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)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

LET THERE BE PEACE – Memorial Day 2019

The Lord will mediate between nations and will settle international disputes. They will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will no longer fight against nation, nor train for war anymore. [Isaiah 2:4 (NLT)]

Commissioned in 1946, the USS Midway served the entire length of the Cold War, during the Vietnam War, and in Operation Desert Storm. Decommissioned in 1992, this retired Naval aircraft carrier is now a museum in San Diego. It was fascinating to wander through this floating city and see the flight deck, bridge, hangar bay, engine room, crew quarters, ready room, and sick bay and inspiring to speak with vets who actually served aboard the ship. Unfortunately, not all of the sailors who boarded that ship during its 46 years of service walked off it. For some, if they returned home at all, it was in a box.

While in California, we also visited the Mt. Soledad National Veteran’s Memorial. Set on a hill with panoramic views of San Diego and the Pacific Ocean, an impressive 27-foot concrete cross rises from its center. This unique memorial honors veterans from the Revolutionary War all the way to the current global war on terror. Over 3,500 black granite plaques are etched with the name of a veteran and most include a picture and a brief summary of the vet’s military experience. Although many of those named on the plaques safely came home, the stories on those plaques told me that some were killed in action.

In our Florida town, we often walk at a park where banners hanging from the light posts honor those who served in the armed forces. Names and dates of service are on the banners and most of those honored by the banners returned after serving our country. I hadn’t given them much thought until I looked up and noticed a banner honoring a beautiful young woman whose dates included “KIA.” This young woman was probably no more than thirty when she died in 2011. I don’t know if she was married or had children. I only know that she left behind some people who loved her enough to honor her with that banner.

I never knew any of the people who died while serving on the USS Midway or whose names were on those granite plaques. I never met the young woman whose face smiled down at me or any of the other dead whose pictures grace those banners. More important, not one of them knew me or you. Nevertheless, they gave their lives for us so that we can have the freedom to travel, walk in a local park, read or write a blog, donate to our favorite causes, vote the way we want, disagree with the government and one another, worship freely, and read whatever newspapers, books or magazines we want to read.

Memorial Day is more than a holiday to enjoy free time. It’s a day to remember people like that young woman and all those others who sacrificed their lives to help preserve the many freedoms we enjoy as Americans. Recently, five new walls were built at Mt. Soledad to accommodate 2,400 more names. Let us pray for peace so that, someday, we won’t have to keep adding plaques and banners to memorials!

Hear our prayer for those who put the welfare of others ahead of their own and give us hearts as generous as theirs. Hear our prayer for those who gave their lives in the service of others, and accept the gift of their sacrifice. Help us to shape and make a world where we will lay down the arms of war and turn our swords into ploughshares for a harvest of justice and peace. [Austin Fleming]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

SMELL THE FLOWERS/HEAR THE MUSIC

This is the Lord’s doing, and it is wonderful to see. This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it. [Psalm 118:23-24 (NLT)]

As a friend’s father used to say, “I couldn’t have made the day any better myself!” The temperature was perfect, the humidity had dropped, the pink of the sunrise tinged the early morning sky, and the aroma of jasmine made every breath a pleasure. When I looked one way, I still could still see the full moon and, when I looked the other, I saw the golden fire of the rising sun. Like a mirror, the lake reflected the clouds and colorful sky. Mocking birds were singing their joyful songs, rabbits were munching the grass, squirrels were chasing one another, ducks effortlessly glided through the water, and a few woodpeckers were tapping on the palms. It seemed like God had given me the beautiful morning as a special birthday gift. Of course, I know He didn’t do it just for me but it felt that way. I was especially appreciative of these little everyday things because I knew it would be my last walk for many weeks; the following day I was having foot surgery and faced a long recovery. As I tried to gather in the morning’s memory to keep me content for the next several weeks of inactivity, I wondered why I didn’t appreciate every morning as much as that day’s.

We’re often so busy rushing through life that we ignore its many unexpected blessings. Back in 2007, violin virtuoso Joshua Bell sat at the entrance to a Washington D.C. metro station during rush hour. The famed violinist played his 1713 Stradivarius (reportedly purchased for $3.5 million) for about 45-minutes. Just three days prior, Bell had performed before a full house in Boston’s Symphony Hall (where moderately good seats cost $100). This day 1,097 people passed by him but only seven paused long enough to listen. The unnoticed street musician received a total of $32.17 from 27 passersby. This experiment wasn’t an anomaly. Back in 1930, a similar one was conducted when violin virtuoso Jacques Gordon, dressed in beggar’s attire and using another prized Stradivarius, gave a curbside concert on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. Hundreds of busy people rushed by him as his beautiful music fell on deaf ears. The musician’s take was $5.61.

If we don’t have a minute to stop and listen to one of the finest musicians in the world, what else are we missing? Do we take the time to perceive beauty and value the day’s gifts? I wonder how many other equally wonderful mornings I’ve sped through without stopping to delight in God’s glory both in the sky and here on earth. I treated that morning special because I knew it would be the last of such mornings for several weeks. In actuality, we never know what morning will be our very last one! Every day is a beautiful day simply because God made it. Let us seize it with praise and thanksgiving and never miss an opportunity to stop and smell the jasmine or listen to the music!

Seize life! Eat bread with gusto, Drink wine with a robust heart. Oh yes—God takes pleasure in your pleasure! Dress festively every morning. Don’t skimp on colors and scarves. Relish life with the spouse you love Each and every day of your precarious life. Each day is God’s gift. It’s all you get in exchange For the hard work of staying alive. Make the most of each one! Whatever turns up, grab it and do it. And heartily! This is your last and only chance at it, For there’s neither work to do nor thoughts to think In the company of the dead, where you’re most certainly headed. [Ecclesiastes 9:7-10 (MSG)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

MAMA BIRDS – MOTHER’S DAY 2019

My son, obey your father’s commands, and don’t neglect your mother’s instruction. Keep their words always in your heart. Tie them around your neck. When you walk, their counsel will lead you. When you sleep, they will protect you. When you wake up, they will advise you. [Proverbs 6:20-22 (NLT)]

The mother eagle teachers her little ones to fly by making their nest so uncomfortable that they are forced to leave it and commit themselves to the unknown world of air outside. And just so does our God to us. [Hannah Whitall Smith]

wrensWhen writing yesterday’s devotion about what I called “concierge” parents, I couldn’t help but think about how birds parent their young. We once had a birdhouse hanging from the eaves and, every spring, a wren family would move in. Once their eggs hatched, I could hear the wren chicks chirping away, demanding food from the crack of dawn until dusk. Those who’ve had the patience to observe them estimate that wren parents make about 1,000 trips a day to provide room service for their hungry brood; my wrens were no exception. Mom or Dad would disappear inside and stay only long enough to drop off dinner before reappearing and flying off again. Back and forth, the pair flew as they delivered caterpillars, beetles, seeds, crickets, berries, snails and spiders to their youngsters.

As the nestlings grew, the demanding chicks got noisier. Nearly as big as their parents, they would stick their heads out and loudly call for dinner. Every few return trips, however, instead of entering the nest with their meal, Mama would come right up to the opening with a mouth full of goodies and then fly away. This must have been her way of telling the youngsters that room service soon was coming to an end. If they wanted to eat, they were going to have to come out and get it; she knew, if they got hungry enough, they would! Less than three weeks after hatching, the birds would leave the nest. At first, I’d see the little guys franticly flapping their wings as they flew close to the ground around the yard. Soon, however, they were flying high with no apparent effort and then off they went, ready to fend for (and feed) themselves.

I don’t know if Hannah Whitall Smith’s words about the mother eagle making the nest uncomfortable for her young are true, but I do know that the eaglet, like the baby wrens, will never fly until he leaves the comfort of the nest. Like them, we will never become the people God wants us to be until we leave our comfort zones and, sometimes, like the birds, we may need a little nudging.

This Mother’s Day, let us be thankful for the men and women in our lives who didn’t coddle us: the ones who gave us a spoon to feed ourselves even though it meant more food got on than in us; the ones who let us put on our own shoes, even though they ended up on the wrong feet, and allowed us to pick out our clothes, even though they frequently were mismatched; the ones who let us spill the milk when we first poured it, lose when we played Old Maid or Parcheesi, and fall when we learned to roller skate; the ones who made us do our own homework, pick up our messes, clear the dishes, write thank you notes, apologize when we were wrong, and earn the money for the expensive designer jeans we just had to have; the ones who disciplined us when we misbehaved, let us make mistakes and face their consequences, and loved us enough to nudge us out the nest! Let us thank our mothers (and all the other people in our lives) who taught us how to fly!

Direct your children onto the right path, and when they are older, they will not leave it. [Proverbs 22:6 (NLT)]

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A WEEK OF RESURRECTION SUNDAYS

Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. [John 11:25 (NLT)]

rabbitWhen I walked into Bible study last Tuesday, I was greeted with “Happy Easter.” The woman wasn’t late; in fact, she was right on time! Although the candy is gone, the baskets stowed away, and the hard boiled eggs eaten, it is still Easter. On the church calendar, the season of Eastertide (“tide” just being an old-fashioned word for “season” or “time”) lasts fifty days. With seven Sundays, that means we have a week’s worth of Sundays in which to celebrate Easter (and sing the beautiful “alleluias” in Christ the Lord is Risen Today). Eastertide will end on Pentecost (the day we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church).

The celebration of Easter, Christmas and other Christian holy days or seasons are not mandated in Scripture. Although Acts 7:20 tells us that the early church chose to gather together on the first day of the week (Sunday) for the Lord’s Supper, it was not until 321 AD that Constantine proclaimed Sunday as the official day of worship. In 325 AD, in the hope of unifying the early church, the Council at Nicaea affirmed Scripture’s truths with the Nicene Creed and set Easter’s date as the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after March 21.

Remembering that, in the Old Testament, God ordained the regular celebration of events in the history of the Israelites, the early church fathers made a liturgical calendar to help Christians remember the acts of God in the history of their redemption. People didn’t have ready access to Bibles and the regular celebration of these events in the life of Christ and the early church helped them both to understand and remember them. We could say that Jesus laid down the essentials and the church fathers handled the details.

Not sacred, the church calendar didn’t come by divine revelation but was developed by tradition and church law. While liturgical churches such as the Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist and Roman Catholic still observe the seasons of the church, most other Protestant churches do not. Perhaps as a way of combating the secular commercialization of our religious holidays, however, some non-liturgical churches are beginning to return to the traditional calendar. Last year, a non-denominational mega-church near our northern home announced, “This year we’re going to observe Lent!” as if it were a new idea rather than one centuries old.

While one of my friends went out and purchased half-price candy on Monday, we don’t want to spend the next seven weeks consuming jelly beans or Peeps. Coloring eggs once a year is more than enough mess for me and, while I admit to finding well-hidden Easter eggs several weeks after the grands have departed, I’m not suggesting that we repeat those secular traditions every Sunday until Pentecost on June 9. Instead, for the next several weeks, we could spend as much time pondering the meaning of Jesus’s resurrection as we did pondering the meaning of His birth last December. Easter, after all, was the whole reason for Christmas and, without His resurrection on Easter, we just would have a good man who said some wonderful wise things and was killed for his words.

The promise of our salvation doesn’t disappear when the last chocolate bunny is eaten. The glorious Easter message is everlasting. Christ’s resurrection brings us love, grace, peace, forgiveness, and redemption, not just on Easter, but on every day of our lives. One day is hardly enough time to celebrate a risen Christ; let us be Easter people all year long.

The resurrection gives my life meaning and direction and the opportunity to start over no matter what my circumstances. [Robert Flatt]

This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

EASTER: ALLELUIA! CHRIST IS RISEN!

monarch butterfliesThe next day, on the Sabbath, the leading priests and Pharisees went to see Pilate. They told him, “Sir, we remember what that deceiver once said while he was still alive: ‘After three days I will rise from the dead.’ So we request that you seal the tomb until the third day. This will prevent his disciples from coming and stealing his body and then telling everyone he was raised from the dead! If that happens, we’ll be worse off than we were at first.” Pilate replied, “Take guards and secure it the best you can.” So they sealed the tomb and posted guards to protect it. [Matthew 27:62-65 (NLT)]

Christ the Lord is ris’n today, Alleluia!
Sons of men and angels say, Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, ye heav’ns, and earth, reply, Alleluia!
Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!
Once He died our souls to save, Alleluia!
Where thy victory, O grave? Alleluia! [Charles Wesley]

Billy Graham told of when an entertainment network was doing a story on highlights of Charlotte, North Carolina. Considered a point of interest, the Billy Graham Library was visited by the show’s co-host, Kristy Villa, and her film crew. Seeing the many crosses displayed throughout the property, Villa asked, “I see all the crosses, but where is Jesus?” Her library guide replied, “He’s in Heaven, and He is also present in the lives of those who believe in Him and follow Him as their personal Lord and Savior.” Villa exclaimed, “Oh, that’s right! Some worship a crucifix, but Christians worship a risen Christ.” The journalist added, “I have been in church my whole life, but I have never heard the emphasis put on an empty cross.” Our emphasis is on the empty tomb, as well!

The bodies of Bahá’u’lláh, founder of Bahá’í faith, and Báb, a central figure in Bahá’í and the founder of Bábisma, are buried in Israel. The grave of Confucius, the founder of Confucianism, is in his home town of Qufu in China and Muhammad, the founder of Islam, is buried in the Mosque of the Prophet in the Saudi Arabian city of Medina. The body of Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, was cremated and his remains were sent to eight different royal families. The Patna Museum in India displays a casket containing his sacred ashes and a temple in Sri Lanka possesses what is said to be his right tooth. When he failed to resurrect, the body of Cyrus Teed, founder of Koreshanity was buried on Estero Island; two years later a hurricane washed his tomb out to sea. As for Jesus? His grave was empty!

Let us never forget that the story didn’t end with the crucified Christ! The cross couldn’t stop Jesus and the tomb couldn’t contain Him. Pilate’s best efforts to secure the tomb were worthless. A Roman seal, large boulder and a sixteen-man Roman guard were not enough to keep Jesus shut in His tomb! Both cross and grave are empty! With His death and resurrection, Christ triumphed over both sin and death! Alleluia!

Easter means you can put the truth in a grave but you can’t keep it there. [Anne Lamott]

But the angel said, “Don’t be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead!” [Mark 16:6 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.