THE TWELFTH DAY OF CHRISTMAS

So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. [John 1:14 (NLT)]

nativity

Today is the Feast of Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas. For me, this is the day the holiday CDs return to the back of the cabinet and the last of our holiday decorations disappear. The tree is stripped, disassembled, and crammed in its box and the ornaments, stockings, nativity scenes, and Christmas books returned to their plastic tubs. Once everything is packed up, we’ll haul the boxes back to the storage unit where they will remain until next November. Except for some left-over Christmas candy and a few spritz cookies, the only remnants of Christmas will be a few needles from the tree and bits of sparkle from the holiday flower arrangements that will elude my vacuum for weeks.

Although the outer trapping of Christmas will vanish, we must never let the message of Christmas depart from our lives. Christmas didn’t come in a box from Amazon; it came with a baby in a manger. Yet, Christmas really isn’t about a baby; it’s about a God whose greatness was reduced to a microscopic fertilized egg and born of a virgin. Christmas isn’t about a wreath hanging on the door or Christmas cards and carols; it’s about the love and sacrifice that led to Jesus hanging on a cross. It’s more than the Grinch, Santa, Rudolph, or Scrooge because it says that God’s love for us was so great that he laid aside His divine privileges to live and die as a man. Christmas isn’t about brightly colored lights or holiday candles; it’s about the light of the world. Christmas lasts more than twelve days because that baby’s name was Immanuel (meaning God with us). Jesus was with us then, as a man, and He continues to be with us today, as the Holy Spirit.

A few years ago, after everything Christmassy had been crated and stowed, I discovered one small figure of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus that I’d forgotten to put away. Rather than pack it up, I moved it to my desk where it remains regardless of the season. The outer trappings of Christmas won’t return for another eleven months but that carving of the holy family reminds me that Christmas doesn’t end on January 6. The message of Christmas must remain in our hearts all year long.

May you have the gladness of Christmas which is hope; The spirit of Christmas which is peace; The heart of Christmas which is love. (Ada V. Hendricks)

Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. [Philippians 2:6-11 (NLT)]

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GOD SHOTS

Give thanks to the Lord of lords. His faithful love endures forever. Give thanks to him who alone does mighty miracles. His faithful love endures forever. [Psalm 136:3-4 (NLT)]

sunflowerAfter hearing people say, “It’s a miracle!” regarding the speedy development of the COVID-19 vaccines, I began to wonder what constitutes a miracle. In his book Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem defines a miracle as “a less common kind of God’s activity in which he arouses people’s awe and wonder and bears witness to himself.” I’m not a theologian but his definition seems to qualify a miraculous event by its infrequency and awesomeness rather than its nature. By his definition, last month’s “great” conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn might qualify. It certainly was awesome and, since that hasn’t happened at night for nearly 800 years, it certainly qualifies as uncommon. It was, however, predictable and the two planets will be even closer together the night of December 25, 2874. I prefer Pastor Taylor Krug’s definition:  “A miracle is a particular event that occurs within the natural world that cannot be sufficiently explained with a perfect science and an exhaustive understanding of the cosmos.”

Yet, even with Krug’s definition, I can’t clearly draw the line between an amazing inexplicable incident and a sure-fire miracle. Sometimes people, places, and things intersect in extraordinary and mystifying ways. I have a friend who calls these profound happenings that defy explanation “God shots.” While writing about the SK8 church yesterday, I thought of the bizarre coincidences that brought us together.

Our association with the ministry began with a haircut. When my hairdresser closed shop, I picked a new salon from the phone book and took the first available appointment. Because of a last minute conflict, I had to reschedule and got a different stylist. We talked while she worked and our exchange took an unusual turn toward Jesus and our mutual faith. Then, for some odd reason, the conversation turned to our family business. Learning we make a product for skateboards, she told me about her involvement in a skateboarder ministry. The next morning, the coffee shop barista recognized our company logo on my husband’s cap and told us her dad had started a SK8 church. Almost immediately, her father came in to post a SK8 church notice on the bulletin board. We introduced ourselves and our association began—all because of a haircut at a randomly selected salon and a baseball cap. While not miraculous, I think that qualifies as a God shot.

During the years, we continued to see these God shots at SK8 church. Someone totally unrelated to the ministry or skateboarding was given a PlayStation he didn’t want. Rather than selling it, he brought it to the SK8 church. Why them and not EBay? Only God knows. The following afternoon, a woman with no connection to the church gave them her old car. What seemed like an odd donation actually was the timely answer to a prayer. You see, living at the church was a homeless young man who’d just gotten a job but had no way to get to it. A coincidence or the hand of God?

When the SK8 church wanted to build a skateboard bowl, they had the materials and workers one weekend but not the expertise. When the pastor called a professional boarder for technical advice, instead of giving advice, the pro drove from Missouri to Colorado the next day. He preached to the kids that night and directed the building project throughout the weekend. The God shot? He originally had a professional obligation for that weekend but it had been cancelled only minutes before the pastor’s call.

From our viewpoint, much of life seems incredibly random but we must remember that our sovereign God always is in control. He both causes things to happen as he did when a supposedly random arrow killed wicked King Ahab but He also allows things to happen, as He did when Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery and Satan plagued Job. Whether the incredible speed with which these COVID vaccines were developed qualifies as miraculous, I don’t know but, without a doubt, God’s hand was in it. Thank you, Lord!

Praise the Lord! Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever. Who can list the glorious miracles of the Lord? Who can ever praise him enough? [Psalm 106:1-2 (NLT)]

O Lord my God, you have performed many wonders for us. Your plans for us are too numerous to list. You have no equal. If I tried to recite all your wonderful deeds, I would never come to the end of them. [Psalm 40:5 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

THE GRATITUDE JAR

Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts. And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. [Ephesians 5:18b-20 (NLT)]

roseate spoonbill - corkscrew swampEvery year a dear friend sends me a bayberry candle to burn on New Year’s eve. Legend has it that lighting a bayberry candle when the first star appears, burning it past midnight, and allowing it to extinguish on its own, will ensure a year of prosperity and good fortune. Since we can’t manage to stay awake to midnight, leaving a burning candle unattended seems more a guarantee of fire and disaster than good luck. A safer tradition is a “gratitude jar.” Little notes of thanks are dropped into it throughout the year and, on New Year’s eve, the jar is emptied, the messages read, and a new year of gratitude begins with an empty jar.

What sort of notes might go into your jar? There might ones written in thanks for finding things: the baby’s “binky” or favorite blanket, the car keys, or the money to pay the mortgage. There certainly would be mention of blessings received: recovery from COVID-19, technical assistance that spoke English, extra time to finish a project, or a stimulus check. There might be thanks for the ability to give: blood or convalescent plasma, food to the food pantry, an opportunity to a deserving person, or good advice to a friend. Gratitude would probably be expressed for the various people in our lives: exterminators, trash collectors, skilled surgeons, first responders, compassionate hospice volunteers, helpful sales associates, pastors, or a loving spouse.

In all likelihood, there’d be note of gratitude for our accomplishments and those of others: not burning the holiday pies, finishing chemo, a good report card, or learning how to use Photoshop. There might be mention of moments that took our breath away: a roseate spoonbill feeding in the swamp, a double rainbow, or seeing the green flash at sunset. Notes might be written for things we found: the solution to a problem, the right words, a lost locket, or a new friend. In addition, there would be thanks for things we received like a good biopsy report or words of encouragement, forgiveness, and love.

Of course, there would be thanks given for arrivals: the prodigal who returned home, spring daffodils, or a new baby. There’d be gratitude notes for things that happened, like the virtual holiday brass concert or your silver anniversary (even if it was just the two of you celebrating) and notes of thanks for things that didn’t, like a hurricane, being “downsized,” or getting COVID-19. Perhaps there would be thanks for surviving an experience: the terrible twos, working from home, or on-line schooling. There might be messages giving thanks for things as simple as purring cats, comfy shoes, a child’s giggle, NetFlix, curb-side pick-up, or pizza.

There is so much for which to be grateful—big things like Jesus, salvation, forgiveness, and eternal life, along with little ones like warm chocolate chip cookies, a phone call from a friend, or still fitting into your skinny jeans—that our gratitude jars need to be huge!

New Year’s resolutions are made and broken every year. Perhaps the best way to start this year is to start with the determination to look for our blessings and offer thanks for them daily. Although keeping a gratitude journal or filling a gratitude jar isn’t necessary, they might make us more mindful of the many blessings (both large and small) we receive. The notes will also make good reading come next New Year’s eve!

Happy New Year, dear friends. May 2021 be filled with a multitude of blessings and gratitude.

Give us, O Lord, thankful hearts which never forget your goodness to us. Give us, O Lord, grateful hearts, which do not waste time complaining. [St. Thomas Aquinas]

Enter his gates with thanksgiving; go into his courts with praise. Give thanks to him and praise his name.  For the Lord is good.  His unfailing love continues forever, and his faithfulness continues to each generation. [Psalm 100:4-5 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

THE WONDERS OF THE WORLD

Men know about God. He has made it plain to them. Men cannot say they do not know about God. From the beginning of the world, men could see what God is like through the things He has made. This shows His power that lasts forever. It shows that He is God. [Romans 1:19-20 (NLV)]

alstromeria - Peruvian lilyIn one of his four-minute essays, Dr. Frank Crane posited that that the Seven Wonders of the World weren’t the most wonderful things in the world; the wonders of everyday life were! I have to agree. The seven wonders are man-made and, of the original seven, only the great pyramid in Giza remains. On the other hand, the night sky has been there since God created it when time began. Within our galaxy there are some 300 billion stars. The Milky Way, however, is just one of some 2 trillion galaxies (making for a total stellar population of roughly 70 billion trillion.) Since that’s just in the observable universe, there probably are plenty more that haven’t yet been detected. That those trillions of stars are orbiting around an ever expanding universe boggles the mind! Nothing made by man even comes close.

I look over at the Alstroemeria (Peruvian lilies) my husband brings me each week. How is it possible that no two of those flowers are exactly alike? Yet, there’s no duplication in them or in snowflakes, zebras, fingerprints, butterflies, and those 70 billion trillion stars either!

As wondrous as God’s creation is, I wonder if we appreciate it. In 2007, a young man exited the metro station in Washington, DC, took out his violin, and began to play. The violinist was virtuoso Joshua Bell and his instrument, made by Antonio Stradivari in 1713, was worth $3.5 million. Bell played for three minutes before anyone even turned a head, another half-minute before someone dropped a dollar into his open violin case, and six minutes before anyone stopped for a moment. Sure that people would notice and recognize Bell, crowd control had been the initial concern for this experiment. There was no need to worry. Although 1,097 people passed by Bell during his 43-minute concert, only seven stopped for at least a minute to listen to a man who easily commands $1000 a minute to play a concert and for whom standing ovations are the norm.

Later, when viewing a video of the experiment, Bell said he understood why a crowd didn’t gather—after all, it was rush hour and people had to get to work. What mystified the violinist was that people didn’t even notice him; it was if he were invisible. There was no applause or acknowledgement of his music until near the end when one woman passed by him. Having been to one of Bell’s concerts, she recognized the violinist and stopped to listen. When he’d played his last note, she thanked him before continuing on her way to work.

Those commuters in DC have become so accustomed to the noisy busy world around them that they totally missed seeing and hearing Joshua Bell. Like them, has the noise and busyness of our lives dulled our senses so much that we no longer see or hear the wonders around us? We don’t need to leave our homes to see the wonders of the world. The Great Wall of China doesn’t hold a candle to the sky on a clear night. As impressive as is Brazil’s Christ the Redeemer statue, it’s really no match for a field of summer wildflowers and the marble structure of the Taj Mahal pales in comparison to the structure of the human genome.

Because God hasn’t hidden His glory from our senses, the Apostle Paul says there is no excuse for not knowing of His existence. Yet, just as people were deaf and blind to Joshua Bell, even those who know God are often as deaf and blind to His glory. We have eyes and ears but, in our rush, we neither see nor hear. Like Bell, God is an artist whose handiwork is worthy of a standing ovation yet, like those commuters, we frequently fail to acknowledge His presence in the everyday wonders of the world. The next time you hear a bird sing, smell a flower, see a rainbow, or bite into a juicy piece of fruit, thank God for the intricacy, beauty, and wonder of His creation. He’s a virtuoso!

O Lord, how many are Your works! You made them all in wisdom. The earth is full of what You have made. … I will sing to the Lord all my life. I will sing praise to my God as long as I live. May the words of my heart be pleasing to Him. As for me, I will be glad in the Lord. [Psalm 104:24, 33-34 (NLV)  

When I look up and think about Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have set in their place, what is man, that You think of him, the son of man that You care for him? [Psalm 8:3-4 (NLV)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

DANCE FOR THE LORD

And David danced before the Lord with all his might, wearing a priestly garment. [2 Samuel 6:14 (NLT)]

spiderwortMy day’s reading brought me to 2 Samuel 6 when David, accompanied by the blowing of ram’s horn trumpets and shouts of joy, brought the Ark back to Jerusalem. Having stripped himself of his kingly robes, he wore a linen ephod and unabashedly spun, leapt, and danced his way into the city. After observing her husband’s uninhibited dancing, Michal chided him for his un-kingly attire and undignified behavior. David replied that he was dancing for God, not her and his goal was not to please people. He was dancing to please God.

I thought about David, wildly dancing with joy for the Lord, while viewing a streamed dance production titled “Christmas Joy.” Unlike most holiday dance programs, this one didn’t have a Nutcracker, Sugar Plum Fairy, waltzing flowers, Santa, elves, or secular music. Telling the story of Jesus, a corps de ballet of more than 50 danced to both contemporary and traditional sacred Christmas music. Rather than simply sharing the joy of the season, they shared the joy of Christ! Their movements were choreographed rather than spontaneous like David’s but, like his, theirs was a sacred dance of worship, praise, and joy!

As a way of expressing joy and thanksgiving, music and dance appear to have played a significant part in ancient Jewish worship. We find Scripture’s first mention of dance in Exodus when, after the destruction of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea, Miriam led the women in song and dance. Years later, after David killed Goliath and the Israelites routed the Philistines, women from all over Israel met King Saul. Accompanied by tambourines and cymbals, they sang and danced with joy over their victory. When prophesying the time of restoration, Jeremiah spoke of a time when young women would dance for joy and the men would join in the celebration.

Like many things, however, dance was not always used in a way approved by God. Not long after Miriam’s joyful dance praising Jehovah, the Israelites danced in pagan revelry around the golden calf they’d fashioned. In an effort to get their false god to set fire to their sacrifice, the prophets of Baal danced around their altar. Ezekiel passed along God’s curse on the Ammonites because they danced to celebrate the desecration of the temple and the exile of the Jews. The New Testament tells of the seductive dance of Herodias’ daughter that so enthralled Herod she was able to demand John the Baptist’s severed head on a tray!

Other than that dance for Herod and the mention of music and dancing at the celebration for the prodigal son, there’s no reference to dance in the New Testament. Because it isn’t specifically mentioned as a method of worship, some Christians believe dance should be prohibited. Most early Christians, however, were Jewish and it’s likely they would have incorporated Jewish forms of worship, such as dance circles, into their worship of the Messiah. In the 4th century, Methodius, bishop of Olympus, had this to say about dance: “Gladly join yourself to the heavenly host, which is celebrating magnificently your salvation. As once David did before the ark, so do you, before this virginal throne, joyfully lead the dance.” St. Basil asked, “Could there be anything more blessed that to imitate on earth the ring dance of the angels…?” Of course, like everything, dance could be misused and many of the early church fathers warned of worldly sensual dancing, like that of Herodias’ daughter.

Although dance is rarely included as part of formal worship nowadays, I think of David’s unmitigated joy in the Lord—a joy that filled him so much that he whirled and leapt in praise and worship. His only aim was to please God. May our worship be as authentic, uninhibited, and joyful as his!

Let us dance as David did. Let us not be ashamed to show adoration of God. Dance uplifts the body above the earth into the heavenlies. Dance bound up with faith is a testimony to the living grace of God. He who dances as David danced, dances in grace. [St. Ambrose]

Praise him with the tambourine and dancing; praise him with strings and flutes! Praise him with a clash of cymbals; praise him with loud clanging cymbals. Let everything that breathes sing praises to the Lord! [Psalm 150:4-6 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

A CHANGE OF MIND

Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NLT)]

The Lord afflicts us at times; but it is always a thousand times less than we deserve, and much less than many of our fellow-creatures are suffering around us. Let us therefore pray for grace to be humble, thankful, and patient. [John Newton]

duck potato - arrowheadMy New York Times newsletter has a section called “What You’re Doing” in which readers share how they’re dealing with the pandemic—everything from dreaming up innovative waffle recipes to sending “karaoke grams” to friends on their birthdays. Today, M.B. wrote that she’d started 2020 with a line-a-day diary. Since March, however, she’d filled the diary with “dire COVID milestones, illness among family and friends, anger at deniers, and mourning for the loss of normal life, vacations, and more.” Tiring of her negativity on Thanksgiving Day, M.B. turned that line-a-day diary into a daily gratitude journal and reported having a positive attitude that will carry her through the pandemic.

The conditions haven’t gotten any better since Thanksgiving; in fact, the COVID numbers have gotten worse. The change isn’t in the circumstances because gratitude isn’t found in our circumstances. The change is in M.B because gratitude is found in our minds and M.B. is looking at the world with an attitude of gratitude. In 1919, during another pandemic when the nation was as troubled as it is now, minister and essayist Dr. Frank Crane wrote, “To be thankful simply means that one thinks he is better off than he deserves to be.” Crane went on to suggest that happiness is found in finding a balance between our condition and what we think our condition should be—between what we have and what we think we should have. If we want to be happy, Crane suggested that we whittle down our conception of what we think we should have to match what we actually do possess.

M.B.’s words struck a chord with me. These last few months, the entries in my daily gratitude journal have been sporadic. For example, rather than write I’m thankful that the Pfizer vaccine is about to be approved, I found myself complaining that our government only ordered 100 million doses (enough to inoculate only 50 million people) and it may be June before more is available. When I used an online tool to determine my place in the vaccine queue and learned that at least 118.5 million Americans are ahead of me, I was ready to grumble even more until I remembered Crane’s words. Appreciating that I’m no more deserving than anyone else in the world, I looked thankfully at what I have (health and an eventual place in line) rather than at what I’d prefer. I am thankful that the end is in sight—even if we need a telescope to see it! Yes, gratitude is an attitude and one that often takes a conscious effort to maintain.

We can change our circumstances or change our concept of what it is we deserve and it is great deal easier to change our thoughts than to change the world around us. God will generously provide for our needs but we must remember that He is under no obligation to give us everything we want. We can’t control the pandemic but we can control our thoughts. As bad as things may seem, I think we all would admit to having more and better than we deserve. Knowing we can’t have everything we desire, let’s be thankful for all that we do have!

There is much in this world beyond our control including the nation, the economy, COVID, other people, weather, and the noisy dogs next door. If we can’t change our circumstances, the only option is to change ourselves! M.B. is finding happiness in her new attitude of gratitude—one of recognizing and appreciating all that she has right now. Let us do the same!

Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice! … 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. … And this same God who takes care of me will supply all your needs from his glorious riches, which have been given to us in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:4,6-7,19 (NLT)]

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