WORDS

A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it! It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell. [James 3:4-6 (MSG)]

rabbitJames warns of the dangers of an untamed tongue and the damage that can be done with ill-considered words. Although he was speaking of speech, the same goes for the written word. Whether we’re holding a pen, our fingers are speeding across a keyboard, or our thumbs are tapping out a text, our words are powerful. Whether we use them to build or destroy is our choice.

C.S. Lewis, one of the great Christian minds of the 20th century, authored more than thirty books. A man who never used a typewriter, he also was a prolific letter writer. Writing not just to friends and colleagues, he answered every letter sent to him. Most of us probably have trouble responding to someone with a quick email, yet this busy man never hesitated to handwrite a response, even to strangers or children who wrote after reading one of his books or hearing him on radio. More than 3,200 of Lewis’ handwritten letters remain and have been published in various collections. They range from the somewhat mundane (thanking someone for a ham) to the exceptional (reassuring a woman who is afraid of dying).

Often writing more than 100 letters a month, his letters show not just a deep thinker with a brilliant mind but also a compassionate man generous enough to take the time to instruct, explain, empathize, encourage, and reveal himself and his vulnerabilities. Nevertheless, Lewis once complained, “If I didn’t have so many letters to answer, I’d have time to write another book.” His words from another letter, however, explain why he did it: “Ever since I became a Christian, I have thought that perhaps the best, perhaps the only service I could do for my unbelieving neighbours was to explain and defend the belief.” He wrote those letters out of obedience to God and concern for the people who’d written to him.

While many proverbs give dire warnings about imprudent words, the other half of those proverbs often are about judicious ones. That C.S. Lewis’ letters continue to be read today illustrates the power of the written word. Rather than start a wildfire with cruel words, Lewis sowed seeds of Christ with his kind ones; may we do the same. Let us never forget the beautiful things our words, both spoken and written, can do when used wisely and with love!

Words kill, words give life; they’re either poison or fruit—you choose. [Proverbs 18:21 (MSG)]

The words of the wicked kill; the speech of the upright saves. [Proverbs 12:6 (MSG)]

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A WONDERFUL LIFE

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. [Romans 12:1 (NLT)]

irisAround this time of year, I frequently return to Bedford Falls and get reacquainted with the conflicted George Bailey, the money-grubbing Mr. Potter, and Angel 2nd Class, Clarence Odbody. This year’s version of It’s a Wonderful Life was somewhat different. Rather than seeing the movie, I attended a theatrical production set in a New York City radio station in the 1940s. The well-known story unfolded as if it were a live radio broadcast. Just five actors took on all of the roles (along with producing the various sound effects required for a radio show). In spite of the unusual adaptation, the production remained true to the original movie’s message.

George Bailey, a building and loan banker, is an unlikely hero. Having abandoned his dreams for a life in Bedford Falls, he feels that life has passed him by. About to be thrown into jail because of his uncle’s carelessness (and Mr. Potter’s dishonesty), George realizes he’s worth more dead than alive. The other unlikely hero is Clarence Odbody, an ineffective guardian angel desperately trying to earn his wings by helping this despairing man on the brink of suicide. In spite of the story’s incredibly flawed angel theology, it’s a good tale. When George wishes he’d never been born, Clarence shows him what an ugly depraved community Bedford Falls would have been had he never lived. When George Bailey realizes how many lives would have been ruined, lost, or never even have happened, he chooses life.

While George’s perspective changes and there is a happy ending, it’s not a happily-ever-after one. Unlike Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, the evil Mr. Potter doesn’t transform. We know he’ll persist in trying to take over the town and that George will continue to have too little money at the end of the month. The challenges, disappointment, and disillusionment of George’s life don’t disappear. His sacrifices cost him dearly; his aspirations were surrendered, he lost his hearing, never attended college or traveled, worked in a job he hated, and endured financial hardship. Nevertheless, it’s a happy ending because George finally understands the sacrifice was worth it! He realizes the most important work we do is not the work we ever planned on doing.

The missing $8,000 wasn’t what caused George’s despair. He was unhappy and unfulfilled because he was concentrating on the life he wanted to live rather than loving the life he was leading. Like George, most of us have given up opportunities, hopes and dreams or endured hardship of some kind or another for the sake of others. If not, we should have because that’s what God tells us to do. Jesus made it clear that our lives were to be ones of sacrifice. We belong to Jesus rather than to ourselves. Following Jesus means we surrender to His purposes, which inevitably means we don’t always get what we wanted! We do, however, get something better (but often don’t recognize it).

The difference between George Bailey and a Christian is motivation. Bailey sacrificed out of a sense of duty to family, friends and town. Although family, friends, and community often benefit from our sacrifice, the Christian sacrifices out of love and obedience to God. George’s sense of duty was to Bedford Falls; ours is to Jesus! Our Lord was the suffering servant; can we be anything less? In spite of the difficulties encountered along the way, when we sacrifice ourselves to God, we will find such joy and peace that we’ll have no need for an angel to show us that it’s been a wonderful life!

All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away. [The motto Peter Bailey’s office in “It’s a Wonderful Life”]

If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross daily, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. [Luke 9:23-24 (NLT)]

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THE ARK

giraffeThen God said to Noah, “Leave the boat, all of you—you and your wife, and your sons and their wives.  Release all the animals—the birds, the livestock, and the small animals that scurry along the ground—so they can be fruitful and multiply throughout the earth.” Genesis 8:15-17 (NLT)]

The National Geographic Photo Ark is on display at our local zoo. This travelling exhibition features large-scale animal portraits taken by Joel Sartore, a man on a quest to photograph all of the world’s animals. Sartore has photographed a little more than 9,800 of the 1.2 million species of animals that have been identified by zoologists so far.

Attributing human traits or emotions to non-humans is anthropomorphism and I admit being guilty of it as I viewed Sartore’s amazing photographs. An embarrassed-looking mandrill with its hand covering his mouth seemed to be politely concealing a burp. With his cocked head and puzzled expression, a white arctic fox looked perplexed. The Sumatran rhino’s wistful look made me wonder if he knew there are less than 100 like him on the planet. Clearly unaware that he also is an endangered species, the giant panda looked content and rather pleased with himself. The young chimp appeared to be proudly flexing his biceps, as do toddlers when they want to show how big and strong they are. The Sumatran tiger lay regally, his head erect with paws crossed in front of him as if the photographer had posed him for his royal portrait. A black-footed ferret seemed forlorn, as if he knew that only a few hundred of his species still live in the wild. Perhaps my favorite photo was that of a bashful Brazilian porcupine on his hind legs. Looking a bit anxious, he was scrunched over a bit, legs squeezed together, with his front paws tucked down between his legs. He looked just like a toddler who desperately needs to go potty!

The purpose of the National Geographic Photo Ark is to use “the power of photography to inspire people to help save species at risk before it’s too late.” Although ours is a small zoo with only 70 species and just 52 of Sartore’s photographs on display, the amazing diversity in God’s creation was evident in both the enclosures and photographs. Sadly, many animals had words like “endangered” or “at risk” beside their names. God entrusted mankind with the task of looking after His amazing creation and we haven’t done a very good job of that.

The extinction of various species has always existed (i.e. dinosaurs) but it is increasing at an alarming rate. If the current trend continues, it is estimated that one in every three animal species on earth now will have disappeared by the end of this century. Following the flood, God vowed to never again destroy all living things. He won’t have to; we seem to be doing that on our own!

As we left the zoo, I thought about my anthropomorphic view both of Sartore’s photos and the zoo’s residents. Perhaps God gave us the tendency to attribute human emotions to animals so that we’d connect with them. It’s when we connect that we begin to care. Martin Buber said that, “An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language.” While I’m not sure exactly what Buber meant, the eyes I looked at told me to care.

Scripture is filled with admonitions to care for animals; domestic animals were not to be overworked or treated cruelly and Jesus told us that God knows when even a single sparrow falls to the ground. What does God think when an entire species ceases to exist? All of creation belongs to Him and we are little more than tenant farmers responsible for its care. When God gave us dominion over the earth, He expected us to behave conscientiously and we will be held accountable for the way we’ve tended His world. Are we good stewards or have we become exploiters? Will our zoos become the arks of the future and the only place God’s beautiful creatures will exist? Noah once saved the animals; can we do anything less?

It is folly to think that we can destroy one species and ecosystem after another and not affect humanity. … When we save species, we’re actually saving ourselves. [Joel Sartore]

The Lord God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it. [Genesis 2:15 (NLT)]

Look, the highest heavens and the earth and everything in it all belong to the Lord your God. [Deuteronomy 10:14 (NLT)]

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COMING SOON – ADVENT

However, no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows. And since you don’t know when that time will come, be on guard! Stay alert! [Mark 13:32-33 (NLT)]

Since 2014, we’ve awaited the opening of a new grocery store. Having missed all three of its previous launch dates, it is supposed to open today. Promising to be a “local destination,” this store isn’t just another Publix or Kroger’s. This “culinary mecca” and “foodie paradise” promises to be the Disneyland of grocery stores. In its 77,000 square-feet, there will be a food court and restaurant along with a book corner, five-level children’s play area, cooking demonstration kitchen, and coffee, smoothie, juice, wine and cocktail bars. They’ll churn fresh butter, roast fresh coffee, make their own ice cream and candy, pull fresh mozzarella cheese, and bake wood-fired pizzas. There will be tanks of live tilapia and shrimp along with six-hundred gallons of live lobster. Like any grocery, they’ll have fresh produce and bakery, dairy case (with artisan cheeses), wine department, butcher shop, bulk food, flowers, and whatever else you could possibly find in a grocery store. The store claims it will be “the kind of place where you’ll want to hang out.”

I’m not sure about the grocery, but I know we’ll want to hang out with Jesus when He comes again. As Christians, we expect Him to return from heaven and we look forward to the day when we will see the full glory of our God. I’ve only waited five years for the grocery but Christians have waited nearly 2,000 years for Jesus. The date of His return is even more elusive than the store’s actual opening date. While the store’s owner attributes the delay to hurricane Irma, his plan getting bigger and grander, parking lot issues, and finding 400 workers, we’re not sure why God has delayed. After reminding us that God’s time is different than ours, the Apostle Peter explains that Jesus is patiently waiting for His return because He is giving humanity as much time as possible to choose to follow Him.

Just because there’s been a delay in the store’s opening doesn’t mean it won’t open and just because Jesus has delayed coming doesn’t mean He won’t! Jesus promised His disciples that He would come again and, when they saw Him ascend into heaven, two angels proclaimed that Jesus would return to earth bodily and visibly. As Christians, whenever we recite the Nicene or Apostles’ creeds, we acknowledge our belief that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead and that His kingdom will have no end. If we have faith in Jesus, we must have faith in His return!

If I’m not driving past the grocery store, I might miss its grand opening but I’m not likely to miss Jesus’s return. The first time Jesus came it was as a baby in a manger and He was overlooked by many. The next time He comes it will be as a conquering King. He will come “on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” and “send out his angels with the mighty blast of a trumpet.” [Matthew 27:30-31] I don’t think anyone will miss the armies of Heaven when they arrive!

Although, the grocery store is supposed to open today (Monday), I’m writing this on Friday so I don’t know if it actually will. Then again, I also don’t know if Jesus returned over the weekend. Unlike the grocery store, He’s not going to announce the date! If He doesn’t come today, He might come tomorrow. In any case, we’d best be ready for Him when He does!

For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a commanding shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God. First, the believers who have died will rise from their graves. Then, together with them, we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Then we will be with the Lord forever. [1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 (NLT)]

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FROM START TO FINISH

Together they will go to war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will defeat them because he is Lord of all lords and King of all kings. And his called and chosen and faithful ones will be with him. [Revelation 17:14 (NLT)]

Christ the KingSeeing the rise of secularization, communism, fascism, and atheism following World War I, Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King in 1925. He wanted to remind Christians who their only King was and that it was Christ (and Christ alone) who should reign in our hearts! Originally celebrated the last Sunday in October, the feast day was moved to the last Sunday of the liturgical year in 1969. In spite of being created by the Roman Catholic Church, many Protestants including Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians celebrate the day.

This year, Christ the King Sunday was yesterday. Celebrating Christ’s second coming, His messianic kingship, and His sovereign rule over all creation, it marked the end of the church year. Next Sunday, the first Sunday in Advent, begins the new liturgical year. Advent means “the arrival or coming of something” and, for Christians, Advent is a time of preparing to celebrate Christ’s first arrival (his incarnation) and also a time of anticipating His second coming “when the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, will be revealed.” [Titus 2:13].

While our children or grands might have candy filled Advent calendars to help them count down to Christmas, many adults observe this season of anticipation with a spiritual discipline, such as memorizing Scripture or Bible reading. Although no Christmas Eve service would seem complete without hearing the account of Christ’s birth in Luke 2,  there are twenty-three other chapters in Luke’s gospel! If you started December 1 by reading one chapter in Luke and read another chapter every day until the 24th, you’d wake up Christmas morning having read the entire gospel. As we busy ourselves in preparation for the holidays, reading Christ’s story and words might keep our minds on the reason for Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem some 2,000 years ago.

The last week before Christmas, when life gets busier and it’s harder to keep centered on Jesus, Luke’s narration can keep us grounded in Christ as we see God’s plan fulfilled. On the 18th, Jesus will predict His death for the third time. In the next day’s reading, before taking His triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Jesus will tell His followers what is expected of them between His departure and second coming. We’ll read of His conflict with the religious leaders on the 20th. On the 21st, Jesus warns the disciples about the future: the persecution, the tribulation, and second coming. It will be Judas’ betrayal, the last supper, and Peter’s denial on the 22nd and Jesus’s trial, crucifixion, death and burial on the 23rd. Finally, on the 24th, we’ll read of His resurrection and ascension. Hopefully, as Luke’ words take us from annunciation to ascension, Christmas morning will be a more meaningful to us all.

May we always remember that Jesus is the only reason for the season!

The immense step from the Babe at Bethlehem to the living, reigning triumphant Lord Jesus, returning to earth for his own people–that is the glorious truth proclaimed throughout Scripture. As the bells ring out the joys of Christmas, may we also be alert for the final trumpet that will announce his return, when we shall always be with him. [Alan Redpath]

I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! [Luke 2:10b-11 (NLT)]

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LITTLE THINGS WITH LOVE

Feed the hungry! Help those in trouble! Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you shall be as bright as day. [Isaiah 58:10 (TLB)]

food bankWhile tucking toothbrushes, dental floss, Band-Aids, and soap into shoeboxes already filled with pencils, notebooks, markers, tee-shirts, and toys, I thanked God, not just for the privilege of giving, but also that basic items like these are not a luxury in my world. In many parts of the world, however, they are! For example, our pastor just returned from Cuba where a sample-size tube of toothpaste costs the equivalent of $5 and is so sparingly squeezed that it lasts a family of four one month. The gifts he’d packed in his suitcase were simple drugstore items such as toothpaste, feminine hygiene products, and pain relievers, but the people who received those basics were as appreciative as if he’d delivered a treasure chest of gold and diamonds.

Dwight Moody once told of a man at sea who was ill and confined to his cabin. Hearing that a sailor had fallen overboard and not knowing what he could do to help, the man picked up his light and held it against the port-hole. Upon hearing that the sailor had been rescued, the man returned to his bunk. When walking on the deck after his recovery, this gentleman met the fellow who’d fallen overboard that night. Recounting the frightening episode, the sailor said he’d been sure no one would see him in the darkness as he desperately tried to stay afloat in the churning waves. But, just as he started to go down for what he was sure was the last time, a light from out of a port-hole shone on him; finally seeing the drowning sailor, a man caught his hand and pulled him into the life-boat.

Our pastor’s suitcase of basics and the clothes he and his wife left behind in Cuba can’t stop the blackouts, ease the nation’s food shortages, or shorten the queues waiting for a bus or a few gallons of gas. The Samaritan’s Purse shoeboxes our church filled won’t change governments, provide jobs, or feed the hungry. The meals packed for food banks, clothes donated to resale shops, gifts purchased for strangers whose names hang on a giving tree, food served at a homeless shelter, change dropped into the bell ringers’ buckets, checks written to the Salvation Army, or the animal purchased for Heifer International won’t solve the world’s problems. Nevertheless, while we can’t change the world, we all can do our part to change the world for someone, even if it’s just with a toothbrush or a tube of toothpaste!

“Let us take the torch of salvation and go into these dark homes and hold up Christ to the people as the Savior of the world,” said Moody as he finished his story of the light in the port-hole. “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love,” were the words of Mother Teresa. Few, if any, of us will pull a drowning sailor from the sea and we’re not likely to win a Nobel Peace Prize for our humanitarian efforts. Nevertheless, in our own small ways, we each can make a difference by shining a light for those in despair. Let us be the light that brings Christ’s love into the world!

You are the world’s light—a city on a hill, glowing in the night for all to see. Don’t hide your light! Let it shine for all; let your good deeds glow for all to see, so that they will praise your heavenly Father. [Matthew 5:14-16 (TLB)]

Eternal life is in him, and this life gives light to all mankind. His life is the light that shines through the darkness—and the darkness can never extinguish it. [John 1:4-5 (TLB)]

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