BUCKET LISTS

Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom. [Psalm 90:12 (NLT)]

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Although its origin is unclear, the term “kick the bucket” as a figure of speech for dying has been in use since 1785 when it appeared in the Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. The term “bucket list,” however, is far more recent. Meaning a list of things a person wants to do, learn or experience before he dies, it seems to have originated with the 2007 film, The Bucket List, written by Justin Zackham. His list of “Things to Do Before I Kick the Bucket” (later shortened to “Justin’s Bucket List”) included having a screenplay produced by a major Hollywood studio. Wondering what a bucket list would look like if someone had a brief time left in which to live, he wrote a screenplay about two terminally ill men who go on a road trip with a bucket list of activities to do before their deaths. The term “bucket list” was born and Zackham checked off an item on his own list!

“What’s on your bucket list? What would you do if you only had a short time left to live?” asked our neighbor over dinner the other night. I know one man whose immediate answer would be, “Start smoking again!” but I had no answer. In actuality, a Christian doesn’t need a bucket list because this is not the only life we’ll live. Someday, we’ll live in bodies made new in a world made new—one without suffering or sin. For a Christian, death doesn’t end our adventure—it begins it!

Nevertheless, I continued to ponder my neighbor’s question but failed to come up with a decisive list of adventures I must have. It’s not that I’ve lived a life full of fabulous travel and daring activities. There are many things I haven’t experienced but, if I had just a few months to live, I wouldn’t spend them visiting exotic locations or experiencing thrills. After spending an hour or so straightening my drawers and closets (so no one would know what a secret slob I am), I wouldn’t spend another minute cleaning, travelling, or looking for excitement. My remaining time would be spent doing pretty much the same things I do every day but with family and friends nearby instead of thousands of miles distant. We’d laugh, play silly games, bake cookies and brownies, hug, watch the men grill, eat way too much, watch sunsets, have water fights in the pool, play in the park, talk late into the night, and dance to Y.M.C.A.!

When facing imminent death, my regrets wouldn’t be about places unseen or thrills not experienced. They would be for time wasted being angry, hurt, critical, dissatisfied, argumentative, offended, resentful, pessimistic, grumpy, surfing the Internet, or being “too busy”—time that could (and should) have been invested in being forgiving, loving, compassionate, generous, positive, helpful, understanding, joyful, pleasant, peaceful, and present.

We all know we’re going to die and yet I wonder if we truly believe it. If we did, I suspect we’d spend less time dreaming about seeing the Great Wall of China, trekking to Machu Pichu, whale watching in Antarctica, or going skydiving and more time tending to what really is important—expressing thanks, making apologies, loving openly, giving generously, forgiving freely, laughing loudly, living the life we have right now with our loved ones, and being the person God wants us to be.

For all any of us know, we may have even less than a month in which to live. Will we waste it or wisely use whatever time is left?

Live so that when the final summons comes you will leave something more behind you than an epitaph on a tombstone or an obituary in a newspaper. [Billy Sunday]

Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone.  [James 4:13-14 (NLT)]

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DECORATION DAY

God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted. [Matthew 5:4 (NLT)]

michaelkirsch cemetery - meringen switzerlandMany of the younger generation don’t know that yesterday’s Memorial Day originally was called Decoration Day and originated in the years following the Civil War. With some 620,000 dead from that conflict, communities began holding tributes to the fallen soldiers by reciting prayers and decorating their graves with flowers, flags and wreaths. The practice of leaving flowers at gravesites may have begun with the ancient Greeks who believed that, if the flowers took root and grew, the fallen had found peace or happiness in the afterlife.

Decorating graves with flowers and other memorabilia occurs throughout the year and isn’t limited to fallen warriors. When my mother-in-law was alive, I placed flowers on my father-in-law’s grave but I only did it because those flowers were important to her. They were placed to honor a living woman rather than her dead husband; I remember that wonderful man in other ways.

Forty-five years ago, we attended a Celebration of Life for my uncle and one of the speakers shared a quote that, even with Google, I have been unable to find. Although the exact wording is forgotten, the gist of it has continued to stay with me. In effect, its words were, “When you’re in a beautiful place, think of me so that I can come and share it with you!”

Whenever we attend the symphony, I remember that uncle and how much he would have enjoyed hearing the violins and reading the program notes. When I see a beautiful rose, dig in the garden, or read anything by C.S. Lewis, I remember my mother and how much she would have enjoyed the same things. When I schussed down a great run or enjoyed après ski fun, I thought of my brother and how he would have treasured a day like that. Watching men fishing in a mountain stream or hunters in their camouflage brings to mind my father and the avid sportsman he was. When my son discusses business with his father, I remember similar conversations my husband had with his dad and, whenever I bake spritz cookies or eat ripe red cherries, I joyfully remember our beloved GG. Even though I don’t think their spirits come and share those experiences, for a brief moment, those I’ve loved are again with me. Rather than decorating their graves, I have carried them forward into an unrealized future.

I want no flowers on my grave; then again, I want no grave. I do, however, want to be remembered. When the time comes, I hope my loved ones will remember me whenever they come upon a field of wildflowers, see a butterfly, eat chocolate chip cookies, hike the Rockies, or ski in deep power. Maybe they’ll even yell a joy filled “Ye-haw!” for me.

God promises to comfort us in our mourning. Indeed, there is comfort in our faith—in knowing that our loved ones who followed Jesus are with God and that someday we will be reunited. Although faith helps, it’s the memories of our loved ones that finally get us through the heartache of loss. Our memories are the way God heals our broken hearts.

As for decorating graves—we should send flowers to the living while they can still enjoy them. Smiles shared with our loved ones today will be far more welcome than tears at their gravesides tomorrow. As for flattering eulogies and glowing obituaries, perhaps those words of admiration should be spoken to the person now rather than about them at some later date.

Death leaves a heartache no one can heal; love leaves a memory no one can steal. [From a headstone in Ireland]

He heals the brokenhearted and bandages their wounds. [Psalm 147:3 (NLT)]

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed. [Psalm 34:18 (NLT)]

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IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES

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

With his words, the Apostle Paul doesn’t give us any exceptions—we are to give thanks in all circumstance (rather than some or most and certainly not just in the ones we like)! Right now, however, I’m not feeling particularly thankful. In the span of a week’s time, two dear friends died—men that were like brothers to us. Distance and COVID meant that we couldn’t even grieve in person with their families. As I sit here tearfully, I realize that in the past eighteen months a dozen people who were important parts of our lives are no longer with us. Grief weighs heavy on my heart. When I consider my prayer list and the people on it who are struggling with the devastating aftereffects of a stroke or suffering from cancer, Parkinson’s, chronic pain, dementia, and heart failure, I realize that number will soon grow. I want to stomp my feet and shout at God that it’s not fair and ask Him how He expects me to give thanks!

As a Christian, I know I should be in a permanent state of thanksgiving for God’s grace in my salvation and I am thankful for that. It’s things like the suffering and loss in life that pose the problem for me. I should be reassured by the words of Romans 8:28 that, “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.” In theory, I know that even in the worst of circumstances, God can take a bad thing and make it work for a good purpose. I know He is in full control of all of life’s happenings and that He can put all of those horrible events together to achieve a beautiful God-designed purpose. Nevertheless, that knowledge is of little comfort to those who mourn. Finding comfort in Paul’s words is a great deal harder than repeating them.

That David could say he was “worn out from sobbing” and his vision was “blurred from grief,” [Psalm 6:7-6] tells me that neither grief nor calling out to God in sorrow means a loss of faith; sorrow is an unavoidable part of life. One thing that frequently keeps us from giving thanks in our grief is that pesky question of “why?” I’ve written enough about Job to know that I have no business asking why and that I’ll never know the answer. Yet, even knowing God’s reasons wouldn’t take away the sense of loss or make the grief disappear.

Where do we find the ability to give thanks? Perhaps by looking more closely at the Apostle’s words. Paul tells us to be thankful in everything not for everything. While there’s a fine line between the two, we don’t have to be thankful for things like heart attacks, strokes, car accidents, COVID, or cancer but we do need to have a grateful heart in the midst of those afflictions.

Giving thanks in all circumstances requires a change of heart. Without that change, we might stop crying, start smiling, and even laugh at times but something sour will begin growing in our hearts—bitterness, anger, resentment, or self-pity. Giving thanks is the only way out of the pit of grief; yet it seems impossible until I remember the simple truth that God is good. Regardless of the circumstances, He remains the same loving, wise, and good God that He always has been.

Pauls’ admonition to give thanks in all circumstances follows two other directives—to rejoice always and to pray continually. In prayer, I asked the Spirit for guidance, strength and peace and then listed the names of those for whom I mourn. Thinking of each one by name, I rejoiced in the privilege of having those beautiful people in my life—to have talked, worked, agreed, and disagreed with them—to have touched and been touched by them—to have both taught and learned from them—to have shared good times and bad, gain and loss, secrets, sorrow, and laughter with them—to have loved and been loved by them. As I thanked God for the blessing of bringing each and every one them into my life, I found that I am, indeed, thankful in even this circumstance!

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever.… You are my God, and I will praise you! You are my God, and I will exalt you! Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever.  [Psalm 118:1, 28-29 (NLT)]

And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful. [Colossians 3:15 (NLT)]

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SAINT OR SINNER?

Human pride will be brought down, and human arrogance will be humbled. Only the Lord will be exalted on that day of judgment. For the Lord of Heaven’s Armies has a day of reckoning. He will punish the proud and mighty and bring down everything that is exalted. [Isaiah 2:11-12 (NLT)]

black-crowned night heronJesus’ Parable of Two Men Who Prayed contrasts pride with humility, self-righteousness with repentance, and how not to pray with how to pray. In it, both Pharisee and publican (tax collector) go to pray in the Temple. The Pharisee boldly thanks God that he’s not a sinner like everyone else and then self-righteously singles out the sinful publican. Then, just to make sure God understands how good he really is, the man brags of his tithing; rather than giving a tenth of what he earns, he tithes a tenth of all that he acquires. Even though fasting was only required on the Day of Atonement, Pharisees fasted on Mondays and Thursdays as well, so the self-satisfied man finishes his prayer by boasting of his twice weekly fasts.

In stark contrast to the proud Pharisee is the second man: a detested tax collector. Considered traitors and thieves by their fellow Jews, tax collectors paid the Romans for the privilege of collecting taxes and then overcharged their countrymen while lining their pockets with the excess. The despised man stands meekly before God with his head bowed and eyes down. Beating his breast in sorrow, he humbly confesses his sinfulness and begs for God’s mercy.

Although Jesus’ listeners would have anticipated the Pharisee’s commendation and the thieving publican’s condemnation, Jesus turns their expectations upside down when He says it was the publican who was considered righteous by God. He explains: “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” [Luke 18:14] These were the same words Jesus used when, at a dinner party, He took the guests to task for their lack of humility as they jockeyed for the best seats around the table. [Luke 14:7-11]

We’re familiar enough with this parable not to identify with the Pharisee’s ostentatious display of piety but I suspect we’re more like the Pharisee than we care to admit. Although the Pharisee addressed God at the beginning of his prayer, the rest of it was all about him and seems more like a business contract than a prayer. Listing his good works, he seems to expect God’s commendation and favor in return for them. In theory, we know we’re justified by faith not works, that none of us are saved by our own merits, and that no human righteousness is enough for a God who demands perfection. In reality, however, we’re often more self-absorbed than self-examining, more likely to extol our virtues than admit our sins, and more interested in justifying our actions than being justified by God. Like the Pharisee, do we ever commend ourselves or justify our failings by pointing out the sins of others? How often do we actually take an inventory of our failings and honestly and humbly admit them to the Lord?

Sinners all, let us never forget how completely undeserving and unworthy we are of God’s grace.

The man who is seriously convinced that he deserves to go to hell is not likely to go there, while the man who believes he is worthy of heaven will certainly never enter that blessed place. [A.W. Tozer]

So humble yourselves before God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor. [James 4:7-10 (NLT)]

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MISSING THE TARGET

His son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.” [Luke 15:21 (NLT)]

pearl crescent butterflyHamartia is the word most frequently used in the New Testament for sin. Originally an archery term that meant missing the target when hunting with a bow, hamartia came to mean missing or falling short of a goal, purpose or standard. In Scripture, it conveys the idea of missing God’s perfect standard of what is righteous.

Because my father frequently went bow hunting, he set up an archery range in our garage. A round straw target was surrounded by hay bales along the back wall. Covered with a colored paper target paper showing ten concentric rings of five colors, the bull’s eye was at the target’s center. When we were old enough, my father taught my brother and me how to use a bow. Only seven, I was lucky if my arrow landed in the target’s outer rings and I often missed the target entirely. Whether we’re talking of arrows or sin, it’s not always easy to hit the target. But what of those arrows that missed the mark? While mine went into the hay bales, what if those arrows were sins? What would they hit?

I pondered this question while reading the Parable of the Prodigal (or Lost) Son, a beautiful illustration of God’s grace. In this story, we tend to focus on the pardoning love of the father when he welcomes his lost son home. Since both sons in the story clearly missed the mark with their actions, let’s look at it from a different viewpoint and consider where their arrows of sin landed. Having had a prodigal child myself, I know exactly where they came to rest—deep in their father’s heart. His sons’ actions caused the father untold grief. Thinking back to that target in our garage—what if, instead of hay bales holding the target, it had been my father? Every arrow I shot that missed the target would have pierced him instead! What if, instead of arrows it had been sins and, instead of my father, it had been God?

Sin is far more than not living up to a certain divine standard. It is as much a slap in God’s face as were the younger son’s demand of his inheritance while his father was still alive and the older son’s insolence and rudeness in his refusal to attend the celebration. Sin is a personal affront to God and it grieves Him as much as it must have grieved the father in Jesus’ parable.

Sin isn’t a violation of an impersonal standard—it is a personal offense against our Father in Heaven. Our sins hurt more than ourselves and others—they hurt God because we’ve sinned against Him! Our God is a loving God of relationship, not estrangement, but every time we sin, like the sons in Jesus’ parable, we grieve Him with our rejection. The fact that our loving Father forgives us doesn’t make our sins any less painful to Him. Let us weigh carefully our actions and remember that, when an arrow we shoot misses the target, it hits something else. Don’t let it be God!

This day, my God, I hate sin not because it damns me, but because it has done Thee wrong. To have grieved my God is the worst grief to me. [Charles Spurgeon]

Against you, and you alone, have I sinned; I have done what is evil in your sight. You will be proved right in what you say, and your judgment against me is just. [Psalm 51:4 (NLT)]

And do not bring sorrow to God’s Holy Spirit by the way you live. Remember, he has identified you as his own, guaranteeing that you will be saved on the day of redemption. [Ephesians 4:30 (NLT)]

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EXCUSES – Matthew 15:14-30 (Part 1)

Don’t excuse yourself by saying, “Look, we didn’t know.” For God understands all hearts, and he sees you. He who guards your soul knows you knew. He will repay all people as their actions deserve. … People who conceal their sins will not prosper, but if they confess and turn from them, they will receive mercy. [Proverbs 24:12, 28:13 (NLT)]

Excuses—we all make them but I don’t think God much likes them.

giant swallowtail butterflyIn 1 Samuel 15, after Samuel confronts Saul for disobeying God’s clear commands regarding the Amalekites, Saul makes excuses—first by denying his sin, then by justifying his disobedience, and finally by blaming others. It is only after Samuel tells him the consequences of his sin—the loss of his kingship—that Saul reluctantly admits the truth. In contrast, we have Nathan confronting David regarding his sinful behavior with Bathsheba and Uriah. Immediately after the rebuke, David confesses. It would have been easy for David to blame Bathsheba for seducing him, Uriah for hampering his cover-up scheme, or Joab for his part in Uriah’s death, but he didn’t. Acknowledging his guilt, the repentant David confessed.

In Jesus’ Parable of the Three Servants (told in Matthew 15:14-30), the master entrusts each servant with a share of his wealth proportionate to their abilities. When the master returns, he asks them for an accounting. In my NLT Bible, the reports from the two servants who faithfully fulfilled their responsibilities take only sixteen words each. The third servant, the one who buried his master’s money, uses forty words to make excuses for his failings. In fact, by calling his master a harsh man, the servant tries to cast some of the blame back on him. Nothing in the parable, however, leads us to think the master was overly demanding, hard to please, or cruel. The negligent servant was just making excuses. I wonder what would have happened if he’d simply echoed David’s words to Nathan: “I have sinned against the Lord.” [2 Samuel 13:13]

One of the hardest things for us to do is admit our sins without making any excuses. We frequently deny, minimize, refuse responsibility, cast blame, defend our motives, justify our actions, or even rationalize that it couldn’t be wrong since everyone else does the same thing. Whether we call it a momentary lapse or an error of judgment, wrong is wrong and a sin is still a sin. A sincere confession takes only six words but most excuses take forty or more! Remember—when we honestly confess, it’s not as if we’re telling God anything He doesn’t know. We confess so that we know! It’s only when we honestly acknowledge our sins as sins that we can repent of them and get right with God.

In failing to confess, Lord, I would only hide you from myself, not myself from you. [Augustine]

If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts. [I John 1:8-10 (NLT)]

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