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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THE BIBLE SAYS!

So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. [Luke 11:9-10 (NIV)]

loveIn the comic strip Peanuts, drawn by Charles Schultz, Linus and Lucy van Pelt are brother and sister who, like many siblings, often fight. For several days last week, Lucy tried to convince Linus to give her a Christmas gift. When she insisted the giving of Christmas presents is in the Bible, he called her bluff saying, “You can’t fool an old theologian.” Two days later, while Lucy searched in the Bible, she exclaimed, “I found it!…The word ‘sister’ in the Bible!…That proves you have to give me a Christmas present!” Her little brother merely sighed, “Oh, good grief.” While not as blatant as Lucy, we often find people taking Scripture out of context to justify their own meaning.

Luke 11:9-10 may be the most misinterpreted verse, especially by those who preach a “prosperity gospel” version of Christianity. At first glance, “ask and it will be given” sounds like God runs an Amazon wish fulfillment center in Heaven. Mercedes, check…winning lottery ticket, check…40-foot boat, check! By ignoring the verse’s context, people miss its meaning. Jesus’s reassurance of answered prayers follows the prayer model given to His disciples in what we know as “The Lord’s Prayer.” The requests in this perfect prayer are that God’s name be kept holy, His Kingdom will soon come, for the day’s food, for forgiveness, and not yielding to temptation. Jesus didn’t ask for a new robe, a purse full of money, or a chariot to transport him on His travels! He asked for what was needed to serve God. Following His prayer, Jesus told a parable about a persistent man who boldly begged his neighbor for bread because he had a visitor and no food for him to give him. Jewish culture demanded that hospitality be offered to travelers and the entire village’s reputation was a stake if kindness was not extended. The man didn’t ask for a jug of vintage wine or a newly slaughtered lamb. He asked for the bare minimum: 3 loaves (each about the size of a pita) for a hungry guest so he could abide by the law of hospitality. Looking at Luke 11:9 in context makes it clear that Jesus’s words were not an invitation to “name it and claim it” from God’s vending machine. We wouldn’t open a novel and read a few random sentences and think we know what the story is saying but, like Lucy, we tend to do that with Scripture.

As it turns out, having forgotten about forgiveness, Linus was no better a theologian than his sister. Had Lucy read that Bible more carefully, she could have made an excellent argument for receiving a gift (and even used a verse that included the word “sister”). Linus’ refusal to give Lucy a Christmas present was because she punched him in the face several days earlier. After putting the verse in context, Lucy should have quoted Matthew 18:34-35. When Peter asked if he should forgive someone up to seven times, Jesus replied seventy times seven times and told the parable of the unmerciful servant. After the king forgave his servant’s enormous debt, the man refused to forgive a small debt owed to him and threw the debtor in prison. Upon discovering his servant’s lack of mercy, “In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” [Matthew 18:34-35] Using Scripture properly might have gotten Linus to rethink his position and Lucy her present!

George Bernard Shaw said that, “No man ever believes that the Bible means what it says: He is always convinced that it says what he means.” That should never be true of a Christian. We’re not trying to convince a little brother to give us a Christmas gift; we’re sharing the Gospel message. Let’s make sure we do it right!

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. [2 Timothy 2:15 (NIV)]

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CHANGE OF ATTITUDE

If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. [Romans 12:18 (ESV)]

dilophosaurusThere was a bit of a kerfuffle behind us during church last week; it started during the Old Testament reading and continued to the Gospel. As best as I can figure, a bottle of water had leaked onto the pew. The women behind me sat on the damp cushion and made quite a production of detecting, discussing, and complaining about it first to her husband and then to her neighbor (whose water it had been). There was room enough to move down in that pew and plenty of other pews (with dry cushions) available, but the couple never moved. Nevertheless, throughout the rest of the service, I felt the woman’s breath on my neck every time she exhaled another loud sigh of misery.

Upon returning to our pews after receiving Communion, I realized she’d left church rather than go forward for the bread and wine. When her husband returned to the pew, I heard the woman whose water had spilled whisper her heartfelt apology once again. She asked what she could do to make it right. He casually said, “Nothing. Life happens; it was an accident and she has to get over it.” He then confided, “I’m sorry; she doesn’t handle things well.”

I thought of the story of David, Nabal, and Abigail in 1 Samuel 25. David and his men were hiding from King Saul in the wilderness of Maon when they came across Nabal’s shepherds tending his 3,000 sheep and 1,000 goats. Rather than stealing any animals for themselves, David’s men formed a line of protection around the shepherds and animals so that no harm came to them. At sheep shearing time, a time of celebration when the shepherds would get paid, David sent wishes of peace and prosperity to the wealthy Nabal. Explaining that he and his men had warded off both Bedouin raiders and predators, David asked Nabal to share some provisions with his men as payment for their protection. While their services had been unsolicited, David’s request was not unreasonable.

Nabal’s name meant “fool,” and the man lived up to his name; he not only refused but did so by insulting the slayer of Goliath. Upon hearing Nabal’s rude response, the angry David and his army headed out with the intention of killing every man in Nabal’s household. Fortunately, a servant told Nabal’s wife, Abigail, of David’s service and Nabal’s rashness in offending him. The wise woman quickly packed a large quantity of food and wine and went to David. Humbly apologizing for Nabal’s bad manners and offering the provisions to David and his men, she assuaged David’s anger and defused a dangerous situation.

I imagine Abigail frequently had to make amends for her husband’s churlish and stingy behavior and, from the way that husband handled the situation at church, I suspect that he is no stranger to apologizing for his wife’s peevish conduct. Living with someone who makes mountains from molehills, overreacts to minor annoyances, or takes every slight as a personal insult can’t be easy and I immediately prayed for him.

It was not until later that I thought to pray for his wife. It’s easy to pray for the Abigails and Abners—the long-suffering spouses—in situations like that. They have both our admiration and sympathy as they regularly repair any damage left behind by their spouse. After giving it more thought, however, I also prayed for his wife and others like her—the Nabals and Mabels of life. How sad it must be to go through life choosing misery over joy, tightfistedness over generosity, resentment over forgiveness, turmoil over peace, and complaint over praise. May we all be wary of behaving as a Nabal; it didn’t end well for him. When he discovered what his wife had done, Nabal had a stroke and died!

If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. [Maya Angelou]

The vexation of a fool is known at once, but the prudent ignores an insult. …The beginning of strife is like letting out water, so quit before the quarrel breaks out. …Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense. [Proverbs 12:16,17:14,19:11 (ESV)]

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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)]

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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)]

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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)]

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