HE EXISTS

Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good! And evening passed and morning came, marking the sixth day. [Genesis 1:31 (NLT)]

The Lord is good to everyone. He showers compassion on all his creation. [Psalm 145:9 (NLT)]

tri-colored heronPeople often argue against God’s existence because of evil and suffering. With so much that is wrong in the world, they question how there could there be a god. Christian apologist C.S. Lewis was once an atheist who reasoned that such a cruel and unjust world proved the absence of God until he questioned where he got the idea of what was good or evil, just or unjust. He realized that something cannot be wrong or evil unless there is standard for what is right or good. In a universe with no God, there would be no standard for justice or injustice, good or evil, right or wrong: simply personal preferences. That standard, Lewis realized, is rooted in God. As a result, the very argument he used against God’s existence provided Lewis with proof of His presence!

Nevertheless, acceptance of God’s existence in a world with evil leads people to question how this loving God of ours could allow so much of it in the world. Unable to see how a loving, good and powerful God can coexist in world so filled with pain and suffering, people often ascribe any evil that befalls to God but none of the good. Granted, bad things happen but, if they’re used as evidence against a good God, then all of the good things that occur must be considered as evidence for Him!

The preponderance of the evidence tells us that there are more years of rain than drought, more harvests than famine, more fair weather days than hurricanes, more love than hate, and pandemics are not a regular occurrence. On a more personal level, I’ve encountered evil, injury and pain and, if I were asked to make a list of the suffering in my life, I could. But, if asked to record the good things I’ve experienced, I couldn’t—simply because there would be far too many to list! I’ve avoided more accidents than I’ve been in, favorable circumstances have aligned more often than not, more good people than bad have touched my life, my joys outweigh my sorrows, and God has accompanied me through every dark valley I’ve traversed. Moreover, I’d probably have to cross off most (or all) of the items on the list of bad things because God redeemed them by bringing good out of the pain and suffering.

When life feels anything but good, it’s easier to focus on evil and suffering than to remember that God is good. Yes, we live in a fallen world but it’s not the world God intended; our good God did not create evil and suffering. When man chose to disobey in Eden, both moral and natural evil entered into what was a perfect world. God may allow evil but it is our free will that has made it possible. We can’t hold God responsible for our mistakes.

Non-believers and believers alike wrestle with how a good loving God can allow the presence of evil and suffering. Nevertheless, the existence of suffering doesn’t negate God. In fact, it is God’s existence that gives meaning to our pain and suffering! We’ll never fully understand it. Nevertheless, when I think about those two lists and all that God has done for me, I know that God exists and that He is good!

God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil to exist. [Saint Augustine]

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. [John 3:16 (NLT)]

Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens. He never changes or casts a shifting shadow. [James 1:17 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

GRIEF IS PERSONAL

The thought of my suffering and homelessness is bitter beyond words. I will never forget this awful time, as I grieve over my loss. Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this: The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning. I say to myself, “The Lord is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him!” [Lamentation 3:19-24 (NLT)]

gardenias“Once, when my feet were bare, and I had not the means of obtaining shoes, I came to the chief of Kufah in a state of much dejection, and saw there a man who had no feet. I returned thanks to God and acknowledged his mercies, and endured my want of shoes with patience.” The Persian poet Sadi wrote those words in 1258 AD and his words are the source of the adage, “I was unhappy about having no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.” When unsympathetic to what I considered my children’s trivial grievances, I often uttered those words or something similar.

While praying for a husband and wife who’d lost their son to COVID-19 and couldn’t even attend his funeral because they were hospitalized with the same virus, I remembered that old maxim. Thinking of all they’d suffered, I rebuked myself for the tears I’d shed over the small things I’ve lost to this pandemic. Then I remembered a book I read about loss that spoke of the importance of not comparing grief. We are one of a kind and the way we experience emotions, whether grief, love, or joy, differs from person to person. Our unique pasts, along with our hopes, dreams and expectations for tomorrow, profoundly affect how we experience today; what distresses one person may seem but a drop in the bucket to another.

What I’d missed when unsympathetic to my children’s complaints was that their grievances were real to them at the time. While missing senior skip, picnic and award days along with cancelled prom, parties and graduation seems heartbreaking for today’s high school seniors, it’s not the end of the world; but try telling that to an eighteen-year old whose prom dress remains unworn in her closet because of COVID-19. While some people grieve not being able to attend ball games or see their new grandbaby, others grieve not being able to visit their parent in a nursing home or attend a friend’s funeral. Some couples grieve the loss of their wedding and honeymoon, others grieve the loss of their jobs or homes, and still others grieve the loss of a loved one. We may grieve things like spontaneity, travel, feeling safe in stores, family gatherings, working as a team, worshiping together, or not seeing smiles because they’re concealed by masks. As we adjust to our incredibly abnormal “new normal,” we all grieve in one way or another and the things we grieve are as different as the ways we do it. While some grieve with tears, others are stoic; some grieve with busyness, others with lethargy; and some grieve with anger while others with dark humor.

Saying, “I was unhappy about having no shoes until I met a man who had no feet!” helps remind us to appreciate the value of what we have but it fails to acknowledge our feelings. We must never compare the things we grieve or the way we do it with other people’s grief because grief is experienced at 100%, whether it’s over missing one’s senior year of high school, losing a breast to cancer, not being able to visit one’s family, or losing a child to COVID. Our feelings are ours alone and the way we handle them is as unique as our fingerprints.

Because grief of any kind is a personal journey, we should respect our grief as well as that of others, even if ours seems trivial by comparison. If you are grieving right now, your sorrow is real. Rather than berating yourself for it, accept it. It is only by experiencing our grief that we can come to terms with whatever we’ve lost and move on to our new normal, whatever that may be. We have a God who understands sorrow; after all, even though He knew He’d raise Lazarus from the dead, Jesus wept at the man’s grave. We are told that there is, “A time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to grieve and a time to dance.” [Ecclesiastes 3:4] Let us not be hesitant to do both!

You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing. You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy, that I might sing praises to you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever! [Psalm 30:11-12 (NLT)]

God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted. [Matthew 5:3-4 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

 

MEMORIALS – Memorial Day 2020

This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. [John 15:12-23 (NLT)]

9/11 MemorialLast fall, when New York City was a bustling and untroubled city, our family gathered there to celebrate my son’s birthday. Only staying for a few days, we rushed to do the things tourists are expected to do in the “Big Apple.” When we walked onto the grounds of the 9/11 Memorial, however, the hubbub of the city disappeared and a hush descended. People’s silent tears fell on the bronze parapets inscribed with the names of the dead that edge the memorial as they reverently looked down at the twin waterfall pools disappearing into nothingness. According to their architect, Michael Arad, the pools represent “absence made visible.” Although the water flows continually into the voids, they never can be filled. Indeed, the loss of a loved one leaves a void that cannot be filled this side of eternity.

As we left the park, we passed six large low stone monuments. Inlaid with steel remnants from the World Trade Center, these monoliths recognize the courage, selflessness, and perseverance of the tens of thousands of men and women from across the nation and throughout the world who contributed to the rescue and recovery effort. This Memorial Glade honors the continuing sacrifice of those rescue, recovery, and relief workers (along with the survivors and members of the lower Manhattan community) who have died or remain sick from exposure to toxins at the site in the aftermath of 9/11.

Along with weddings, births, and deaths, there are certain dates that stand out in our memories—that mark the before and after of our lives. For many, it is the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. For my mother-in-law, it was Black Tuesday, October 29, 1919, and the start of the Great Depression. For others, it is the “date which will live in infamy”—December 7, 1941, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor. For many in my generation, it is November 22, 1962, and John Kennedy’s assassination. While the exact date will be unclear, I don’t think there is a person alive today who will not see the spring of 2020 as another dividing line much like 9/11: a line between what once was and now is.

As I think back to that 9/11 Memorial, I wonder if eventually another memorial will be erected in New York City, this time dedicated to the police officers, first responders and medical personnel throughout the nation who put their health and lives on the line during this COVID-19 pandemic. While serving on the front-lines, they were over-worked, under-staffed, under-supplied, and under-paid; sadly, some lost their lives in the process.

Today is Memorial Day, a day traditionally dedicated to honoring the men and women who died while serving our nation in the armed forces. While not minimizing their military service or the loss of their lives, today I also will remember the police, first responders, and medical personnel who lost their lives (and continue to lose them) while trying to save ours from COVID-19. Like their fallen sisters and brothers in the armed forces, they lost their lives in a battle. They, too, were in combat; it’s just that their enemy was invisible and seemed unbeatable.

Because they selflessly chose to serve rather than be served, today is a day to remember all those who have fallen, whether to bullets, bombs, toxins, or disease. They were mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, husbands, wives, and friends. Whether military or civilian; whether they wore scrubs, fatigues, combat helmets, hazmat suits, N95 respirators, isolation gowns, or turnout gear; whether they carried stethoscopes, AEDs, or weapons; whether they served in the desert, the ambulance, or the ER: we have been served and protected by them. Let us honor their sacrifice.

Lord, we remember and thank you for those who put the welfare of others ahead of their own and, in doing so, gave their lives to protect our freedom, safety and health. Please protect those who continue to serve us; may your loving arms keep them from harm. Grace them with your peace, provision, wisdom, and strength.

O God, you yourself have taught us that no love is greater than that which gives itself for another. These honored dead gave the most precious gift they had, life itself, for loved ones and neighbors, for comrades and country – and for us. … Though their names may fade with the passing of generations, may we never forget what they have done. Help us to be worthy of their sacrifice, O God, help us to be worthy. [J. Veltri, S.J.]

God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. [1 John 4:9-12 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

DUST TO DUST – ASH WEDNESDAY

I take back everything I said, and I sit in dust and ashes to show my repentance. [Job 42:6 (NLT)]

Matterhorn Memorial - ZermattToday is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Lenten season. Marking the forty days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness before beginning His ministry, Lent is a time many believers intentionally reflect on the life of Jesus: his ministry, sacrifice, death, and resurrection. For some Christians, today also starts a season of repentance, fasting, and self-examination.

Although many evangelical Christians do not observe Lent, it is one of the oldest traditions of the Church. A letter written by Irenaus of Lyons (c. 130-200) describes a pre-Easter fast that originated “in the time of our forefathers.” Originally lasting only a few days, in 325 AD the Council of Nicaea wrote about the occurrence of a 40-day season of fasting, penitence and self-examination. While it originally may have been a time for new Christians to prepare for Baptism, the whole Church soon joined in observing the Lenten season.

Although Lent is 40-days long, a look at the calendar tells us there are 46 days until Easter. Since those other six days are Sundays, they aren’t considered Lent. The disciples and most of the first followers of Jesus were Jews who had observed the seventh day (Saturday) as the Sabbath. Because Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday, however, the early apostles changed their Sabbath day of rest and worship to the first day of the week as a continued celebration of His resurrection. When the early church began to observe the season of Lent, Sundays (being mini-celebrations of the risen Christ) were exempt from fasting and other forms of self-denial.

Most Roman Catholics and some Protestants will observe this day with the imposition of ashes on their foreheads. Made by burning palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday and mixing the residue with anointing oil, the ashes are a visible reminder of mankind’s mortality—God made us by breathing life into dust and it is to dust that our bodies shall return. [Genesis 3:19] The ashes also represent penance. Putting dust or ashes on the head was an ancient gesture of mourning and penitence; when people repented of their sins, they would dress in uncomfortable sackcloth and cover themselves with ashes. Today, some worshipers may leave church with the ash cross still on their foreheads as a way of carrying the cross into the world while, in other churches, worshipers will wash off the smudge as a sign that they’ve been cleansed of their sins.

Neither Ash Wednesday nor Lent is Biblically ordained and whether we observe either is a matter between us and God. We must keep in mind that observing any religious ritual or rite is not a way to earn salvation; we are saved by God’s grace through faith alone. Moreover, if we choose to observe Lent, Jesus made it clear that fasting and abstinence should be done humbly, sincerely, and discreetly. [Matthew 6:16-18] While it is okay to be seen fasting, it is not okay to fast so to be seen. Finally, let us remember that there is no specific season for repentance; we should repent of our sins all year long!

I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent. [Luke 5:32 (NLT)]

Now repent of your sins and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped away. [Acts 3:19 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

LET IT GO! (Part 1)

But if we freely admit that we have sinned, we find God utterly reliable and straightforward—he forgives our sins and makes us thoroughly clean from all that is evil. [1 John 1:9 (PHILLIPS)]

I’ve undertaken a series of “Abundance” exercises, the purpose of which is to take Jesus up on His promise of an abundant life. While my first assignment was to notice God’s abundance in His creation, the second was to let go of any guilt that I might be holding by asking God to forgive me (and believing that He truly has).

“Forgive yourself and let it go!” is easier said than done and this second exercise was more challenging than the first. Asking God for His forgiveness is less difficult than actually believing we’re forgiven and forgiving ourselves can be hardest of all. Sadly, the underlying guilt and self-reproach when we can’t let go of the past robs us of an abundant life.

I thought of Peter’s many failures that last night of Jesus’ earthly ministry. He protested Jesus’ washing of his feet, bickered with the disciples about their Kingdom status, boasted that he’d never desert the Lord, fell asleep in the garden, and then denied knowing Jesus! The lowest point of Peter’s life must have been when the Lord looked into his eyes after that third denial. By disavowing the man he loved, Peter did exactly what he promised he’d never do and, weeping bitterly, he left the courtyard. Peter’s despair and shame must have grown the following day when Jesus died after hours of suffering on the cross. Did guilt for his betrayal fill Peter’s heart?

Several months earlier, Peter had asked Jesus if forgiving someone seven times was enough. Jesus’ answer of seventy times seven meant there is no limit to forgiveness. While Luke tells us that the risen Jesus appeared to Peter, we don’t know how that first reunion went and what words were spoken. We do know that, when Jesus appeared on the lakeshore and told the men to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, Peter was so anxious to see Him that he jumped into the water and swam ashore. I can imagine Peter’s tears at their soggy embrace.

That morning, as the men stood around the charcoal fire while the fish cooked, did Peter remember warming himself by another charcoal fire when he denied Jesus the third time? We know that Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Him and that Peter answered in the affirmative each time. Although we never read of Jesus explicitly forgiving Peter, we know that man who preached unlimited forgiveness certainly practiced it! That He told the apostle to take care of and feed his sheep certainly implies the Lord’s forgiveness. Indeed, Peter shepherded His flock and became the Rock of His church.

While Peter probably remembered that Thursday night with regret, he also knew there was nothing he could do to change it; his words of denial couldn’t be unsaid. Yet, if he’d chosen to hold onto his guilt, he would never have been able to speak of forgiveness and lead 3,000 to Jesus on Pentecost! Fraught with guilt and shame, he may even have taken his life as did Judas. Instead of holding onto the past, Peter sought God’s mercy and forgiveness and reaffirmed his devotion to the Lord. Believing in Jesus’ power to cleanse him from his sins, he accepted God’s forgiveness and lived the abundant life promised by Jesus. Peter forgave himself and let it go; let us do the same!

If we live like this, we shall know that we are children of the truth and can reassure ourselves in the sight of God, even if our own hearts make us feel guilty. For God is infinitely greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. And if, dear friends of mine, when we realise this our hearts no longer accuse us, we may have the utmost confidence in God’s presence. [1 John 3:19-21 (PHILLIPS)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

DON’T CRY OVER SPILLED MILK DAY

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. [1 John 1:8-9 (ESV)]

red-bellied woodpeckerWhile “Don’t cry over spilled milk,” isn’t one of Solomon’s proverbs, that wise advice is several centuries old. “No weeping for shed milk,” appeared in a book of English proverbs back in 1659 and some historians believe the saying dates back to medieval days. Superstitious, people left spilled food for the fairies or elves to eat and drink. If someone cried over spilled milk, it was feared that the fairies might think the offering was begrudged and bad luck would visit the house.

For some unknown reason, today (February 11) is designated as “Don’t Cry Over Spilled Milk Day” and is a day dedicated to not letting the little things get us down. We all have a long list of past mistakes, large and small, over which we’ve shed a few tears. While a dog or cat might lap up spilled milk, no elves or fairies are going to come along to correct our mistakes and our tears accomplish nothing! Rather than lamenting over our blunders and missteps, our job is to clean up the mess we’ve made before it starts to stink! Before we get out our mops and pails, however, we’ve got to forgive ourselves. If God can forgive us, we should be able to forgive ourselves!

In actuality, for most of us, spilled milk is the least of our problems. We all make mistakes; sadly, we’ll continue to make them. There’s no point beating ourselves up and reliving past errors. The milk can’t go back in the bottle, the words can’t return to our mouths, the money can’t get unspent, the email can’t be retrieved, and the expletive can’t be deleted! When possible, we make right what we can, as soon as we can, and then forge on ahead, hopefully more prudently. Learning from our mistakes makes more sense than crying over them!

Just as we mustn’t let the little things get us down, we can’t let the big ones take us down either. Perhaps every day should be dedicated to not crying over milk that has spilled as we take a positive attitude, forgive ourselves (and others), fix what we can, accept what can’t be changed, and move forward.

Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense. [Ralph Waldo Emerson]

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. [Lamentations 3:21-13 (ESV)]

But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 3:13b-14 (ESV)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.