LIVING WITH AMBIGUITY

For we live by faith, not by sight. [2 Corinthians 5:7 (NIV)]

Lowdermilk Park rainbowAn early morning rainstorm left a rainbow over the Gulf. “Oh, thank you, Lord,” I said, “That’s just what I needed.” You see, I was suffering from a serious case of the glums and gloomies. Having recently undergone foot surgery, I knew some of my blues had to do with pain, poor sleep, the nuisance of immobility, undone tasks, and “cabin fever.” Nevertheless, that didn’t seem to fully explain my melancholy. Struggling to discern its underlying cause, I’d prayed that God would lead me to the root of the problem. In my darkness, I’d also asked Him to give me a little sign that He heard my pleas. God is big on rainbows—just ask Noah—and it felt like He hung that rainbow out just for me and hope was on the horizon.

Later that day, I came across an article listing the qualities of the prodigal son’s father. It included “willing to live with ambiguity” which struck a chord with me. Perhaps my prayers had been answered with that simple phrase. Preferring certainty to ambiguity, I knew that several unresolved issues, unanswered questions, and unclear courses were troubling me. Perhaps, my sadness was because, wary of living with the unknown, I wanted to walk by sight rather than faith!

Out of curiosity, I took an on-line test as to whether or not I’m a risk taker (someone willing to live with ambiguity). By this point in life, I knew the answer and the test results concurred with my assessment. “While you may take risks on rare occasions, you usually choose the well-traveled path,” it said while adding that I prefer a “stable environment in which changes are made gradually and with ample warning.” Telling me that I rarely seek out situations with uncertain outcomes was just another way of saying I don’t like to live with ambiguity. I’m not comfortable unless I know what’s around the next corner!

If I’d been Elisha, before joining Elijah as a prophet, I would have asked a neighbor to care for my plow and oxen rather than cooking the oxen over a plow-fueled fire. If I’d been Peter, I might not have stepped out of the boat. If I’d been Mary, I would have asked Gabriel a whole host of questions before saying I’d be the Lord’s servant. If I’d been Ruth, rather than go to Judah, I probably would have stayed in Moab. And, if I’d been Moses, I would have asked God for a detailed itinerary and map to the Promised Land. All of these people lived with ambiguity and answered God’s call without being given a step-by-step plan or knowing the outcome. They could live with ambiguity because they wholly trusted in the Lord.

Life is filled with unanswered questions and unknown outcomes. While I tend to think of risk and uncertainty as leading to things like loss, sorrow, weakness, insufficiency, insecurity, sickness, trouble, and failure, they also can lead to gain, joy, strength, plenty, confidence, health, opportunity, and success. Elisha, Peter, Mary, Ruth, and Moses all took risks and were blessed for it! Wanting a divine road map, I’d forgotten that I already have one in my Bible where I’m told to trust in God’s plan and reassured that He’s always with me.

Rather than seek to know what the future holds for us, we can seek God’s will and let Him show us where to go. We may not know what tomorrow brings but we know the One who holds our tomorrows in His hands. We can’t control every situation but, by the grace of God, we can control our attitude in every situation and learn to embrace the ambiguity of life.

It is not the cares of today, but the cares of tomorrow, that weigh a man down. For the needs of today we have corresponding strength given. For the morrow we are told to trust. It is not ours yet. It is when tomorrow’s burden is added to the burden of today that the weight is more than a man can bear. [George Macdonald]

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. [Romans 15:13 (NIV)]

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BEWARE THE GNATCATCHERS!

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:6-7 (NLT)]

red-shouldered hawkSeeing a red-shouldered hawk perched up in a nearby tree, I focused in on it only to see him suddenly duck his head to avoid being attacked by small bird and then drop again as another tiny bird swept down at him. Those two gnatcatchers boldly harassed the hawk as it kept bobbing and weaving to dodge them. Fiercely territorial, gnatcatchers are unafraid to confront predators and, apparently, the hawk was infringing on their territory. Eventually, the hawk admitted defeat and flew off to another tree. I later asked one of the Audubon docents why the large hawk didn’t fight back against the tiny birds and was told that the hawk knows it can’t win. Being so small, the fast and agile gnatcatcher easily can out maneuver the bigger bird. For the hawk, the energy spent trying to catch the gnatcatcher isn’t worth it; fleeing makes more sense than staying. After settling in another tree not far away, the hawk spotted a crayfish. After sweeping down to catch it, he returned to his new perch and enjoyed a peaceful breakfast (without any annoying gnatcatchers).

“Surely, there’s a devotion of some kind in this!” I thought. Seeing those tiny birds harass the hawk (who was more than 100 times their weight) seemed like a David versus Goliath moment. The more I thought about it, however, I thought the hawk was the innocent party. He hadn’t provoked the birds; he was just minding his own business and looking for breakfast when those birds started pestering him. What the gnatcatchers were doing is called “mobbing.” When birds mob, they make a distress call that attracts other birds (even different species) to join in the harassment. If the hawk hadn’t moved, chances are more birds soon would have joined in hounding and harassing him.

Since another word for harassing is “worrying,” I wondered if those gnatcatchers might be like the worries that seem to come at us from out of nowhere to vex, torment, and distress us. Like mobbing birds, worry calls its pals anxiety, fear, and apprehension to join in troubling us. The gnatcatchers kept the hawk from doing his work (finding breakfast) and worry keeps us from moving ahead, as well. Realizing those birds were not going to disappear, the hawk wisely moved away from them. Often, we’re not that smart; we remain smack dab in the middle of worry and allow it to continue attacking and pecking at us. While the hawk only needed to fly to a nearby tree, we need fly to God, thank Him for His goodness, ask Him for help, and leave our concerns with Him. “You can pick what you ponder,” says Max Lucado. We can perch ourselves in the midst of worry or we can perch ourselves in the promises of God.

Whether or not we worry, our problems will remain. Worry, however, accomplishes nothing. We may not have a lot of power over our problems, but we do have power over our thoughts. Like the hawk, we need to stop perching in the worry zone and get on with our lives, whether that involves catching crayfish in the swamp or giving our concerns to God and working at finding a solution to our problems!

Your problem is not your problem; it is the way you think about it. [Max Lucado]

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you. [Philippians 4:8-9 (NLT)]

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TO BE STILL

God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble. … Be still, and know that I am God! I will be honored by every nation. I will be honored throughout the world. [Psalm 46:1,10 (NLT)]

When we’re told to “Be still” in Psalm 46, we tend to think in terms of stopping movement—our busyness, frantic activity, or agitated actions. We associate it with a director yelling, “Cut!” the ref blowing his whistle, or a frustrated parent’s “Cut it out!” Being still can entail all of that, but it is much more. The root of the original Hebrew word used for “still” is the verb rapa which means to be faint, forsake, or sink down. When used as the imperative ra’pha’h, as it is in Psalm 46, it means to drop or release our concerns, to become weak, or surrender. While most Bible versions translate this as “Be still,” some translate as desist, stop fighting, cease striving, be quiet, or be at peace. In short, we’re being told to stop anxiously fighting a situation and leave the matter to God—to relax our grip on things, stop worrying and let it be.

Forgetting that we can’t save ourselves, we often base our self-worth on what we can do—our strength, self-sufficiency and independence. It goes against the grain to accept that we must become weaker so that God can become stronger and that we must lose our lives to find them. But, it is when we loosen our grip, release our hold, and admit our helplessness that we finally understand that God is God and we are not!

Do we come to God with clenched fists or open hands? Do we come with hands clutching things like worry, fear, possessions, expectations, wealth, plans and goals or with open hands that have relinquished those things to God? “Be still,” we’re told—loosen the grip and surrender to God. Remember, just as clenched fists can’t release anything, they also can’t receive God’s blessings! Today, instead of bringing my hands together in prayer, I opened them and turned my palms upward in a symbolic gesture both of surrender and acceptance. I was still and knew that He is God.

When a train goes through a tunnel and it gets dark, you don’t throw away the ticket and jump off.  You sit still and trust the engineer. [Corrie ten Boom]

Trust in the Lord and do good. Then you will live safely in the land and prosper. Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you your heart’s desires. Commit everything you do to the Lord. Trust him, and he will help you. Be still in the presence of the Lord, and wait patiently for him to act. [Psalm 37:3-5,7a (NLT)]

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SATURDAYS

We 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 (NLT)]

For many of us, last Saturday was probably spent preparing for Easter. We may have picked up people at the airport, done last minute shopping, purchased an Easter lily, decorated eggs, assembled Easter baskets, snacked on jelly beans, or hidden plastic eggs around the yard. Although the previous day, Good Friday, had been a somber one, we knew that the next day, Easter, would be one of joy and celebration. Knowing how the story ended, we didn’t mourn or feel abandoned. But what of the disciples on the Saturday after his crucifixion?

The Bible is strangely silent about that Saturday. We assume that, being good Jews, they observed the Sabbath day quietly, but that’s about it. Did they do any of things associated with Jewish mourning: tearing of clothes, wearing sack cloth and ashes, fasting, or prayer? As Job’s friends had done, did they gather together and sit shiva (as one would for a parent, child, sibling or spouse)? Was their seven day period of mourning interrupted when they learned of the empty tomb?

That one Saturday 2,000 years ago, everyone thought they’d never see Him again and what a dark day it was! Jesus—their leader, closest friend, and hope—was dead and gone. The agony of despair and defeat must have been unbearable. Was there regret or anger that they’d given up their homes and livelihoods for their failed Messiah? Think of their heartache and the many would’ves, could’ves, and should’ves as they wished they’d only known Thursday’s meal was the last time they’d be together! Think of their remorse for having fallen asleep while Jesus prayed, the shame of abandoning Him in the garden, and Peter’s self-reproach for denying Him. Were they also afraid of being arrested and suffering the same kind of death?

The disciples never fully understood when He’d spoken of dying. Not believing that He’d be crucified and buried, they didn’t seem to expect Jesus to return and didn’t trust the women when they said the tomb was empty. Jesus had said, “It is finished!” Not understanding what He’d finished and seeing no future, they’d lost hope.

Perhaps the gospel writers chose not to tell us about that gloomy Saturday because the disciples weren’t especially proud of it. Yet, they told about Peter’s denials, Thomas’ doubt, and James and John wanting places of honor. Perhaps there’s no mention of that Saturday because we’re not meant to dwell in the Saturdays of our lives.

I’m not talking about the day we get the chores done, take the kids to practice, or watch Saturday Night Live. I’m speaking of the times when disaster, despair, regrets, or anguish assault us and we can’t see tomorrow because of the darkness of today. The disciples’ Saturday lasted only 24-hours; unfortunately, our Saturdays often last much longer.

The disciples didn’t know that hopeless Saturday was simply a day between despair and joy, but we do. Because Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday, we know that we have not been abandoned. Because Jesus gave us His Holy Spirit when He ascended into heaven 40 days later, we know that we’ll never be alone. No matter how long our Saturdays are, we have no reason for despair, fear or anxiety. Whether in this world or the next, a glorious Sunday eventually will come.

And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age. [Matthew 28:20b (NLT)]

So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. [Hebrews 4:16 (NLT)]

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THE PAINTED LADIES

Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. [James 4:13-14 (NLT)]

painted lady butterfliesWhen the headline described it as a “swarm of a ‘billion’ Painted Lady butterflies,” I thought that an exaggeration until I walked out into the garden where hundreds of them were flitting through the flowers. While visiting family in southern California last week, I saw more butterflies in a few days than I’ve seen my entire life. Having spent their winter in northern Mexico, the bevy of butterflies was the result of winter’s heavy rains that enabled the desert to come out in full bloom. With an abundance of plants on which to feast, the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) population exploded, resulting in this massive migration north.

Hoping to get the perfect photo, I staked out the flowers every afternoon. The problem wasn’t finding a butterfly; the problem was finding one that would stay still. Before I could get it in focus, the insect had fluttered to another blossom. “Why can’t you just find a sweet flower and stay? What makes you think the next flower is any better than the one you’re visiting right now?” I wondered.

The fickle butterflies reminded me of people who continually search for the next best thing: another product, idea, person, job, possession or diet that seems better than what they presently have. They’re only satisfied until what appears to be the next best thing comes along. But, before I started pointing fingers, I looked at myself. In three days, I’d taken several hundred photos. While most had been deleted, more than twenty-five had been deemed worthy of editing and saving. Yet, there I was on day four, taking even more pictures, hoping for an even better Painted Lady shot.

“Surely, this is the starting point for a devotion about discontent,” I thought, until remembering there is more to the butterflies’ story. Capable of flying faster than twenty miles an hour and covering more than 100 miles in a day, the Painted Ladies are speeding their way to the Pacific Northwest. With a life span of about two weeks, however, the butterflies I saw feasting in the garden will never get to their intended destination. They emerged from their chrysalis with a fat reserve enabling them to fly from dawn until dusk. When the fat diminishes, they stop, begin to feed (as were these butterflies), become sexually active, breed, and die. It will be their descendants who eventually get as far north as the Canadian border. Although flitting from blossom to blossom seemed fickle, it was just the butterflies doing their assigned task: eating and pollinating. While sipping nectar, they pick up pollen on their bodies which gets transferred from one flower to the next as they move through the garden. Flowers must be pollinated to bear fruit and, since about one-third of the food we eat is dependent on pollinators like bees and butterflies, I should be thanking instead of censuring them.

Perhaps we should be more like butterflies. Preferring the sunlight, they stay out of the shade; like them, we must prefer the Son’s light to the darkness of this world. They sought flowers and hungrily feasted on nectar; we should seek God and feast on His word. They spread pollen but we must spread God’s love and Good News. Their work bears fruit as should ours. While it is instinct that leads the butterflies on their journey, it is the Holy Spirit who leads us on ours. They were doing their best to bring another generation closer to their destination and I wondered if we are anywhere that committed to bringing the next generation closer to God’s Kingdom. Although the butterflies I saw will never get to their intended destination, they neither worried nor quit. They simply did what they could and made the most of the day given to them. While our lifespan is much longer than a butterfly’s, like them, we will pass this way but once; life is as uncertain for us as it is for them. Those Painted Ladies were on a mission to sip the sweetness of life and be fruitful; let us do the same.

Oh God, give me grace for this day, not for a lifetime, nor for next week, not for tomorrow, just for this day. Direct my thoughts and bless them, direct my work and bless it, direct the things I say and give them blessing, too. Direct and bless everything that I think and speak and do. So that for this one day, just this one day, I have the gift of grace that comes from your presence. [Marjorie Holmes]

But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. [Matthew 6:33-34 (NLT)]

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HE LIFTS US

Save me, O God! The water is up to my neck; I am sinking in deep mud, and there is no solid ground; I am out in deep water, and the waves are about to drown me. [Psalm 69:1-2 (GNT)]

Great Blue HeronQuicksand forms in saturated loose sand and, when undisturbed, appears to be solid ground. If a person steps into it, however, there is a decrease in its viscosity which causes the water and sand to separate so the soil becomes liquefied. When I was growing up, a scene of someone sinking into the death trap of quicksand was a staple of adventure movies. Because of those Saturday matinees in the 1950s and 60s, countless children probably had a fear of plunging into quicksand while walking in the woods; I know I did!

Even though an Arizona man was recently stuck in quicksand at Zion National Park, the old Hollywood cliché doesn’t stand up to scrutiny and a person is unlikely to submerge completely. As that trapped man discovered, the real danger comes from hypothermia, bad weather, predators, dehydration, or even drowning from rising tides while stuck.

Without ever going near a swamp, beach or river bank, we can easily encounter quicksand-like conditions in our lives. Trusting ourselves rather than God, we think we’re on firm ground only to misstep and fall into a pit of problems. As we’re sucked into the muck of doubt, fear, worry, deceit, or depression, we start to panic. As happens in real quicksand, the more we struggle, the faster we sink.

Stuck in a quagmire of despondency or pit of despair, Satan finds us easy prey. Frightened, feeling alone, and thirsting for relief, we’re tempted to accept whatever comfort he offers. Feeling defenseless in the swamp of hopelessness, we reach for whatever seems easiest and, instead of rescue, a rising tide of more troubles sweeps over us.

Although I feared quicksand as a child, I’m not likely to be sucked into a bottomless pit of muck any time soon. Nevertheless, since quicksand does remain a minor threat wherever super-saturated sand exists, it’s reassuring to know that, if we step into quicksand, we don’t have to stay there. We don’t have to remain in situational quicksand, either. In both cases, we should get rid of anything that weighs us down, whether backpacks or negative thoughts and emotions. Frantic movement can agitate quicksand which further liquefies the soil but, by remaining calm, breathing deeply, and relaxing, it’s possible to float on top of the muck. In situational quicksand, the same rule holds. Knowing that God has not abandoned us, there’s no need for anxiety or panic. By pausing, praying, and following God’s direction, we can rise above our problems. Life’s challenges can’t sink us because our God will teach us how to float through them. Finally, in both situations, we must be patient. It usually takes a long time to move through both muck and troubles. In God’s time, He will lift us out of the pit and put our feet on solid ground!

I waited patiently for the Lord’s help; then he listened to me and heard my cry. He pulled me out of a dangerous pit, out of the deadly quicksand. He set me safely on a rock and made me secure. [Psalm 40:1-2 (GNT)]

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