Friday, January 31, 2014

Your Valentine

Valentine's Day is right around the corner and stores are a sea of red and pink, complete with displays of plush teddy bears and candy filled heart boxes. Commercials all over TV and radio are an ode to love and romance. X's and O's are thrown about with reckless abandon. Roses are being ordered by the dozens. Love is in the air.
For the unattached, without a significant other, this can be an unsettling time of year. Everywhere the single turns there is another reminder that they are alone. Flowers, once thought of as fragrant and beautiful, turn into stinking reminders of the bouquet you won't be getting on February fourteenth. The simple formation of a heart produces angst in your own heart as you once again face the fact that the holiday of red and pink is only special if you have someone special to share it with. Valentine's Day becomes not a day of celebration, but a day of survival. Just get through it. Grit your teeth, bear the hoopla and hold your breath until the fifteenth.
The trouble with Valentine's Day is that it creates a pressure to have a significant other, a "someone special". The advertisements promote it. The card industry banks on it. Restaurants are packed because of it. We see Valentine's Day as the day where our worthiness to be loved is put on display. In our flawed, human love we have elevated this day to be the ceremonial proof that yes, we indeed are valued, adored and loved.
There is nothing wrong with expressing love and celebrating love. The joy of love is something to be celebrated. Love is an immense blessing. But love isn't reserved for just Valentine's Day. And its celebration isn't limited to only those with a "special someone." We all have a love worthy of daily, never ceasing, jubilant celebration. Whether or not you are single or you've already celebrated your golden anniversary, beloved, you do have a valentine.
God is our unfailing, perfect valentine. He has declared this love and expressed His devotion in the greatest love letter, the Bible. Jeremiah 31:3 says, "...I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness…" The Bible is full of scriptures proclaiming God's love for us. His love is evident in not only the words found throughout scripture but in the sacrificing of His Son. Through Jesus Christ we received the most perfect gift of love ever given: eternal life. Through the Holy Spirit we are given a constant companion while we journey through life on earth. God's love has provided everything we will ever need or want. He has given us provision while on earth with the promise of perfection in heaven. 
His love is unconditional. We have done nothing to earn it and therefore we can do nothing to lose it. We don't have to win His love. We don't have to question whether or not we will always have His love. The love He has showered on us is forever and always. He has sacrificed everything through giving His perfect, flawless Son to die in our place because He loves us that much. He loves us in spite of the fact that we have strayed from Him and ignored Him. We have offered such flawed, imperfect love yet in His perfection He has never withheld an ounce of His love and goodness from us. 
This is true love. 
Love isn't a box of chocolates in the shape of heart. Love isn't the perfect gold and diamond necklace  presented in a perfectly wrapped velvet box. Love isn't the teddy bear holding a sign displaying the words, "Be Mine."
God is love. 
This Valentine's Day you may find yourself alone, without a date and without a reason to scour the stores for the perfect gift. Still, you have cause for celebration. Your reason for joy isn't in a man or woman, dinner date or the surprise delivery of a dozen red roses. You can celebrate alone, with a fake fern, wearing your PJ's and eating a TV dinner because you have all the love you need in Jesus Christ. 
No matter who you spend Valentine's Day with, celebrate. If you are alone sing a praise to God for the love He has so lavishly poured out on you. If you celebrate in the company of your husband or wife, girlfriend of boyfriend, then share not only your love for each other but the love you have received in the unmatched gift of your Savior. Valentine's Day is the day for love no matter who you are or what your relationship status might be. This Valentine's Day, and every day before and yet to come, you are abundantly, whole-heatedly loved.  This truly is the best reason for great celebration!

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Prayers from prison

How do you read your Bible? Do you follow a particular plan that takes you in a chronological tour through each book, Old and New Testament? I've tried my fair share of reading programs to work my way through the Bible but never found one that stuck. Don't get me wrong, I think  programs are a wonderful, worthwhile resource. That's why I've tried so many - I think they are a great idea! But for me there has always been something missing when I've tried to read the Bible with a structured plan. My preferred method of reading the Bible is what you might call "free form." Some days I read a chapter, some days I read an entire book. Somedays I read from the Old Testament and some days from the New.
There is one principle that I always try to adhere to as I do my daily readings: don't close the Bible until I know I've read the words God is seeking to impart to me for the day. This may seem a bit odd. How do you know where it is God wants you to read from or when you have read the precise right word? I can't explain it other than, you just know. Sometimes it takes me chapter upon chapter before I reach that word and sometimes it takes a single verse. No matter how long it takes it never fails that if I continue to press on in my reading God will reveal to me a message I need to hear. When I seek Him, He is always there in scripture just waiting to be found.
The past few mornings I have struggled to truly engage in my reading. Thoughts have crept into my mind, taking my attention down rabbit trails and off of the lessons to be learned in the scripture before me. Still, I have tried to continue to practice my basic principle. As always, God has been faithful.
This morning I started my reading where I often begin, the Psalms. When I had finished reading Psalm 112 I was encouraged but still yearned for more. So I turned to Micah. I can't recall reading through the whole book of Micah so I decided I would start at chapter one. I read all the way through to the end of chapter two and then paused. I could sense it, God was calling me out of Micah and into the New Testament, specifically to letters written by Paul.
I opened my Bible to Colossians chapter one, a letter written by Paul while he was in prison. It didn't take me long to realize why I was led to Colossians chapter one. By verse three the reason was clear. "We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you," 
Such a short, small, seemingly insignificant sentence immediately revealed a profound truth I desperately needed to hear. 
Paul, locked away in prison, writing to his brothers and sisters in Christ that were not in prison, starts out his letter by discussing his prayers - for them. He could have begun this letter in a million other ways. I could think of a few that would have entered my mind. How about "I often pray that I will get out of this prison cell" or "They barely feed me here and when they do it tastes absolutely lousy" or "Will you pray for me that I will be released from prison! And soon." If I were locked in a prison, and a terribly brutal prison at that, I'm quite sure my words would not be of prayer and thanksgiving but of lament and anguish! 
But not Paul. His first topic of discussion is one of prayer and praise. He thanks God for the salvation and faith of his fellow Christians who, unlike him, are living free of the chains of enslavement. He doesn't complain or display any sense of bitterness. He doesn't tell them how envious he is of them because they are free while he remains behind bars. No, he prays for them and he thanks God for them. 
Paul's devotion and commitment to prayer and thanksgiving is a beautiful lesson of how you and I, as Christians, are to live. Our attitude is to be, first and foremost, one of praise. Our go-to position should be one of praise. The song on our lips should be one of praise. 
Oh, but how often I fall short! How often do I let out a cry of lament before I sing a song of praise and worship? How often do I complain about my own plight before I thank God for the blessings of my fellow believers? I am prone to lay out my burden and then, after I have all of that off of my mind, turn to a time of praise. 
God wants my praise first. He wants my prayer and thanksgiving first. Whether I am in prison or paradise, God desires my praise. Whether I find myself in want or in plenty, a hallelujah is the word He longs to hear.
This morning I needed a reminder to praise first. In every circumstance, give God a prayer of praise first. God has given His children every reason to live a life of continual praise. Paul knew that truth and lived it. His life posture was one of praise, even when there was little in his own life worthy of praising from the human perspective. Still, he praised God in his prayers by pouring out thanks for other people and the spreading of the Gospel. His focus wasn't on himself or his predicament. His eyes were fixed on God, wholeheartedly devoted to claiming a spirit of thanksgiving even from the cruelest of prison cells.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Where have all the morals gone?

This past Sunday night the music industry gathered together to celebrate the 56th annual Grammy Awards. Celebrities, musicians, actors and actresses all come out for the star-studded event, making their way down the red carpet through a sea of flashing cameras. Every year before the ceremony even begins there are a few surprises that step out of limo's in the form of over-the-top outfits and hair-do's. The attendees are in the business of shock and awe and they never disappoint their audience.
For lack of interesting television, I decided to click to the channel hosting the red carpet festivities. As always, there were some beautiful dresses and handsomely dressed men. The crowds went wild for Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. Couples posed with precision. Designers names, of which I am totally ignorant, were discussed with thrill. Entertainment television hosts and celebrities fawned over each other, hugging and squealing with excitement. Your normal red carpet affair. 
The red carpet walk ended and the magic moment arrived, the show began. I decided to see what the opening act would bring. After all, there have been some amazing performances in Grammy history. I figured it couldn't hurt to tune in for a few minutes.
On second thought, maybe it could.
What flashed across the screen was beyond edgy. The opening performance did more than just push the envelope; it ripped open the package, decimated the paper, and burned the evidence. For your sake, I hope you didn't have to witness what the media deemed as "entertainment" on Sunday at eight PM. The performance that took place was morally debase, disgraceful, repulsive, sickening and shameful. I could go on, use more descriptive terminology and get really fired up but I think you get the point. This was an obscene display broadcast for all the world to see and for all the crowd to applaud.
So this is entertainment? This is what our country, our culture and our society pays money to enjoy and finds delight in watching? 
I call it sin. Unashamed, brazen, unapologetic sin. 
The Bible calls it sin, too. Galatians 5:19-21 says, "The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like." 
As I watched the horrendous display celebrated and embraced this past Sunday evening my mind grabbed hold of this scripture while my hand rushed for the remote and fumbled for the channel button. The performance that was capturing the attention of a watching nation was a display of every sinful behavior Galatians clearly defined: sex, drunkenness, lust 
For the past two days I haven't been able to shake this terrible mental image from my mind. What bothers me most is the way in which sin was celebrated and promoted. After the performance ended the crowd didn't fall silent, they didn't gasp in disgust. No, they clapped. They stood up and cheered.for sin! They delighted in, took pleasure in and celebrated the public display of sin. 
Brothers and sisters, does your heart break for those people? Mine does. My heart weeps for how lost and blinded they are to truth. They love sin. They spend their lives getting wealthy and famous off of the promotion of sinful behavior. They don't see their lifestyles as the least bit wrong. They don't have a problem with drunkenness and sex, crass language and lust. They embrace their sin.
How can I show them what they are missing? How can I show them that freedom and joy is found in casting off sin and living for Christ? 
I won't pretend to have the magic formula for witnessing to these lost and blinded souls. But Galatians 5 does give me guidance on how to spread the message of Christ. "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law." (Galatians 5:22-23). 
I can tune off my TV and refuse to let these corrupt images to enter my home. I can turn off the radio stations that play sinful music. Most importantly, I can live out the fruits of the Spirit. I can let the Spirit of Jesus Christ live through me by surrendering wholeheartedly to Him. I can cast off sin in my own life and put on the love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control that is only found in God. 
The law of God is rich in these fruits. He loves when His children display His Spirit to the lost. We are the channel He uses to show the world the true Way. The media wants to promote a message of evil and corruption. It loves darkness and blindness. But God loves truth. He loves to save the lost and restore their sight. He wants to shine through us the fruits of His Spirit for all the world to see. 
Beloved, put on the fruits of the Spirit. Stand firm in them. The world wants to clap and applaud sin. But you and I know better than to fall for such a trap. There is no glory in sin. The ultimate glory is found in Jesus Christ. We may not get a standing ovation or Grammy award for standing for His truth but we will receive the ultimate prize. We have eternity in heaven. 
Lets spread that message to the lost. We want them to have this salvation and eternal glory, too. They are blinded to the truth, lost deep in sin but Jesus' power to save is just as real for them as it is for you and me. The exact same power that saved me from the trenches of sin is the mighty power that can rescue our lost friends and relatives applauding the Grammy's. Jesus has the power to redeem, cleanse and make new our lost society and corrupt culture. 
Will you join with me in fervently praying for their salvation? Pray without ceasing for a revival in our land. There are souls all around us in desperate need of saving. We can show them Christ and we can pray that their eyes will be opened to see Him. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

The scout motto

There is no sense in trying to hide failures and short comings, so I might as well be honest about mine. 
I am a Girl Scout drop out. 
There, I said it. The truth is revealed. My deep, dark secret is no longer under wraps. I quit the Girl Scouts. I failed to receive all of my badges. I certainly never received the coveted Girl Scout Gold Award. I didn't even last long enough to hear such designations discussed. I think I hung around long enough to sell cookies for a season, and even that was a less than resounding effort, I'm sure. I toughed that out for the Samoas. 
My Mom, on the other hand, had to stick with Girl Scouts a bit longer. And no, I'm not talking about her own days as a Brownie or Junior Girl Scout. I'm talking about her role as leader. She signed up to be co-leader of my troop when I was in elementary school. Then I, having the heart of a the rebel scout, said so-long to the girls. Poor Mom, she was still committed to her duties. She had taken the Girl Scout Law to heart. Unfortunately that sense of duty did not translate to me in my younger years. 
I spent the rest of my school years enjoying Girl Scouts from afarparticularly at cookie season. 
Now those days have faded into distant memories, becoming part of my ancient history. It is almost comical to picture my rebellious, strong will railing against the Girl Scout Promise and refusing to attend camping experiences. I never have been very fond of camping. So I guess it's no wonder Girl Scouts wasn't my cup of tea. 
Although I never embraced the practices of the scouts I do have a respect for the principles they represent. The organization strives to uphold honesty and integrity. They teach the importance of kindness, fairness and service to others. Most famously, they promote the scout motto: be prepared. 
This motto has been embraced worldwide by scouts of every tongue and nation since 1907. The idea behind "be prepared" is to always be in a state of readiness in both body and mind. 
Young boys and girls learn this motto as a foundational principle of the scouting organization. What they might not realize while they repeat this simple refrain is that the concept of preparedness dates back much farther than 1907. It has roots deeply embedded in something other than the Scout Handbook. The principle of being prepared can be found clearly stated and articulated in the Bible.
In 2 Timothy 4:2, Paul tells Timothy to, " prepared in season and out of season…" 
1 Peter 3:15 says, "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have." 
Preparedness isn't reserved for just the New Testament. Even Proverbs speaks of being in a state of readiness. In chapter 17, verse 12 scripture tells us, "A prudent person foresees the danger ahead and takes precautions. The simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences.”
Be prepared. This is a motto fit for a Junior Scout with every badge perfectly sewed into place or a Girl Scout drop out. Be prepared is relevant for the volunteer Mother who is stuck with camping duties and the woman who never travels to a destination that doesn't include a five star hotel and turn down service. 
Being prepared isn't a principle of a particular organization. It is a principle of God. 
Paul, in 2 Timothy, goes on to warn his reader that a day is coming when he will face false teaching and unsound doctrine. We, as Christ followers, must be ready to recognize the falsehoods and rebuke them with the truth of God. If we are unprepared and ignorant of the truth then we will be defenseless against lies and deception. Paul wants us to keep our heads in the game. Keep our eyes and ears open. Be ready. Be prepared. 
You don't need to be a scout or have a badge to make "be prepared" your motto. As Christians we should strive to always be prepared to defend truth. We can do this with the Word of God, wearing the full armor of God. We should defend truth with "great patience and careful instruction" as Paul tells Timothy. In the Bible you will find everything you need to be properly prepared for the deception, myths and lies of the world. Everyday we are surrounded by beliefs that contradict Biblical truth. People all around us call right wrong and wrong right. We have the charge to stand firm against this twisting of truth and justification of sin. We are to stand on the firm foundation of God's truth. 
Dear Reader, call on your inner Scout and be prepared to be a defender of God's word and lover of His truth. With grace and mercy stand up for the truth of the Gospel. Lovingly point the lost to Jesus Christ and the truth of the Bible. This is our duty as Christ followers: to be prepared to stand for the truth of God. 

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Fan the flame

There are certain portions of scripture that, when read even to one's self, conjure up audible "hallelujahs". 2 Timothy 1:7 is one of those scriptures. "For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline." I cannot read that passage without being empowered with the spirit of a warrior. I am a courageous fighter in God's army! The all-powerful, ever victorious Christ Jesus is in me! This is such exciting truth that I feel twice my size, able to overcome even in the most brutal of battles and fiercest of enemies.
The warrior spirit in me was certainly encouraged this morning by that scripture but there was something niggling at me that I couldn't shake. 2 Timothy 1:6. "For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands." Something struck me for the very first time while reading that scripture: flames are only produced by fire. 
This isn't a great theological or scientific discovery. Fire produces a flame. Flames are found in fire. Anyone who has ever lit a match and enjoyed the ambiance of a candle understands this principle. You don't have a flame until you have at least a little fire. Yet, I had passed over this scripture countless times without really giving thought to what the flame produces. To fan a flame there is an understanding that there must be a fire.
Immediately the mental image of a fire is one of destruction. The nightly news provides plenty of examples of just how devastating a fire can be. The other evening as I flipped through the local TV channels I caught a glimpse of a home completely engulfed in flames. Thankfully no one was home when the fire broke out but the damage was extensive, the home left uninhabitable. Fire is powerful. It can level a home, desolate a forest and displace a family. We fear fire, that's why we have smoke detectors and alarm systems to alert the fire department in the unfortunate event that a fire would break out. 
The picture of fire that popped into my mind didn't fit what I read in 2 Timothy. The flame he was describing wasn't one of destruction, but of opportunity. Paul was instructing Timothy to actually expand the flame. This simple reality hit me dead center between the eyes.
The spiritual fire of trials isn't meant for our destruction. The tendency of trials is to view them as that demolished house that has been laid to waste by an out-of-control fire. But God doesn't see our trials and struggles that way. He sees them as opportunities for growth, an occasion for our faith to receive renovation and renewal.
In my mind, a new picture began to take shape. The ruins and rubble of the destroyed house were washed away. In their place I began to see the construction of a magnificent, stately temple being built in its place. The new temple boasted gold and silver, sparking glass, brilliant colors, intricate carvings and details. The fire that was once viewed as a means of destruction suddenly took on new life and meaning. The fire wasn't a mission of demolition. It was a mission of regeneration and restoration.
God longs to use the fires in our lives to build in us a beautiful, majestic temple for His glory. He wants to create something awe-inspiring and breathtaking. At times our cowardly human tendency is to run from the fire. We go scrambling for the nearest extinguisher. Paul tells us to do just the opposite. Fan the flames, expand the fire. Allow God to remove the old you and rebuild you with His Spirit. This fire isn't for your ruin. It is for your re-construction.
Rejoice in the fire, beloved. Fan its flames. Allow it to renew your spirit and stretch your faith. Be courageous in the midst of your fire. Put on the warrior spirit of power, love and self-discipline even when the flames are heating up all around you. God can use the fire to build a great temple out of your life. He can use the fire to make you into a masterpiece.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Milestone Moment

There are certain milestones in life that are forever etched into our memories. Turning ten, the big double digit birthday. Becoming a newly licensed drive. Your first kiss. Graduating high school, college or medical school. Marrying the love of your life. Moving out of your childhood home. Getting your first real career-focused job. Becoming a first-time parent.
For each person the milestones are different. Every person has special moments in their own life that shape their future. Milestones dot our journey, making it uniquely our own.
There are milestones that stand out in my mind. They have been moments that have altered the direction of my life and catapulted growth of character and spiritual maturity.
How could I forget the milestone of graduating high school? That day is seared in my mind. The book closed on years of feeling like an outsider in a school with over six hundred kids in each graduating class. I had spent my years of primary education never quite finding a place where I fit. I saw other girls my age form cliques and establish bonds that have lasted long past graduation day. I never found such friendship. I never found belonging. But on graduation day that chapter closed. It was a profound moment.
The moment my almost-wedding got called off marks another profound milestone in my life. Months had been spent planning a wedding, looking forward to an impending marriage and entire life that I believed was decided, a sure thing. In the end, it wasn't meant to be. My life plan was shattered. The foundation I had been standing on went crumbling to the ground. It took courage to walk away from that relationship without casting stones at myself for what could be considered as a colossal mistake. That decision to end the engagement and relationship was a gigantic life milestone.
Just the other day I reached another milestone. This one was quieter, not a public affair and didn't require that I change my relationship status on Facebook. This milestone was one of the heart.
For the first time my prayer life changed. Instead of praying that I be delivered from my solitude and loneliness I began to pray that God keep me alone. Why would I pray to be isolated? Why would I pray that God keep me single, alone, and set apart? Because this is where I meet God.
I spent all of my high school years in a dating relationship that lasted over four years. I jumped from relationship to relationship in college. Then I was in an engagement, believing I was dedicating myself to a life-long relationship. In every one of those circumstances I was never as close to God as I am now.
On my own, without a male companion or group of female friends, I have become intimately involved in a relationship with Christ. He has become my closest friend and most faithful companion. When everyone else has gone their own way, God never has. He has remained steadfast and close to me.
The moments that I begin to seek out other relationships this closeness suffers. I am prone to start replacing that primary relationship with other human relationships. I don't mean to say that these relationships are sinful. In fact, they can and are an immense blessing when they are put in their right place. The trouble is I have a tendency of elevating them above my relationship with God. I start depending on the consistency and availability of those relationships instead of depending on God.
But a milestone was reached just the other morning. As I lay in bed praying, I realized that my prayer had changed drastically from what it had been just the day before. I began to ask God for more solitude and alone time with Him. My prayer was no longer lamenting my lack of friends. Instead it was wholeheartedly desiring more time with just God and me, communing together without interruption.
In my storybook of milestones this will be written as a blessed day of spiritual growth. Finally I see clearly who my first love is and I want more of Him and only Him. This feeling can't be duplicated. It is one of elated bliss and relief. I don't need to meet someone, find a group or be in the company of a certain clique to find fulfillment. I can find it on the floor of my closet or the seat of my car. I can find it praying from my kitchen counter or walking my dog. I have all the companionship I need. And I have all the companionship I could ever want.

Claiming Psalm 73

Dear Heavenly Father,
This morning I come before you humbled. How foolish and wayward has my heart been? You know all too well. I have claimed your rest with my tongue but failed to claim it in the depths of my spirit. My words have spoken of your faithfulness and goodness but my heart has questioned your steadfast devotion and unfailing love. 
My small, pitiful faith has never been hidden from you. There is no corner far enough away from your all-seeing eye. At my worst you have seen me. You know my heart. 
God, this morning I cling to the words of Psalm 73, making them my own. The Psalmist writes, "But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold." I, too, Lord have slipped and stumbled. I have known in my mind how good you are yet my faith has been weak. I have looked upon the lives of the godless who seem to live in carefree bliss. I have envied them. I have longed to be freed from my own suffering and loneliness. I have cried out for a companion. I have cried out for restored health. I have cried out for direction, a road map to tell me where to step next. When I haven't heard your voice, received full healing or been surrounded by a company of friends, I have lost my peace and rest in you. My heart has grown anxious. I have lost my joy. My heart has grasped despair and grief instead of peace and rest. 
Oh Lord, my flesh is so weak. I am prone to want something in this world that I can grab hold of and cling to. All the while you sit in heaven, desiring that I cling to you and give you my full attention and devotion. You don't want my rest to depend on answered prayer. You want my rest to be dependent on the one who hears my prayer. Because you always hear my prayers and you are never ignorant of my heart's desires. 
First and foremost, above all else, you know that my desire is to know you more deeply. God, because you know this you are allowing me to be isolated from the world, set apart, so that I can become more intimate with you. You are fulfilling my heart's desire. 
You know that there are moments I see what the world has and I am tempted. I want what they appear to be enjoying. But you know that those pleasures are fleeting. The greatest pleasure, the ultimate joy comes from knowing you at the deepest level. 
"But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge" (Psalm 73:28)
Father, forgive me for the moments my faith shakes and stumbles. Forgive me for seeking joy and peace in the offerings of this world and human relationship. Renew my spirit, refresh my longing for you and give me a thirst that only you can satisfy. Set me apart that I may know you more. If I need to be isolated from the world in order that I may hear your voice more clearly then so be it, Lord. You alone are my heart's desire. You alone are my refuge. Lord, capture my spirit, take residence in my heart and fill me with your rest, joy and peace, for your glory and your name's sake. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

Overcome the world

"…I have overcome the world." John 16:33.
These words from Jesus are meant to be a comfort to us, aren't they? While speaking to His disciples in John 16, Jesus is warning them that He is going away, physically speaking, but that He will send to them the Holy Spirit. He tells them about the peace they will receive in the Holy Spirit. Lastly, He assures them that even in the midst of trouble they can rest in that peace because the world and all of its trials are already overcome.
This should provide a soft pillow for the children of God to rest their heads upon. The battle has been fought. the war is won. The victory is ours. Hallelujah! Now I can curl up, get comfortable and sleep like a baby.
But in the name of full disclosure I must admit that I don't always rest easy in this truth. In fact, there are times I don't want to have to cling to this scripture at all. In the midst of my suffering and trials I want to tell God, "Look, I know you have overcome and that's great. I'm glad. But I'm a little tired of being the poster child for all of this overcoming power. So I have an idea… You can go overcome in someone else's life for a little while and I'll just take a little break. You can lay off the trials so I can get a breather and you go use someone else as a testimony for a bit. I'd really appreciate that. Thanks."
Yes, I know, these are terrible prayers! Full disclosure, remember? That means the good, bad and ugly and I know, that prayer falls into the latter category.
On my own stamina I am nothing but a coward. Instead of proclaiming victory I want to hide in a corner. "Come get me when the storm is past" is the sign that I wear, covering my human flesh like a sandwich board. Admittedly, sometimes I forget that I no longer wear just my human flesh. I forget that the old sign has been removed and thrown away. My sign has been replaced, my body and spirit made new.
Inscribed on my heart is the peace of God. He has removed my cowardly, fearful, weak, faint-hearted (insert your favorite word to describe lack of courage) human nature and replaced it with His spirit of peace. When I look to myself to find overcoming strength all I come up with is weakness.
True strength that can give us peace comes from looking at the beginning of that scripture in John 16:33. "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble…." Peace isn't found in ourselves. It can't be dependent on our circumstances. We can't find it by hiding in our closets with a blanket over our heads. Peace is found in Jesus Christ.
When we read this scripture we might want to run the other direction, away from the trouble. The peace sounds divine but the trouble sounds terrifying. Dear Reader, God wants to use our trials as a testimony of His power. This is a great privilege and honor. Human beings - weak, faint and sinful - are His preferred method of use for displaying His world dominating power. Through Jesus Christ, you have overcome of the world. Through the power of Jesus Christ living in and through you, you will defeat the darkness of this world. Your victory won't be for your glory. It can't be on your own because you are utterly weak, doomed to be on the losing side. But when you are in Jesus Christ you are victorious already.
In moments of weakness when you're are tempted to revert to weak human and cowardly ways, remember the great privilege that is being bestowed on you in the midst of your struggle and the peace that is available. God is using you to show the world that He is still Lord, still reigning, still all-powerful. The most daunting trials are the greatest stories of God's overcoming power. This is wonderful news for the suffering Christian. Every struggle is an amazing role in telling the victorious story of Jesus Christ.
Friend, come out from your hiding place. Remove the blanket that you are cowering underneath. You are an overcomer through Jesus Christ. You can have peace while He overcomes for you. Through Jesus Christ you can have limitless strength that defeats the darkness of the world and proclaims God King of Kings and Lord of Lords. God wants to make you part of that. Praise the Lord!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Legacy of love

Every time I buy a newspaper I have a certain order in which I peruse the different sections. First, I start with the national headlines. This makes sense because they are right on top. I scroll through the different pages, reading what interests me and skipping what doesn't. I end with the Letters to the Editor and a quick glance of the weather.
Then it is on to the obituaries. Local news can wait. Sports never gets touched. But obituaries take high priority for me when reading the newspaper. 
Reading obituaries might appear a bit morbid but I don't think of it that way. To me, obituaries aren't about death at all. They are actually the exact opposite. They are about life. 
Every obituary is a gold mine of life lessons. The stories are full of community involvement, family ties, dedication to church, fun-filled hobbies and golden anniversaries. In every obituary there is a legacy.
This morning I happened to have yesterday's paper on the counter, untouched except for one lone article cut out for my niece's school assignment. I decided to do my usual scan. I started with the headlines at a rapid clip. I read a Letter to the Editor. And then it was on to obituaries. 
Half way through the page I ran across one that caught my attention. Desiree passed away at the young age of thirty-four. The cause of death wasn't listed and there was no reference to a long fought battle with a terminal illness. The date and age of death were quickly stated and then the legacy was revealed: a "devoted daughter," "loving aunt" and "inseparable sister." Her life was brief but it was profound and beautiful. 
Desiree's story didn't list any awards or accolades. There wasn't an impressive list of schools attended, companies worked for or organizations in which she participated. Her obituary shared a simple legacy of dedicated love. She left a mark on the world by the care she poured out on her family and friends. 
Her tribute, condensed into a small, unassuming paragraph on page B4, provided a glimpse into the understated and often overlooked beauty of a life of love. 
What mattered most to Desiree is something that death can't extinguish: love. She lived in such a way that at the end of her journey she was able to leave behind an indestructible, incorruptible, eternal legacy of love. 
I want to live my life in such a way that I, too, leave a legacy of love. Lists of accomplishments, dollars earned and exotic travels will certainly fill the space on a newspaper page but the influence it will have is fleeting. The legacy of love is anything but fleeting. It is the only legacy that lasts. 
1 Corinthians 13:2 says, If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing." 
Every day my actions, words and deeds form the legacy I will one day leave behind. What will that legacy be? It is a question worth asking. Is the legacy I'm leaving a legacy of God's love? Is my legacy one of relentless, unshakable devotion and dedication? 
When my legacy is spoken of, be it tomorrow or fifty years from now, I want it to be undoubtedly one of love. I want to hear the words "devoted daughter," "loving aunt" and "inseparable sister." I don't care if I don't get any letters by my name or impressive awards for outstanding accomplishments. The greatest story that could ever be told about my life will be one of Christ-like love. That is the legacy I want to leave and the life I want to live each and every day. 

Choose joy

Have you ever met a person who is, undeniably, unashamedly, an upper? No matter what the circumstances or day's agenda they emit an aura of positivity. They wear a permanent smile that is practically painted on their face. They see challenges as opportunities, detours as adventures. Rainy days are perfect for puddle jumping, clouds perfect for reading outdoors without having to squint. There is nothing that can bring their spirit down. They see the bright side of every situation.
On the flip side of that coin is the Negative Nancy, Davey Downer type who lives under a perpetual state of dissatisfaction. They are continually complaining, looking at every glass as half empty - or perhaps even less than half empty! They wear a frown and carry with them an air of annoyance and unhappiness.
Yesterday, in the space of just a few hours, I had the opportunity to come across two such diametrically opposed people. Both worked at the same job, both were about the same age, yet they couldn't have been more different.
The first man talked of his job with thankfulness and appreciation for the work. His job is not the least bit glamorous. He is a shuttle driver for a service department at a car dealership. He spends his days driving customers back and forth from the dealership to their desired locations. Yet, he didn't appear to resent the mundane work. He looked on the bright side. "I get to meet all sorts of good people," he said of his job. He shared with me that his pay is only nine dollars an hour. Needless to say, he isn't in it for the big paycheck. What this job provides him is the opportunity to interact with all sorts of people that he would, otherwise, never have the pleasure of knowing. His attitude was entirely focused on the bright side.
When the time came for the ride back to the dealership, I looked forward to the sunny reappearance of the upbeat driver!  But, the afternoon brought a new face behind the wheel.  And it did not take long at all to discover that the afternoon shuttle driver had an entirely different perspective.  His description of his job was much different and much gloomier. When I asked him if he enjoyed his work he replied, "I meet a lot of people I'd rather not know." Wow. The difference in perspectives stunned me.
One man looked at his job behind the wheel as the meeting place for new friends. The other viewed the same customers with disdain.
How can two men, with the same job, in the same age bracket, have such opposing views of the same set of circumstances?
It all comes down to attitude and attitude comes down to choice. The problem isn't that one driver gets all the kind, generous customers while they are in good moods, only to turn over the keys to the afternoon driver when all the customers have turned rotten and mean. No, the one man has chosen a joyful, thankful spirit and the other has not.
God has made available to us an attitude of joy and thanksgiving. It is our responsibility to claim that spirit. 1 Thessalonians 5:18 says, "Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." God desires for us to have a thankful heart that sees the good in our circumstances. This is a choice, it doesn't just happen by chance. Giving thanks is a decision. When we choose to be filled with this joy we are continually thankful and unable to possess the attitude of a complainer. The two simply cannot co-exist! You cannot be praising God and complaining in the same breath. When their is a song of thanksgiving on your lips, when you choose to sing that song, you don't give negativity a foothold. 
Every day we wake up with a choice: face the day with a joyful, thankful spirit or choose to view the world through eyes of negativity. The choice is ours. God has given us boundless, overwhelming, unstoppable joy if only we will accept it. We can decide to make His joy our own and carry it with us everywhere we go, regardless of circumstances.  Or we can deny God's gift of joy and allow complaints to fill our minds, spewing them out through our words and attitude. 
There is no doubt about which choice will please our Heavenly Father. He desires from His children a spirit of thanksgiving and a heart of praise. He wants us to be filled with joy. He has made it available. Now it is up to us to choose. 

Growing good things

Attention all single ladies! I have amazing news for all the women of the world who have searched in vain for Mr. Right! The search is over! There is finally a sure way to find a man, and it won't take years of searching or an online account.
Does it sound too good to be true? Have you spent years yearning for the love of a male companion? Have you daydreamed of how you will meet him and what your life together will look like?
Well, dream no more. A husband can be your reality thanks to "Grow Your Own New Husband"!
Yes, you read correctly, you can grow your own husband! The package says so... and all you have to do is add water or, as the label notes, beer! You can't mess this up, just buy the little figurine for a bargain price of $5.99, submerge in water and, voila! You have a new husband!
But wait, the best is yet to come. This husband comes with guarantees!
"He won't get fat." Score….
"He loves 'chick flicks'." Perfect. ...
"He keeps his opinions to himself." Even more perfect….
"He doesn't have any baggage." Good to know….
"He'll never ask you how much you spent on that new pair of shoes." Match made in heaven….
And don't forget, "He doesn't leave the toilet seat up." Can you say dreamboat?
So you see ladies, all of your years of waiting are no more. Your made-to-order man is only a purchase away! He can be all yours. All you need to do is add water.

Wouldn't it be grand if life worked that way? Wouldn't it be lovely if getting our heart's desires was as simple as just adding water?
But alas, we know all too well that life is never this simple. Circumstances arise that we never ordered. We add water and our prized possession gets ruined, not more plentiful.
We all want good things, a pleasant life, a smooth journey. Is that so much to ask? Can't we put in our order? Can't we just get the right kit, add some water, and have our dreams take shape?
"The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing." (Psalm 34:10). 
In our made-to-order world sometimes we forget that the best things in life are not things at all - not even people. But the best thing is knowing the Lord Jesus Christ as our Savior and King. There is no good apart from Him. There are no blessings, relationships, possessions or circumstances that can ever compare to knowing Him. As the simple chorus says, "Knowing you, Jesus, knowing you, there is no greater thing." It is a simple sentiment but it is fundamental to how we, as Christians, live our lives. 
There will always be temptation to want things and people to fill the void only God can fill. We will want to grasp at everything visible and tangible to satisfy our souls. We will try every trick in the book to force the desires of our heart to become our reality. All of these methods will prove inferior. There is no figurine we can purchase, no husband we can marry or pleasure on this earth that can fill the God sized void in our hearts. He alone can make us whole. 
Whether you find yourself single, married, divorced, lonely or in good company, the temptation will always exist: grasp something in this world to satisfy the longings of the heart. Don't fall into this devastating trap. Only God can truly satisfy. He alone can give good things. When you long for Him and fill yourself with more of Him you can be single or married forever, it won't matter, because your soul is satisfied and filled with God, not with an earthly relationship.
Dear single sister (or brother), don't waste your money on an expandable, purchasable husband (or wife). You'd be better served buying a latte instead. And then, sit there with your latte and open up your Bible and get to know the one who can satisfy your soul with good things: love, mercy, grace, kindness, goodness. He will pour out to you blessings far beyond anything money can buy. And in time, who knows, He might bless you with a living, breathing companion who won't require water to  grow. In time, He just might bring about a person who will be perfect for you because God himself will do the picking and the growing of your Mr. (or Mrs.) Right.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The fisherman's tent

Fishing is a big business. Just ask Bass Pro Shop. In 2011 they recorded almost four billion dollars in revenue. Their stores cover all the needs of outdoor enthusiasts ranging from fishing to camping but it is no surprise that with a name like "bass" pro shop fishing is a big draw. At their flagship store in Missouri the crowds come not just to purchase goods but to experience a tourist attraction - the number one in the state to be exact.
In Pennsylvania the hobby (or, more appropriately, lifestyle) of fishing is booming, too - with or without a Bass Pro Shop. The state recorded selling over 850,000 fishing licenses in the year 2012. Men (and some women, I'm sure) spend vast amounts of time and money in the pursuit of their desired fish. The number of licenses, bait, tackle and equipment sold are proof: lots of people love to fish.
But not me.
I cannot be counted in a single dollar of the revenue for Bass Pro Shop. I do not account for one of those 850,000 licenses sold in 2012 in Pennsylvania. I have never bought bait or tied it to a line. The closest I've come to fishing is holding a pole while standing on the dock of the Peninsula one summer afternoon when I was about ten years old. The experience lasted roughly ten minutes and then I was perfectly content to end my fishing career. The sport, pastime, hobby - whatever term you prefer - has never appealed to me. Holding a pole for hours on end and waiting for a fish to bite a slimy worm simply isn't my idea of a good time. The nature that surrounds the fishermen is beautiful, don't get me wrong, but I'd much rather enjoy it in a different way. I'd much rather run next to the water, swim in the ocean or walk on the beach. But sit with a pole and a worm? No thank you.
What appeals to me even less is ice fishing. If you are not from the north then you might not be familiar with this activity. If you are from the north, and especially from Erie, then you might immediately have a mental image in your mind.
Ice fishing is the least appealing of all fishing, in my opinion. Ice fishermen come down to the bay with their trucks loaded to the gills with heaps of equipment and layers of clothing. They appear out of their trucks looking like Eskimos. They walk like ducks with three layers of pants, massive boots, furry hats and coats that would barely fit through a doorway. They unload all of their equipment and transfer it to a small sleigh - much smaller than Santa's - and pull it out onto the frozen ice of the bay.
It is there that the fishermen set up small tents. From a distance it looks like a miniature city. Once the tents go up the men disappear inside and the scene is nothing more than a frozen, slippery surface dotted with little black shelters. There is rarely ever a soul in sight.
I can't help but wonder, what is the appeal of this sport? The air is frigid. The winds pelt the sides of the tents, causing their flimsy sides to sway. It looks like a frozen desert.
And yet, inside those dinky little tents, the men are enjoying the wonder of nature and the thrill of the catch. I can't see the excitement happening beneath the cover of the tent. I can't see the joy on the men's faces when they catch a massive steelhead or count their impressive haul of fish at the end of the day. From where I stand, on the security of solid ground, outside of their tents, all I see is a lot of nothingness. From a distance it appears that absolutely nothing is happening. There are no people to observe. There is no chatter or sounds of human life at all. There is no score board that displays the number of fish caught on that particular bay, on that particular day. There are no flashy signs and no awards displayed. To the outsider this scene looks lifeless and dull.
It is only from the inside of the tent that the work of the ice fishermen becomes visible. If we could go inside the tent we would see a big cooler, filled to the brim with that day's catches. We would see the boxes of bait and tackle. We would understand the need for all of the equipment that came off of the trucks. We would finally get to see that beneath the protection of their tents, the fishermen had carefully and diligently carved out a small little world all of their own in which they could fulfill their purpose: catching fish.
Maybe ice fishing doesn't sound like your idea of a fun-filled afternoon. I can't blame you. But you don't need to hit the ice loaded down with a truck full of equipment to learn a lesson from the ice fishermen. What they have to teach can be learned by simply observing from afar, from the safety of solid ground.
Beneath the protection of an unassuming tent, great work can be accomplished.
Your life might look much like that fisherman's tent: dull, boring, cold and lifeless. There might be little excitement visible in your day to day routine. An outsider might not see much going on whatsoever. What they can't see, and might fail to understand, is that God likes to work on the inside of the tent. God comes right into where we live, the innermost part of our being, and does His work. The job He is doing doesn't necessarily come with flash. Just like the fisherman, the excitement is happening behind the curtain, not visible to the passerbys of the world.
When God is busy doing His work on the inside it is tempting to assume that nothing is happening, that life is at a stand still. The trap is to look at life and say, "I don't see anything, so nothing is there!" And yet Hebrews 11:1 rebukes this kind of thinking: "Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see."
You may look at your life and see a bay filled with ice fishermen's tents. Where is the action? Where is the excitement? Where is the thrill? Just because you can't see it doesn't mean it isn't there. Beneath the surface, away from the onlooking eyes, is where God is doing His most amazing work. God is working out our lives, growing our faith, showing us love and strengthening our spirits INSIDE the tent. 
At the end of the day the fishermen must emerge from the protection of their shelters to venture back across the bay to their trucks; back home to their freezers where they will store their prized fish from that day's catch. It is when they emerge that all of their hard work is finally visible. When we see them struggle to pick up those hefty coolers, loaded down with pounds of heavy fish, we understand what was happening behind the protection of their tent's walls. They were bringing in a huge haul! And all along it looked like nothing was happening. How wrong we were. 
Beloved, you too will someday emerge from your tent. The work that was happening behind the scenes will become evident. The glory of God will be on full display as the transformation of your spirit is made visible. Right now the work is still being done. The fish are still being caught. The molding of the potter's hands is still underway in your life. But take heart, because a great work is being done in you by the grace of God, with His loving hand. He is doing something miraculous in you behind the scenes, inside your own personal tent. 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Why we wait

Robert Frost asked the question, "How much of human life is lost in the waiting?"
His question feels more like a lament, clouded in sorrow and grief. In his words there is an assumption that waiting is always a losing proposition. No matter what we are waiting for, we are somehow missing out on something else. What we are missing we'll never know. But there is an unspoken truth that something is lost…something, I suspect, that Frost deems more desirable than the wait itself.
The Bible, on the other hand, doesn't provide the same outlook on waiting. Isaiah 40:31 paints a drastically different picture of waiting. The scripture says, "But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength: they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint." 
When looked at in light of the Bible, waiting does not seem to be a loss. Waiting is actually beneficial in and of itself. It is where our strength is built. The waiting room is our weight-lifting room.
How many people spend hours lifting weights in the gym, pushing their bodies to the limit, tracking their nutrient intake in order that they might gain physical, muscular strength? Body builders devote their lives to gaining strength. Why would they sacrifice so much? Because, in their eyes, gaining strength is worth the effort. The reward is worth the work.
Is gaining spiritual strength as desirable? Do God's children, like dedicated body builders, pine for spiritual strength with the same fervor that the weight lifter yearns for more muscular capacity? Do Christians have that same longing?
If the answer is yes then we should be embracing our times of waiting because that's when we gain strength. Our strength is actively renewed while we wait and hope in the Lord.
The Bible again equates waiting with strength in Psalm 27:14: "Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD."
Waiting. It isn't glamorous. It isn't flashy. It doesn't come attached with recognition or awards. Yet, waiting is an essential principle of the Christian faith. Waiting is where our strength is manifested, molded, and multiplied. 
In the midst of waiting it is tempting to question "why?" Why am I stuck in this stage of inaction? Why isn't anything happening to me and for me? When will life get a move on? Instead of sitting back and relaxing while we wait, we are tempted to become impatient, tapping our foot to expel our nervous energy, pacing back and forth and continually glancing at the clock, even when only half a minute has passed. We want to bypass the wait and jump ahead to the next excitement.
What we forget is that by forgoing the wait we miss out on the renewal of strength. Without strength we are ill equipped to tackle the adventures and missions of life. We may be faced with a great new excitement but without strength how will we tackle the new challenges and demands? We can be called to do great works for the Lord but without strength can we fulfill the call? 
The wait is where we receive the strength we need for the journeys to come. That wait might take longer than expected. Our wait might seem to be endless, causing us to wonder, "what good is the strength if I never get the chance to use it?" But take heart because you can't see the future. You might feel like your life is one big long wait but have you considered how big of a mission God might have ahead for you? The mission might be more overwhelming then your mind can even comprehend. Therefore, your strength will need to be great enough to meet the challenges ahead. Hence, all the agonizing days, weeks, months and years of waiting. 
While you wait don't tap your foot in impatient frustration. Instead, relish the opportunity to gain strength. Bask in the renewal of strength that is benefited to you in this time. Strength is to be cherished. If God is making you wait then He is allowing you to be blessed with His miraculous strength. By this strength He will use you to do marvelous things for His glory. But first you must be strong. You must be courageous and brave. And you must wait.
Even when it looks like nothing much is taking place, God is renewing your inner strength if you wait on Him. God wants to give you strength so that He can send you off soaring. Get ready, dear reader, because you will one day fly with the grace and beauty of the eagle. First, you must actively wait on the Lord. 
There is nothing lost while you wait. You are not missing out on some wild adventure that is more exciting and desirable. No, instead you are being prepared for the great journey ahead. As you wait on the Lord you are gaining strength through the grace and mercy of God. So you see, while waiting you aren't missing out on a single thing. You are actually gaining everything. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

No right to complain

Jonah was hardly a courageous man of God. I don't mean to bash Jonah.  Obviously, I'm no better.
God told him to go and preach against wickedness. Jonah ran the opposite direction. So God sent a storm, and as the story goes, Jonah ends up being thrown overboard, ending up in the belly of a whale. But God wasn't finished with Him. Jonah cried out to God and God heard him. He saw to it that the whale spit Jonah back up so that Jonah could have another shot at obedience. God is certainly a God of second chances.
This time Jonah went to Nineveh, as commanded, to preach the word of God to a lost and corrupt people who were on the verge of destruction. The people in that town repented, fasted and called on God.
You would think that the story would then end with happiness and joy. Jonah finally obeyed and the people were saved from their sins. But the story doesn't end there. Jonah went away from the town and sat under a shelter he fashioned for himself. God lovingly provided a vine to cover Jonah and provide him comfort and shade. Jonah was undoubtedly pleased with the presence of the vine.
But it didn't last. God then sent a worm to eat away at the vine. Jonah didn't take kindly to the loss of his beloved vine. He called out to God with words of grief, "It would be better for me to die than to live." (Jonah 4:8).
God gives a pointed, humbling response. "Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?" (Jonah 4:9).
Those words are like a sucker punch to the stomach of every person who has ever complained, gripped, or railed against the things they wish they had but don't. Those words hit me between the eyes today, bringing my soul to its knees.
How foolish Jonah and I have been. We have been abundantly blessed by God. He has seen our needs and filled them. When Jonah needed comfort for His head, God provided. When Jonah needed saved from the belly of a whale, God provided.
God is moving and working in my life much the same way. I have yet to be swallowed by a whale but I have been saved from a pit of my own making. God has redeemed my soul and given me new life. He has sustained my physical body in sickness and restored it to health. God has seen to it that my financial, emotional and physical well being is always cared for, sometimes in miraculous ways that defy explanation.
And yet I fall into the same trap that Jonah was in at the end of chapter four. Even after all of the immense blessings of God, even after Jonah had seen God shower mercy and love on the lost Ninevite people, Jonah was dissatisfied. He wanted more. He was angry because the vine withered. He was even angry that a sinful people had indeed found repentance. He had every reason for joy and yet he choose to complain and wish death upon himself.
In my own life I have done the very same thing. I have disregarded the blessings and work of God, tuning out His voice and providence with the loud cries of my own complaining, wicked, disobedient heart. I have not received life circumstances the way I wanted them, in the time frame I wanted them, and therefore I've issued a laundry list of complaints to God. Instead of embracing the unique and special blessings He has given me and thanking Him for the presence or absence of a particular vine, I think it my right to be angry when I don't get my way
Those words God speaks to Jonah in verse nine of chapter four are the same words I need to hear. "Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?" Do I have a right to be angry when I don't get the lot in life I think I should? When circumstances change or life gets a little tough, do I have a right to be angry with God?
Of course not.
Every breath is a blessing. Every moment spent as a child of God is a blessing. Whether or not I receive a plentiful vine or I have to sit under the scorching sun, I am abundantly blessed. By my own power I deserve nothing but eternal separation from God. By His grace I have been saved from that awful fate. Do I have a right to ever complain about my circumstances? Never. Not for a moment. Because each and every moment of each and every day I am living in the reality of the greatest blessing man kind has ever known: the eternal salvation provided by the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Therefore, I have no right to ever be angry with God.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Attack of the head cold

Looking out the window into the sunshine it would be easy to miss the chilling temperatures that have settled on southern Florida - that is until you step outside. Once you venture out the door there is no denying it, the air is crisp. The sunshine is deceiving. But step outside and reality is inescapable.
This "deep freeze" for the south has put a bit of a damper on my trip out of the frozen tundra of Northern Pennsylvania. I expected to come back home sporting a golden glow but instead I'll be bringing back a vicious head cold and pasty complexion.
That's right, instead of days enjoying the sun, I have been blowing through rolls of Viva paper-towels, rubbing the end of my nose dry. Not exactly the vacation I anticipated. Today has been particularly disappointing. Not only are the tempeartures hovering around 55 degrees, but my cold has gone into overdrive. To match the sniffles I also have sneezing. It feels like my head has grown in size. You may not be able to tell, but trust me, I can.
This cold is taking its toll. Usually you can't keep me in bed past 6:30 AM, and I never take naps; but today my bed is looking awfully comfortable and a pillow sounds divine. Still, I haven't given into the temptation of laying down and giving into the grip of the virus. I have determined to treat this virus like I do any attack from the outside: stomp it out, crush it under my feet.
So I'm running.
Maybe my logic sounds a bit goofy but I see beating this virus much the same as I see beating satan. He wants me to lay down and give in to the missiles, slings and arrows he has in his arsenal. He loves to send them my way. I'm the opposition.  It is his mission to take down the army of God. Therefore I am in his cross-hairs.
When he attacks I have two options: fight in the power of God, bearing the armor of God, in the name of God. Or lay down, cover my head, and hope to survive the pummeling.
This silly little head cold has provided me with the same dilemma and the same options. Do I stand up and fight it? Or do I lay down and give in?
God has brought me too far, loved me too much and is too powerful for me to simply give in to difficulty. So I will put on my armor and head into battle. Today that battle was a run. The motivation to lace up my shoes was lacking to say the very least. The wind was against me for the first half of the journey and my nose was running like a very leaky faucet. But God was empowering me to continue on in the good fight. Running, not for me, but for Him - an act of proclaiming His victory over satan and even a simple head cold.
Tomorrow the enemy may attack using a different weapon, utilizing a different strategy, but my defense will be the same. I will put on the armor of God. He may have me pick up the Bible and speak the words of truth to the enemy. He may have me run distances my legs have never before carried me. No matter how He calls me forth I will be ready to go into battle with Him, knowing that this is not my fight but it is His and it is already won.
The enemy is no match for the all-powerful God. He has already overcome every evil scheme satan has devised or ever will devise. When we are faced with an attack we do not need to cower in fear, wondering whether or not we can withstand the storm. The victory is won. The outcome of the battle is assured. Therefore we can lace up our shoes, put on our armor and face the enemy with utter confidence that we are on the winning team -  God's team.
So, beloved, beat out that head cold or any other attack you may come under. Enlist in God's army and put on the armor. Fight in His name, with His power and for His glory. You will be victorious because He has already won the battle.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Be still and look up

The Psalmnist wrote in Psalm 46, "Be still and know that I am God." How simple a command. Just be still. Yet, those words are profound and, at times, a great challenge.
This morning, as I walked along the beach, the words of Psalm 46 reverberated in my mind. "Be still and know that I am God." Those words played over and over again as I walked along the sandy shores of Siesta Key, the wind kicking up the waves and the clouds laying a blanket of gray overhead. I kept my eyes glancing forward and ahead as I dodged seaweed mixed with red tide and pieces of broken sea shells. My thoughts didn't go very far. They just kept repeating the simple words of that well known Psalm. Those words were all I needed to hear. I needed the simple reminder that my God desires my stillness.
Before I knew it, I was a mile down the beach. There was no music to pass the time and no walking buddy to chat with along the way. The stillness of the presence of God had been my companion. That alone had passed the time with astonishing speed.
The walk back up the beach felt like walking on air. The wind was at my back, giving me a little extra push with each step I took. Before I knew it I was back at my designated boardwalk where my flip-flops awaited my return. But before I made my way back through the sand and array of beach chairs, the repeating phrase that had run through my mind for the duration of my walk made a sudden change. The words that spoke "be still" suddenly said "look up".
As my eyes moved from the sand beneath my feet to the clouds above my head, a whole new view captivated me. The clouds that had appeared as a blanket of gray were now piereced with pure white light. The rays were brillant and sparkling. The gray still remained but only as a backdrop for the magnificent light display that was bursting forth.
Those rays of light taught me an important lesson. God longs for me to be still in His presence. He wants me to rest in Him, finding my peace in His loving and mighty arms.
And He wants me to look up.
He is holding me, smiling down upon me and He wants me to look into His face and see that He is good. I am to be looking to God in my stillness to find rest and security, peace and reassurance.
On our walk of faith it is easy to get stuck looking at life simply at eye level. We cast our gaze at the ground before us, carefully plotting our next step. Or we look straight ahead, making sure our way is clear. But God wants us to look up. He will do the job of paving our way and making our path clear. He wants to do this for us so that we can simply be still and look up.
Be still in the omnipotent, loving, gracious and mighty arms of God. Be still and look up into His smiling face. Know that He is good. He holds our future in His hands and can keep us secure no matter what the view looks like at eye level. The path He has for us is so much greater than what we see with our own two eyes. Our view can't even comprehend the future He has prepared for us. To get caught up in the stuff of this world is to miss the big picture God is painting overhead. He wants us to stop, be still, and look up. He is doing something marvelous. He is doing something beautiful. So look up, because if you don't,  you might miss the whole thing.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

An unexpected love story

I loved Puff. She was a good dog.
When I was about three years old Puff entered my life. I don't know if I begged to get a dog or if the idea came from my parents. What I do remember is driving home from the run down, country home that Puff came from. My Mom found a classified ad that listed puppies for sale. They seemed to suit what we were searching for in a family pet. Puff was an American Spitz, a small white fluff ball that would never grow much beyond twenty pounds. As a puppy she was the most adorable ball of fur you have ever seen - stuffed animal sized and all white, with a tiny little face and deep brown eyes. She was an easy sell.
As we drove home from the breeder (a term I use loosely) we threw around different name ideas for our new family member. I do believe "Snow Ball" was a contender for a brief time. But in the end I landed on the name "Puff" and it stuck.
Puff became a staple of our home. She would lay out in the front yard underneath our big tree. She loved to chase teenage boys down the street - she wasn't viscous, she just knew trouble when she saw it. Puff wasn't demanding. When we would leave the house she never appeared phased or dejected. She was content and free, much freer then many pet dogs. She was rarely ever on a leash. Although we had a fence that encompassed the backyard, Puff cleverly maneuvered escape routes. She liked the front yard better. From her perch under the tree she could watch the cars go by and keep an eye on those pesky teenagers. She was our white fluff ball protector. Small, not exactly mighty, but well intentioned none the less.
As a small child, I remember Puff sleeping on the floor by my bed. I suspect this was another act of protection. Somehow, Puff knew I was young and vulnerable. It was her role to look out for me. And she did her job with diligence for sixteen years.
When I was eighteen, after years of mysterious health problems and miraculous healings, Puff went to dog heaven. The day she passed from this earth hit me harder then I had anticipated. There was an emptiness in the house after she left. Sometimes I would imagine that I heard her bark, only to remember that she wasn't her with us anymore. The bark was just my imagination. At other times I would do a double take, thinking I saw her laying in the living room or under the tree in the front yard. She was such an integral part of my childhood, and life up until that point, that I had a hard time adjusting to life without her.
This void wasn't one I had expected. I had loved Puff but never considered myself a dog person. She was the perfect pet for my growing up years. I was always thankful for her steady presence. But in my mind if I ever had another dog it would be many years down the road, maybe when I had my own kids. That was the "right" time to have a dog - when you have a family. At least, that's what I believed.
And then I saw a Schnoodle.
Years later, I came across pictures of a Schnoodle and fell in love with their sweet faces. To top it all off, everyone on the internet raved about their personalities. The deal was sealed when I was on vacation and saw a living, breathing, prancing Schnoodle with his owner on the beach. After talking to the man I was completely sold. I wanted a Schnoodle.
Enter Pippy, and, in turn, this blog. I came home from vacation and within a month was in the car, driving out to another breeder to buy another dog. This time I was the one behind the wheel. This turn of events took me by surprise as much as it did the rest of my family. The girl who never "ooheed" and "awwed" over dogs was dead set on bringing one into her life. I wasn't a dog person but I would soon be a Schnoodle person. More specifically, a Pippy person.
The decision to bring Pippy into my life happened suddenly and in some ways, unexpectedly. I can't explain it, but I knew God was in my decision. The night before I was set to pick her up I began to have doubts. What was I getting myself into? House breaking, restrictions on how often I could travel, vet appointments, flea treatments... the list became overwhelming. Doubts started to rise in my mind. So I prayed. I asked God to either give me peace or somehow slam the door shut - and fast. The next morning at 11:30 I was set to sign on the dotted line and hand over the money. I needed God's direction in a hurry.
His guidance didn't come in an audible voice but it did come. When I awoke the next morning I had a peace that was missing the day before. My doubts had been replaced by anticipation. Of course you know what happened, I drove out and got Pippy.
All you have to do is look back in the archives of this blog to see that the road with Pippy hasn't always been smooth. I have been downright angry with her. I have stormed out on her when she wouldn't listen. At times I cried, regretting the decision to ever get her in the first place. Looking back now I am ashamed at the shortness of my temper and the shortsightedness of the plan God was working out for Pippy and I.
Now I can look back on the last few years with Pippy and see the divine working of God throughout our story. It has been unexpected. But it has been a story of love. Through raising Pippy and sharing my life with her I have grown to love her not because she is cute and not because she is always the perfect companion. She isn't. Sometimes she doesn't listen and at other times she won't come when I call her. She has gotten attached to my Mom when I wanted her to be attached to me. I've felt rejected.
And yet, in all of these experiences, God has grown our love story. No matter how many times I lost my temper, Pippy forgave me. No matter how many times Pippy didn't listen or wouldn't come when called, I still gave her my attention and affection. God has used Pippy to teach me what it is to give love. He's taught me that in the most unexpected of ways He can write a love story.
His story of love isn't dependent on "feelings" or "emotion." His love is bigger than that. It doesn't rely on those wavering conditions. His love is permanent and steady. The journey with Pippy has taught me how this is truly the best love story. This love isn't found in us. It is found in Jesus Christ. Our ability to love isn't dependent on our own stamina and power. It is dependent on His limitless love that knows no boundaries and has no stipulations. 
I never expected God to write a love story in my life using a little dog. A man, sure, I could picture that. A Hallmark Channel worthy story of a fairy tale romance? Sure, I could imagine God doing that. But a little dog who came into my life peeing on the floor and running down the street, refusing to acknowledge her name? That is a love story I hadn't anticipated.
Beloved, this is how God works. He doesn't write the story we expect. He writes one that is infinitely better. He surprises us and shocks us. Each page that lies ahead in the story He writes is a mystery to us. We might think we know what they will contain, but God wants to amaze us. He doesn't want us to know how it all ends. He wants it to be a glorious surprise. 
Your love story might not have come yet. Hold on, just wait for it. It is being written. Get ready because it might not come the way you expect. So expect the unexpected. Anticipate what you cannot even comprehend. God is writing you a love story and who knows, it might even come in the form a dog.

Monday, January 6, 2014

A lesson in love

The sun began to rise on snow-covered Erie, Pennsylvania on another cold January morning. Mornings are always peaceful, especially when the world outside is freezing cold and the warmth of a fireplace (even an electric fireplace) begs to be enjoyed.
This morning was such a morning. Snuggled up in my warm pajamas, I surveyed the ice and snow outside, resting in the comfort of a warm and peaceful house. Pippy was doing the same. She laid all sprawled out on her dog bed on the floor in-between the kitchen and the living room. When she first received her dog bed she had no interest in laying on its padded cushion. Instead, she would lay on the hard wood floor. Despite all of my appeals to get her on the comfy bed, she insisted on staying on the floor.
Then one day the cat discovered the bed. Patches, the elder (and larger) animal in the house, took to the bed immediately. She stepped on top if it, turned around a few times, then laid down and fell fast asleep. Pippy watched in what first seemed to be confusion but then turned to amazement and lastly, I suspect, envy. She hadn't observed how the bed was to be used. Now she saw the benefits of the bed. It did look comfy. She, too, wanted to experience the joy of a soft place to rest.
Ever since the cat moved from the bed Pippy has taken to it like a fish to water. She comes in from her walks and goes to the bed. She finishes eating and goes over to her bed. Just like the cat, she gets on top of it, turns around and then lays down. She's a quick learner and the cat is her guide. Pippy's peaceful mornings are now spent on her dog bed, not on the cold, hard floor, while mine are spent preparing breakfast and reading my daily devotional. The house is always quiet and still.
Until Patches arrives.
Patches is large, yes, but not loud. It isn't Patches that brings commotion to the morning. It's Pippy. When Patches strolls into the kitchen, which she does every morning like clock work around 7:00, Pippy goes wild with excitement. She jumps off her bed, asleep or not it doesn't matter, and runs over to her buddy, Patches. The old cat is immediately showered with love and kisses. Pippy attempts to lick her face. She jumps around her in circles. Her ears flap and her tongue wags. Pippy is thrilled that her cat friend, Patches, has arrived and she greets her with sheer joy.
But poor Pippy, Patches just won't reciprocate. Patches lets out a meow of disgust. Sometimes she actually runs in the opposite direction. Most days she just stops and lets Pippy get all of her excited affection out of the way. Then Patches proceeds to her food and water bowl. After getting her fill, Pippy usually attempts to engage her once again. But Patches has had enough. She walks into a different room, jumps on some piece of furniture that looks inviting and goes back to sleep. She's a cat. This is what they do.
No matter how many times Patches ignores Pippy the routine continues. Pippy continues to love on Patches. And Patches continues to act annoyed.
This morning as the daily drama unfolded I began to see it in a whole new light. Instead of an annoyed cat and an overly excited dog, I saw it as a lesson on how to love.
Now don't misunderstand, I don't think it is beneficial to annoy people with suffocating smothering and obsessive, energetic kisses. Dogs can get away with displays of affection that humans simply cannot. There is, on the other hand, a lesson to be learned from the relentless love that Pippy showers on Patches. No matter how many times Patches ignores her, Pippy still shows Patches love. Pippy never receives reciprocation from Patches and yet she doesn't let that stop her from continuing to love. Pippy's love is not dependent on Patches' reaction. Pippy love Patches regardless of the love she receives in return.
A question arose for me to ask myself: do I love with this same passion and dedication? Is my love that unconditional? Do I love the people that don't show me love in return? Do I love the people who are hard to love?
Pippy's love reminded me of Luke 6:32, "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them."
Somehow Pippy understands this principle and no one had to teach it to her! She loves Patches, a cat who shows her no love in return, with a love that is undying and unshakable. How easy would it be for Pippy to stay on her bed instead of greeting Patches in the morning? After all, her bed is comfortable and it isn't as if Patches seems to care all that much about receiving the greeting anyhow. That doesn't stop Pippy. Ever morning she continues to love Patches.
That little dog of mine never ceases to amaze me, teaching me valuable lessons and challenging me to put my faith into action. I've read about loving the unlovable thousands of times. The scriptures that teach "love your enemies" are familiar to every child who ever attended Sunday school. Yet, I am quick to forget. I often catch myself withholding love from those who don't show me love in return or for those who don't show love the way I would like them to. I allow my love to become dependent on the person I'm loving.
Jesus tells me to love no matter who it is or what I receive in return. Why? Because in loving others I am not displaying the goodness in my own heart but I am displaying the love of Jesus Christ acting through me. If Christ dwells in my heart then His love will pour out through me because He IS love.
His love is not dependent on the good we terrible sinners can obtain. If we had to work for His love we would never be able to attain it. No, His love is freely given, a gift that we can choose to accept through His sacrifice of death on a cross.
When we accept Jesus Christ's gift of salvation we receive the indwelling of His love through the Holy Spirit. The love He gives is unconditional and overwhelming. Through the indwelling of His love in our hearts we are able to share that love. He spreads His love to the lost through us when we allow ourselves to be vessels used for His glory.
Pippy showed me how to be that vessel  this morning as she poured out unconditional love on an old cat who couldn't care less. Pippy loved her anyway. My prayer today is that I would love like Pippy loves: passionately, wholeheartedly and without ceasing. When I love, may I love not on my own strength but through the limitless power of Jesus Christ who dwells in my heart.