A Calm and Quiet Soul

Like many of us, I am familiar with Jesus’ words that come at the end of Matthew 28. Here, He says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20). Jesus is commanding His followers – all believers – to tell everyone about Him and His work. This is known as the Great Commission.

Several times, though, throughout the gospels, Jesus’ command is different. He tells those impacted by His ministry to NOT tell anyone of what He has done. We find this in today’s reading, in which Jesus says, “…tell no one” (Mark7:36). Why would He say this? Why would He want someone not to share?

I have been thinking about this for a few days, and I haven’t come up with an answer. But thinking about this verse has made me wonder if perhaps some experiences are too sacred to be shared.

I don’t know that we, in our social-media-saturated world, have a good grasp on this. We live in a world in which it is common to post all of the events of our lives from the mundane to the extraordinary. And often, this is good. Social media can help us to regularly connect with family and friends in ways that were impossible in years past.

But I am wondering – in our online lives and in our real-life lives, do we need to practice pausing before we post, and before we speak? I know that I do.

Pausing and slowing down have been themes of my writing this past year. Slow down when I read my Bible in order to let the words truly sink in. Slow down when I think, in order to take the time to thoroughly consider whatever I am pondering. And slow down before I speak, in order that my words are intentional and life-giving rather than hasty and potentially harmful. Writing this year has been good for me, if for no other reason than this gentle reminder: slow down.

And don’t we all need that slowing-down, especially right now, in the midst of a busy Christmas season? Listen to David’s words in Psalm 131: “I have calmed and quieted my soul” (Psalm 131:2). Recently, after a few unusually busy weeks, I have implemented a new daily practice. Mid-afternoon, when I am home, I do what I call a “full stop”. I make myself a cup of tea, and I sit on the couch or on the porch or now, in this Christmas season, on the window seat next to our Christmas tree. I stop, and I rest. I sit in the quiet. And it has been so good for me, so good for my soul.

My prayer for all of us in our reading community during this busy season is that we each practice taking time every day to simply sit and rest, and that little by little we would build this calming practice into a daily habit that brings us a bit of peace into our days.

Pruning

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit…Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (John 15: 1 – 2; 4 – 8).

I never used to be much of a gardener until we moved into the house we currently live in. The previous owners had created and lovingly maintained several beautiful gardens. They reminded me of English gardens, the kind you see on the cover of a novel – lots of colorful flowers, plenty of tall green grasses that turned golden in the late summer, and a white picket fence encircling it all. There is even a little stone walkway that curves between the two main sections of the garden.

The gardens are still here today, but we have changed them a bit, made them our own. We did this because we realized what a big job it is to care for and maintain a garden. So we took some plants out. We planted more perennials. And we continue to prune the gardens regularly.

Pruning is certainly one of the most time-consuming parts of gardening. (As is weeding…definitely weeding!) We do quite a bit of pruning throughout the year. Every few days during the growing season, I go outside and cut off any dead flowers from our plants. And, at the end of every autumn, my husband cuts back every plant until it stands just above the ground. This pruning – both mid-season and at the end of the season – allows the plant’s energy to be directed to feeding the good, healthy parts of the plant. Pruning also encourages the roots to grow deeper. The plant grows back full and strong the next spring.

John 15 opens with Jesus talking about how our lives as believers are to be entwined with his, and he uses a gardening image to help us to understand His words. He says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (John 15:1-2).

Did you catch that? God removes the dead stuff completely – He takes it away – and He prunes the still-alive parts! He prunes “every branch that does bear fruit”. That means that He may choose to prune good things, beautiful things – because He knows that pruning results in even better things. Sometimes those better things are new versions of pruned branches, and sometimes they look nothing like what was pruned.

Without pruning, a garden begins to look faded. Its colors soften and become muted. Pruning eliminates the non-productive and encourages the healthy. Pruning restores the vibrancy of the garden’s colors. This weekend in Central Illinois, the temperature hit 60 degrees, which is rare for late November. My husband took advantage of the day to cut down the rest of our garden. Today, as I write this looking out the front window, the plants looked short and bare, almost shocked. But I know that deep underground, within the roots, lies the promise of new growth, and if I am patient, I will see sprouts of green come springtime. May it be so with us, too. May we not resist His pruning, and may what God prunes grow back even stronger and healthier.

Familiar Words

John 3:16. What does this make you think of? This verse is probably one of the most well-known in the Bible, recognized by believers and non-believers alike. It is certainly quoted more often than many other verses. When I read the words “John 3:16”, a few images pop into my mind. I see a person holding up a large sign toward the camera at a football game. I picture a person in a city, standing on a box at a street corner, calling out the words of this verse to anyone who will listen.

My most vivid memory, though, is from when I was around nine years old. I remember walking in downtown Boston with my parents and my sister. A man handed me a small piece of paper as our family walked by; the only writing on it was this: “John 3:16”. I wonder if he thought I knew the verse? Or maybe he assumed that I would be curious enough to go look it up, to read the words for myself. Having grown up attending church, I did know the verse. But I did not know Christ, and because of this, I did not truly understand this verse. It made no impact on me that day.

It does now.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)

Today, I understand those words in a way I did not, could not, 40 years ago. I did not understand what it meant to have a personal relationship with Christ until I was almost 30 years old. So I know from experience how it feels to live life not knowing my Savior – and I know what it means to walk through life now, knowing Him. Since I became a believer, I have seen people I love put their faith in Christ and subsequently change in ways I could not have imagined. I have witnessed miracles.

Today, John 3:16 represents new life to me. Changed life. A saved life. And we need that now, don’t we? Our world needs that. Today, as you read John 3 in its entirety, pause for a moment. Be still. Think about the words you are reading; ponder them in your heart and treasure them as Mary did (Luke 2:19). Give thanks for Christ’s ongoing work in your life and on your behalf, and pray for those you know who do not yet know Him. Finally, rest in this truth: “Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life…” (John 3:33 – 36).

I am praying for each one of you who reads this today.

Do You Not Remember?

“Do you not remember?” Jesus asks this question of his disciples in Matthew 16:9. They have – again – misunderstood something that He said to them, and He says, “Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered?” (Matthew 16:9-10). Remembering is important. It is clear just from this passage alone that Jesus places a high value on remembering.

I believe that Jesus is reminding us of the importance of remembering because it helps us to understand Him and His work. Just prior to the verses above, Jesus says, “Do you not yet perceive?” (Matthew 16:9) And later, He asks, “How is it that you fail to understand…” Matthew 16:11). Remembering leads to greater understanding. Have you ever looked back on an event in your life, one that you didn’t understand at the time, and finally, perhaps even years later, thought – THAT’S why that happened. I have, for sure. I believe that is what Jesus is talking about here.

Later in this same chapter, Jesus speaks over Peter, saying, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18). I have always loved this verse; whenever I read the word “rock” here, it reminds me of the idea of standing stones mentioned in Joshua 4:7: “So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever.” For years, I have wanted to create some sort of memory box, our own version of standing stones, to honor God’s work in our little family. I want to always remember the good work He has done, and I would love to have a tangible memory of that work. Today’s reading, about rocks and remembering, is the push I need to actually begin this project!

One last note. If you have time today, take a minute to read Psalm 89. It begins, “I will sing of the steadfast love of the Lord, forever; with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness to all generations” (Psalm 89:1) and ends, “Blessed be the Lord forever!” (Psalm 89:52). The theme of remembering winds through this Psalm, and it is a sweet complement to Matthew 16.

Fulfilled Promises

My mom and I are going Christmas shopping together this week. Yes, it is only mid-October – so why Christmas shop a full two months BEFORE Christmas? One word: anticipation. My mom and I look forward to this time together every fall. We anticipate our shopping day, planning out the stores where we will shop, the gifts that we will purchase, and the restaurant where we will eat lunch – and in doing so, we also anticipate celebrating Christmas with our family.
In our text for today, which is Matthew 2, we read one small part of what we traditionally call the “Christmas Story”. Here, we learn of the wise men visiting King Herod, Joseph fleeing with his family from Jerusalem into Egypt, and their subsequent return to Nazareth.
Today, I’d like us to consider the promises kept and prophecies fulfilled that Matthew references in this chapter. In Micah 5:2, this prophet writes that “one will come from you to be ruler over Israel for me.” This prophecy was fulfilled almost 800 years later. Matthew wrote that when King Herod asks his chief priests and scribes where Christ would be born, “They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah are by no means least among the rulers of Judah for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” (Matthew 2:5) Christ Himself was the fulfillment of this promise.
Let’s look at another example. The Old Testament prophet Hosea explained that God would one day call his Son out of Egypt (Hosea 11:1). In Matthew 2:15, we read that, “He (Joseph) remained there (in Egypt) until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my Son.’” Over 800 years after Micah’s original prophecy was recorded, it too was fulfilled in Christ.
Thinking about these prophetic words which were fulfilled years after they were originally uttered simply amazes me. I hope you take some time to ponder these words today. Approximately 2000 prophesies in the Bible have been fulfilled – 2000! After you let that sink in for a few minutes, consider this verse, found in Isaiah 53:5 (NIV): “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Isaiah wrote these words HUNDREDS of years before Christ sacrificed Himself on the cross as a forgiveness for our sins. Oh, what a Savior!

Luke 13

I am a reader. Those who know me will probably smile when they read those words. In my free time, I am rarely without a book in my hand. When I was younger, I read mostly fiction – especially the Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden series. My favorite author, though, was Louisa May Alcott. I read and re-read every book she ever wrote because I loved how she created a story. Even though her books were fiction, I felt as though I were reading a true story – her plot and details were that believable. And I always learned something from her books.

Jesus is the master story-teller. Over and over in the New Testament, we read of our Savior using a story to make a point or to teach a lesson. In doing so, He teaches about complex topics like faith and grace and salvation. We see this over and over in Luke 13, our chapter for today.

Jesus uses the parable of a barren fig tree to teach about how to live a Godly life (Luke 13:6 – 9). He compares the kingdom of God to both a mustard seed and to leaven used in baking bread (Luke 13:18 – 21) He uses the idea of a narrow door to represent the fact that “no one comes to the Father except through me” (Luke 13:24 – 30; John 14:6). The people to whom He was talking would have had as difficult a time as we do now understanding concepts like the kingdom of God, faith, and salvation. Fig trees, mustard seeds, leaven and doors, though? They understood those. They were familiar with these objects, because they used them in their daily lives. By using stories, Jesus made complex topics more easily understood.

As Jesus ends this time of teaching, He laments over the lost in Jerusalem, saying, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34). As I finish writing this devotion, it is Monday morning, and our country is waking to the news of the massacre in Las Vegas. Jesus’ poignant cries over Jerusalem remind me that my Savior also weeps today, along with those who grieve.

Jude

There is only one chapter in the book of Jude, and it is this chapter that we will focus on today. First, though, I have to confess that I don’t think I have ever heard the word “Jude” and not thought of the Beatles song. Ever. Even now, the lyrics are running through my head! So, now that we have that out of the way…and now that most of you are humming along – let’s dig into this book together.

First, you might be wondering – as I was – who Jude was. Interestingly, most scholars believe that Jude was the brother of Jesus. Jude humbly downplays this relationship, however, by simply referring to himself as “a servant of Jesus Christ and a brother of James” (Jude 1:1).

Jude initially intended his letter to focus on salvation. In Jude 1:3, however, we learn that he changed his mind: “I found it necessary to write, appealing to you to contend for the faith that was delivered to the saints once for all.” False teachers had infiltrated the church and the culture. Jude says that these people have “come by in stealth; they are ungodly, turning the grace of our God into sensuality and denying Jesus Christ, our only Master and Lord” (Jude 1:8). Jude then refers to Sodom and Gomorrah, cities known for their sexual immorality, and compares the contemporary false teachers to the immoral citizens of these two cities by saying that their agenda is like “glory dragged in the mud” (Jude 1:8, MSG).

It is no secret that in many parts of the world, Christianity is currently being dragged through the mud. Jude reminds us that the apostles of Christ spoke to this, saying, “…there will be scoffers living according to their own ungodly desires” (Jude 1:18) Not only will there be false teachers, but these people will “cause divisions…” (Jude 1:19).

Jude does not leave us without a solution, however. Instead, he suggests a path forward. He advises us to “build yourselves up in your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God…” (Jude 1:21). He also advises us to “be tender with sinners, but not soft on sin” (Jude 1:23, MSG). We have probably all heard this before: we must love the sinner while not tolerating the sin. This is not easy, and I don’t expect that it ever will be. But in this time of swirling chaos in our culture, we must continue to boldly proclaim the truth of God and His Word.

I love how Jude, the brother of Christ Himself, ends his letter to his readers with a benediction, a blessing. This is my prayer for our reading community today: “Now to him who is able to protect you from stumbling and to make you stand in the presence of his glory, without blemish and with great joy, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power and authority before all time, now and forever. Amen.” (Jude 1:24-25)

You Are Not Alone

When I first read through 1 Peter 5, the chapter we are reading together today, Peter’s commands jumped out at me. Shepherd the flock. Be subject to the elders; Clothe yourselves with humility. Humble yourselves. Cast all your anxieties on him. Be sober-minded and watchful and merciful. Resist the devil.

I started to think about selecting a few of these commands to write about. I have always loved the image of a shepherd, so I began to think about how I could apply that idea to our current lives today.

And then I read through the chapter again, and a different theme came into focus: you are not alone. No, these exact words are not in this letter. However, the language Peter chooses to use implies that he is encouraging his readers to remember that they are in community with one another. Although they may feel alone at times, they are members of a community of believers.

I knew that Peter had written this letter, but I did not know his intended audience. I learned that the recipients of this letter were “those chosen, living as exiles” (1 Peter 1:1). These exiles were most likely persecuted Christians. It makes sense, then, that Peter felt led to encourage them to remember that they were not alone in a harsh world.

In verse 9, Peter writes, “Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Peter 5:9) Peter is referring to the devil here, and he is exhorting us to resist him. Peter encourages us in our suffering by reminding us that others in the world are suffering in the same ways that we are. This is an encouragement not because we wish for others to suffer – but because it reminds us that there is a community of sufferers. We can encourage each other – and receive encouragement from each other – in our suffering.

My favorite example of Peter reminding us that we are not alone comes at the very beginning of this letter. In verse 2, Peter writes, “…shepherd the flock of God that is among you…being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3). By using the word flock (twice!) Peter reminds us that we are part of a group, a community of believers. We are not alone. More importantly, we are reminded in this verse that we have a shepherd to follow. He is the only shepherd we can completely trust; in fact, Peter refers to him as the “Chief Shepherd” (1 Peter 5:4). Thanks be to God!

By Faith

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) Our reading for today, Hebrews 11, opens with this short definition of faith. Although this definition is not long, it is not necessarily simple. The concept of faith – believing in something we cannot see – is complicated, at least for me. The author of Hebrews knows that just giving us a definition won’t make the concept any more real to us. So, he gives us examples of people who have obeyed God by faith alone. The author of Hebrews names Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, the Israelites, and Rahab! As if these were not enough, the author tells us that he doesn’t even have time to tell us of the faith of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets!

Listen to what just a few of these people accomplished through faith: Noah obeyed God and built an ark – even though he had never seen rain. Abraham obeyed God and traveled with his people to an unknown land. The Israelites believed God and crossed the Red Sea – on dry land. The walls of Jericho fell after the people obeyed God’s instructions and faithfully marched around it seven times. “Through faith [they] conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight…received back their dead by resurrection.” (Hebrews 11:33-35)

What have you done in your life that you could not have done without your faith in God? In 1998, our family moved from upstate New York to Central Illinois – far away from our family and friends. We did not know a single person here in Bloomington / Normal when we arrived. Yet we knew that God was leading us here, and so we moved in faith. A few years later, in the summer of 2000, my husband and I decided to homeschool our children. At the time, we knew only two families who homeschooled; yet we knew that God was asking us to teach our kids at home. And so we obeyed, in faith.

Opposition often accompanies obedience. We read in Hebrews 11 that many “were tortured…suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment…were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword…went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated…wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves…” (Hebrews 11:35-38). In both of the situations I described above, we encountered opposition from friends and family who disagreed with our decisions (although certainly not to the magnitude that the author of Hebrews details!) I can only imagine the opposition that Noah faced when he began building a boat before the world had ever experienced rain. Yet Scripture tells us that Noah worked on that ark in “reverent fear” (Hebrews 11:7) God saved Noah and his family from the flood. When we moved our family to Bloomington, God brought people into our lives who taught us about Jesus. The blessings of obeying God and following Him in faith far outweigh any opposition we encounter.

What could you do, what dream could you accomplish, because you have faith in God? Today, listen to the stirrings in your heart. Begin to dream big. And remember that God is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think! (Ephesians 3:20).

Remind The People

A few days ago, our Bible Journal community began reading the book of Titus together. This is a short book, so we are actually finishing it up today! Paul begins the last part of his letter with the words, “Remind them” (Titus 3:1). In the NIV version, it reads, “Remind the people.” He then lists several things that he wants Titus to be sure to tell the people in the churches he is overseeing: “…to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people (Titus 3:1).

All of these admonishments are as relevant today as they were when Paul first penned these words. Each relates to living in community with others – and living in community is hard work! Paul understood that it was necessary to encourage people to pursue behaviors that lead to a healthy community and society.

There is one section of this verse that Paul returns to twice more before he ends this letter. In verse 1, Paul writes, “…be ready for every good work…” (Titus 3:1). Later, in verse 8, he writes, “…so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to good work.” (Titus 3:8). Finally, in verse 14, Paul states, “Let our people learn to devote themselves to good works.” (Titus 3:14) Clearly, doing what is good is important to Paul.

In our lives today, what does this look like, to “devote ourselves to good work”? It can be any number of things. Good work can be working at the job God has called us to to the best of our ability and with integrity. It can be something practical, like blessing a friend with a meal. It can be anything, really, that reveals Christ to someone else.

And what is the benefit to our doing good work? Is it for our own salvation? No. Paul states this clearly: “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us rightly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:4-7, emphasis mine). That verse is a long one, but the part I want us to focus on today is this: devoting ourselves to good works does not save us. Only Christ in his mercy does this. However, doing good works might draw others to us, giving us the opportunity to share the “the reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). Today, let’s consider how we can do something for the benefit of someone else, and let’s always be ready to share the reason for our hope: Jesus.