself a Christian but that my faith grew deeper as it carried me through some really rough spots in life. Having no idea where I’d go from there, I heaved a sigh of relief when the table’s conversation moved to another topic.

Describing our salvation experience was one of the topics this past week in our small group. There will be times, as there was at that dinner, when we’re given a brief opening to tell it and we’d best be prepared with a good but short answer. Pastor Bill Hybels suggests keeping that first answer to 100 words or less. In actuality, the shorter the answer, the more likely there will be a follow-up question later. As P.T. Barnum said: “Always leave them wanting more.”

When we ask someone, “How are you?” unless we’re a nurse or physician, we’re probably not interested in a detailed accounting of blood sugar, weight, bowel movements or blood pressure. When a non-believer asks about our faith, they’re not looking for a dissertation about the historical accuracy of the Bible, a sermon about salvation, or a blow by blow account of a faith journey that has probably taken years. They certainly don’t want to hear Christian buzz words like justification, conviction, propitiation, and sanctification or about the time God spoke to us in the grocery store.

When someone asks a simple and straightforward question about our faith, they expect a simple and straightforward answer. If someone is really interested in learning more, there will be additional opportunities to share the particulars. In actuality, for many of us, our salvation story is rather ordinary—we weren’t healed supernaturally, there were no burning bushes, the sky didn’t open, and a voice from heaven was not heard. Nevertheless, our lives changed. Unless we’ve thought about how to succinctly communicate that change, we may blow an amazing opportunity to share a little of God’s amazing grace. That time at the dinner party, I wasn’t well prepared; next time, I will be!

Jesus summarized the Ten Commandments into less than twenty-five words and Stephen managed to summarize the entire Old Testament into about 74 sentences for the High Council.  With a little effort, we should be able to put our faith story into 100 words. What’s your story? Can you tell it in 100 words or less?

When you communicate your personal faith story with sincerity, you will see supernatural sparks fly as God uses it for his glory and your listener’s good. [Bill Hybels]

So never be ashamed to tell others about our Lord. [2 Timothy 1:8a (NLT)]

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SEALING THE DEAL

A few days later Felix came back with his wife, Drusilla, who was Jewish. Sending for Paul, they listened as he told them about faith in Christ Jesus. As he reasoned with them about righteousness and self-control and the coming day of judgment, Felix became frightened. “Go away for now,” he replied. “When it is more convenient, I’ll call for you again.” [Acts 13:50-51 (NLT)]

Steamboat ski areaWhile under arrest in Caesarea, the Apostle Paul spent two years sharing Jesus with Felix, the governor. Nevertheless, after two years of testifying about salvation through Christ, Paul couldn’t seal the deal and Felix never came to believe. I’m reminded of a charming salesman who worked for a friend of ours. Although he diligently went out and made sales calls, no matter how many times he called on a potential client, he couldn’t close a deal! Eventually, as nice as he was, he had to be let go. After all, salesmen are expected to make the sale. Fortunately, God doesn’t work that way; if He did, the Apostle Paul might have been out of a job after failing to seal the deal with Felix!

Like Paul, we can repeatedly share our testimony with someone—we can teach Sunday school, invite people to church, talk about Jesus to everyone we meet, and even write Christian devotions. Nevertheless, we might never close the deal and hear someone say, “I’m accepting Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.” That, however, does not mean we have failed.

In my son’s first job out of college, he worked with a team of engineers selling cogeneration technology. Prior to his employment, the engineers from his company would meet with a potential customer to show them the benefits of their technology but they just couldn’t close a deal. It was not until my son joined the team that they made a sale. Rather than engineering, my son’s specialty was finance. The people making the final decision about purchase weren’t the engineers—they were the financial officers. Engineers talked combustion, turbines, power ratings and reciprocating engines which meant nothing to them but my son talked their language: percentages, return on investment and profits. Although my son closed the deal with his talk of financial advantages, he couldn’t have done it without the engineers who laid the groundwork by explaining the process.

Evangelism, like sales, is often a team effort; we may not be the ones who close the deal but we all must do our part to make the sale! While some may hear the message and respond immediately, committing to Jesus is a gradual process for many others. If we think we have to seal the deal every time we have a Jesus conversation, we’re going to be very disappointed Christians. That, however, doesn’t mean we stop having those conversations. Whether we’re just laying the ground work, explaining the process, or extolling the advantages, we may never know if our words have moved someone just a little closer to accepting Christ.  It may be someone else’s job to seal the deal; our job is just to keep sharing God’s Word!

For “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? [Romans 10:13-14 (NLT)]

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CLOSE ONLY COUNTS IN HORSESHOES

For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that every one who believes in him shall not be lost, but should have eternal life. … Any man who believes in him is not judged at all. It is the one who will not believe who stands already condemned, because he will not believe in the character of God’s only Son. [John 3:16,18 (PHILLIPS)]

prairie coneflower - grey-headed coneflowerWe have friends who attend what I call the church of “what’s happening now.” While they acknowledge a “higher power,” it may or may not be God. There may be an afterlife or reincarnation and, then again, maybe not. Although they look to the Bible for wisdom, much of it is considered mythical and legendary. They also find spiritual inspiration in texts like the Bhagavad Gita (Hindu), Dhammapada (Buddhism), and Tao Te Ching (Taoism). Theirs is an eclectic mix of beliefs with each person having his or her own personal truth. They are loving caring people who believe in good things like justice, compassion, peace, protecting the environment, and the dignity of the individual. Nevertheless, while some of their thinking may be correct, their conclusion is wrong.

C.S. Lewis asserts that while many non-Christian religions have good ideas and may not be entirely erroneous, they most definitely are not correct. He points out that, while some math answers might be closer to being correct than others,  there is only one correct answer to the problem. If, for example, we had to determine the volume of a cone, we’d begin with the formula (1/3 x b x h). Before starting, however, we’d have to figure out b, the area of the base (pi x r2). What with two formulas, several multiplications and one division, there are plenty of opportunities to get the final answer wrong. If the wrong formulas are used, no matter how accurate the figuring, the answer is wrong. If both the formulas and math are correct but the wrong number for pi is used, the answer is wrong. If everything is done correctly but the decimal is misplaced, while nearly correct, the answer still is wrong. Although a nice math teacher may give us some credit for being partially correct, I’m not so sure God works that way. As Lewis points out, although some of the answers offered by other religions are closer to being right than others, Jesus Christ is the only correct answer to the problem.

A mathematician is given a set of axioms and postulates (mathematical truths) on which he is to base his figuring. They are his foundation—the starting point for reasoning and truth. While mathematicians may arrive at the same answer in different ways, they share a belief in the same basic truths. Within those basics, they are free to measure, calculate, and theorize to their heart’s content but they must abide by those basic truths until one of them is proved wrong.

Our creeds are the axioms and postulates of Christianity. These basic truths of our faith are based, not on the works of Aristotle or Euclid, but on the Bible and the words of God. Within those uncompromisable Christian truths, we are free to make choices. Some people worship on Saturday and others on Sunday, some baptize with a sprinkle of water while others are fully immersed, some kneel when praying and others stand, some observe Lent when others don’t, and some have two sacraments while others observe five additional ones. Nevertheless, our Christian creeds are just that—Christian—and they clarify and encompass our universal beliefs so that we all share the one and only right answer!

You all belong to one body, of which there is one Spirit, just as you all experienced one calling to one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God, one Father of us all, who is the one over all, the one working through all and the one living in all. [Ephesians 4:4-6 (PHILLIPS)]

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PLANT GENEROUSLY

Remember this—a farmer who plants only a few seeds will get a small crop. But the one who plants generously will get a generous crop. [2 Corinthians 9:6 (NLT)]

pine - tent rocks - NMIn Matthew 13, Jesus tells the parable of the four soils: the packed soil along the footpath where the birds steal the seeds, the rocky soil that doesn’t allow deep roots, the soil in which the thorns crowd out the seeds, and the fertile soil in which the seed grows, matures and bears fruit. He compares those soils to the ways God’s message is received by various people. Rather than looking at that story from the viewpoint of the soil or hearer of the word, however, let’s look at it from the viewpoint of the farmer—the sower of the seed of God’s word.

Having seen trees growing out of the sides of mountains and wildflowers peeking up through cracks in the sidewalk, I know that seeds can take root in the most unlikely places. As for those seeds on the footpath, what if someone’s boot pressed some deep in the ground so that the birds couldn’t eat them? As for those birds—some seeds may yet sprout if deposited by the bird in a more inviting environment. In fact, passing through the belly of an emu actually helps to germinate the seeds of an Australian plant with the wonderful name of Snottygobble (Persoonia nutans).

As for the shallow rocky soil—leaves could fall on it, decompose, and add nutrients and depth to the soil while rain might keep the plants from withering and dying.  As for the thorny weeds—what if someone came along and did some weeding or hungry goats or pigs (who apparently like thorny vines) passed by and ate the weeds? Even in good soil, some seeds might never grow, but others could lie dormant for a number of years until conditions were optimal for them to sprout. Needing the heat from a fire for their seeds to germinate, the Lodgepole Pine and the Eucalyptus may wait decades before sprouting.

We’d think the synagogue in Jesus’s hometown of Nazareth would have been fertile ground for Him, but it wasn’t. His message there ended with a furious mob wanting to kill him! Yet, in the unlikely soil of the Samarian city of Sychar, Jesus met a woman of questionable morals who realized He was the Messiah and brought the village’s people to see Him. The city of Corinth, with its cults of Egyptian, Greek and Roman gods, temple to Aphrodite, 1,000 prostitutes, and reputation for drunkenness and debauchery would hardly seem to be fertile soil and yet the Apostle Paul planted a church in it. Indeed, God’s word can take root in the most unlikely places.

When we sow seeds or spread God’s word, there’s no way to determine which seeds or testimonies will eventually take root and grow. Moreover, sometimes those seeds or words may remain in suspended animation until the right conditions for growth occur. Our job as the farmers in God’s kingdom is simply to continue sowing those good seeds whenever and wherever we can; eventually, some will fall on fertile soil! God will take care of the harvesting and sorting when the right time comes.

It’s what you sow that multiplies, not what you keep in the barn. [Adrian Rogers]

Here is another story Jesus told: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field. … Let both grow together until the harvest. Then I will tell the harvesters to sort out the weeds, tie them into bundles, and burn them, and to put the wheat in the barn.’” [Matthew 13:24,30 (NLT)]

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OUTSIDE THE LINES

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. [Romans 12:2 (NLT)]

flower bouquetSeveral years ago, I purchased a beautifully drawn coloring book that featured scenes from our Colorado mountain town. A gift for one of my grands, I asked the artist to sign it. Along with her signature, she added the words, “Don’t be afraid to color outside the lines!” Excellent advice, I thought.

Rather than coloring outside the lines, the unconventional John the Baptist lived outside the lines. Nevertheless, in spite of his odd attire, strange diet, and extraordinary message, he fulfilled God’s purpose. His was the voice in the wilderness preparing the way for Jesus. Elisha lived outside the lines when he left his prosperous farm and teams of oxen to become Elijah’s successor—an odd choice his family and neighbors probably didn’t understand. The young shepherd boy David stepped outside the lines when he dared to take on Goliath—something none of Saul’s seasoned soldiers had attempted. Even Joseph went outside the lines when he remained with the pregnant Mary rather than breaking their engagement. Abigail crossed the lines when she kept David from taking vengeance on her foolish husband as did Rahab when she helped the Israelites. Mary of Bethany went outside the lines both when she sat with the men rather than help in the kitchen and extravagantly anointed Jesus with expensive perfume. Eric Liddle lived outside the lines by refusing to race on Sundays and becoming a missionary rather than parlaying his Olympic medals into fame and fortune. Instead of following his father into medicine or pursuing his interest in music, Dietrich Bonhoeffer went outside the lines when he became a pastor. Then, rather than fleeing the Nazis, he remained in Germany and resisted their evil. These men and women may have defied the status quo but they didn’t defy God! They answered His call by living outside the lines.

Living outside the lines is what we do when we allow God to take control of our lives; it’s taking that first step out of the boat as did Peter when Jesus called to him. Staying in the lines is what happens when, like Peter, we take our eyes off God, see the wave, feel the wind, and start to doubt. Staying inside the lines is not trusting God enough to answer His call or follow His lead. When we become more concerned about what others think than what God says, when how we look becomes more important than who we are, we are staying within the lines. Living outside the lines is refusing to compromise our faith; it is defying the system and obeying God. Those lines on the page were drawn by people. The blank page is given to us by God and He means for us to use all of it.

The artist’s advice to my grandchild applies to us all: “Don’t be afraid to color outside the lines!” Let’s not be afraid to live outside the lines—honestly, boldly, creatively and joyfully—fulfilling God’s purpose and trusting in His promises.

Our focus must be on God above and not on those among whom we live. [Oswald Chambers]

For God has said, “I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me?” [Hebrews 13:5b-6 (NLT)]

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