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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THE GOOD OLD DAYS

Virginia CityDon’t long for “the good old days.” This is not wise. [Ecclesiastes 7:10 (NLT)]

When talking with my centenarian mother-in-law, we often spoke of the “good old days.” She sometimes indulged in what I came to call “wishful remembering” and her past became more like a Hallmark movie than reality. I suppose, to some extent, we all do the same. The sledding hill grows steeper, the house bigger, the friends nicer, the grades better, the paycheck larger, and the success greater while any failure, disappointment, blame, pain, or drudgery diminishes. Not every memory we have, however, is a correct one; rather than an accurate record, our memories are actually what we tell ourselves about the past. Given the choice, it’s far nicer to have wishful good memories than ones of bitterness, regret and sorrow and I never corrected my mother-in-law’s. Nevertheless, we must be cautious of becoming too attached to our memories, especially if our less than accurate version of yesterday keeps us from moving into tomorrow.

Less than a month after God’s parting of the Red Sea and their song of victory and triumph at the defeat of Pharaoh, the Israelites had a serious case of wishful remembering and started to grumble. Instead of recalling the slaughter of baby boys and the back-breaking labor of Egyptian slavery, they remembered sitting around in comfort eating all the bread and stew they desired. Months later, they again complained about their hardships while recalling free fish, fruit and vegetables instead of the price they paid in sweat for that food. Rather than oppression, they remembered the “good old days” of Egyptian provision.

Sodom was the place where a gang of men wanted to attack Lot, sexually abuse his guests, and, for reasons beyond our understanding, Lot offered his virgin daughters to a mob of depraved men. When Lot’s family was told that Sodom was to be destroyed, they were urged to flee immediately and specifically warned to neither stop nor look back. Nevertheless, stopping and turning back is exactly what Lot’s wife did. According to the Moody Bible Commentary, the Hebrew word used for her looking back (vathabbet) has a very specific meaning of looking at something with desire or approval. Lot’s family left their home, possessions, friends, and even their sons-in-law behind. Choosing not to recall the evil, Lot’s wife turned, remembered the “good old days,” and longed for what had been and was no more.

When we follow God, we’re not promised an easy journey; in fact, Jesus pretty much promises we’ll encounter hardships. Stepping out in faith often means moving from comfort, convenience, and familiarity into the disruption, trials and vulnerability of the unknown. In light of new challenges and burdens, it’s easy to repaint the past with wishful memories of “the good old days.” As bad as the past may have been for either the Israelites or Lot’s wife, for them it seemed preferable to their unknown tomorrows. Those wishful memories, however, cost the Israelites an extra 38 years and Lot’s wife her life!

While wishful memories can make the past more palatable, they also can prevent us from experiencing the blessings of the future. We must never remember the good old days at the expense of failing to trust God with the new ones.

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)]

But I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. [Philippians 3:13-14 (NLT)]

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WHOSE ARE YOU?

You go before me and follow me, You place your hand of blessings on my head. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too great for me to understand. [Psalm 139:5-6 (NLT)]

lion - tanzaniaI started Sunday morning with Psalm 139—a beautiful reminder that God was with us at our conception, is with us now, and will be with us at our end. “Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous,” read the psalm. Those words reminded me of Joey. Chinese by birth, born without hands, and abandoned by his mother, he was adopted by an American family. In spite of his many visible and hidden challenges, Joey was a cheerful little guy until entering junior high school, encountering bullies, and asking the inevitable questions that come with adolescence. In spite of being part of a loving family, he feels he failed the birth family who discarded him like a piece of trash and, rather than feeling wonderfully made, Joey asks why God made him the way He did.

Scripture reading was followed by the newspaper where I found an interesting advice column. The writer has both birth and adopted daughters but her birth daughter refuses to allow her children to call her sister “aunt” because she’s not really “family.” In response, the psychologist noted that there are some deep seated jealousy issues in the girls’ relationship and pointed out that legally both girls have the same standing. He then added an interesting argument to show the absurdity of the birth daughter’s position. The adopted daughter could actually say she was more of a daughter than her sister because their parents deliberately chose her and had to go through a long involved process to get her. The other sister’s conception took but a few minutes and even may have been an accident! While I don’t think that argument will improve the girls’ relationship, he had an interesting point about adoption; it is a deliberate act of love!

In a strange juxtaposition, Sunday’s sermon was part of a series, “Faith at the Movies,” and The Lion King was the subject. Until Rafiki confronted him, the lion Simba forgot who he was—the son of the king—and that his father lived in him. Like Simba, we are the King’s children; He adopted us when we accepted Jesus. Just as Simba’s father was in him, our Father lives in us.

Our Heavenly Father was there when we were but a gleam in our birth fathers’ eyes. As the psalmist wrote, He made “all the delicate, inner parts” of our bodies as He knit us together in our mothers’ wombs. Joey may appear flawed by human standards but he is perfectly made by God’s standards. When Simba saw his reflection in the water, he saw his father and Rafiki assured him, “He lives in you.” Joey and his family are working with counselors but, to truly heal, Joey will have to see the face of his Father, the King, when he sees his reflection. He will have to see his worth in being the adopted child of God and believe that God’s spirit lives in him.

Rafiki asks Simba, ”Who are you?” and Sunday’s sermon asked us the same question. Like Simba, we often forget that it’s not our circumstances that characterize us. Our sex, appearance, family, heritage, profession, assets, shortcomings, accomplishments, failures, and even our sins do not define us. It’s not what we are but whose we are that gives us value and worth. Because God adopted us into His family, first and foremost, we are children of the King.

Child of God, you cost Christ too much for him to forget you. [Charles Spurgeon]

So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” [Romans 8:15 (NLT)]

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. [Galatians 3:26 (NLT)]

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EXTRA WEIGHT

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” [Matthew 11:28 (NLT)]

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. [Isaiah 41:10 (NLT)]

Are we weak and heavy-laden, cumbered with a load of care? Precious Savior, still our refuge — take it to the Lord in prayer. [“What a Friend We Have in Jesus” by Joseph Scriven]

Indian PaintbrushBecause of my foot surgery, I was stuck in an air boot (and “air” definitely does not mean “light as air”) for five weeks. Weighing just a little over three pounds, it felt more like thirty by the end of each day. Wearing a cumbersome boot that never quite matched the height of any of my shoes took its toll on me. Eventually, my foot didn’t hurt as much as did my knee, hip, and back from hobbling along in my heavy unmatched footwear. Carrying extra loads of anger, resentment, worry, heartache, guilt, or regret can weigh us down in much the same way that boot affected my body and gait. Instead of walking with confidence and strength, we limp along in fear, discomfort and doubt. The difference, of course, is that there was purpose to my burdensome boot but there is no purpose in being saddled with emotional baggage. Jesus asks us to give Him our burdens; with Him in our lives, we don’t have to carry any extra weight in our hearts.

Now that I’m out of the boot, my toes, foot, ankle and leg are sore. In spite of doing physical therapy during recovery, my muscles got weak and tight from lack of use and it’s taking time and effort to regain my strength and flexibility. Nevertheless, I go walking, increasing the distance incrementally each time, and it becomes a little easier every day. Healing of both body and soul takes patience, effort, and time.

Like other muscles, our hearts weaken when we don’t exercise them. Our capacity to give and forgive, to love and share, to be compassionate and understanding can atrophy from lack of use. Maybe that’s what happened to the Grinch’s heart when it became “two sizes too small.” Fortunately, like the Grinch, we can strengthen and expand those shriveled parts of our hearts. It requires prayer and effort and probably won’t happen overnight. That first bit of forgiveness given after a long stretch of blame probably will be a struggle, a show of generosity after a period of stinginess could hurt a little, a gesture of compassion after a bout of indifference might cause discomfort, and the hand of friendship may not extend easily if it hasn’t been stretched out recently. Take heart; it gets easier the more we do it. And, even better than a physical therapist, we have the Holy Spirit to strengthen and empower us.

O Holy Spirit, descend plentifully into my heart. Enlighten the dark corners of this neglected dwelling and scatter there Thy cheerful beams. [St. Augustine]

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. [Hebrews 12:1 (NLT)]

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ARE WE TOO CONTENT?

The Father loves his Son and has put everything into his hands. And anyone who believes in God’s Son has eternal life. Anyone who doesn’t obey the Son will never experience eternal life but remains under God’s angry judgment. [John 3:35-36 (NLT)]

For, there is one God and one Mediator who can reconcile God and humanity—the man Christ Jesus. He gave his life to purchase freedom for everyone. [1 Timothy 2:5-6a (NLT)]

leopard lacewing butterflyYesterday, when writing about discontent, I realized there is one area in our lives about which Christians are too content. It appears that we’re quite content to keep our salvation and God’s grace to ourselves and allow others to miss that grace and experience eternity in Hell.

Malala Yousafzai is the Pakistani girl who, because of her outspoken passion for girls’ education, was shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012. Last month, when reading her autobiography, I am Malala, I couldn’t help but compare the author’s dedication to her cause with Christian complacency. This courageous young woman began her campaign at the age of eleven and, in spite of death threats, continues today. At the age of sixteen, just nine months after being attacked, she addressed the United Nations and urged world leaders to take action against illiteracy, poverty, and terrorism. The following year, because of her crusade for all children’s right to an education and her fight against the suppression of children and young people, Malala became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace prize. As I read her story, I was continually impressed by this Muslim girl’s faith, courage and dedication to her cause. I couldn’t help but feel guilty about my lackadaisical attitude about evangelism. For the most part, we Christians seem quite content to leave Jesus’s message unheard. Would that we all were as passionate about salvation as Malala is about education!

When Jesus gave us what’s known as “The Great Commission,” He was commanding, not suggesting. He expects our faith to take action. If a young girl, living in a restrictive society, has courage enough to speak out and defy terrorists, we should be able to speak about Jesus in our free nation. We don’t have to stand on street corners handing out tracts or go half-way around the world on a mission trip. We just need to open our eyes to the opportunities around us and speak with people, one on one, as Jesus did with people like Nicodemus and the woman at the well. As content as we might be with our circle of Christian friends, perhaps it’s time to take a few steps out of that circle. We could start by walking across the street and inviting a neighbor to church. A personal invitation from someone they knew is the most frequent reason given for a first-time visitor at a church.

Not resting on her laurels, Malala continues to raise her voice on behalf of the millions of girls who are denied the right to an education. If we truly believe that salvation is in Christ alone and not in our own goodness, works, rites, crystals or anything else, why do we remain silent when there are many who will be denied eternal life through Christ? Let us never forget that Jesus is not an option, an accessory, or an alternative. Not one of the ways, He is the only way. Are we content to keep Him to ourselves and go to heaven alone?

Don’t go to heaven alone Take someone that you know;
Friends and neighbors in sin Are you trying to win?
Your home is in heaven ’tis true But heaven was made for them too;
So don’t go to heaven alone Take somebody with you.
[“Don’t Go to Heaven Alone (Take Somebody with You)” (Gorden Jensen)]

Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:18-20 (NLT)]

And then he told them, “Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone. Anyone who believes and is baptized will be saved. But anyone who refuses to believe will be condemned. [Mark 16:15-16 NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

DISCONTENT

Keep a sharp eye out for weeds of bitter discontent. A thistle or two gone to seed can ruin a whole garden in no time. Watch out for the Esau syndrome: trading away God’s lifelong gift in order to satisfy a short-term appetite. You well know how Esau later regretted that impulsive act and wanted God’s blessing—but by then it was too late, tears or no tears. [Hebrews 12:15-17 (MSG)]

Discontent is the first necessity of progress. [Thomas A. Edison]

snowy egretA certain amount of discontent seems to be built into us, which isn’t all bad. It can be creative and the source of change and improvement. Dissatisfaction with the harpsichord’s inability to vary the intensity of its sound led Bartolomeo Cristofori to invent the piano around 1708. Benjamin Franklin’s annoyance at having to switch between two pairs of glasses led to his invention of bifocals and it probably was his discontent with a cold house that led to his invention of the metal-lined Franklin stove. Discontent with the traditional wheelbarrow is what led James Dyson to reinvent it as a Ballbarrow using a rust-proof plastic bin and a ball-shaped shock-absorbing wheel that wouldn’t sink into soft soil or sand!

Discontent with harsh taxes and lack of representation in Parliament is what led to the Revolutionary War and the formation of our nation. The abolitionist, women’s suffrage, environmental, anti-apartheid, and civil rights movements were the result of social discontent. Jesus certainly was discontent with much He found in Judah and He made His feelings known to the Pharisees and scribes. God wants us to be dissatisfied with sin, injustice, inequity, intolerance, discrimination, malice, and evil. Constructive discontent is far better than self-righteous satisfaction.

While God wants us to be discontent with the wrongs in our world, He doesn’t want us to be people of discontent. Focusing on the petty frustrations or material things of life leads us to the land of “if only:” if only we had a larger house, a prettier wife, a richer husband, brighter children, a better body, nicer in-laws or more money, power, or influence. The grass always seems greener in the land of “if only.”

Why is it so difficult to be content with God’s blessings? Eve was in a paradise and yet, in spite of all she had in Eden, she wanted something more. Discontent is what led Esau to trade his birthright for stew, David to desire Bathsheba, Sarah to give Hagar to Abraham, the prodigal to ask for his inheritance, the Israelites to complain incessantly to Moses, the angels to rebel against God, Miriam and Aaron to criticize Moses, and Korah to protest the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Things didn’t end well for any of them!

Discontent is the enemy’s voice telling us we deserve more and better. Like a slap in God’s face, our discontent tells God He made a mistake and His mercies and gifts aren’t enough. It makes us think we know better than God and that our plan makes more sense than His.

When in elementary school, I remember the teacher’s admonition to keep our eyes on our own papers. That remains good advice today only, instead, of our schoolwork, we need to keep our eyes on the gifts God has given us rather than what He may have given to others. There always will be someone who has more or better and some place where the grass looks greener. Looking at others’ papers during a test was cheating but looking at others’ lives can lead to discontent and envy (and that’s sinning!)

Satan loves to fish in the troubled waters of a discontented heart. [Thomas Watson]

You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought. … You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world. [Matthew 5:5,8 (MSG)]

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