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First Thoughts Blog

Category Archives: Devotionals

Why Not Me?

I want what you have. It’s supposed to belong to me. You don’t deserve it anyway. You won’t even appreciate it. You’ve got what’s mine and I hate you for it. I’ll scratch your eyes out for it. Ever feel that way?

You see the girl you adore kiss another guy by the lockers. You want to go at him, right there. You watch the rich kid show off the spoils from another shopping spree and everything you own suddenly seems ready for the thrift shop. You burn inside. Your parents look at your brother’s report card and praise him for being so smart. They turn to you and smile sympathetically. Not every one can have all the gifts he has. If looks could kill, your brother wouldn’t make it out of the room.

Jealousy is a powerful, overwhelming emotion. We’ve been plagued with it from the beginning. Cain and Abel were brothers with different jobs. Cain tilled the ground and grew crops. Abel kept the flocks of sheep and cattle. One day, they both brought gifts to the Lord. Cain brought some of his harvest from the fields. Abel brought an offering of the firstborn of his flock. At first sight, this seems normal enough, each one bringing something from his work. But the story from Genesis 4 tells us that God was pleased with Abel’s offering while having no regard for Cain’s. We are never really told why one was better than another.We do read that Cain was furious with jealousy, and his face fell into gloom.

The Lord spoke to Cain, saying in effect “Why are you so mad? If you do what is right, you’ll be accepted. But if not, be careful, because sin is lurking right at your door. It desires to own you, but you must overcome it.”

God knew exactly how jealousy works. It threatens to possess us. If we aren’t careful, it will take over and lead us into doing the worst things possible.

Cain, of course, didn’t heed the warning. He lured Abel into a field, then savagely attacked him. Still in a rage, Cain at first tried denying that he had killed his brother. God asked him where Abel was and Cain replied, “How should I know? Am I my brother’s keeper?”

“His blood cries out to me from the ground,” said the Lord.

When Cain came out of his jealous fit, he realized the curse he had brought down on himself. His whole life was ruined by his envious rage.

Jealousy can do that. In a moment, it can seize us and lead us to ruin relationships. We can’t stop the feeling of jealousy when it arises. But our story gives us some cluse about what to do with those feelings. First of all, we can name them. I am angry because I am so jealous I could kill. Yes, I recognize you, you sin of jealous rage lurking around my door! But you can’t have me.” Second, we deny jealousy its full expression by remembering “I am my brother’s keeper. We belong to each other. I can’t just obliterate you, much as I’d like. We’re connected. We each belong to God and so we matter to each other. You really aren’t the problem, but my jealousy is.” And third, we can hold hard to God’s words to Cain, “If you do right, you will be accepted.” I’m not going to give in and have a fit that will make everything worse. I’m going to entrust myself to God, do what is right, and hang on till the wave of jealousy passes. And then we pray like crazy that God will see us through.

Posted in: Devotionals

All Bottled Up

I grew up with a German Shepherd who had a conscience. She loved to get in the trash; we scolded her every time she did. When our family would go out, the dog was often left alone in the house. The temptation to rummage through the garbage would overwhelm her. We would arrive home to find a trail of cans and half-eaten wrappers leading straight to a dog who was trying very hard to melt into the floor. The guilt overwhelmed her and she crouched as low as she could go, awaiting our judgement. She was miserable! Her remorse made it hard to go through the required lecture: "You were bad! You went in the garbage!" But what joy for all of us when at last the release came: "But you’re still our dog. Good dog! Come here and see me!" Being restored to the family sent her into leaps and wags of happiness.

Guilt is that way. Keep it quiet, stuffed away, and it drags you down towards despair. Confess, ask forgiveness, make what changes you can, and life returns. The relief is like the feeling you get when someone you’ve been carrying on your shoulders for ten minutes jumps off. You feel like you can float.

In Psalm 32, King David deals with what happened when he tried to avoid dealing with his sin. "When I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer" (Ps. 32: 3-4, NRSV). He never tells us just what sin he was holding back. But we know David had once committed adultery and then murder to cover it up (see 2 Samuel 11), and the consequences of those foolish, cruel actions rippled down the remaining decades of his life. So he knew about sin, and about trying not to deal with it. The result even has physical consequences. Refusing to come before God with our sin can suck the very life out of us. Bottling up our guilt wastes us. We just get mashed down in soul and body.

Though he still had to face the real-life results of his actions, David learned how much better it is to do that with a clean conscience and a restored soul. He went on to pray, "Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the guilt of my sin" (Ps 32: 5). He found the release of coming clean before a God who has a bountiful forgiveness just waiting for us (see Ps 130).

The apostle John tells us that "if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." Denying what’s going on in our lives cuts us off from God and a life of truth. But, "if we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (I John 1: 8-9). Unconfessed sin weighs down many Christians. We may well stuff down the truth for so long that we no longer remember when or how we got disconnected from God. If you ever feel depressed in your spiritual life, take some time to do some honest soul searching before God. Invite the Holy Spirit to reveal any areas of your life in which confession is needed. This isn’t always easy, but remember that our loving God longs to pour the release and the relief of forgiveness into our lives.

Next Day Stretch

Psalm 139: 23-24 says, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." That’s a daring prayer! Consider taking some time today to come before God. You may well want to get on your knees. Pray, "Search me O God! Show me any sins I need to confess. Show me any secret sins I have long denied." Listen for what the Holy Spirit brings to mind. You might then go on to consider the primary relationships in your life to examine if there are things to confess—things we have both done and left undone. Bring all this before God, consider what actions you may need to take to make amends, and then claim the forgiveness God has secured for us in Jesus Christ. Hold hard to what John wrote, "If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but from the sins of the whole world" (I John 2: 1-2).

Posted in: Devotionals

Doing Faith

In high school, I was involved in a Christian group called Campus Life. Our director, Jim Green, used to tell the greatest stories. I remember one about the tight rope walker at Niagra Falls. This acrobat had somehow stretched a cable across the top of the raging waters. He climbed to the top of his rickety ladder, and stood on one end of the tight rope, holding his pole. “Who believes I can walk across this rope and return?” The crowd cheered. One slip would send him tumbling into the torrent, soon to crash hundreds of feet over the falls. But they believed in his skills.

So the lithe little man scampered easily across the thin cable over the falls, then returned to great applause. Quickly, he scurried down the ladder, grabbed a small bicylec with a basket on it, and climbed back up with the bike. “Who believes I can ride across the falls on this bicycle?” he asked.

Again, the audience roared their belief in the acrobat. He did not disappoint. In just a few minutes he had ridden from the U.S. side to the Canadian side of the falls on a rope on a bicycle! The people were in a frenzy of excitement.

“Now. Who believes I can ride across the falls on this bike with a person in the basket?”

Cheers of faith in this man’s talent filled the air. “You can do it! We believe you can do it!”

The acrobat didn’t say another word for a few moments. He let the crowd fall into silence. “Then which of you will climb into the basket?”

No one said a word. Not one hand went up.

He asked again, “If you believe in me, who will climb up and ride in the basket?”

Several awkward moments followed. The previously giddy crowd was dumbfounded. Belief in this man’s abilities was one thing when he was taking all the risk, but to actually ride in the basket?

Finally the acrobat spoke. “You believe nothing. Not one of you has faith. All your cheers were just empty praise.” He packed his equipment and left.

When he had finished telling us the story, our director asked us, “Now what kind of faith do you have? Is it just belief? Or is it belief that goes as far as doing something?”

Reading through the gospels, we see that Jesus expected this kind of faith as well. Of course he wanted people to believe in him, to trust him as the Messiah and come to know him as the Son of God. But real belief often has an action part.

For instance, Jesus noticed the faith of the men who brought a paralyzed friend to him (Mark 2: 1-12). But what does faith mean in this story? These men didn’t recite the Apostle’s Creed or say anything at all to Jesus about their beliefs. What they did was to bring a friend who couldn’t walk on his own to Jesus. When they arrived at the house, the crowd was so thick that they couldn’t get in. So they climbed up on the roof the house, and began to dig! They scrapped through the hard clay, pushed back the mat of branches, and created an opening between the beams. Then, they lowered their friend on his mat through the hole, right down in front of Jesus! Faith meant digging through somebody’s roof and interupting Jesus in his teaching in order to get their friend to the one who could heal him. Obviously they believed Jesus was someone special, sent from God with healing power—their beliefs were so strong that they went past words and into actions.

That always challenges me. I talk a lot about what I believe about Jesus. But do I show my faith by my actions? If this story were set today, maybe it would mean that you and some others decided to pick up a friend from school going through a hard time and take her to a youth group where you know she’ll be loved and cared for. It might mean calling her, and telling her you’re coming even if she doesn’t feel like it, and working ahead to make sure the group embraces her. Real faith that Christ Jesus still works through his body, the church, might mean working hard to make your friend who feels on the outside of God’s love and grace, feel brought in to a circle of people who will care. That’s the way she’ll come to believe in who Jesus is—by our actions as well as our words.

So, as the tight rope walker might ask, what kind of faith do you have?

Next Day Stretch

Write down a definition of faith. Does it include action? Write down some lines about faith that include what you are doing that shows you are truly “faithing.” Ponder where in your family, school or church life you might be called to show faith in Christ by what you do for someone else.

Posted in: Devotionals

Doubt Away!

The biggest doubters make the strongest believers. That was certainly the case with one of Jesus’ disciples. The Bible calls him Thomas, but history has given him a second name, forever pasted to him-- Doubting Thomas. As it turns out, the guy known for not believing actually made the boldest confession about who Jesus is in the entire Bible. As we explore his story, maybe you’ll see yourself, and be encouraged. Doubts can lead to great faith.

On Easter morning, the risen Jesus met Mary in the garden. She ran and told the other disciples. But they had trouble believing the report that a man they had seen beaten, crucified, wrapped up in heavy burial cloths, and then sealed away in a tomb was now up and walking around. That doesn’t happen. So most of them just stayed inside, with the doors locked, grieving for Jesus.

Then, that evening, Jesus appeared inside the room. He showed them his wounds.. He really was alive again! The disciples’ sadness turned to joy. But Thomas had not been in the room when Jesus appeared. The other disciples told him the story, but he wasn’t buying it. He wanted proof. “Unless I see the marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, I will not believe it.”

Does that seem reasonable to you? After all, if Jesus is so great, why doesn’t he just show himself to me? Why doesn’t he just write his love across the sky for everyone to see if he really wants all people to know him? And while we’re at it, if Jesus is so loving, why is there so much suffering he doesn’t stop and sickness he doesn’t heal? If he’s real, I want to put my hands on him.

A week later, Jesus again appeared inside a room with locked doors. “Peace be with you,” he said. Then he looked right at Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe!”

Thomas received just what he asked for—a personal appearance by the risen Christ. It’s interesting that we never know whether Thomas actually touched Jesus or not. John’s gospel doesn’t tell us. We just hear Thomas cry out, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus blew away his doubts with his presence.

What does this mean for our doubts? Should we hold out until Jesus shows up one night in our room? It could be a long wait. We get a clue, though, from Jesus. He told Thomas, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” It’s as if Jesus turned to a camera and spoke to all of us in the coming years who would have to believe without seeing. Our link to Jesus is through Doubting Thomas who became Believing Thomas.

Thomas is our man on the scene. He represents all of us who will never have a direct, physical encounter with Jesus in this lifetime. So when Jesus came to Thomas, it’s as if he said, “O.K. I’m going to show myself to this one guy who wasn’t there, so you can all know that what my witnesses say is the truth. I’m really who I say I am.”

It’s OK to doubt. In fact, getting to know God means lots of questions. We hold these up to God boldly. Then we make sure we’re like Thomas—we don’t get stuck in our doubts but are ready to cry out when Jesus makes himself real to us, “My Lord and my God!”

Posted in: Devotionals

Just Don’t Ask about Our Prayer Life!

Family prayer time. Eeew. Kinda creepy. Is it necessary? Does anybody do it? Well, we do. But, I embarrassed to say, not as much as we could. Still, prayer provides an important, invisible tie between us as a family.

No, we don’t heft a thirty pound Bible down from the shelf, chain the kids to their chairs, and blab for 45 minutes until everyone is in a spiritual stupor. In fact, we don’t do nearly as much praying together as we used to, nor nearly as much as I’d like. But I believe prayer is nevertheless a key part of our life as a family.

Why don’t we pray together more? First, everyone is increasingly scattered. When all the kids were under ten, their parents controlled their schedules. We could enforce a time together for reading the Bible and praying. Now in the days when all four are between 11 and 20, simply being together in one room is something of a miracle.

But that’s not the worst impediment to praying as a family. Praying is very intimate. In the years where our kids are becoming their own people, they often guard most of their emotions from their parents. The boys, in particular, don’t want to let out too much information about anything. Prayer, if it is not just superficial, requires a voicing of matters of the soul. Praising God requires expressing the ardor of the heart. That can be embarassing. Even my wife and I have had to work hard to be able to pray aloud together. It has taken years to be able to do it, and most of the time we pray independently of each other. For families, then, a prayer and worship time can be difficult.

So what does our family do? We always pray before meals. Even in restaurants. It’s a habit now to acknowledge God as the source of all good gifts. We try to take turns offering these prayers of blessing so that everyone has a chance to be the voice of the family. Each night, my youngest and I still say our prayers together. And it pleases me to see our 15 year old reading his Bible before bed. He’s making faith his own. Even if we’re not praying together, there is an acknowledgement between us that we’re both praying.

We pray aloud, too, whenever we’re going out of town, for travelling mercies and protection on the house. Everyone loves to remind me of the one trip we didn’t pray, because my wife and I were having a spat. Forty-five mintues into the trip, the van hissed, spewed, and ground to a halt! No, I don’t think God was punishing us, but I did learn a lesson about how we all feel more complete when those trips start with acknowledging God and our need for protection.

We pray with our children in particular times, too. When they are struggling with relationships, or teachers, one of us may put a hand on a shoulder and say a prayer. We remind our kids that we’ll be praying for them on days when we know they have a lot of stress. And there are still times when we do gather together and pray as a family—on Christmas Eve, or in a time of crisis. Prayer is there for us, underlying our whole lives.

Still, I miss the days when we prayed more. The daily readings and prayers during Advent. Family Bible study. Memorizing passages together. Hearing my son at age 7 recite all 66 books of the Bible in under two minutes! I miss hearing a little voice say, “Thank you for dis beautiful day. Thank you for Gegus.” [that would be “Jesus” in toddler speak] Of course, I miss all the ways we were so close before the teen years came and the drive for independence grew so strong. But I suspect that one day even some of that spiritual intimacy will return at a different stage of life.

Family prayer is not easy. If your family isn’t used to it, you might have a hard time getting it started. But there are little ways to get started. Offering to pray before a meal, asking your parents to pray for you during the time you have a test, or letting your Mom or Dad know that you’ll be praying for them during the day can help open your family to experience more the invisible ties of love that come from prayer.

Next Day Stretch

This week, volunteer for the blessing before dinner. Ask a sister, brother or parent if there is anything you can be praying about for them. Invite a family member to pray for something in your life. Family prayer is hard to get going, but try experimenting by taking a tiny risk this week.

Posted in: Devotionals

Hanging Out with Jesus

So do you think Hilary Duff or Leo Di Caprio have an easy time making friends? At first you think, “Sure, everybody wants to be with people like that.” But then you think a little more. Would all that “Oh wow it’s Lizzie McGuire!” get in the way of really being friends? Can anybody just pal around with Leo without thinking, “Hey, Catch Me if You Can, I’m with the King of the World who didn’t really die on Titanic and he looks great. Leo, let’s ditch The Man with the Iron Mask and hit The Beach together.” Yeah, it would be more than a little weird.

If it’s hard for a movie star to have friends without stardom getting in the way, I wonder how it was for Jesus. He had disciples and he had enemies, he had people who worshipped him and people who followed him and people who wanted him dead. But what about just plain friends? Did his being the Son of God get in the way of that?

The people who seem closest to being just plain old friends with Jesus are Mary, Martha and Lazarus. We know that Jesus went to their house for dinner more than once (see Luke 10: 38 and John 12: 2). When Lazarus fell ill, Martha came to Jesus and said, “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (John 11: 2). That word “love” in the original language of the New Testament, meant the kind of love between friends, or between parents and children—love that is for one’s own kind. Jesus loved Lazarus like a good friend. That means it wasn’t all Jesus giving to Lazarus like a master with a disciple. Lazarus contributed something in the friendship. Jesus got something out of it. They had things in common; it was a two-way relationship.

We don’t get many details about their friendship. But I imagine that the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha was a place where Jesus could relax. There wasn’t so much pressure. They didn’t just want to take from Jesus. They wanted to give. Maybe they laughed a lot together. Maybe they listened to his concerns and encouraged him. Maybe they just talked about the weather and village life. Their home was a break from angry Pharisees and the crowds. They were friends. The whole “star-power” quality of Jesus did not get in the way of just being normal together. That must have been precious to Jesus.

In Revelation, we hear Jesus say that he stands at the door, knocking. “If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (3: 20). Eating together was a big deal in Bible times. It still is now. When we’re with friends, we go get ice cream together, or stop for a burger, or go to each other’s homes for dinner. During lunch at school, you look for your friends. It’s a time of companionship. Jesus, I believe, wants to be so familiar and close with us that it’s as if we eat together with him. He wants us to hang out with him, just being who we are in his presence, and letting him speak to us of his love and will for us.

This makes me feel that Jesus wants to be our friend as well as our Lord and Savior. He wants to be so much a part of our lives, that his presence seems normal—so normal that we can just be ourselves in front of him.

At first, this thought may be a little scary. What if Jesus is mad at me about my sins and stuff? Do I really want to pal around with him? But when we realize how much he loves us, how patient he is as he works in our lives, and how totally forgiving he is, we can relax. Jesus is here now, right where you are. He is there reading with you. He is looking at you with eyes full of love. Take a minute, right now, just to talk to him as you would a close friend. Just tell him what’s going on. Be with your Lord who is also your friend.

Next Day Stretch

Here are two ways to work on your friendship with Jesus. 1) Get a picnic lunch, and go to a favorite, quiet place. Invite Jesus to come with you, to eat with you. As you munch, imagine him with you (he really is!). Talk with him about whatever is on your heart. Ask him to reply, and listen quietly for his presence. 2) At night, try on this old, old prayer: I am lying down this night with Christ, and he is lying down with me. Imagine Jesus there with you, like a friend spending the night. Take some time just to chat with him as you fall asleep.

Posted in: Devotionals

You Look Great!

I live with two high school students. As they got ready for the first day of school, what do you think mattered most to them? Memorizing the schedule? Discussing which figure from U.S. History would be the most interesting? Of course not! The big questions in our house were, “Who will I have lunch with?” and, most important, “What am I going to wear?”

Guys seem to dispense with the whole clothes issue pretty quick—the main thing is to not look like a goober. You want to fit in, but the concept of fashion is not really a driving force. Guys are mainly dresssing to be just part of the guys. For the girls, though, how you look is a bigger deal. Friends must be consulted. Choosing which outfit gets worn on the opening day is a huge decision. Then there’s the whole hair thing. Do I wear it down, or back, or up? Should I get it cut before school? Highlights? Which make-up, perfume, jewelry, and accessories? There aren’t many guys worth the effort my daughter and her friends put in to getting ready. It’s safe to say there are none who fully appreciate it.

But then, the disorienting swirl of these incredibly coiffed girls creates a whole new effect on the boys in their class: am I man enough to approach someone who looks as good as THAT? Except for the rare guy who develops so early he has a moustache in seventh grade, most boys in high school aren’t nearly as mature looking as the girls. And, believe me, they feel it. Beneath the gruff, “Whatever?” exterior are boys feeling very unsettled about how much they look like, well, boys--and not men. I suspect, too, that though these girls are entrancing the guys all around them (who never show it or admit it), they still feel not beautiful, not lovely, not pretty enough.

What’s the deal? Of course it’s hard when not only your body but your mind, your soul, and even your face is changing in adolescence. You’re becoming you but you’re not there yet. So you wonder if how you look now and how you’ll look then will be enough. Meanwhile, there are all those magazines with Ashton and Avril, Justin and J. Lo who look so great. There are all those ads with those kids who have no acne, no fat, no problems living the cool life while wearing whatever product paid for the ad. And there are all those videos and shows where great looking teenagers start their own companies, play music to huge crowds and succeed in dating, academics, surfing and dancing. Who can possibly compete with that?

I saw a magazine shoot once. It did me a world of good. I could see the model from the back. That perfectly fitting shirt? It was done with about a hundred pins. That fetching look of life and love? She wasn’t like that off camera. That perfect hair? Constantly sprayed by a team of assistants. The whole thing is an illusion. A big fake set up to make us ache for what can never be.

God’s Word has a different take on looks. Have you ever seen how someone who falls in love seems to change in appearance? A rather ordinary looking person who suddenly finds herself loved, begins to radiate beauty. People who never found her particularly attractive all notice how great she looks. Love confers beauty on people. God said that to his own people in Ezekiel, “…the splendor I had given you made your beauty perfect” (Ez. 16: 14). Jesus Christ confers on each of us the splendor of his love. We are his bride, and he adorns his beloved with gifts of grace, forgiveness, acceptance, peace and tender regard. He gave his life for his bride, and he still gives us his very life by pouring the Holy Spirit into our hearts. Jesus is the one who accepts us as we are, and then begins to cleanse away our faults, to change our flaws, and make us shine with his love. When we know that, in personal experience, we’ll look differently on the outside. We will have the look of those who know themselves beloved.

Another passage declares, “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment…Instead it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (I Peter 3: 3-4, NIV). When we know ourselves to be accepted by Christ, beloved by him from all eternity, and chosen to be his forever, our looks will be affected from the inside out. No longer needing to look at those wretched fashion magazines to see what we are not, we will look at the Word to see all that we are. In Christ’s eyes, you look great!

Next Day Stretch

Don’t look in the mirror today. Instead, look at these passages from God’s Word. See yourself, not in a glass on the wall, but reflected in the loving eyes of God: Isaiah 43: 1-5; Colossians 3: 12; I Peter 2: 9-10; 1 John 3: 1-2. See how great you look to God!

Posted in: Devotionals

If You Never Get Out of the Boat…

Do you ever feel like your faith is a yo-yo, jerking up and down though you don’t know who’s pulling the string? One Sunday at church, you might feel like you have it all straight: Jesus is Lord. God became human in Jesus and dwelled among us. So when we look into the face of Jesus, we are seeing who God is. Then the next day at school, someone says, “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere. God is a mystery, beyond our knowing, so anyone’s guess at faith is as good as another’s.” Everyone nods. You nod, too. But later, you wonder, “Did I just betray my Lord? Did I fail to stand up for the truth about Jesus?”

One night, saying your prayers, you have enough faith to trust God. There’s a situation with your friends. You feel really jealous about a new person in your group, as if they’re going to choose that new girl over you. You pray, and give the whole concern to God. The next morning, you wake up ready to trust that there’s room in your friends’ hearts for both you and the new person. Then when you get to school, you see your friends gushing about what a great outfit this girl has on, and how cool she’s done her hair. Before you know it, a cutting remark comes from your jealous lips. Everyone looks at you in shock. What happened to your faith? Some Christian you are, trusting God when it’s easy, and wilting the first time it gets hard.

You drive to volunteer at the nursing home, then turn off at the mall instead because you just can’t face those wrinkly, scary elders. You start to speak to someone about Jesus, then close your mouth, afraid you’ll sound like a fanatic. You see someone going down a bad path, and you want to tell them to stop, but then you don’t want to be pushy. You have a brochure about a mission trip on your dresser, but just can’t bring yourself to fill it out. What’s the matter with our faith? We think we believe, then we fail to live it out. Is that normal? Will we ever get stronger?

No disciple talked a bigger game than Peter. No disciple except Judas proved to be a bigger failure than Peter. “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you,” said Peter, just a few hours before he denied even knowing Jesus three times (Mt. 26: 35). Earlier, when Jesus had asked the disciples “Who do you say that I am?” (Mt. 16: 15), it was Peter who responded immediately, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Mt. 16: 17). He got it right, like no one ever had. Then, the next thing we read, Peter is protesting that Jesus must not suffer and die on the cross, and Jesus has to rebuke him so strongly that he calls him “Satan.” Peter soared in faith, then crashed hard.

Once, when Jesus came walking across the water to the disciples, Peter called out, “Lord, if it’s you, command me to come to you on the water” (Mt. 14: 28). So Jesus answered, “Come.” Peter got out of the boat, and began walking on the water towards Jesus. He did what was humanly impossible. For a few seconds, he did it. Then he looked down at the waves, panicked, and began to sink. “Lord, save me!” he cried. Jesus, of course, stretched out his hand and saved the poor disciple. But he was disappointed, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Peter lived large. He confessed his faith bravely. He failed big, and a lot. But Jesus never gave up on Peter. Ultimately, Peter lived up to his potential. He became the leader of the early church. He preached magnificent sermons in which many people came to faith. He endured persecution without wavering, and testified boldly in front of hostile authorities. He wrote magnificent, encouraging words of Scripture.

Stumbling in faith is never the last word on our lives. In fact, failing God is part of truly trying to live for God. Sure Peter sank in the waves, but who else even tried to get out of the boat? Yes, he failed to see how Jesus had to die on the cross, but who else declared so boldly, “You are the Son of the Living God”? On that terrible night before his death, Jesus said to Peter, “I have prayed for you, that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Lk. 22: 32). Jesus prayed for Peter then, and he prays for you now. He sends us his Spirit to strengthen us. He prays at the right hand of his Father on our behalf. As Paul wrote, “The one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1: 6). Our faith may fail from time to time, but Jesus does not give up on us. He uses even failures to make us become more and more like him.

After all, if you never tried to get out of the boat, you’d never walk on water….

Next Day Stretch

Make a list of your three or four all time biggest failures in faith. Note what happened. Consider why you failed. Then make a note about what happened after that. Did God use your failure in some way? What did you learn? How have those fallings in faith made your stronger?

Posted in: Devotionals

Soul Friends

“Whatever it takes.” You hear that in sports, or in relationships, whenever people are determined to reach their goal. “I’ll do what I have to do” to keep you with me, to score a goal, to make the grades. These heroic words mean people are totally committed. They will abandon themselves for someone else.

David and Jonathan were friends like that. Jonathan was the son of Israel’s first king, Saul. David was the young man who had been selected by God to be the next king. Both, then, were princes. They could have been jealous of each other. Jonathan had the bloodlines; David had the prophecy of his future reign. Instead, they were best friends.

Now King Saul was given to fits of jealous madness. Saul knew that because of his own earlier disobedience, the Lord had chosen David to succeed him. So instead of rejoicing in David’s military victories for Israel, Saul only hated him more. Watching David win was like watching his kingship slip away. So Saul plotted to put David to death. But Jonathan warned David, and did all he could to persuade his father to give up his violent plans.

As the story unfolds in I Samuel 20, David met secretly with Jonathan to share his fears that Saul was still after him. He needed Jonathan to find out Saul’s intent. Though it meant being a spy in the king’s court, Jonathan said to his friend, “Whatever you say, I will do for you” (vs. 4). In other words, “Whatever it takes. Whatever I have to do to get you to safety, count on me to do it.” In fact, it took a lot. For we read later that when Saul cursed Jonathan and disgraced him publicly for defending David.

In turn, David swore to do “whatever it takes” for Jonathan. He promised his love and faithfulness to Jonathan. This was a much bigger deal that it might seem. The two friends were not likely to see each other again. When the dispute between David and Saul became an all out war between two sides, the ancient code dictated that the winner should slaughter the entire family of the loser. But David promised by his love that if he won, he would break the code and yet remain to Jonathan and his family all his life.

The story tells us that David loved Jonathan “as he loved his own life” (vs. 17). That’s a soul friendship, a deep-down, in-your-bones love between friends. Some people never have such a friend. The most blessed of us will still have only one or two friends like that their whole lives. Still, what we see in David and Jonathan, rare as it is, provides a great model for the kind of friend I want to be to all my friends.

David and Jonathan looked out for each other. They spoke up for each other, even if it cost them. I want to speak up for my friends even if it means that I lose social standing, or even if I lose other friends. Because real friends are loyal. They speak the truth to each other. They defend each other.

When we read Psalm 55, we learn that David knew all too well how painful it is when friends turn such loyalty into cruel betrayal: “It is not the enemies who taunt me—I could bear that…But it is you, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend, with whom I kept pleasant company” (vs 12-14). We expect enemies, and maybe even strangers, to be disloyal. The world (especially school!) is a hard place. We can take that scorn. But when our friends cut us, the pain is terrible. For we are not only mocked, but our trust is betrayed. I don’t want to be that kind of friend. I like to think that I’d rather take abuse from others than turn my back on a friend in time of need.

David and Jonathan dealt honestly with each other. They shared their fears with each other. They held each other accountable. They made promises and kept them. Each one put the other friend ahead of himself. Jonathan risked the wrath of the king to protect David in the short term. David promised to risk breaking the whole code of the nation to protect Jonathan and his family years later. Each thought more of the other than of himself. “He loved him as he loved his own life.”

We can’t be this kind of friends with everyone. And we’ve got to be careful not to be this loyal to those who don’t share a commitment with us to doing God’s will above all else. (Our first loyalty, after all, is to our Lord). But still, this story offers us an example of what friends can be. Even more, it tells me how to act toward my friends, looking out for them, defending them, and thinking of their interests first.

Next Day Stretch

Make a list of all your friends. Then place a star by the two or three whom you consider to be the most loyal, the closest to your heart. Thank God for them, naming their best qualities aloud. Finally, considering how you can be a better friend in the coming days.

Posted in: Devotionals

Surviving Snakebite

No problem. It’s easy to say when somebody bumps you in the hall and says, “Sorry.” No problem. I’m OK. Even if my books did spill all over the floor. But what about when it’s worse? Your friend may swear she won’t say a word and then an hour later everybody knows, and you burn with embarrassment. Even if she apologizes, you’re still hurting from what she did.

Sometimes in a break up hard words get said. The person you thought you loved yesterday now stabs at you like your worst enemy. You trusted him and welcomed him into your heart. He waltzed in and threw daggers of criticism right at your most tender places. How do you say “No problem” to that??

It can cut even deeper than that. Dad may have walked out on your Mom, even for another woman. And everything that seemed normal and stable in your world fell apart. Years later, you’re still hurt and still mad. No amount of rationalizing can ever excuse this.

Forgiveness for little stuff is relatively easy. If it doesn’t cost us too much, we can pay the price to let someone else go free. No problem. But what about when the hurt is too deep to let it go? What about when the person you have to forgive is yourself and you can’t do it? Somehow, all that hurt has to be sucked up and taken away.

Long before the Crocodile Hunter, Bill Haast was a man in Miami who used to handle cobras, rattlers, and coral snakes in front of people. Sometimes he got bit. In fact, three times he fell victim to the fangs of the king cobra. But each time, after getting really sick, he recovered. People noticed that he got better faster from the third bite than the first one. Haast’s blood was developing an anti-venom. It could survive, then neutralize, the poisoned bite. His blood cleansed itself so that he was quickly restored to health. Haast then began to donate blood. If someone received a potentially deadly bite, his blood would be flown to them for a transfusion. Haast’s blood would mingle with the victim’s blood, and the anti-venom would go to work. The poison was absorbed and health returned.

That’s a lot like what Jesus does for us when we need to forgive. We get hurt and we feel poisoned by the pain and anger that results. The venom threatens to ruin us. We need a transfusion. Jesus’ blood, his life, contains the anti-venom. Somehow, when sinful people touched Jesus, he was not contaminated. When wicked people spat in his face and rammed a crown of thorns on his head, he took it all silently. When they nailed him to the cross and his back, raw from the lash of the whip, met the rough, splintered wood, he prayed, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” He took the rage and sin of the world onto himself; he sucked the poison of the snake bite of sin in the whole human race right into his own being. It killed him. But only for three days. On Easter, he rose, a new man, restored and whole. Now his risen life is the anti-venom to all the hurt done to us in the world.

We need the blood of Jesus in us when we are wounded. We need his life that can suck up even the worst violence and turn it into forgiveness. How do we get this spiritual anti-venom?

Only in mystical union with Christ. We go to him in faith and ask for his life to be in ours. We ask him to take our hurts and put them on his cross. We ask him to take our sins and the guilt we feel as well. Then we pray that he would return to us his forgiveness, his healing, his powerful life. Somehow, some way, the Holy Spirit causes the transfusion to happen. Jesus takes our hurt and makes it his own so we do not have to bear it alone. He takes our guilt and gives us his forgiveness. The venom gets sucked into Jesus, and the strong, rich lifeblood of the risen Christ gets poured into us. That’s wild. It just happens to be true.

Of course it may take some time for the lifeblood of Jesus to begin replacing our poisoned blood. But he will do it. Bring your hurts, bring your bitterness, bring your guilt to him day by day and see what he does!

Next Day Stretch

Identify a place where you have been hurt by someone. Visualize how the poison of that hurt courses through you. Now imagine that hurtful action, those hateful words, being done to Jesus. See him take those blows on the cross. They are enough to kill him. But watch as he rises on the third day. His risen life is now anti-venom. Visualize him handing you the cup in communion. He says to you, “This is my blood poured out for you.” Drink from the cup and invite his cleansing, poision sapping life to come within.

Posted in: Devotionals

Finding Confidence

First day going to a new high school. I’m in the line for the bus. Got on my new clothes and my cool new shoes, so I look good. Wrong! “Stupid shoes,” says a voice behind me. The cute blonde freshmen sliced up my confidence. I get on the bus. Where is a seat? Nobody wants the new kid to sit with them. Get to school. New locker. Can’t figure out how it works. Kids come and go all around while I sit there helpless with my books. What a goober I am!

I remember needing to rely hard on the Lord those first days. In myself, I was nothing. I felt stupid, ugly, unable. The Spirit of Christ Jesus within me is what got me through. On the bus seat or at night on my bed, I had to go to that place in my heart where I sheltered under God’s wings. It was a small place, for I wasn’t very big. It was a quiet place, for my voice was pitiful. It was a safe place, for God met me there and gave me courage to face the frightening hours.

How do we gain confidence when everything in our lives only makes us feel weak and fearful? The story of Joshua tells of a mighty warrior who did great things for God. Joshua was the leader who led Israelfrom the wilderness into the Promised Land. The book in the Bible named after him tells how he defeated mighty armies, confronted evil among his own people, and even brought down the walls of the great city of Jericho. Surely, of all people, Joshua must have been full of confidence, right? Hardly.

Joshua must have been one insecure guy judging by how often God had to encourage him. Over and over in the first chapter we hear the Lord say things like, “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1: 9). You don’t tell someone all the time not to be frightened unless they are scared! Joshua’s insides had turned to mush thinking of the task before him.

So God gave Joshua confidence. But not by telling Joshua how great he was. Courage would come as Joshua looked away from himself to God who promised, “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you.” (1: 5). God told Joshua he would succeed, but the source of his strength would not be his own power or intelligence. Joshua’s confidence came only from the Lord who promised to be with him every step of the way.

That’s the first key to gaining confidence. We don’t just try harder to believe in ourselves. We look away from ourselves, weak and pitiful as we are, to our God, the one who alone is strong, mighty and utterly reliable. In God alone is my courage.

We see the second key to gaining confidence as we look more closely at what God told Joshua: “Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go” (1: 7). Success and courage came to Joshua not because he followed his own dreams, but when he gave himself to do God’s will above all else. Confidence arises when we determine to do what God wants first.

But how do we know what God wants? God gives Joshua the secret, “This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it” (1: 8). God told Joshua to learn the Scriptures so that he would know who God is and how he was to act. This knowledge would shape his actions and keep him in God’s way as he led the people.

Confidence comes not from ourselves, but from God. Yet to receive God’s courage and comfort, we have to know who God is. We meet God in the Word, in the pages of Scripture. There we find that God is our refuge, our shelter, our strength and our hope. There we find how we may stay in God’s will throughout the day. I’d never have made it through those first awful days of high school without knowing the Lord who kept whispering to me, “Be strong. I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

Next Day Stretch

Read Psalm 91 aloud. Then think of a situation or a relationship in which you lack confidence. Hold up that situation to God as you read Psalm 91 aloud again. Imagine yourself going into God’s shelter as you pray. Visualize being gathered under the warm, soft, yet mighty feathers of God’s wings. In that safe place, give him your lack of confidence and receive his words of strength.

Posted in: Devotionals

Hit the Road!

How’s this for a planning a move:

“Grab the wife, stuff a suitcase, get in the car and drive out of town.”

“Where are we going?

“Just drive. I’ll tell you when we get there. By the way, it make take a few years.”

As crazy as that sounds, it happens all too often to parents who work in the corporate world. The company decides they need someone in another town, so they transfer your mom, or your dad, with no notice and no questions asked. Next thing you know, your whole life is on the move. It happens, too, when all of a sudden your folks announce you have to move because granddad can’t care for himself anymore. Or worst of all, your parents are splitting up and they can’t afford your home anymore. So your family and your house are being left behind. We can get yanked out of our lives with very little warning.

In of the wildest Bible stories, a man named Abram and his wife Sarai got sent packing far away from everything they knew and loved—by God! It was supposed to be part of being incredibly blessed. One day, the Lord suddenly spoke to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” The couple had to pack up and leave immediately.

Years passed before Abram and Sarai were able to settle in the land they were promised, the land of Canaan, and even more time went by before the child promised to them, little Isaac, was born. But in the end, everything worked out and the people of God multiplied in order to be a blessing to the whole world. From Abram and Sarai came all the great heroes of faith: Moses, Miriam, David, Esther and even Jesus!

The keys to success in the long move were Abram’s faith and God’s faithfulness. The words we translate as “the land I will show you” can also be translated as “the land I will provide.” God provides. Abram believed God would provide even though it took years to get to a place called home and see all the promises come true.

He hung on through all the miles and all the changes. God was in control. God had sent him on this journey. God had promised to provide. So Abram journeyed on in faith that God would be as good as his word, even when it seemed that word had gone silent for a long time.

When you have to move, especially when it’s not your choice, Abram and Sarai can be your travelling companions. They tell us that no matter what strange lands we get sent to, God is still there while we journey, and God is there when we arrive. We cannot be lost from God’s care nor travel outside the circle of his love. It just can’t be done. And we cannot be separated from the promise of God to us in Jesus Christ. God has promised, “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Hebrews 13: 5). The Lord really does provide—not always the way we’d expect, but always the way we need.

That means all our moves and all our quiet days at home, all our journeys and all our routines, are adventures. For God is going to show up, and provide what we need. The adventure is discovering how God does it.

Next Day Stretch

Many of us have known what it’s like to have to go to a “foreign” place, whether we’re moving permanently or just travelling. Take a moment to consider what difference it makes whether you’re going alone or with someone. Consider what difference it makes when you arrive in a strange place if you’re with someone who knows where you are like the back of your hand. Psalm 139: 9,10 says “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand will shall hold me fast.” In your prayers today, invite God into all the strange and difficult places you must go. Remind the Lord of the promise made to Abram, “The Lord will provide.”

Posted in: Devotionals