PRIORITIES

And don’t be concerned about what to eat and what to drink. Don’t worry about such things. These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers all over the world, but your Father already knows your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and he will give you everything you need. [Luke 12:29-31 (NLT)]

bee on cloverIn writing about keeping the main thing the main thing, I mentioned the sisters Martha and Mary. Hospitality was highly valued in Jewish life and, as the host, Martha’s character and reputation depended on how well she managed her household and served her guests. Offering hospitality to a famous teacher was a great honor and, to show her devotion to Jesus, Martha seemed determined to make the most of it by preparing a lavish feast for Him. Unlike her sister, the contemplative Mary defied the customs of her day; rather than helping in the kitchen, she took the place of a disciple and sat at Jesus’ feet

Instead of keeping her eye on the main thing—which was Jesus—Martha was distracted by all that she was doing. The word usually translated as distracted is periespato. Meaning to be drawn away, troubled, or over-burdened, this is the only time it was used in the New Testament. The King James translation of this word as “cumbered” probably is a better picture of her state of mind. It wasn’t that a distracted Martha forgot to put out cups for the wine. She was weighed down and encumbered because she’d saddled herself with things of secondary importance and lost sight of the main thing.

Not needing an elaborate banquet or a perfectly set table, Jesus told Martha not to be concerned over the details. Explaining that there only was one thing about which to be concerned, He said Mary had found it. The exact identity of that one thing, however, is unstated. We understand Jesus’ words to mean that the Kingdom of God takes precedence over anything in the house, that sitting at the master’s feet and listening to Him is more important than chores, and that the Lord has first claim on our time.

Martha often is criticized for her concern with earthly matters while Mary is praised for her concern with spiritual ones. Let’s remember, however, that Jesus never said Martha had chosen something bad—just that Mary had chosen something better. In a way, these two sisters illustrate the two approaches to the Christian life mentioned by the Apostle James: faith and works. Rather than being mutually exclusive, they are complementary. Worship should lead to service, not replace it, just as service should lead to worship. Just as Martha lost sight of being with Jesus while serving Him, we must never allow our work for Him to eclipse our relationship with Him.

Our love for and service to the Lord must be intertwined and we shouldn’t neglect the one for the other. Nevertheless, when our work for Him takes away from spending time with Him, we must choose the better thing—being with Him is more important than serving Him. Let’s keep the main thing—our relationship with Jesus—the main thing.

Everything begins with the right priorities, and right priorities begin with God. [Woodrow Kroll]

Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. [John 15:4-5 (NLT)]

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THE MAIN THING

Martha was frantic with all the work in the kitchen. “Master,” she said, coming in to where they were, “don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work all by myself? Tell her to give me a hand!” … He replied, “You are fretting and fussing about so many things. Only one thing matters. Mary has chosen the best part, and it’s not going to be taken away from her.” [Luke 10: 40-42 (NTE)]

great blue heronThe guest pastor shared an experience when he was an intern at a large church. Posted on the door leading into the senior pastor’s office was this quote by Stephen Covey: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” At eye level and in large letters, anyone entering the pastor’s office was sure to see it. He’d given the sign little thought until one day, hot under the collar and ready to voice a complaint, he started to knock on his boss’s door. Seeing the sign, he paused, quietly returned to his desk, gave his complaint more thought, and asked himself if he was keeping the main thing main with his grievance.

Of course, to keep the main thing main, we must identify it first. Scripture, however, makes the main thing rather clear: love God, love others, and follow Jesus. Nevertheless, even when we’ve determined the main thing, it’s easy to get distracted and shift our focus. Like a reader who nitpicks over semi-colons and spelling while ignoring the significance of the words, we frequently cease focusing on God and His purpose to focus on ourselves and our interests.

Martha, for example, lost sight of the main thing when she complained to Jesus about her sister Mary. The mother of James and John lost sight of the main thing when she demanded special treatment for her boys and the disciples lost sight of the main thing when they squabbled over who was the greatest. Losing sight of the main thing, Elijah threw himself a pity party when things got tough, Jonah tried to escape his assignment in Nineveh, and the Pharisees carefully tithed their spices but neglected their parents and neighbors.

Our complaints to others (and to God) usually have little or nothing to do with God’s plan but rather with how it affects us. I’m busy, tired, bored, annoyed, angry, unappreciated, taken advantage of, better than him, too good for that, underpaid, or over-scheduled. Maybe some of our complaints are true. The question, however, remains—are any of them the main thing? If not, what is?

Father in heaven, help us keep our eyes on the main thing—you, accepting your plan, and furthering your kingdom. May we always remember that the main thing is never about us and always about you!

Let the king’s word dwell richly among you, as you teach and exhort one another in all wisdom, singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God with grateful hearts. And whatever you do, in word or action, do everything in the name of the master, Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the father. [Colossians 3: 16-17 (NTE)]

Look at it like this. People whose lives are determined by human flesh focus their minds on matters to do with the flesh, but people whose lives are determined by the spirit focus their minds on matters to do with the spirit. [Romans 8:5 (NTE)]

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GETTING OUT OF THE PIT

Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. … God blesses those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him. [James 1:2-4,12 (NLT)]

donkeyThe story is told of a donkey who fell into a deep pit. Unable to get out, the animal brayed loudly until the farmer came to investigate. Seeing no way to get his donkey out of the pit, the farmer decided the only thing he could do was to put the poor animal out of its misery. Since the pit needed to be filled anyway, he got a spade and started to shovel dirt into it. When the donkey felt those first clods of dirt on his back, he lost all hope of rescue and brayed even louder. As he shook the dirt off his back, however, he discovered a growing mound of dirt beneath his feet. Seeing a possible solution, the donkey grew silent as he continued to shake dirt off his back and started tamping it down with his hooves. As the dirt piled up beneath his feet, the donkey got higher and higher in the pit. Paying no attention to the now silent animal, the farmer kept shoveling until he finally stopped for a rest. When he turned around, the man was shocked to see the donkey step out of the pit and trot away. The animal could have chosen to wallow in his misery—simply hung his head and let that dirt cover him up—but he didn’t. Instead, he took steps to change his situation.

Giving up is often our first response when we get buried in our troubles. Deciding the marriage can’t be saved, the situation is hopeless, we’ll never beat the addiction, we’re worthless sinners, we failed, no one understands, or that the pain will never end, we don’t even try to find a fix! That, however, means we’ve ceded control of our lives to something or someone other than God. By giving up, we’ve stopped living God’s will because we’re not letting Him shape and mold us in our circumstances. God’s not done with us until He says so!

When I look back at some of my worst experiences, heaviest trials, and most heartbreaking times, I see my greatest emotional and spiritual development. Growth seems to occur in the valleys (or pits) rather than on the hilltops. Perhaps that’s because we want to maintain the status quo in the good times; when all is going smoothly, we certainly don’t want to rock the boat with any change. Bad times, however, make us as uncomfortable as that trapped animal. Like the donkey, when we are buried in trouble, we have a choice: wallow in misery or make a change.

Instead of letting the dirt bury him, the donkey turned it into a gift. We can see our troubles as penalties or gifts, endings or beginnings, impediments or opportunities. The choice is ours. Life is always going to try to weigh us down; the trick is in deciding to get out of the pit. The donkey did it by shaking off the dirt. As people of hope who know that Jesus can do within us that which we can’t do for ourselves; let us do the same!

We are always on the anvil; by trials God is shaping us for higher things. [Henry Ward Beecher]

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. [Romans 5:3-5 (NLT)]

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THE RAINBOW’S END

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:38-39 (NLT)]

rainbowDays bled into weeks, weeks into months, and every day seemed the same for much of the last eighteen months. Life became a series of postponements, rebookings, cancelations, setbacks, inconveniences, letdowns, and disappointments. Visiting Grandma meant waving at her through a window, final farewells were FaceTime calls on a nurse’s cell phone, and we mourned from a distance while attending celebrations of life virtually. Weddings were postponed, family reunions put on hold, shut-downs and travel restrictions kept loved ones apart, theaters and concert halls went dark, vacations were delayed, businesses closed, jobs were lost, and junior year abroad became junior year on Zoom.

Many of us had something specific to which we looked forward in the COVID-free future. It was anticipation of that reward that helped sustain us through the dreary months. When vaccines rolled out and numbers dropped, we began to think the end was in sight and we finally saw the end of the rainbow! Plans resumed for family reunions, the delayed semester abroad, or the cruise of a lifetime. Vacations were scheduled, wedding venues rebooked, businesses set dates for returning to the office, and nursing homes and hospitals again allowed visitors. With the surge in cases and the return of restrictions, however, many of those plans have been pushed back yet again or cancelled altogether. We’re frustrated and disappointed because the future we hoped for isn’t the one we got!

In C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape strategizes with his nephew Wormwood on methods of capturing a young man’s soul. The senior demon suggests using time as a weapon. Screwtape explains that the “enemy” (God) wants man to focus on only two times: eternity (which means attending to God) or the present in meditation, obedience, service, receiving grace, or giving thanks. Having found tempting someone to live in the past to be of “limited value,” Screwtape advises a far better approach is to tempt the man to attend to the future. God, he says, “does not want men to give the future their hearts, to place their treasure in it,” but the demons definitely do! He adds that, “We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end.” Rather than being faithful, kind, happy, or thankful in the present, the demons want people to miss the gifts of the present day while looking for them in the future. “Gratitude,” says Screwtape, “looks to the past and love to the present,” but, the demon adds, it is things like fear, desire, greed, materialism, and ambition that look to the future.

As Christians, we can’t let our disappointment in the future we’d anticipated dominate our life or cause us to lose hope. Keeping our eyes on the real hope found in eternity with God, let’s not allow our disappointment in tomorrow steal today’s joy. As followers of Jesus, we live with a hope that isn’t dependent on pandemics, positivity rates, restrictions, weather, or finances because we know how the story ends. Yes, we’re disappointed now but, ultimately, we won’t be disappointed by what God has waiting for us.

Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.  [Mother Teresa]

That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. [2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (NLT)]

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MAKING THE MOST OF IT

You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people. [Genesis 50:20 (NLT)]

purple cone flowerOne morning, the self-assured Joseph went out to check on his brothers’ flocks and, by nightfall, Jacob’s favorite son had been stripped of his beautiful robe, thrown in a pit, betrayed by his brothers, and sold to Ishmaelite traders. That day seventeen-year-old Joseph found out how capricious life could be. For the next month, he journeyed through the desert before ending up in Egypt. Imagine how alone, frightened, and lost the young shepherd from Canaan was when, unable to speak, read or write the language, he found himself in the most advanced civilization of the time—one with monumental architecture, centralized government, papyrus, ship building, and a military force.

Rather than give up all hope, the wealthy man’s son adapted to the role of servant. As Potiphar’s slave, Joseph worked hard and became so essential to his master that he ran the man’s entire household. Loyal both to Potiphar and God, the youth rejected Potiphar’s wife’s sexual advances. When she falsely accused him of rape, however, life threw another curve ball and the trusted overseer of Potiphar’s estate was tossed into prison.

Once again, the youth’s life turned upside down through no fault of his own, but Joseph adapted by becoming a model prisoner and serving as the warden’s administrator. Nevertheless, he still was a slave in prison, away from family and friends, without any rights, and considered guilty until proven innocent. Joseph had a glimmer of hope when Pharaoh’s cup-bearer was restored to his position, but it was two more years before the man remembered Joseph’s kindness and ability to interpret dreams.

When Pharaoh summoned the young man to interpret his dreams, another transition began. After giving Pharaoh a survival plan for the next fourteen years (and crediting God with his wisdom), the boy from Canaan moved from prison to palace and from slave to prime minister of Egypt. Joseph had been released from a cell but he wasn’t free. He served at the whim of Pharaoh, a capricious man who thought nothing of expressing his displeasure in the chief baker by impaling the man on a pole!

Joseph didn’t cause his life to crash at seventeen. Over the span of at least thirteen years, he was betrayed, mistreated, sexually harassed, falsely accused, punished unjustly, and forgotten. In spite of that, Joseph never gave up because he knew he was not alone. Because he knew God was with him, Joseph made the most of every situation. Throughout his story, we are told that the Lord’s presence was the reason for Joseph’s success.

Although we know the happy ending of Joseph’s story, Joseph didn’t know any of that when he was thrown into a pit and sold into slavery! He didn’t know that he’d eventually be reunited with his family or that what his brothers meant for evil, God meant for good. Nevertheless, he faithfully served God and others by adapting, adjusting, and making the most of every situation into which he was thrown. Let’s not forget that Joseph did more than save the lives of the entire population of Egypt. He saved Jacob’s family—the sons of Israel who were the seed of Abraham and the ancestors of Jesus.

Like Joseph, our lives are filled with upsets, shocks, setbacks, and disruptions; author Bruce Feiler calls these events “lifequakes.” While their purpose probably isn’t to save whole nations from starvation as did Joseph, they have a God-ordained purpose. We get no choice in experiencing “lifequakes,” but we can choose how we deal with them. The challenge comes with navigating our way through these upsets into the new normal of our lives. Do we resist, throw a pity party, complain, grow resentful, or give up? Or, like Joseph, do we take on the burden of climbing out of the pit and making the most of wherever life takes us? We won’t have to do it alone. Scripture tells us that God was with Joseph from pit to palace because, when serving Potiphar, the prison warden, and Pharaoh, Joseph always was serving God!

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything you do. Try to please them all the time, not just when they are watching you. Serve them sincerely because of your reverent fear of the Lord. Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people. Remember that the Lord will give you an inheritance as your reward, and that the Master you are serving is Christ. [Colossians 3:22-24 (NLT)]

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CHAPTER 43 (Job – part 2)

Job stood up and tore his robe in grief. Then he shaved his head and fell to the ground to worship. He said, “I came naked from my mother’s womb, and I will be naked when I leave. The Lord gave me what I had, and the Lord has taken it away. Praise the name of the Lord!” In all of this, Job did not sin by blaming God. [Job 1:20-22 (NLT)]

mountain blue birdEven though all that he lost was restored to Job at the end of Chapter 42, did the ten new children remove Job’s memory of his first ten or his sorrow at their deaths? While the new ones may have filled Job’s home with laughter again, there still would be an empty place in his heart from his loss. Although Job’s health was restored, would the scars from his boils be a daily reminder of his past afflictions? Would double his livestock be enough to make him forget the original herds and servants who had perished? How would experiencing the precariousness of life—the inexplicable randomness of misfortune—affect Job’s next chapter, the Chapter 43 of his life? Would he be more affectionate, patient, or protective of his children? Would he better appreciate and cherish every precious moment with which he was blessed?

Even though he questioned God, Job is Scripture’s model for patience and endurance. I know some people who could give Job a run for his money if their stories were compared. People of faith, like Job, they have experienced more than their share of life’s tragedies first-hand—things like catastrophic loss, chronic disease, severe disability, heartache, betrayal, grief, poverty, divorce, addiction, abuse, disfigurement, ever-present pain, or the loss of spouse or children. Some have moved through their Job-like experiences while others are still in the midst of them. Like Job, their story didn’t end at Chapter 42 but unlike him, their next chapter wasn’t necessarily a fairy tale ending of complete restoration. I admire them—not because of their suffering but because of what they’ve made of it—because of how they’ve written the next chapter of their lives.

I think of one couple, both of whom lost their beloved first spouses to the ravages of cancer.  Perhaps because they know the fragility of life and the pain of loss, in their Chapter 43, they seem to listen better, cherish each other more, and complain less than do most couples. I think of a friend who was nearly destroyed by mental illness and came out the other side of her darkness stronger and wiser. Having experienced the depths of despair, she makes it a point to find joy and thanksgiving on each page of her Chapter 43. The mother who lost a child seems to grumble less about the tears, temper tantrums, mess and teen-age angst of her living children. The man who who once flat-lined values each moment more than those who never have been on the brink of death. I think of a friend, suffering from Parkinson’s, who enthusiastically seizes every today because she knows that she’ll be just a little worse tomorrow. I remember a couple who lost three of their children to drugs and yet they never lost their trust in the Lord and confidence in His goodness. I think of other friends whose Chapter 43 is a continuing battle with metastatic cancer, Alzheimer’s, MS, and chronic pain yet they still bravely face each day with courage, faith, and even joy. Does their experience of what truly defines a “bad day” give them a new perspective and help them know how little is necessary to make any day a great one?

I don’t admire these people simply because they are survivors of tragedy. Anyone can survive tragedy. I admire them because they managed not just to survive but to thrive, to become better not bitter, all while keeping their faith intact. I admire them because they are examples not just of faith, but also of determination, strength, wisdom, generosity, love, joy, and even optimism. I admire them because they are making the most of the 43rd chapter of their lives. Their examples remind me to thank God for every circumstance He throws at me and to savor every breath with which I am blessed!

I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. [Ephesians 3:16-19 (NLT)]

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