Sunday, December 20, 2009

"Maybe Christmas doesn't come from a store..." I typed the quote from the Christmas movie I'd watched over the weekend in to the computer and hit the "enter" button. Once the words appeared correctly at the top of the page I scrolled down the read the live feed of comments below. Facebook chatter that morning seemed to center on the difficulty of finding an outdoor nativity scene to display in the yard. Every other aspect of the holiday season, from blow-up snow globes to reindeer on roof tops was readily available for holiday decorating purposes, but a display depicting the birth of Christ was hard to find. Friends suggested various stores in the area that might have such an item and posted ideas on other ways to bring a more spiritual tone to the neighborhood light display in an effort to honor the holiness of the holiday.

I came to the end of the comment listing and sat before my computer lost in thought. My mind went back to the movie I'd watched days earlier. I could hear Cindy Lou Who singing, "Where are you, Christmas? Why can't I find you?", and I was reminded that people all around me are looking for meaning this time of year that they can't seem to find in shopping malls, holiday parties or the mad rush to cross every item off a too-lengthy to-do list. Suddenly God seemed to whisper, "If you can't find in in the store, you might just have to be it yourself."

My eyes popped open at the thought. The words "live nativity display" began to take on a whole new meaning. Truly our lives depict what Christmas means to us this time of year more than we think. I suddenly wondered what message I was offering to a watching world. I reviewed my actions of the last couple of days, and sadly didn't find much meaning in the red snowman purse I gleefully pulled off the top shelf of my bedroom closet, the dangling Christmas tree earrings I hung from my earlobes as I headed off to work, the Santa socks I slipped on my feet, or even my excitement over drinking my coffee from the Christmas mugs I use just one month a year. These trappings and traditions are fun and fine in their own way, and surely they have a place in our Christmas experience. For some people, this is all the Christmas they know, and for them it is enough. But others of us know that there is more to Chrsitmas than what can be bought with a credit card or conjured up by feel-good movies, holiday food, seasonal decorations, and nostalgic memories from days gone by. There is a Christmas for today that offers the warmth, hope, peace, and love that our souls are looking for.

Live nativity scenes are popular because they move the Christmas story from mere words on a page to our own flesh and blood experience. Suddenly the story comes alive and we can believe ourselves to be a part of the drama. And perhaps that's what God is getting at as He causes me to wonder what a "live nativity display" should look like in me. He wants people to know that a Baby can truly be born in a heart as well as in a bed of hay. The story of that event would be told by my changed actions better than angel song or any words I could say. There should be a Light in my life that welcomes wanderers to the One Who has the answers for the problems they face every day. And they should see me worhsipping that King with gifts that cost me in terms of love, time and effort as well as just a portion of my weekly pay.

But perhaps what God would most like them to see is the human connection that Christmas is really all about. God reached out of His world into ours, and perhaps now He's looking for us to do the same - to reach beyond our own thoughts and wants and wishes to concern ourselves with the life struggles of those around us. How that looks in your own life is between you and God. It could be something as simple as offering a smile or holding a door for a weary fellow shopper at the end of a long and exhausting day. Perhaps it's a hug from the heart to a seldom-seen friend you happen upon in your comings and goings. It could be moments of laughter and togetherness with those who need your love, stolen from your busy holiday schedule. Or it could be donations of time, money or help to someone who's just trying to make it through another day.

Christmas doesn't come from a store, and maybe God wants us to do more than just put it on display. If it lives in our hearts, we'll imitate His actions and look for ways to give His love away.

"For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but have everlasting life." (John 3:16 KJV)

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Woodland Wonder

Today I said goodbye to the woods for the year.

When we first moved to Ohio so long ago now, God planted us just a few miles away from one of His great treasures, Hueston Woods State Park. After four treeless years in a suburb of Dallas, I rejoiced to be living so close to forested acres once more. From the time the first wildflowers pop up in the spring till the last leaves drop off the trees in the fall, I go there on a regular basis to have my spirit refreshed and my soul restored, to sip coffee by the still waters of the lake and hike through my favorite stand of trees, conversing with God all the while. My enjoyment builds from the beauty of the wood violets early in the year to the refreshing green canopy overhead in the summer, till I’m exclaiming with wonder at the splendor in the treetops in the autumn months.

My route to the woods this morning began with a stop at the local Starbucks, where for some reason I was blessed with an extra shot of espresso in my pumpkin spice latte, perhaps just to celebrate the day. As I came to the stop sign that marks the park’s boundary, I looked down the road and saw that it was flooded with sunbeams streaming through the trees. Standing in the midst of them was a deer, grazing on the berm. The view held me spellbound until the doe bounded away at the sound of an oncoming car. I carried my donut and coffee treat to my favorite seat at the picnic table at the edge of the lake. The fish were jumping at this early hour, their scales reflecting the rays of the rising sun, resulting in flashes of light all over the body of water. Off in the distance a rainbow was captured in a patch of morning mist that lay over the lake. A loud squawk heralded the arrival of a great blue heron that flew lazily away in front of me, completing a scene of exceptional peace and beauty.

Coffee gone and donut consumed, it was time to hike in the woods. Leaves rained down upon me on a trail already invisible under a carpet of their yellow offerings. I never leave the woods on this last hike of the year until I’ve caught one in mid-air, a task usually much harder to accomplish than it sounds. So I was surprised when this morning it happened almost too easily and a leaf simply landed in my waiting hands. Normally I would’ve just dropped it when I got to my car and then driven on home. But this one seemed to have a message attached. I felt impressed to take it with me, and soon God told me why.

In recent years my “farewells to fall” are all the more poignant because I know what follows. I simply dread the onset of bitterly cold temperatures, the difficulties of navigation on roads made slick by ice and snow, and the constant worry about the weather. Even the joy of the holidays and the beauty of the season are diminished to some extent by my distaste of the dark and dreary days of December, January and February. I’m simply not a fan of the winter months.

The wonder that I found in the woods this morning was not the beauty of God’s creation surrounding me so much as the revelation that God is very much aware of the cares of my life, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem to others. In His plan to deal with my distaste for this coming time of year He told me to take the leaf home with me, keep it in the pages of my prayer journal and then bring it back with me to return to Him on my first visit back in the spring. As I move through winter I was likewise to move the leaf through the pages of this book I open daily, its passage reminding me of God’s presence in my dark times and His promise of an eventual end to them. It’s a visual reminder of other times when a specific word from God that I found in the leaves of another Book I likewise refer to daily carried me through the difficult days of my husband’s radiation treatments, the turmoil of my sons’ teenage years, and trouble in changing church relationships. Having that hope to hold on to is what made the difference each time in my getting through the difficulty to the joy and peace on the other side.

Surely God doesn’t need the leaf I would return to him, and likely it will be little more than a crumbling mass of cellulose by that time. But I need the promise of an end of the season to look forward to; hope that I can hold in my hands. Likewise many people struggle with situations so much more serious than a mere dislike of the colder months of the year. And they likewise need to know that God cares about what they’re going through, that He’s willing to walk through the dark days with them, His Word a hand they can hang on to each step of the way.

If you don’t have a forest outside your door as I do, know that God will come to your neck of the woods, wherever that may be. Whether you’re the caregiver of an aging parent who no longer remembers your relationship, a mother on a sleepless night watch with a colicky baby, or a lonely widow navigating the first days and weeks of life without your spouse, He’s no farther than the mention of His Name. God will drop hope into your heart as easily as that leaf fell into my waiting hands this morning. The trick, however, is to catch it… to wrap your belief system around it, tuck it away in your innermost being and then carry it with you until you reach your spiritual springtime on down the road. On the stormiest days in your struggle, pull it out and remind yourself that sooner than you think you will be rejoicing with me as we repeat the words of Solomon, “See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come…” (Song of Songs 2:11-12 NIV).

Friday, November 13, 2009

Fighting Flu, or Fear?

I was shopping in my favorite aisle (think chips!) of my favorite grocery store (think Kroger!) when I saw her. An older coworker who was forced into retirement by unrelenting health issues, it had been months since I’d seen her last. Remembering the many times she had made me laugh, I now reached over to give her a hug, whispering “How are you?” into her ear as I did so. And it was only when we were in the middle of a tight embrace that she answered me with, “Honey, I’m sicker than a dog!”

Great!” I thought to myself, releasing my hold on her immediately and backpedaling rapidly before I experienced a possible H1N1 download. While I’m quick to say that I’m not swine-flu-phobic, there is really no need to be hugging people who advertise that they are deathly ill! As it turned out, her symptoms resulted from severe pain from a strained back; she wasn’t contagious at all. And yet I still felt the urge to rush to the restroom to wash my hands, my face, and maybe take a shower!

I needn’t have been in a hurry. Clearly I was already showing symptoms, not of flu, but of fear. Our enemy is less concerned about whether we actually catch the virus than he is that we fear that we will. His goal is to plant dread so deeply in our beings that it accomplishes two purposes that work in his favor.

First, he is interested in our preoccupation. Nobody among us has time or thought to give to Kingdom living and saving the lost when we are spending every waking minute washing our hands, spraying disinfectant on everything within reach, walking the aisles in the pharmacy and searching the internet for the first available flu shot clinic.

The enemy’s second goal is separation. He knows that together we are so much more powerful than we are individually. The Bible promises that where two or three are gathered together in His Name, Christ is there in the midst of them (Matthew 18:20). And so he doesn’t want us meeting together, praying for one another or encouraging our fellow believers’ hearts in any way. Fear of catching a serious flu virus accomplishes that goal. The Bible instructs the sick to call for the elders of the church to pray for them, but suddenly we wonder if the elders will come, without at least having second thoughts about doing so. We question whether gathering together on a Sunday morning with all those possibly germy people is really such a good idea. He makes us think twice about hugging, kissing, even touching other people. And so we distance ourselves from the hope, help and encouragement that we find in one another, especially in times of need. The gifts God has placed inside of us go unused for fear that operating in them might put us out of circulation ourselves, perhaps for good.

The long-awaited flu vaccine is slow to make its way to this area. Daily the news programs detail the locations of flu clinics that are open to high-risk clients, and people flock to those sites and wait in long lines for the protection they seek. Yet we don’t have to wait for help to come in the form of a vapor mist or a flu shot. If we are at high-risk for fear of the flu there are steps we can take to inoculate ourselves against infection. The first is simply to enlarge our view of God. When we see Him in all His glory we magnify the greatness of His might and minimize the size of the enemy that we fight. The Bible gives us a clear view of Who God is and all that He longs to do for us.

A few weeks ago a lady in our church lost her husband just hours before the mid-week service was to begin. The pastor and his wife were obviously busy ministering to the family members, and the church service went on as usual without them. There was a heaviness in the hearts of the church family, however, an unease among us as we felt a burden for these loved ones as well as the weight of other needs in the congregation. At some time during the worship service, the door opened and the pastors came in and took their usual seats in the front row. There was an almost audible sigh of relief throughout the congregation as they did so. It’s said that the sight of the shepherd among his sheep will calm a nervous flock. And so it is with God’s people that our fears flee when we keep our Shepherd clearly in our sights.

Everywhere we turn these days we’re reminded of the simple hygiene tips we need to practice to slow the spread of sickness among us. They include washing our hands, covering our mouths when we cough or sneeze, and staying home when we’re sick. Perhaps the most relevant to us spiritually is the admonition to cover our mouths. We simply need to watch what we speak. Too often our words of fear become self-fulfilling prophecies over our lives. The more we fill our hearts, thoughts, and mouths with faith-building scriptures, the less room there is in our lives for doubt and dread. And they’re easy to find – just about anywhere we open the Bible, the words, “do not fear” are soon to appear, surrounded (as we are!) by the precious promises of God.

“Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.”
(3 John 1:2 KJV)

Monday, November 9, 2009

Package Deal

Many years ago when my husband, Jim, and I were newly married and living in Washington state, we worked in separate divisions of the same company, he as a computer analyst, and me as a field forester who spent her days in the woods. Then one day came the announcement that the computer department was going to relocate to the company’s central office headquarters in Dallas, and Jim was asked to make the move. Excited as he was about the new opportunities that awaited him there, he realized that the job possibilities for foresters in that busy metropolis were slim at best. Our company had no land holdings in the area, hence no need for timber management professionals. Jim told those in charge of the relocation that he could not transfer unless they provided a job for his wife in the company office, as well. We were a package deal. So, because they needed Jim’s computer ability and management experience, I soon found myself behind a desk in a nice office, learning how all the field data that I used to spend my days collecting fit into the company’s forestry computer models. While it was nothing I’d ever done before, the work was interesting and good experience for whatever would come next for me in my career.

In the middle of our four-year stay in Dallas, Jim switched jobs and went to work for another paper company in the area. Soon came the news that he was again to be transferred, this time to Ohio. Once again he instituted the “package deal” concept in his employment negotiations, insisting that a job would have to be provided for his wife, as well, before he could agree to relocate. Amazingly, the company complied and I soon found myself employed as a computer programmer of forestry systems.

Gratified as I was by my new employer’s generosity, there was yet one huge problem in this scenario, that being my complete lack of training in computer science! My once programming class in college was little help as it wasn’t even a computer language the company was using. It was one thing to plug numbers into a computer model that was already written, as I did in Dallas, and another thing entirely to write the computer program behind the model. I felt absolutely lost at sea and managed to keep the job only with the help of a crash course in programming, fervent prayer, and a total reliance on God to supply the wisdom I lacked. Again and again He came through for me until I was eventually laid off when the economy forced widespread cutbacks in the paper industry.

Lately the enemy’s been reminding me of the days when I was part of a package deal in Jim’s job situations, highlighting the fact that I brought little to lay on the table myself in those scenarios, and was hired only so that the companies involved could acquire my husband’s computer expertise. What the devil mocks in my job situations he likewise scorns in my ministry efforts for the Lord, whispering that I only have the opportunities to serve that I do because I’m a “package deal” with my more spiritually effective husband.

I’m not alone in receiving his accusations. In recent years I’ve met many spouses in ministry teams who, while never verbalizing their thoughts, have believed him when he’s intimated that they hold the positions they do solely on the basis of who they are yoked to in marriage. We feel unqualified, unappreciated, and , worse yet, unnecessary to the work of the Lord.

And we couldn’t be more wrong. God wonders why we listen to such lies, when He’s written in His Word repeatedly that we all have received a measure of faith, (Romans 12:3), that we all have gifts and callings (Romans 12:6, 1 Corinthians 12:7), and that in the latter days He will pour His spirit out on all flesh (Joel 2:28). Each of us has a work that we were specifically created and anointed to do, and God will hold us personally accountable if we allow the devil’s lies to keep us inactive and unfruitful.

Getting what you need on the basis of somebody else’s qualifications is not always a bad thing. Just as I found myself without the resources I needed to accomplish the programming tasks I was assigned, I’m even more unqualified to work my way into Heaven. I simply haven’t got the sinless life and absolute purity that God requires in His Word. Once again the solution to my predicament is found in prayer. Jesus comes alongside me in response to my request for help and provides what I cannot - a perfect sacrifice in payment for my sins. And He makes me a promise… that someday when we stand together at Heaven’s Gate, the door will be opened and a welcome provided… only because He smiles with His arm around me and proclaims, “We’re a package deal.”

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”
(Ephesians 2:8,9 NKJV)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Looking for God in All the Wrong Places

“Are you my savior?” she asked with hope in her eyes and a smile on her face. Desperate to use the restroom facilities, my friend and coworker had been pestering the floor supervisor for some time to send someone to replace her for five minutes or so. I was the long-awaited answer to her pleas. She shoved the remote control for the grocery store self-check machines at me and rushed off, leaving her question hanging in the air behind her.

Are you my savior? In these days of difficulty it seems to be the universal cry of a people looking for a way out of the problems we face. We long to feel comfortable again, to be rescued from our own circumstances and the life issues surrounding us. Almost desperately we flock to the latest rising star, hoping that maybe he or she will provide the answers we need. We look from Dr. Phil to Oprah to President Obama to right our relationships, declutter our homes, fix the economy, bring home the troops, remove the terror threat and give us affordable healthcare. In our search for answers we’re asking the right question; we’re just putting it to the wrong people.

The question is remarkably similar to the title of a children’s book by P. D. Eastman I used to read to my boys long ago entitled Are You My Mother? With a smile at the memory I delighted again in the simple story of a baby bird that hatches to find itself alone, leaves its nest, and poses its question to one unlikely candidate after another, hoping to find its source of comfort and happiness. Perhaps the only relevance my trip down memory lane has to our current need of rescue it that the answer to our dilemma is likewise found in a book… not one of the millions of self-help books that line our shelves, but in God’s Book, the Bible. Our powerlessness to save ourselves is obvious. An imperfect people, we need a perfect sacrifice to pay for our sin. We need a Savior.

God’s people in Bible times likewise found themselves in need of a Savior, One that’s promised in the early pages of the Book and then delivered. Much of the middle is about people like us who came across Jesus and asked, as did John the Baptist, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:2 NIV). Are you my Savior? The answer is found in the pages that follow.

Surprisingly, the most important word in that question is the smallest. It doesn’t matter if Jesus is my pastor’s Savior, my husband’s Savior, or my best friend’s Savior. He’s not my Savior until I recognize my need, ask that question for myself and find Him speaking His response to me in some way, for He will answer.

My son showed up to take a midterm in one of his college classes recently without his textbook, unaware that a portion of the exam was an open-book test. Thankfully his professor saw that he was in need, called him out by name and offered him a copy of the volume. Your Teacher has done the same for you. Eventually there will be a moment when time will be called, all books will close and the decision-making opportunity will come to an end.

May the trumpet not sound before you have found the Savior you seek.

“…The King of Israel, even the Lord [Himself], is in the midst of you; [and after He has come to you] you shall not experience or fear evil any more…The Lord your God is in the midst of you, a Might One, a Savior [Who saves]!…”
(Zephaniah 3:15, 17 AMP)“

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

From Horror to Hope

It began with the clocks. My son noticed that almost every day he happened to look up and check the time just as the digital display on his timepiece read 9:11. Sometimes he caught it both morning and night on the same day. The numbers followed him to his job in a clothing store, where his attention would be arrested upon handing a customer exactly $9.11 in change from the cash register. He’d be straightening the piles of size 9 jeans in the display case and suddenly note that the size 11 jeans were right above them.

Once he mentioned it to me, I began to have the same experience. It wasn’t long before I was texting him about the rump roast that went across the scanner at my register in the grocery store and rang up at nine dollars and eleven cents. Or I’d mention to him when I got home from work about the order that totaled $91.10 and likewise caught my eye.

After a while it became apparent that we weren’t the only ones who saw the numbers 9 and 11 everywhere we went. His friend had a similar experience with the clocks, always noting the time just when it was eleven minutes past the ninth hour. Even his brother mentioned an eerie experience at school in which two friends stopped by his desk to chat, both wearing football jerseys, the one on the left sporting the number 9 while the one on the right bore the number 11.

The truth is that people everywhere notice the numbers 9 and 11 together, and instantly their minds go back to the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, and the devastation that followed. I daresay never before has the numerical representation of a date in history been so etched in people’s memory that the mere reference of the two numbers together instantly causes our emotions to tumble towards despair and discouragement. Forces of evil in our world had a plan for destruction that they carried out that day. In the spiritual realm we likewise have an enemy that seeks to kill and destroy (John 10:10), and it’s not by chance that those numbers appear together before us so often, but rather his purpose to continually remind us of fear and defeat.

Many people have experienced personal catastrophes that have nothing whatsoever to do with the events of September 11, 2001, but that have created devastation and havoc in their homes, hearts, and lives, just the same. And daily, they, too, are faced with inescapable reminders of that which they’ve lost. Perhaps it’s the facial features of a spouse lost to death or divorce that they see in the eyes and smiles of the children they had together. Maybe it’s the familiar landmarks in a neighborhood they still have to drive through but no longer live in due to job loss and financial collapse. Or it could be a certain curve in the road marked with a small, white cross that stamps a symbolic “9/11” across the day their world changed forever.

Nowhere, however, was the devil given dibs on the numbers 9 and 11. Perhaps God is looking to reclaim them, to instill in us the positive emotions of hope, peace and goodwill that are associated with them all through His Word. He, too, has plans for us, perhaps stated best in a signature 9/11 verse in the Bible, that found in Jeremiah 29:11, which reads, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”

On a whim I started looking up the 9:11 verses in the Bible and found that hope, peace, provision and protection are associated with them throughout the Word of God. It’s in Genesis 9:11 that God promises never again to destroy the earth with a flood. Numbers 9:11 establishes the annual celebration of Passover, the day when God spared His people from death and delivered them out of slavery. The same verse in Nehemiah is a reference to when God parted the Red Sea for His people to pass through on their way to freedom, while provision and protection is promised to the widows and fatherless children in Jeremiah 49:11.

Never should we forget the lives lost on 9/11/01 and the sacrifice, courage and heroism of the first responders and those involved in later recovery efforts. But neither should we forget the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, an action that defeated death forever and gave birth to the promises of good things to come that we find in the 9/11 verses of the New Testament (Hebrews 9:11 KJV, Matthew 7:9-11). His sacrifice is in vain if we let the devil steal away the joy and hope He purchased for us that day. May the 9/11s we see today instead inspire thoughts of a new beginning, a fresh start…a reminder of a glorious future rather than a destructive and depressing past.

It occurred to me recently that I use the 9/11 sightings in my life as an opportunity to connect with my son. God simply suggests we do the same with His.

"But [that appointed time came]when Christ (the Messiah)appeared as a High Priest of the better things that have come and are to come..."
(Hebrews 9:11 AMP, emphasis mine)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Double Trouble

The door to the vet’s office closed sharply behind me as I stepped up to the counter to request some refills on medications for my dog. I stated my name, and the girl behind the desk looked up my records on the computer. Once she found my information she read off the seven digits on the screen and asked if that phone number was correct. When I replied in the negative, she frowned and looked at the screen in puzzlement as we both tried to figure out why the name and number didn’t match. Suddenly a voice from the back of the office where another worker was filing folders called out, “There are two ‘Elaine Bridge’s.” Surprised, the girl checked the next record and found my information, and I left with my prescriptions minutes later.

There are two ‘Elaine Bridge’s. The words caught my attention. It was clearly a sentence God wanted me to hear, but I as yet didn’t understand the message. My spirit, however, was beginning to feel a little uneasy.

The next day I was scheduled to work in the grocery store and found myself stationed that morning at the register next to one operated by another cashier who was also named ‘Elaine’. For the four years we’ve worked together we’ve laughed at the “Elaine echo” that results when we meet and greet each other by name in passing. On this day we were working together companionably when the phone at her station started ringing. She listened in silence for a few seconds to the voice of the floor supervisor, a woman who was new to our store and had yet to meet all the front-end employees, myself included.

“No, I’ve already taken my break,” she said into the phone. “You must mean the other ‘Elaine’. There are two ‘Elaine’s.” She hung up the phone, and sure enough, soon I was clocking out for my fifteen minutes of freedom.

There are two ‘Elaine’s. Those words echoed in my spirit, where I’d heard them loudly enough already, just the day before.

With a sigh I had to admit that there are two ‘Elaine’s. There is the one that loves God passionately and looks for Him constantly, ever searching for a deeper relationship in her walk with Him. Full of faith, she prays with confidence, knowing that God loves her, hears her, and answers her prayers. But then there’s also the other ‘Elaine’…the one who doesn’t have an easy answer for the friend who asks her to explain the ways of God, especially when seemingly innocent people are hurt in the accomplishment of His purposes. She’s the one who knows that God can heal but wonders if He will, especially if she’s the one doing the praying. She’s the ‘Elaine’ who sometimes has doubts about her own spiritual standing. And she’s the one I’ve been subconsciously hiding from God.

From the days of Adam and Eve, we humans have been hiding our less-than-perfect selves from the God Who created us and Who knows every detail of our daily lives. Afraid of disappointing the One we love and disqualifying ourselves from His service with our shortcomings, we submerge them into our subconscious and try to pretend that they simply don’t exist. And yet all God asks of us is to simply come clean… to admit our failures, our weaknesses, our sins, our doubts and our fears…to bring them to Him and lay them at His feet…to allow Him to work in us and change us.

There is nothing we can say or do that will diminish God’s passionate love for us. He may be disappointed in our lack of faith, lack of focus, and our out-and-out failures, but He is never disappointed in us. He simply desires that when we are weak we’d come to Him for the strength that we lack, as did the father in the Bible with the demon-possessed son who struggled in his faith but said, “…I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24 NIV)

The Bible is full of stories of people who accomplished great things for God with less-than-perfect faith. They range from Moses who felt he couldn’t speak for God, to Jonah who wouldn’t do so and was swallowed by a whale as a result, to the believers who prayed for Peter’s release from jail and then didn’t believe it when it happened. Throughout the Bible, God set people physically and spiritually free in spite of the imperfections of those He assigned to do the work.

So then why should we worry about those days when our faith is lackluster and our spiritual muscles are weak? Perhaps the answer is simply that time is short and there is much work to be done before the trumpet blows and the world as we know it comes to an end. God simply hasn’t got the time left to coddle and coax and convince us that we are capable of doing what He asks. As events accelerate towards the end of time He needs a people who will hear simply His voice and move accordingly, without days and weeks of prodding and pushing.

On another day just recently I was once again working at the store, again stationed just a few registers away from the other cashier named ‘Elaine’. Suddenly a voice from the customer service desk came over the intercom: “Elaine, please call the office at extension 2021. Elaine, call 2021.” The other cashier and I just looked at each other, wondering which ‘Elaine’ would answer the call.

May God never have to wonder the same.

“In Him we have redemption (deliverance and salvation) through His blood, the remission (forgiveness) of our offenses (shortcomings and trespasses), in accordance with the riches and the generosity of His gracious favor.”
(Ephesians 1:7 AMP, emphasis mine)

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Melon Musings

Seven of us sat around a table in the church office, meeting to make plans for the upcoming holiday toy drive for needy kids in the area. In the small talk of the opening minutes the pastor’s wife and I were discussing God’s presence in everything around us. The jokester in the group, a man named Steve, queried, “How about in… a cantaloupe?!” We all laughed and then got down to the business at hand.

The Bible says that where two or three are gathered, God is there in the midst of them (Matthew 18:20). Indeed, it seemed to be the case that day that He was there, listening and ready to take on the task of making His existence in a cantaloupe known. In fact, we had been laughing earlier about Jesus literally being in the room with us, as a friend of Steve’s had accompanied him to the meeting and was dozing on a nearby couch. With his shoulder-length dark hair he looked remarkably like the images of Jesus we’ve seen in Bible portraits, movies and the like. Several of those who attended the meeting did a double take when they first came through the door and saw him sitting there, as the resemblance so easily came to mind.

Surprisingly, melons have been much on my mind of late. At the end of August the produce sections of local grocery stores as well as the vegetable stands we see along our highways this time of year are flooded with Indiana melons, a variety of cantaloupe that is exceptionally sweet and juicy. Or so I hear. I’ve been amazed at the customers that have come through my checkout line at the grocery store of late that have raved about it, often purchasing one and then coming back for four or five more because the first one was so good. All the talk finally piqued my interest, and noting that my husband likes sliced cantaloupe for breakfast, I decided to buy one and give it a try.

There is a science associated with picking a ripe Indiana melon, and after the fact I learned that listening for a hollow sound when knocking on the husk is not one of the approved selection methods. Chief on the list is the smell that emanates from the fruit. With a sigh I realized that this presented a problem. My sense of smell all but vanished when I was in high school, never to return. I can smell bleach and skunks and very little else. Undeterred, I continued my research and found that the other trick is to gently press the end opposite the stem, which should give lightly. Neither of these were criteria I checked before making my selection.

And so it turned out that I picked a bad one that was dry and tasteless. Disgusted, I cut up a few slices for economy’s sake and then threw the rest away, done shopping for melons for the year. My husband, however, doesn’t give up so easily. He, too, had been hearing his coworkers rave about melon heaven, and he encouraged me to stop at a roadside stand and try again. To his frustration I kept forgetting to do so, but after the subject came up in our morning meeting it was still on my mind as I drove home and I stopped at a stand minutes later. Apparently the demand is so great at the moment that even the farmers can’t keep them in stock. This one was sold out for the day at just noon. I vowed to stop again (earlier!) on another day and went on my way.

This morning I was drinking coffee on my deck when out of the blue God brought the melon subject back up, comparing the orange wonders inside the husk to the Word of God. At some point in most of our lives, whether it was because of some talk we heard about it or at the urging of a loved one, we opened the Bible and sampled the wares inside. Novice readers of God’s Book are much like me, shopping for a melon with no clue as to how to find a good one. We pick out a chapter and sample it, and if it’s not to our taste we put it aside and never pick the book up again. Admittedly there are some chapters of God’s Word that are a little dry and that don’t seem to apply very effectively to our daily lives. Yet a purpose of even those paragraphs exists, one we will eventually discover if we prove persistent in our pursuit of an answer.

But that’s the point. Too often we give up and put the volume away after our first taste, and in so doing we miss the sweet juiciness of another slice from a different chapter that might apply directly to some situation that we are going through. Just as there are ways to pick a ripe melon, there are right ways to start a Bible reading program. The first step is to pick a translation that is appealing rather than intimidating; a version that is easy to read and written in language that is easy to understand. It is also important to ask God to reveal Himself to us as we go, especially if we’re struggling to see Him in what we‘re reading. And then we need to press in regularly, and not quit! The goodness of God as revealed in His Word will then truly keep us coming back again and again for bite after delicious bite.

August ends all too quickly for cantaloupe aficionados. Thankfully the Word of God never goes out of season and is available for consumption year round. But don’t take my word for it. Like my friend Steve, issue a challenge to God and don’t be surprised if He shows up in the very place you’d least expect with a spiritual taste sensation that you will never forget.

“Taste and see that the Lord is good…” (Psalm 34:8 NIV)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Delayed Departure

With just five minutes left till the end of my shift at the grocery store, I had already clocked out mentally for the day. I spent my last moments on the job dreaming about what I would eat when I got home, which family members were likely to be there, and how I'd spend the next couple of hours before once again climbing into bed. Suddenly my manager appeared beside me with a question that made my heart drop to the bottom of my empty stomach. "Would you stay a little longer and work on the reshop?" she asked.

"Reshop" is grocery store lingo for the items that are taken off the shelves but that for some reason don't make it out of the building. They are products picked up by shoppers in one aisle and later discarded in another, or that the customer has changed his mind about purchasing by the time they reach the checkout line. The groceries that have to be removed from an order because the total on the screen eclipses the amount of money in the person's wallet fall into this category, as do the bags of purchased goods that are inadvertently left at registers and any items that are found to be damaged in some way. Such goods are collected throughout the day by managers walking the store and by front-end employees who gather it from the bins under each register and load it all into carts that are pushed into a corner. All day long various employees work on sorting the items and returning them to their proper locations, but if nobody else has time to get to it before hand, it's the night cashier's job to put it all away. There's a standing rule that all such displaced items have to be taken care of by the time the store manager arrives for work at the start of the next day.

"Would you stay?" With a sigh I turned off my light, closed down the register and headed to where three grocery carts were loaded and awaiting my attention. But as I approached the one closest to me I noticed that placed right on top of the pile of packages was a small, white business card with just three words printed in black lettering that read, "GOD LOVES ME." I picked it up in amazement, wondering who had placed it there so carefully that it hadn't slipped between the jumbled boxes and bags below it but sat squarely in th front of the cart, waiting for me to find it. Suddenly I burst out laughing as I realized that my staying late was not due to a managerial request at all but was rather a set-up from God who had a message He wanted to deliver, an answer to a prayer I'd been praying for some time.

The Bible tells us to always be ready to give an answer to those who ask us about the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15), yet my efforts to do so at work have often been a dismal failure. The words that come out of my mouth sound stilted and awkward, or else my explanation becomes too long-winded to go into on company time. I'd asked God to help me give a simple response when asked about the joy inside of me, or how I stay positive in negative times. And He did so in just three words:
God loves me. Truly the day those words moved from what I knew in my head to what I believed in my heart, my life changed forever. These then were the words I needed to share.

It was significant that God even printed them on a pocket-sized piece of paper, as my pants pockets are normally filled with items to give away. I carry loose change for shoppers who are a few cents short so they don't have to run to their cars and raid their dashboard stash. When people ask me where I go to church or how to get to the food pantry that operates out of it, I reach in and pull out a business card with the church's name, location and service times on it. Now I likewise have an easy yet powerful answer to the other questions I hear repeatedly, coming in contact with the public on a daily basis as I do. I slipped the card in my pocket and went on about the job of putting misplaced grocery items away.

A few days later God took me back to that incident at the grocery store and likened the situation to the end-time events we are now experiencing. As the clock on this world winds down, we Christians are more than ready to go Home. We eagerly anticipate the Marriage Supper of the Lamb and emotional reunions with loved ones who have gone on before us. Heaven fills our thoughts as we wonder what it will look like, who we will see and what we will do. And in the midst of our speculation, our Master appears beside us and reminds us that there is still work to be done. Daily we come into contact with people as numerous as the reshop items in my grocery carts, who are likewise misplaced in their spiritual experience and in their relationship with God. Some once stood solidly in God's Kingdom but somehow fell off their feet, off the wagon, or out of the loop, and now can't seem to find their way back. Others have been damaged by the life experiences they've been through, while still others feel lonely, forgotten and rejected by all. Each of them needs a personal interaction with one of God's workers who has had his heart and his life (and maybe even his pants pockets) filled with the love and gifts of God to give away - the very words and actions that might restore one who was hurt or lost in time to join us when we're all suddenly called away.

We often hear the expression "if Jesus should tarry" in discussions on the end of the age, yet the Bible tells us that even Christ doesn't know the day or hour of His return (Matthew 24:36). The Biblical timeline rests solely in God's hands, and end-time events will unfold at His command. So if there seems to be a delay, perhaps it's due to the mercy and compassion of a loving Father who is asking those in His employ if they will stay a little longer at this, the end of days, and work toward the hope that a few more lost souls will yet find their way.

"The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance."
(2 Peter 3:9 NKJV)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Menu Option or Marching Orders?

Anybody who knows me knows that I love to eat breakfast out. There's something about heading to a restaurant for a morning meal that transforms an ordinary day into something special. And likewise they know that while I'll eat breakfast anywhere, my morning restaurant of choice is Bob Evans. My mother-in-law and I decided once that our preference for that spot was due to the abundance of smiles that always greats our entrance there. And finally, they know that I don't need to look at the menu, because rare is the day that I order anything but the "Rise and Shine" - two eggs cooked the way you like them, with hash browns and a choice of meat and bread. Add a couple of cups of coffee and a day just doesn't get started any better than that.

No wonder the menu asserts that the selection is their most popular breakfast pick! Even the paper placemats on the table advertise that option, combining it with a picture of a sunrise over lush, fertile farmland, as if to suggest that surely this is what "breaking a fast" - even if it was just overnight - was meant to be.

Apparently one day recently my mind was too rooted in my carnal love of food to hear what God was trying to say to me, distracted as I was by the smell of fresh coffee and bacon on the grill. So He abruptly switched tactics, accompanying me on a later shopping trip to a discount store and showing up big time on a line of brightly colored summer clothing I was walking by. As He knew it would, my eye went straight to a turquoise-colored t-shirt, across the front of which was written... Rise and Shine!!! I stopped and fingered the fabric, wondering suddenly if there was more to my life experience in those three words than mere calories. Were they more than just a menu option, perhaps? Could they possibly be a command from God?

Rise and Shine. Maybe God is saying it's time...time to do more than just go about our days eating, sleeping, earning a living...biding our time till the end of time. Perhaps He is summoning His troops for a last big push against the enemy's agenda in these, the last days. Rise and Shine would instead then be a call to service, a reverie to rouse a sleeping army, sending us to the battlefield. Perhaps it's an impassioned plea to put the gifts and callings He's placed on our lives to work for His purposes before time is no more. For soon there will be no more time for those friends, family members and even total strangers around us who don't know the Lord. Now is the time to make their salvation secure.

Apparently Jesus had a fondness for breakfast out, as well. One of my favorite Bible stories is the one that finds the disciples back in their fishing boats after Jesus' death and resurrection. Hailed by a voice on the shore asking if they'd caught anything, they replied in the negative. When instructed to cast their nets on the other side of the boat they pulled in a catch that their boats could barely hold. Suddenly their eyes were opened and they recognized Jesus as the one speaking to them from the shoreline where He was cooking a meal of fish over a campfire. He invited them to bring over some of their morning haul. Now if anything could beat breakfast at Bob Evans, it would be a morning meal of fresh-caught fish cooked over a campfire by Jesus. Talk about good food and good company! It sounds a little like Heaven on earth to me!

It turned out to be God's version of the Rise and Shine. After inviting His disciples to sit down and eat, He reinstated Peter and sent Him back to the battlefield, instructing him to feed and care for His followers.

Could it be that now He's saying the same to us? Morning by morning He meets with us and feeds us from His Word. Then He sends us out to face the day and fight the enemy on His behalf, winning souls for the Kingdom and nurturing the sheep that are already in the fold. Most of us know that we are called and commissioned to a work for the Lord. But for many of us it's something that we'll get to someday in the future. And perhaps God is telling us that our "somedays" are suddenly upon us, that now is the "appointed time" (Habakkuk 2:3 NIV) to truly rise and shine.

"Arise, shine for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn." (Isaiah 60:1-3 NIV, emphasis mine)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Tap In, Not Out

The mixed martial arts scene has become a big deal around our house of late. I see it in the muay thai moves my son and I throw at each other in passing, and hear it in the discussion of Brazilian jujutsu classes he’s thinking of taking with a friend. From even the clothes that hang in my boys’ closets to their social gatherings on the UFC Fight Nights, there’s a whole new language being spoken around our home these days. I sometimes feel I need an interpreter just to keep up.

The two-word phrase “tap out” is one I hear more than any other. It refers to the breaking point in a physical contest of some sort, in which one opponent has such an advantage over the other that the latter is forced to give up before a bone snaps or his air is cut off completely. He taps the ground, himself, or his opponent to signal his surrender. I see the “tap out” phrase plastered on car windows when I’m out on the roads as well as across the t-shirts and shorts of enthusiasts sporting the increasingly popular brand of clothing and accessories by the same name.

Sadly, I also hear the concept in the conversations of people I meet on a daily basis, most of who know nothing about martial arts, kickboxing, armbars or choke holds, per se. Yet they are overwhelmed with the life situations they are dealing with in these difficult days. It’s hard enough to cope with problems when they arise one at a time, but increasingly people find that they’re being pummeled with one knock-out punch after another as they’re forced to deal with family health issues, relationship meltdowns, job losses and the resulting financial fiascos, all at the same time. A body can only absorb so many blows before it looks for an avenue of escape. And that’s when, spiritually as well as physically, we’re susceptible to the “tap out” message the devil whispers ever louder in our ears: “Give in. Give up. Get out. Surrender.“

And yet the Bible promises us that God never leaves us in difficult situations without giving us a way through them. My son and I warn one another in jest that we’ve come up with a new series of fighting moves that will leave the other knocked senseless on the floor should either of us be foolish enough to venture into the range of the other’s flying fists or kicking legs. Likewise in the spiritual realm we each have a “secret weapon” that we can unveil in a wrestling match with the devil. We just need the Holy Spirit to reveal to us the power it contains.

He did so for me last weekend. Our worship leader at church was having a bad day. Perhaps there’s nothing more frustrating for a music minister than to enter the house of God on a Sunday morning and find that the sound system which was working perfectly when he last left it has now gone completely haywire. Such was the case last Sunday. Microphones squealed, the monitors buzzed, and the worship team members on one side of the platform couldn’t hear what those on the other side were doing. So our leader started his day battling frustration and defeat. The congregation likewise seemed to be listless, their minds on their individual problems instead of seeking the presence of God with unity of purpose. Songs were sung as if on auto-pilot, with no thought given to the power that can be found in passionate praise. Finally the worship leader stopped the service and got our attention. He told us that if we were looking to him to pump us up or to get for us what we needed from God, we were out of luck. Each of us needed to connect with Him ourselves, to tap in to worship.

Tap in! There it was! All the while that the devil was whispering his tap-out-and-get-out message, God was trying to speak his tap-in-and-win response! Tapping in to the power that lies in the presence of God within each of our spirits is the key to victory in each of the situations we face. But perhaps there is more to “tapping in” than we realize. In direct contrast to the cessation of all effort that the “tap out” message implies, tapping in means that we dig in as never before, refusing to quit our praise and pursuit of God until we’ve connected to Him somehow in worship. We read our Bibles until we hear His voice and understand His instructions on how to proceed in our life situations. We seek His face in our daily interactions with other people, loving them with all our hearts when their actions inspire that reaction in us, and even more when they don’t. We simply go for broke in our pursuit of God, like a fighter who realizes the end is near and unleashes a fury of final punches on his opponent before the bell signals the end of the final round. Clearly we are in that position as the end of time draws near. The signs of the times in the world around us as well as the spiritual battles we’re all facing signal that time is short. How sad if we allow the devil to convince us to tap out in defeat just in the closing seconds, when God is promising us that victory is clearly within our grasp!

“So I say to you, Ask and keep on asking and it shall be given you; seek and keep on seeking and you shall find; knock and keep on knocking and the door shall be opened to you. For everyone who asks and keeps on asking receives; and he who seeks and keeps on seeking finds; and to him who knocks and keeps on knocking, the door shall be opened.” (Luke 11:9-10 AMP, emphasis mine)
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