Excerpted from THE PRESIDENT’S DEVOTIONAL: The Daily Readings That Inspired President Obama, by Joshua DuBois by arrangement with HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins. Copyright © Joshua DuBois 2013.
Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries, avoid all entanglements, lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.
—C. S. Lewis, “To Love Is to Be Vulnerable”
Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
—Matthew 26:36-38 (NIV)
The flip side of a child’s laughter is the hollow ache we feel when they’re gone. The sweet comfort we derive from a spouse’s closeness is in direct proportion to the cold, stinging distance that hits us when things aren’t right.
When we pay full price for love, we do receive that love in full, but we also receive pain as change. It’s built into the equation; no less than our Savior has shown us that, as he agonized in these verses over his coming death. But he also shows us love is worth the pain.
Lord, keep watch with me when love seems distant; stay near when it returns. Amen.
A Future Not Our Own
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about:
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water the seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
—Bishop Kenneth Untener, “Prophets of a Future Not Our Own”
Dear God, remind me of my own limits. Help me not seek to do everything, but to do something for your people and your kingdom. In this limiting, liberating reality, let me be set free. Amen.
He answered, “Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.”
Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.”
“No, father Abraham,” he said, “but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.”
He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
—Luke 16:27-31 (NIV)
So often we think that if God does one more miracle—answers one more request—then, we’ll trust him and obey. “Just prove yourself one more time, Lord,” we say. “Show me evidence of your power on this occasion, and I’ll never forget it.”
But it doesn’t work that way. Jesus told a story of a man burning in hell, who begged Father Abraham to allow him to return to earth and warn his brothers so that they would avoid the same fate. Abraham declined the man’s request because Abraham knew that even if these brothers saw their own resurrected sibling, they still would not change their ways.
We must avoid making our obedience situational, dependent on some miraculous action of God. Either we belong to him and follow his instructions, or we don’t. Let’s not make God prove his worth.
Dear God, my love and obedience for you is not dependent on any particular blessing. You are more than my provider—you are my Father. And I will love you as such. Amen.
Our Best Strength
Success is . . . knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.
—Coach John Wooden, Coach Wooden One-on-One
When Joab saw that the battle line was against him before and behind, he chose some of Israel’s best and put them in battle array against the Syrians. . . . Then he said, “If the Syrians are too strong for me, then you shall help me; but if the people of Ammon are too strong for you, then I will come and help you. Be of good courage, and let us be strong for our people and for the cities of our God. And may the Lord do what is good in His sight.”
—2 Samuel 10:9-12 (NKJV)
Let’s put our best effort on the field today, and let God take care of the rest.
Joab did as much. The Syrians, his mortal enemies, were on one side, and the Ammonites were on another. Joab was in a tough spot, but he controlled what was in his power to control: his courage, his team, his strength. “Be of good courage, and let us be strong for our people and for the cities of our God. And may the Lord do what is good in His sight.”
Let that be our prayer today. And like Joab, we will overcome. Amen.
As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.
One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.
Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
—Luke 17:12-19 (NIV)
Ten lepers met Jesus on the road to Jerusalem. They cried out for healing, and Jesus responded, making them clean: “And as they went, they were cleansed.“
After they were healed, only one of the former lepers came back to Christ to give him thanks. Jesus said, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner? . . . Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
Jesus shows that there’s a difference between temporary cleansing and permanent wellness. We can keep going back to God to “fix” us, to remedy our immediate circumstances, and then go on our way. Or we can return to him, lay our lives at his feet, and give him glory.
The former practice will make us temporarily clean. But the latter makes us well.
Dear God, I don’t want a quick fix; I want wellness. I give my life to you and will glorify you at every turn. Don’t just heal me; make me well. Amen.
More to Come
However, as it is written:
“What no eye has seen,
what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived”—
the things God has prepared for those who love him.
—1Corinthians 2:9 (NIV)
It is astounding how much of our story is yet unwritten.
In the Bible, the great forefather Abraham was seventy years old when God commanded him to leave his home and begin his journey to the Promised Land. His wife Sarah was ninety years old when she gave birth to Isaac, cementing her own legacy and place among the giants. Fannie Lou Hamer was born in 1917, but she remained a poor sharecropper, working the fields of Mississippi until 1962. It took forty-five years for her legend to come about, for something to stir within that began her civil rights activism.
The narrative of our lives has been fascinating up until now; there has been no shortage of twists and turns. But we serve a God who still surprises—and it may be that the greatest of our stories is yet to come. We must be ever watchful, living in a spirit of holiness that enables God to use us, and with expectant minds, looking for a change in plot, a brand-new theme, or an unforgettable conclusion.
Dear God, give me the joy of hopefulness. Use me to paint your narrative in the world. I am patient and grateful for the story you have given me, but I am open to a new chapter as well. Amen.
Then Saul said to his servants who stood about him, “Hear now, you Benjamites! Will the son of Jesse give every one of you fields and vineyards, and make you all captains of thousands and captains of hundreds? All of you have conspired against me.”
—1 Samuel 22:7-8 (NKJV)
King Saul was in hot pursuit of David, God’s chosen leader of Israel. Saul burned with jealous rage because of David’s triumphs and would do anything to take David down.
In these verses we find Saul angry because those loyal to David would not give him up, even if they obtained “fields and vineyards” and became “captains of thousands.” Saul foolishly thought that he could bribe the Israelites into loyalty to him rather than to their beloved David.
We learn from these verses that the loyalty of those around us—our loved ones, our family, our friends—is not gained through what we can give to them or do for them. It is established through the way we love them. David knew this and loved his people deeply, thereby engendering great devotion. King Saul never figured this out, and he brooded in isolation, jealousy, and fear.
Dear God, let me never “purchase” love; rather, let me earn it through the love that I show. Amen.
Birds flying high, you know how I feel
Sun in the sky, you know how I feel
Breeze drifting on by, you know how I feel
It’s a new dawn!
It’s a new day!
It’s a new life for me
And I’m feeling good.
—Nina Simone, “Feeling Good”
The great America jazz singer Nina Simone has a funny song called “Feeling Good.” It has a driving, ominous beat—think: the feverishly dark rhythm of “Hit the Road, Jack.” One could imagine the bass line playing in a movie—a mafia flick right before the hit job or when the main character, in a moment of despair, is contemplating a leap from the Golden Gate Bridge. And that rhythmic context is exactly why the upbeat lyrics are so jarring. With dark music surrounding her words . . . why is Nina feeling good?
The contrast reminds me of David in Psalm 59. David first writes fearfully, of stalkers and invaders camped around him.
See how they lie in wait for me!
Fierce men conspire against me
for no offense or sin of mine, Lord. . . .
They return at evening,
snarling like dogs,
and prowl about the city.
They wander about for food
and howl if not satisfied.
But, counterintuitively, he concludes,
I will sing of your strength,
in the morning I will sing of your love;
for you are my fortress,
my refuge in times of trouble.
You are my strength, I sing praise to you;
you, God, are my fortress.
—Psalm 59:3, 14-15, 16-17, (NIV)
Nina Simone and David remind us of one unimpeachable fact: whatever situations we face, the lyrics we sing today are completely up to us. We can choose to shout above the din outside our window and sing louder than the ominous noise approaching our lives. We can worship God today. We can love today, even when it’s tough. We can take control of our song, our Psalm.
Dear God, let me be a composer. Even though dark rhythms may emerge around me, help me write my own song. Amen.
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