CHRISTMAS IS LOVE

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

I just received my first Christmas card and letter. While reading about the family’s year of stellar accomplishments and fantastic vacations, I was reminded of my all-time favorite holiday letter. Several years ago, a friend reported that his eldest boy had founded the Young Entrepreneur Club at his high school and was in the process of patenting an investment model based on quantum economics. The middle child had received an award from the Nevada Humane Society for his efforts to find homes for dogs deserted in the desert and the youngest boy had designed a Lego-themed online game and been granted a summer internship at Legoland in California. Amazed by his sons’ achievements, I read on. In the next paragraph, when I read that the boys’ mom had become a cheerleader for the Lingerie Football League, I finally realized the letter was all in fun. Indeed, in the last paragraph, my friend continued with a more accurate depiction of his family.

Remembering his letter got me thinking about the Christmas cards and letters we receive and the social media postings we see. Sometimes they’re no more accurate than my friend’s tongue-in-cheek missive. We’re led to believe that everyone else’s children and grands are future Olympians or Nobel Prize winners, that it never rains on vacations, families never disagree, everyone else’s child is on the honor role, they all entertain like Martha Stewart, pipes never break, toilets never back-up, nobody has any debts, and the family photograph didn’t require hours of preparation and several retakes!

Granted, none of us want to read the gruesome details of someone’s surgery or bout with shingles but let’s never make the mistake of comparing our lives to holiday letters or social media “reality.” It’s not the awards, triumphs, possessions, gourmet meals, or holidays that hold a family together; it’s love.

It’s love that endures a partner who snores, toddler temper tantrums, teen-age angst and rebellion, and gets us through a diagnosis of Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, dirty bathrooms, harsh words, and the loss of a job. It’s love that helps us survive flooded basements, the in-laws, sleepless nights, dirty diapers, piles of laundry, muddy floors, broken arms and broken hearts. Love is what helps with homework, spends hours sitting on hard bleachers cheering a child who plays for three minutes, and forgives the forgotten anniversary or the over-drawn checkbook. That’s love teaching a boy to ride a bike, caring for a handicapped spouse, emptying bedpans, saying “No,” to an addicted daughter, refusing to write a child’s book report for him, waiting up for the high schooler, and grounding him when he’s late. It’s love that doesn’t complain about a scorched shirt, getting hopelessly lost, or a misplaced key. Love attends dance recitals and grade school band concerts, sits for hours at a hospital bedside, and patiently listens to the same story the umpteenth time.

While none of those things are Facebook or holiday letter worthy, they are far more important. As this holiday approaches, let us remember to look further than the cards and letters, decorations, Christmas tree, music, and gifts. Let us remember Christmas is about love: a God who loved the world so much that He gave His only Son so that all who believed in Him would not perish but have eternal life!

Christmas, my child, is love in action. Every time we love, every time we give, it’s Christmas. [Dale Evans Rogers]

Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. [1 John 3:18 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

DOUBT AND UNBELIEF

The secret things belong to the Lord our God; but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.  [Deuteronomy 29:29 (RSV)]

purple coneflowerGod makes Himself known through His creation, His word, and in the still small voice of His Spirit and the things He has revealed to us are what make our faith possible. Nevertheless, there is much that He has not made known to us, which is why faith is necessary. A day will come when our questions will be answered; when that time comes, our hope will turn into reality and what we believe will be seen. But, until then, there will be occasions of doubt. Doubt, however, doesn’t mean we’ve lost our faith; we can’t doubt what we don’t believe!

John Piper likens our faith journey to driving a racecar and doubt to an opponent splashing mud on our windshield. We don’t quit the race because of a little mud; instead, we slow down, turn on the windshield wipers, and clean off the muck! Questioning how the man who’d been nailed to a cross and sealed in a tomb could rise from the dead, the Apostle Thomas had reason for his doubt. Although the others claimed to have seen Jesus, Thomas hadn’t and questioned their claim. Had they seen and touched the wounds in His hands or the gash in His side? Thomas thought he needed that kind of proof to be sure it was Jesus. But, like a good racecar driver, in spite of the mud on his windshield, he didn’t quit the race. Thomas was still with the disciples when, eight days later, Jesus appeared and offered his maimed body to the doubting man. Perhaps, simply hearing the Lord’s voice and seeing Him standing there was all the disciple really needed. We never read of him actually touching Jesus before exclaiming, “My Lord and my God!”

While doubt comes from a troubled spirit and a questioning mind, unbelief is an act of the will. A deliberate choice, unbelief is the opposite of faith! It says, “I hear you, but I choose not to believe you!” The story is told of an atheist and Christian who were debating the existence of God and the truth of Scripture. At the end of their discussion, the atheist asked the Christian, “What happens if you faithfully live your Christian life and, when you die, you discover that you’ve been wrong all this time?” The believer answered, “Having lived a good life of joy and love, I simply will remain dead.” He then asked the atheist, “But, what if I am right and you’re wrong?” The atheist replied, “Then I will have made the greatest mistake of my life!” That mistake will have eternal repercussions!

Faith is a journey and we all will wrestle with doubt along the way, as I did in yesterday’s devotion about evil. “I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!” said the father who asked Jesus to heal his son; I echo his prayer. Jesus doesn’t demand enormous faith before He acts on our behalf. He said a tiny mustard seed of genuine faith is all that we need to move mountains. When moments of doubt occur (and they will), let us continue to pray, “I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!” God, the creator and sustainer of our faith, will give us faith when we ask. He will help clean the spattered mud off the windshield of our car so we can finish the race.

Sometimes we need to go through the foyer of doubt to get into the sanctuary of certainty. [Greg Laurie]

If ours is an examined faith, we should be unafraid to doubt… There is no believing without some doubting, and believing is all the stronger for understanding and resolving doubt. [Os Guinness]

Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” [John 20:29 (RSV)]

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. [Hebrews 11:1 (RSV)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

HOW COULD HE?

For the Lord is good. His unfailing love continues forever, and his faithfulness continues to each generation. [Psalm 100:5 (NLT)]

black vultureTears fell on my newspaper as I read the account of a toddler so violently raped that multiple surgeries will be required to repair the damage done to her little body. Nothing, however, will erase the abuse and my heart bled for the girl. From reading the book of Job, I knew not to ask God, “Why?” Nevertheless, I cried out to him, “How could you allow such evil to touch this child?”

Satan was unable to harm Job without God’s consent. Although he wasn’t permitted to kill Job, most of his family died—apparently, with God’s consent! When Jesus told Peter that “Satan has asked to sift each of you like wheat,” it was clear the God allowed Satan to tempt Peter and the others. The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness specifically so that He would be tempted. Wondering if these instances mean Satan always needs God’s permission to wreak his havoc on the world, I asked again, “How could you let him do this?”

Although Satan sometimes asked permission, I’m not sure we can infer that Satan always asked God’s permission to act against His children. Scripture doesn’t tell us he asked God if he could enter into Judas or tempt David with Bathsheba, Solomon with his foreign wives, Achan with Jericho’s plunder, Joseph with Potiphar’s wife, Esau with a bowl of stew, or Gehazi with Naaman’s money.

Satan and God are neither opposites nor equals. Satan was created and will end but God always has been and forever will be. While God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, Satan is none of those things. Unlike Satan, God has supreme authority over all things. That, unfortunately, leads me to the troubling conclusion that, while Satan may not always ask permission, nothing happens unless it is allowed by our sovereign God.

Coming to grips with the reality of evil may be the greatest challenge to our faith. If we truly believe that God is good and created everything, we have to ask how a good God could create evil. According to Augustine of Hippo (354-430), a truly good God is incapable of creating evil. Either something else created evil or evil isn’t a thing. But, if God created everything but couldn’t and wouldn’t create evil, we’re left with the conclusion that evil, while real, is not a tangible created thing! Rather than a thing, like a piece of fabric, Augustine posits that evil, like a hole in that fabric, is a lack of a thing; evil is a void in or lack of goodness. Augustine said, “Evil has no positive nature; but the loss of good has received the name ‘evil.'” He explains that, rather than choosing to do evil, men (exercising their free will) choose to turn away from good (which is sin). I don’t know if Augustine’s explanation is correct; I’m not sure I fully understand it. What I do know is that God called everything He created “good.” Although the tree in Eden contained the knowledge of good and evil, the evil wasn’t in the tree or its fruit. Adam and Eve’s lack of obedience, their turning away from the goodness of God, is what tore a hole in the goodness of the world.

The issue of evil will continue to trouble me, as it probably will you. Not being omniscient, we’ll never fully understand God’s purposes and ways; why He allows what He allows will remain a mystery. What isn’t a mystery, however, is who and what we know God to be! He is love! Our righteous God is sovereign over everything in the universe. He gave mankind free will and, with that free will, we can turn away from His righteousness but we also can choose to be moral and virtuous. For now, we must trust what we do know about God and believe in His wisdom, goodness and love (and continue to pray for those harmed by evil). “I do not know the answer to the problem of evil,” said Os Guiness, “but I do know love. That’s the key thing. In Jesus, we cannot doubt the love of God for us if we look at the lengths to which He went.”

God Almighty would in no way permit evil in His works were He not so omnipotent and good that even out of evil He could work good. [Augustine of Hippo]

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. [John 3:16 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

REFORMATION

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. So do not be attracted by strange, new ideas. [Hebrews 13:8-9a (NLT)]

Trapp family chapelTwo weeks ago, in recognition of Reformation Day (commemorating Martin Luther’s posting of his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517), the minister at our liturgical church spoke about needed reforms in today’s church. By definition, reformation is changing or improving something by correcting its faults, removing inconsistencies and abuses, and imposing modern methods and values. While I firmly believe in correcting errors, removing contradictions and misuses, and even using modern methods, I would suggest caution about adopting modern values.

If a pilot is off course by even one degree, he will miss his landing area by 92 feet for every mile flown or one mile for every sixty miles. Just one degree off course when flying from JFK to LAX would land us in the Pacific Ocean rather than on a runway! It’s as important for the church to stay on course as it is for a pilot. If we think of God and His Word as true north, we want to set our spiritual course in His direction. Church reform is necessary whenever we find ourselves veering off course, and reforms in the church are always justified when they bring us back to true north and Christ.

Since few people in Martin Luther’s day had read the Bible, they depended on the church to tell them what it said and meant. Luther, however, believed that Scripture, not papal decree or tradition, had the final word. When using the Bible’s words as the sole reliable source of instruction, he found that many church practices didn’t match Christ’s teachings. He felt the church had gotten off course by selling indulgences to reduce a sinner’s (or his loved one’s) time in Purgatory (a sort of way station before getting to heaven). His reading of Romans led him to understand that salvation was by grace through faith alone (in opposition to the church’s view that good works had a part in salvation). When posting those theses, Martin Luther wasn’t trying to start a new religion; he was trying to reform the old one. Rather than taking a new route, he was trying to get the church back on the correct one. When the church didn’t change direction, Luther did, leading to the Protestant Reformation.

I certainly support modern reforms that make the church more effective such as contemporary music and services, online giving, apps, streaming, e-blasts and newsletters, video studies, and strategic partnerships in giving, service projects, and missions. I’m far more cautious about reforms that modernize the church to bring it into the 21st century’s mindset! While course correction is necessary when the church veers off track, we must be wary of changing course just to head where everyone else is going. We must never dumb down the Gospel, disregard the parts we find troubling, jettison teachings that seem old-fashioned, or preach what people want to hear as opposed to what God wants said!

While researching Jesus’s feeding of the multitude, I came upon a sermon given by a pastor at a mainline Protestant church. Reframing this miracle to make it more believable, he claimed that everyone shared the little food they had that day. While getting 5,000 men and another 10,000 women and children to share their food probably qualifies as a miracle, that’s not what the gospels say happened. All four accounts are specific about the amount of food available: five loaves and two fish! Nevertheless, this pastor made a true but unbelievable story more palatable for those who had difficulty swallowing it. That’s the sort of church reform of which we must be cautious! After all, if we can’t believe Jesus could feed a multitude with a boy’s lunch, how can we believe He brought Lazarus back to life, rose from the dead, or ascended into heaven?

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote that “cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the church,” and defined it as, “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession…. grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” What Bonhoeffer called cheap grace, A.W. Tozer called the difference between “the old cross and the new.” The way of Christ does not parallel the world but intersects it, wrote Tozer. The gospel message does not change with the times; right and wrong, righteousness and sin, are not determined by what society finds acceptable but by God and His Word.

Christians are not supposed to look and act like everyone else; we’re supposed to march to a different drummer: Jesus Christ. While we are called to live at peace with everybody, we are not supposed to behave like them or compromise our beliefs and morals. We have been called to bring Christ into the world as His disciples, not as his press agents. Our job is to make Jesus known rather than make Him more acceptable to the 21st century. We aren’t supposed to reform the church to look like the world; our task is to reform the world to look more like Christ!

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. [Romans 12:2 (NLT)]

 Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

DID THEY KNOW?

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 15:5 (NLT)]

Twenty-one of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament are letters (epistles) written by Paul, James, Peter, John, and Jude. While the gospels tell us about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the epistles are letters of instruction, clarification, encouragement and, sometimes, caution to the new Christian community. I can’t help but wonder if those early letter writers realized the scope of their writing. Did they have any idea how fast and wide Christianity would spread? Did they envision how many people would come to know both their names and words? While they expected their messages to be read aloud to the members of the 1st century church, did they even dare hope that 2,000 years later their letters still would be read aloud regularly in many churches, that some of their words would even be used in Christian liturgy, or that people around the world would gather together to study their messages?

The God-inspired words of those men live today and still apply to us. While the issues we face are different than those in the 1st century, the underlying problems and concerns remain the same: false doctrine, dissension, immorality, and even persecution. We are still called to be godly, avoid foolish disputes, love one another, preach Christ to the world, and walk in a manner worthy of Jesus. We never will outgrow the need to understand doctrine and its application to our lives.

The story is told of a frail old man planting seeds in a garden. A passerby stopped to chat and the old gardener offered him a mango from one of his trees. When asked what he was planting, the aged man replied more mango trees. “But why bother?” asked the man. “It will be fifteen years before they produce a full crop and you’ll not live to see that day.” Pausing from his work, the gardener replied that the mango he gave the stranger was from a tree his grandfather had planted more than fifty years earlier. He was now planting trees for his grandchildren to enjoy long after his death.

Although they saw the church expand, the epistles’ writers never lived long enough to see the magnitude of their work. They did, however, know the promises of God: if they abided in Him, their work would bear fruit and His church would be built. The seeds they planted with their letters continue to bear fruit today.

Let us remember that, like the writers of the epistles (and the old man in the story), we should be committed to planting the seeds of faith, even though we may not see them bear fruit. It’s been said that, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Indeed, it is.

This same Good News that came to you is going out all over the world. It is bearing fruit everywhere by changing lives, just as it changed your lives from the day you first heard and understood the truth about God’s wonderful grace. [Colossians 1:6 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

APOLOGIA

Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence. [1 Peter 3:15 (RSV)]

red-shouldered hawkAlthough the word “apologetics” sounds a bit like acknowledging guilt or expressing remorse, it isn’t. In 1 Peter 3:15, we first find its use when Peter tells the persecuted Christians in Asia Minor to be ready to make a defense (apologia) to anyone who asks for a reason for their hope. In a nutshell, that one verse is what Christian apologetics is about: the communication of the evidence and reasons that Christianity is true. Of course, Peter adds that this must be done with gentleness and respect and his words hold true today.

Nevertheless, there are some things, done by those who claimed to be Christians, for which we, as the body of Christ, should apologize. The most obvious issue is that of sexual abuse and the failure of the church to protect its most vulnerable by acknowledging and addressing the issue. Going back nearly one thousand years, we also have the Crusades (1096-1291) when countless Jews and Muslims were slaughtered in the name of Christ. Calling for the first crusade, Pope Urban II said killing non-Christians wasn’t a sin and further distorted the gospel message by reassuring the crusaders that it would win remission for their sins! Consider the Inquisition, beginning in the 12th century and continuing for hundreds of years, when people were jailed, tortured, and even murdered as punishment for anything considered heretical. Ignoring the command to love our enemies, Pope Innocent III announced that anyone whose views conflicted with church dogma “must be burned without pity.” During the Spanish Inquisition, Jews were forced into ghettos and more than 32,000 people were executed.

The Protestant Reformation pitted Christian against Christian. In contradiction to Paul’s command to live in harmony with one another, Christian hands shed Christian blood in the name of Christ, the Prince of Peace! Catholics and Lutherans persecuted one another, Lutherans and Calvinists harassed each other, and everyone seemed to attack the Anabaptists. More than eight million people died as a result of the Thirty Years War alone. Some say that’s ancient history; nevertheless, it is our history!

Even the Reformation’s hero, Martin Luther, did his share to further hate when, in 1543, he wrote The Jews and Their Lies. Calling Jews a “miserable and accursed people,” Luther accused them of being “nothing but thieves and robbers who daily eat no morsel and wear no thread of clothing which they have not stolen and pilfered from us by means of their accursed usury.” There’s nothing of Christ in those false and hateful words. Unfortunately, some of his rhetoric was used to justify Nazi ideology and is still being used by anti-Semites today.

Why do I bring up these perversions of Christ’s message? If we hope to truly defend our faith, we must be ready to acknowledge (and apologize) for our failings. When Luther’s virulent diatribe was first pointed out to me by an unbeliever, I was dumb-founded; totally unprepared, I had no response. If you’re like me, you forgot most of the Middle Ages as soon as you passed World History and yet the Crusades and the religious wars of that time are some of the most frequent arguments used against Christianity. Granted, all of Christianity can’t be blamed for the actions of some people any more than all Muslims can be blamed for the actions of Islamic terrorists. Nevertheless, when the name of Christ has been exploited, blasphemed, or abused by people claiming to be His followers, we must be prepared with an answer to people’s questions and accusations. It seems that there may be times in apologetics when we just might need to offer an apology.

If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. [1 Corinthians 12:26-27 (RSV)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.