IT COULD BE WORSE

Why are you down in the dumps, dear soul? Why are you crying the blues? Fix my eyes on God—soon I’ll be praising again. He puts a smile on my face. He’s my God. [Psalm 42:11 (MSG)]

cardinalThe story is told of a circuit-riding preacher who never failed to thank God for the day’s weather. One Sunday, after battling through wind and sleet to his preaching appointment in a distant town, the congregation wondered how he could be thankful in such dreadful weather. When it came time for prayer, however, he said, “This is a wretched day, dear Lord, no doubt about it. But, we thank Thee, Lord, that every day isn’t as bad as this one!”

There certainly are times when it is difficult to praise the Lord, and not just because of the weather. We’ve all had days, weeks, months or maybe even years, when every time we turn around, something else seems to have gone wrong. A financial, health, family or business crisis seems to lurk around every corner. In fact, it’s so bad that the light at the end of the tunnel is just an oncoming train! God knows, it’s not easy to get through those times. It is tempting to stop thanking and start complaining: to allow our prayers to reflect our circumstances rather than our faith.

Another story is told about Matthew Henry, a 17th century preacher and Bible commentator. One evening, on his way home after preaching in London, Henry was accosted by four thieves. His response is said to have been this prayer: “Lord, I thank Thee first because I was never robbed before; second, because although they took my purse they did not take my life; third, because although they took my all, it was not much; and fourth because it was I who was robbed, and not I who robbed.”

While I would prefer to be neither, I have to agree with Matthew Henry that I’d rather be the one robbed than the robber. At least the robbed has not offended God or his fellow man. As these two stories illustrate, there is always something for which to be thankful, if only because it could be worse!

Father, forgive us if we lose sight of you when we are beset by trouble. Give us the ability to rejoice, not for our difficulties, but for the knowledge that we are not alone and that you are greater than any problems we may encounter. Give us thankful hearts for all of your mercies—even when that means we’re thankful that we were the ones robbed rather than the robbers or that every day does not bring a raging storm! When necessary, remind us that it could be worse!

Gratitude is an offering precious in the sight of God, and it is one that the poorest of us can make and be not poorer, but richer for having made it. [A.W. Tozer]

Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (MSG)]

Thank God! Pray to him by name! Tell everyone you meet what he has done! Sing him songs, belt out hymns, translate his wonders into music! Honor his holy name with Hallelujahs, you who seek God. Live a happy life! Keep your eyes open for God, watch for his works; be alert for signs of his presence. [Psalm 105:1-3 (MSG)]

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TRUE LOVE

Love never gives up. Love never cares more for others than for self. Loves doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, Doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always “me first.” Doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, Doesn’t revel when others grovel. Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, Puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, Never looks back, but keeps going to the end. [1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (MSG)]

8-19-1967When I married my husband, I was only twenty years old. Although I would never have admitted it then, I had no real concept of what true love actually entailed or the seriousness of the vows I was taking. Standing in front of a minister and 200 guests, I promised to “love him, comfort him, honor, and keep him in sickness and in health” and to forsake all others. I vowed, from that day forward, to “have and to hold…for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health,” and to love and cherish him until we parted at death. I said those words without the vaguest understanding of just how bad “for worse” could get or how little money “for poorer” might be. I didn’t consider that sickness would mean much more than a case of the flu or how long it could be until death would separate us. Having known each other for less than a year when we wed, neither of us had any idea how difficult it actually is to cherish someone whose words or actions hurt us or with whom we disagree. I doubt we’re the only ones who entered into marriage so naively.

Today is our anniversary and, in the fifty-two years since our wedding day, we’ve experienced good and not so good times, periods of plenty and sparseness, illness and well-being, tragedy and joy, fullness and emptiness, anger and forgiveness, excitement and tedium, labor and leisure, turmoil and peace, discontent and satisfaction. We know from experience that it’s not always easy to love, comfort, honor, forsake, and cherish.

We used to joke that we only stayed together because of the children (neither of us wanted custody of them) and the grands (neither of us would risk losing them)! But, that isn’t it. Paul’s words about love in 1 Corinthians 13 were read at our wedding and those words have guided us ever since that day. Early in our marriage, we realized that love is more than a feeling; it isn’t something one falls into or out of. Love is a conscious choice and one we choose to make every day. None of us are loveable all of the time; we can, however, choose to be loving all of the time!

Father in heaven, let your love fill our hearts and lives. Thank you for giving us people to love, comfort, honor, and cherish. Thank you also for placing people in our lives who somehow manage to love, comfort, honor and cherish us, as well. Shower your blessings upon them.

O God … look mercifully upon these thy servants, that they may love, honour, and cherish each other, and so live together in faithfulness and patience, in wisdom and true godliness, that their home may be a haven of blessing and of peace. [From the Solemnization of Matrimony in “The Book of Common Prayer” (1952)]

Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love. [1 Corinthians 13:13b (MSG)]

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DINGS AND DENTS

That Sunday evening the disciples were meeting behind locked doors because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders. Suddenly, Jesus was standing there among them! “Peace be with you,” he said. As he spoke, he showed them the wounds in his hands and his side. They were filled with joy when they saw the Lord! [John 20:19-20 (NLT)]

tiger swallowtail - butterflyWe’re selling our northern home and, as I packed up assorted family heirlooms, I came across the little sterling silver salt and pepper shakers we used for so many years. I held one in my hand a bit longer than the others; it had distinct teeth marks on it. For reasons that are unknown, my eldest child tried to bite through it. In spite of its obvious imperfection (or, perhaps because of it), the shaker is still beautiful. I’d wondered which child should get these silver pieces but, after remembering their history, I lovingly wrapped them up and placed them in my son’s box. I only hope his family will find the impressions of his baby teeth as beautiful as do I.

As I sorted through other family silver, I came to the sterling candle holders that were a wedding gift to my parents some 82 years ago. Like the salt and pepper set, they show their age with a few dents and scratches. My parent’s marriage, like the candle holders, wasn’t perfect but it endured through every circumstance. I decided to keep the candle sticks with our things as a reminder both to forgive and appreciate the beauty in imperfection.

I thought of Jesus’s scars as I packed up the dented silver. Our resurrected Lord carried the scars from his wounds. Yet, since He could pass through a locked door, He easily could have removed those wounds in his hands and side. Jesus’s scars let the disciples know who He was and our scars are an essential part of our identity, as well.

Like Jesus, we all bear scars, both inside and out. Like my silver, we have dings and dents and are a little (or a whole lot) tarnished. Just as the imperfections on my old silver tell a story, so do our scars. The scar from a C-section tells of blessings received while the scar from a hysterectomy tells of the loss of possibilities. The scars from a burn tell the story of injury and pain while the scars from open heart surgery tell of getting a new lease on life. Some scars, like those left from a divorce, a loved one’s death, or addiction, are invisible but tell their own tale, as well. Scars, dings and dents are simply evidence of things that didn’t defeat us; they are our beautiful trophies of survival and healing. Death did not conquer Jesus and, though God’s grace, life’s challenges cannot conquer us.

My scars remind me that I did indeed survive my deepest wounds. That in itself is an accomplishment. And they bring to mind something else, too. They remind me that the damage life has inflicted on me has, in many places, left me stronger and more resilient. What hurt me in the past has actually made me better equipped to face the present. [Steve Goodier]

From now on, don’t let anyone trouble me with these things. For I bear on my body the scars that show I belong to Jesus. [Galatians 6:17 (NLT)]

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IN ALL THINGS

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)]

Swamp lily - Corkscrew swampAfter the Apostle Paul established the church in Thessalonica, he encountered persecution from both the Jews and city officials so he abruptly fled with Silas. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul sends words of comfort, edification, and encouragement to the new church. Along with some practical advice on Christian living, he reassures the new converts in their persecution and 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 are some of my favorite verses.

A common theme in Paul’s letters is that our joy, prayers and thanks shouldn’t depend upon our circumstances. In this letter to the Thessalonians, Paul’s short sentences have a forceful tone and, rather than merely suggesting, the Apostle is almost ordering them to rejoice, pray and give thanks! While we should rejoice in what Matthew Henry calls our “creature comforts,” rather than an emotion, this joy is an attitude of delight in the Lord rather than in our condition. Instead of “always,” the King James translation says “evermore” and, for the believer, rejoicing forevermore is possible. We can rejoice in anticipation of our future when our joy truly will be never-ending.

One of the ways to always rejoice is to pray without ceasing! Prayer is conversing with God and, if we’re talking with Him, we can’t help but be joyful. Yet, looking at Paul’s example of working as a tentmaker during his ministry, I don’t think Paul means we should be on our knees and praying incessantly 24/7. Nevertheless, we should be continually aware of God’s presence in our daily lives. Rather than do nothing but pray, we should allow nothing to hinder our perseverance and faithfulness in prayer. With attentiveness to God’s will for us, our lives should be a continual prayer and all of our actions should honor, worship and praise the Almighty!

Then we get to Paul’s third command: “Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you…” Because most modern translations tend to group these three verses together in one paragraph, I took the last part of this sentence to mean that it is God’s will that we rejoice, pray and give thanks in all circumstances. Indeed, I’m sure it is but, reading his words in the light of the trials facing the Thessalonians gives them deeper meaning.

Considering that they were being persecuted and “all circumstances” for them included suffering, prosecution and intimidation, Paul’s words tell them to look beyond their hardship because all that was happening was within God’s will for them! Paul knew that God is at work on behalf of His people in any and all circumstances. It is because of that, we can be thankful in scarcity, hardship, loss, peril, and sickness and as well as in plenty, opportunity, gain, security, and health.

We can rejoice forever, make our lives a continual prayer, and give thanks in all circumstances because we know that our situation, no matter how dire, is within God’s plan for us and is for our good. Knowing that “this is the will of God for you who belong to Christ Jesus,” we can, indeed, joyfully give thanks!

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)]

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THE PARDON

The payment for sin is death. But God gives us the free gift of life forever in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 6:23 (NCV)]

Blessed are they whose sins are forgiven, whose wrongs are pardoned. [Romans 4:7 (NCV)]

Storm Peak - SteamboatTo impress their students with the importance of commas, English teachers often tell an unsubstantiated story about Maria Fyodorovna, the wife of Tsar Alexander III of Russia. Alexander, a harsh and repressive ruler, had exiled a suspected anarchist to imprisonment and death by writing these words on his warrant: “Pardon impossible, to be sent to Siberia.” Coming across the document, the Tsarina seized the opportunity to save the life of an unknown prisoner and quickly scratched out the comma. She re-inserted it so that the warrant read: “Pardon, impossible to send to Siberia.” With the comma’s transposition, the prisoner’s death warrant became his pardon.

The story gives us no reason to think the prisoner was innocent; rather than saving an innocent man, the Tsarina merely chose to act mercifully toward a guilty one. Unlike the Russian prisoner, we’re probably not anarchists or thieves but every one of us is a sinner and we all fall short of God’s standard of perfect righteousness. Whether it’s lying, envy, immorality, greed, pride, self-centeredness, anger, rebellion against God or our indifference to Him, like the Tsar’s prisoner, we are condemned because of our guilt. Because the wages of sin are death, we deserve death as much as that man probably deserved being sent to the unrelenting misery of Siberia.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, described his four years of exile in Siberia as being in a “house of the living dead,” a place of “inexpressible, unending suffering.” Rather than serve our sentence in the brutal conditions of a Russian slave labor camp, Jesus served our sentence on Calvary. By dying on the cross, He took the punishment we all deserve. With His one act, He moved the comma on our death warrants and paid the penalty for the entire world for all time. Like the Russian prisoner, we haven’t earned mercy or forgiveness and we certainly don’t deserve a pardon. Nevertheless, rather than a comma written in ink, our pardon was written in the blood of Jesus when He sacrificed Himself on the cross.

Thank you, Jesus!

It is not good for us to trust in our merits, in our virtues or our righteousness; but only in God’s free pardon, as given us through faith in Jesus Christ. [John Wycliffe]

Everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s glorious standard, and all need to be made right with God by his grace, which is a free gift. They need to be made free from sin through Jesus Christ. God sent him to die in our place to take away our sins. We receive forgiveness through faith in the blood of Jesus’ death. [Romans 3:23-25a (NCV)]

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FREEDOM OF RELIGION – Independence Day 2019

American FlagsWe are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. [2 Corinthians 4:8-9 (NLT)]

In 2014, I wrote about Meriam Ibrahim, a 27-year-old Sudanese mother of two who, at that time, was facing execution for refusing to renounce her Christian faith. Eight months pregnant when she appeared in court on charges of apostasy and adultery, she was given three days to reject Jesus and accept Islam. Upon her refusal, she was found guilty of apostasy and sentenced to death under Sudan’s Sharia law. Meriam, however, had never rejected Islam; she’d always been a Christian. Although her father is Muslim (technically making her Muslim), he was absent during her childhood and she was raised as an Orthodox Christian by her Christian mother. Under Sharia law, marriage between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man is illegal and Meriam, married to a Christian man, was also found guilty of adultery and sentenced to flogging (100 lashes). Muslim law did not allow her execution while was pregnant and the shackled woman waited in prison for her child’s life to begin and hers to end. When writing about her, I wondered if I’d be as strong as Meriam and reminded readers that Christian persecution did not end in ancient Rome.

Curious as to her whereabouts today, I learned that the time the pregnant woman waited for her execution saved her life. It allowed Meriam’s plight to be made public and, because of international pressure, she was eventually released and settled in New Hampshire. Later that year, however, two Christian pastors from the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church were charged with spying and undermining the constitutional system. Facing death sentences, they were imprisoned for eight months. In June of 2015, Christian girls walking home from church were charged with indecent dress and forced to strip out of their trousers and skirts. Five of the girls received fines and one girl had to suffer through twenty lashes. Since then, Sudanese Christians have continued to face discrimination and persecution; churches were demolished and Christians intimidated, attacked and arrested. Although Sudan’s brutal president Omar al-Bashir left office in April of this year, there is no assurance that his replacement will be any better. Unfortunately, it’s not just in Sudan where Christianity is illegal, forbidden, or punishable. Rounding out the top ten countries where human and religious rights are being violated are North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Eritrea, Yemen, Iran and India. According to Open Doors, 2018 saw 4,136 Christians killed for their faith; 2,625 Christians detained without trial, arrested, sentenced and imprisoned; and 1,266 churches or Christian buildings attacked. They estimate that one in nine Christians experience “high levels of persecution worldwide.”

Many of our nation’s first colonists came here to escape religious persecution in their homelands. On this day, when we celebrate our nation’s Declaration of Independence and our “inalienable Rights” to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” may we truly appreciate the freedom of religion we enjoy. In our nation, no one is a second-hand citizen because of religion, no regime tries to make any of us renounce our faith, nor must we conceal our beliefs to be safe. My Jewish friends can wear a Star of David pendant as openly as I wear my cross. As freely as I observe Easter and Christmas, my Muslim friends can observe Ramadan, my Jewish friends Passover and Hanukah, and my Hindu friends Diwali, while my atheist neighbors can choose to believe in nothing.

On this national holiday, let us thank God for the freedom we have to worship Him openly and without fear. May we never take that freedom lightly. As we count our numerous blessings, remember to pray for those who don’t enjoy the many freedoms we often take for granted.

Our prayers can go where we cannot… There are no borders, no prison walls, no doors that are closed to us when we pray. [Brother Andrew (founder of Open Doors)]

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)]

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