OUTSIDE THE BOX

Lowdermilk Park - Naples FLI appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose. [1 Corinthians 1:10 (NLT)]

Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it. [Matthew 16:18 (NLT)]

Since she is new to town, I invited Alice to our church. “What denomination?” she asked. When I told her we were non-denominational she thought I meant we were a church of whatever the individual wanted to believe and asked, “Do you mean Unitarian?” I assured her we’re Bible-based Christians but, unable to wrap her mind around the concept, she rattled off a set of questions. No hierarchy, bishops or diocese? No formal liturgy? No membership requirements or official canons or procedures? Who tells you what to believe? To whom are you accountable?

In Letters to the Church, Francis Chan asks the reader to imagine someone on a desert island, having no experience with Christianity, with only the Bible as reference. Asking first how this person might picture church and worship, he then asks the reader how his church and worship stack up to those first century expectations. Here in Florida, we attend two different churches and one fits Alice’s expectations: denominational, organizational hierarchy, church campus, sanctuary, chapel, liturgy, hymnals, pews, pulpit, choirs, choir director, organ, meeting rooms, video screens, stained glass, sound system, and several services. While Alice would identify it as a traditional church, that marooned person and the Apostle Paul probably wouldn’t recognize it.

Because I love the liturgy and hymns, we do attend that church Saturday nights. The church to which I invited Alice, however, is the church I think of as home. Less than a year old, while the early church met in homes, we meet in a city park and, since we’re in Florida, we can meet there all year long. Although non-denominational, we do have a core set of Bible-based beliefs and, to maintain doctrinal, financial, and leadership accountability, we belong to several Christian organizations. We have no formal liturgy, prayer books, hymnals, sound system, or choir (although the birds usually sing throughout the service). Rather than stained glass, we have palm trees, sea grapes, blue sky, and the Gulf of Mexico decorating our sanctuary. When we meet for Bible study, we rent a room in a community center. By today’s standards, our “outside the box” church is anything but traditional but I think the Apostle Paul would easily recognize it.

Last week, our similarity with the 1st century church came to mind when we met together at the community center for an early Thanksgiving dinner. Everyone brought a dish to share and, along with more than enough food, there was laughter, joy, and plenty of fellowship. I think Paul would have recognized Christ’s church as the sixty of us ate dinner, prayed and, in true early church tradition, partook of communion as a family.

Whether we are part of a traditional or unconventional church, let us remember that Christ’s church is not about a building but rather a group of believers. A church structure without a family of believers is not a church whereas a family of believers without a building is one! Christ’s church, regardless of where or how it worships, exists wherever two or three are gathered together!

For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them. [Matthew 18:20 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2018 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved

A HEAVY LOAD

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

When troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. [James 1:3b-3 (NLT)]

viceroy butterfly“He will deliver us from our troubles or carry us through them. Either way, we will be free of them eventually.” How easily these words can be uttered until, of course, those troubles apply to us. Had Job’s friends been Christian and said those words, I don’t think they would have been any more comforting than what was said. While true, they won’t bring back the amputated limb or cancerous breast, pay the staggering medical bills, tuck the motherless child in bed at night, change the diagnosis of Parkinson’s or schizophrenia, or bring back an abused child’s innocence. While true, those words can’t wipe the tears of a mother holding her stillborn baby, the husband watching his wife vanish into dementia, or the man whose body is in mutiny because of ALS.

The valleys I have traversed have been neither as deep nor as dark as those others are traveling. I’ve never climbed mountains as steep as the mountains they face daily. The storms that battered my soul pale in comparison to the tempests others endure. They grow weary from carrying burdens heavier that I can imagine. It’s not just the victims of life’s afflictions and misfortune that bear a burden. Everyone who loves and cares for them becomes part of their arduous journey; they shoulder heavy loads, as well. I cannot fathom the emotional and physical weight they carry nor the exhaustion they must experience on a daily basis.

I know enough not to say, “I know what you’re going through,” because I truly don’t. Even with the same diagnosis, no two people share the same circumstances. Reminding someone that God works all things for good or that we grow through suffering may be of little comfort to those who are in anguish and pain. Suffering isn’t a riddle that needs to be solved and it won’t end once we know what it is God is teaching us or what good will come from it. No matter how well meant our words may be, they can sound trite and hollow.

The kindest thing Job’s friends did was sit quietly with him for seven days; perhaps, we should follow their example. Rather than words, we can offer love: our presence, support, sympathy, compassion, patience, encouragement, ears, or even food. Rather than telling people to rejoice in all circumstances, we could find ways to bring joy into their lives. Most of all, we can offer our faithful and heartfelt prayers.

Lord, we offer prayers for the ill and infirm, the troubled, weak and helpless and for those brave souls who love, comfort and care for them. Reassure them of your loving presence. Endow them with courage and faith as they pass through dark valleys, scale steep mountains, and endure powerful squalls. Strengthen them and give them hope. Give us wisdom and show us how to lighten their burdens, lift their spirits, relieve their pain, and ease their fears. Let us know when to remain silent and what to say when we should speak.

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. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares. [Henri Nouwen]

Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. [Galatians 6:2 (NLT)]

I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. [1 Timothy 2:1 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2018 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

SUZANNE FROM SINGAPORE

aster - nodding onion - deptford pinkWalk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. [Col. 4:5-6 (ESV)]

Revealing her roots with her English accent, Suzanne told me she lives in Singapore, is the CEO of a foreign corporation, and was taking a holiday at her beach home in southwest Florida. We had a few minutes before class started and, trying to find common ground, I asked if she had any children or grands coming to visit. Replying that her children were still single, Suzanne said she doesn’t much care for children and hoped to never have any grands. After telling me that a young family had recently visited her London apartment, she disclosed her annoyance at the small child who’d touched her priceless antiques and run across her valuable Persian rugs. When Suzanne added that she had no idea how anyone could host guests for more than a few hours without having full time staff, I realized how far her world is from mine and most of the other women present in the room. I’d have to dig deeper to find common ground!

Although dressed beautifully, Suzanne didn’t flaunt her wealth by wearing a Chanel suit, Manolo Blahnik heels, and Harry Winston diamonds to a lunch time Bible study. Her words, however, were equally as ostentatious. Clearly, she is a powerful wealthy woman who lives a privileged life but she seemed oblivious that most of the world doesn’t live her way. I think she would have been surprised to know that I’d just hosted guests for a week without having a maid or cook, that the elderly woman at the next table still works so she can pay for her health insurance, that the woman beside her has been single-handedly caring for her handicapped husband for the last eight years, or that the woman beside me is raising two grandchildren by herself.

While I’m pointing a finger at Suzanne, I’m also pointing three at me. My conversation with her made me realize how often I am unaware and insensitive to other people’s circumstances. Just as I assumed Suzanne would love small children, I often assume other people have the same politics, history, finances, family situation, interests and preferences that I do. Like hers, my words have been patronizing, oblivious, and tactless more times that I care to admit.

I thought about that conversation when reading Paul’s words about seasoning our conversation with salt. Salt makes food palatable and our words should be palatable to all who hear them. Suzanne’s insensitive words were heard by only a few Christian women at Bible study but what if they’d been heard by unbelievers who may not have been so forgiving? What if those unbelievers had judged Christians by her pretentious manner?

A popular piece of advice for speakers is to “know your audience” and businesses spend thousands of dollars in market research to do just that. This sage advice applies to us, as well. Let us remember that we are walking advertisements for Jesus; as His spokespersons, we must be respectful, tactful, kind, humble, and compassionate in our words. When we are finished conversing with people, they should feel that they heard something of value and, more important, that they are valuable both to us and to God.

They may forget what you said but they will never forget how you made them feel. [Carl W. Buehner]

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. … always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect. [1 Peter 3:8,15 (NLT)]

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. [Galatians 5:22-23 (ESV)]

Copyright ©2018 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

VAMPIRES

vampires and ghoulsBut the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! [Galatians 5:22-23 (NLT)]

Tonight, we’ll probably see people costumed as skeletons, pirates, Disney princesses, super heroes, and Harry Potter characters. Although some people may dress as Dracula, no one ever dresses up as an emotional vampire. Unlike fiction’s vampires with their deathly white skin, blood red lips, high collared black capes and fangs, emotional vampires look just like everyone else. Instead of sucking our blood, they suck the life out of us with their self-absorption, selfishness, sense of entitlement, unending drama, defensiveness, lack of boundaries, and other toxic qualities. Once attacked, we’re drained: emotionally exhausted, anxious, depressed, and feeling used and abused.

Unfortunately, being Christians (people filled with the fruit of the Spirit) makes us excellent targets for these predators. Loving God and loving others as ourselves, however, does not mean we have to allow anyone to inject his or her poison into our lives. Turning the other cheek does not mean lying down and getting walked over or enduring unhealthy relationships.

In the old vampire movies, the victim had to invite the vampire inside and we must be wary of doing the same thing with emotional vampires. Jesus’s life was not taken from Him—it was His choice and He willingly gave it up for us. While we can choose to be martyrs for Jesus, we must never allow someone to turn us into martyrs for them. The cross we are asked to carry is ours alone; emotional vampires, however, want us to carry theirs, as well!

Although emotional vampires don’t recognize boundaries, it’s important for us to know and keep ours. Jesus did that when He refused to settle a legal dispute between a man and his brother. [Luke 12:13-14] Like Jesus, we need to know when a mess isn’t ours to fix, the responsibility isn’t ours to take, we’re not the ones at fault, or the demand on us is unreasonable. It’s not easy to deny these bloodsuckers but we must remember that carrying one another’s burdens does not mean taking the blame, getting taken advantage of or being victimized. While enabling people often seems easier in the short run, it is never kinder or wiser. As loving as Jesus was, His exchanges with the scribes and Pharisees tell us He didn’t tolerate or enable bad behavior; neither should we!

We can hand candy to the vampires that knock in our doors tonight but we must never hand our lives to emotional vampires. The only one to whom we are to surrender our lives is Jesus! The Apostle Paul told us, “For we are each responsible for our own conduct.” [Galatians 6:5] That also means we are not responsible for anyone else’s conduct. Rather than using garlic, silver bullets, or wooden stakes, we must remember that walking in love never means getting walked on like a doormat!

No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again. For this is what my Father has commanded. [John 10:18 (NLT)]

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul? [Matthew 16:24-26 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2018 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

MAKE A DIFFERENCE

And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” [Mark 9:35 (ESV)]

chicory - bee“Dream small. Don’t bother like you’ve gotta do it all. Just let Jesus use you where you are, one day at a time,” sang Josh Wilson. Reminding me that a tiny rock made Goliath fall and five loaves and two fish fed them all, he sang that it is simple moments that change the world. I thought of his song when I received an email from a local charity including the sentence, “We may not be able to change the world, but we can change the world for some people.”

Tomorrow is “Make a Difference Day,” an annual national community service event that has been held every fourth Saturday in October since 1992. The single purpose of this day is to improve the lives of others. In a way, it’s a nationwide day of dreaming small and changing the world for someone!

Volunteers from across the nation will participate. Teens in Plymouth, Michigan, will rake leaves and do outdoor work for seniors and the disabled while volunteer gardeners in Budd Lake, New Jersey, will be winterizing the community garden. Trees will be planted in Vancouver, Washington, volunteers in Fort Collins, Colorado, will be going door to door, swapping out incandescent light bulbs with free LED ones and, in Cincinnati, people will assemble and bag the ingredients for 150,000 meals. These are small dreams; none of them will change the world, but they will change some people’s lives.

Dranafile Bojaxhiu was dreaming small when the widow extended an open invitation to the city’s poor to dine with her family. She told her daughter Agnes, “Never eat a single mouthful unless you are sharing it with others,” When asked who their dinner guests were, she replied, “Some of them are our relations, but all of them are our people.” Dranafile wasn’t dreaming big but she was making a difference.

Dranafile’s daughter Agnes became a nun and moved to India. Better known as Mother Teresa, Agnes had no big dreams when she ventured into Calcutta’s slums; her goal was simply to aid “the unwanted, the unloved, the uncared for.” Starting small with an open-air school and a home for the dying destitute, she founded the Missionaries of Charity (a community of twelve) and then established a leper colony, an orphanage, a nursing home, a family clinic and a string of mobile health clinics. By the time of her death in 1997, there were more than 4,000 Missionaries of Charity and thousands of lay volunteers. Her small dream has grown to over 600 foundations in 123 countries. Sometimes, small dreams can become big ones. Sadly, there is still poverty in India; Mother Teresa did not change the world but, like her mother, she changed some people’s lives.

Lord, show us how to change the world, one life at a time. Through loving acts of service, may we make a difference, not just tomorrow, but every day.

I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples. [Mother Teresa]

In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. [Matthew 5:16 (ESV)]

Copyright ©2018 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

BELIEVE IT OR NOT

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. After everyone was full, Jesus told his disciples, “Now gather the leftovers, so that nothing is wasted.” So they picked up the pieces and filled twelve baskets with scraps left by the people who had eaten from the five barley loaves. [John 6:11-12 (NLT)]

African IrisThe resurrection of Jesus and His feeding of the 5,000 are the only two miracles recorded in all four gospels. Since the gospel writers only told us of the number of men at that al fresco meal, Biblical scholars estimate the actual number eating those loaves and fish to be more than double that figure. Perhaps it’s because of the magnitude of that miracle that people often want a logical explanation of how Jesus did it. Some suggest that everyone just had a small bite of food. When I’ve had unexpected guests, I’ve made some pretty thin slices in the roast to fill everyone’s plates but there is no way even the most experienced butcher could slice those loaves and fish thin enough to feed fifty, let alone thousands. There are others who explain this event as an example of the amazing charisma of Jesus. They speculate that He managed to convince anyone who happened to have food to share with everyone else and that a massive impromptu potluck picnic took place. Indeed, getting a crowd that size to share their provisions with strangers would be a miracle. Nevertheless, if enough people had brought their own food, feeding the crowd wouldn’t have been a concern to Jesus or the disciples. Moreover, neither scenario explains those twelve baskets of leftovers!

In the television show Penn & Teller: Fool Us!, aspiring magicians perform their best illusions for the famed duo who then try to figure out how they are done. As experienced and skilled as Penn and Teller are, they often are fooled. If expert illusionists can’t figure out how a magic trick is done, as mere mortals, we shouldn’t expect to understand how God manages an actual miracle! By definition a miracle can’t be explained; unlike a scientific experiment, it can’t be duplicated and, unlike a magic trick, it’s not sleight of hand.

If we insist on figuring out how Jesus managed this miracle, do we also want a plausible explanation for the raising of Lazarus, the virgin birth, wine at Cana, walking on water, calming a storm, or the appearance of Moses and Elijah on the mountainside at the transfiguration? Jesus was God and God is not bound by the laws of nature. When He created the world, He made something out of nothing; feeding thousands with a few loaves and fish was probably child’s play for Him. Try as we will, there are no plausible explanations for the supernatural. The logical explanation for the feeding of the multitude is the obvious one: it was a miracle!

About miracles, one of my pastors is fond of saying, “You either believe it or you don’t!” As for me, I choose to believe!

Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature. [St. Augustine]

I am the Lord, the God of all the peoples of the world. Is anything too hard for me? [Jeremiah 32:27 (NLT)]

Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.” [Matthew 19:26 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2018 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.