That Makes Me White as Snow…

What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Oh! precious is the flow
That makes me white as snow;
No other fount I know,
  Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
For my cleansing this I see—
Nothing but the blood of Jesus!
For my pardon this my plea—
Nothing but the blood of Jesus!
Nothing can my sin erase
Nothing but the blood of Jesus!
Naught of works, ’tis all of grace—
Nothing but the blood of Jesus!
This is all my hope and peace—
Nothing but the blood of Jesus!
This is all my righteousness—
Nothing but the blood of Jesus!

What Can Wash Away My Sin (Nothing But the Blood of Jesus) by Robert Lowry (emphasis added)
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Last week, I was out shoveling snow. It is not unheard of for us to get snow at this time of year, but it is not usual to have this much, this early. I don’t like shoveling, but I love watching the snow fall– thousands of individual flakes floating around, glinting in the light, and turning everything a pure, sparkling white.

It doesn’t last– the snow gets blown around, and the snow near the streets gets brown and dingy from the traffic. It turns slushy or gets piled up into heaps like so much garbage. The snow in the country gets crusty, even if it stays relatively white. It looks colder, harder, more brittle. There is something pure and magical in new-fallen snow that even snow itself can’t replicate. Artists have tried to capture it in paintings; scientists have tried to study it and replicate it; Hollywood has tried to use substitutes in movies (sometimes painted corn flakes, or sometimes soap flakes). There is still something about real, new snow that is unique and fragile and filled with promise–even in its coldness, it speaks of laughter and joy. (Maybe not while I am shoveling it, but…)

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God is the creator and sender of snow. He has storehouses of it (Psalm 135:7; Job 38:22) And it is the image God gives us of forgiveness. (Isaiah 1:18) The purity and softness; the glimmer and weightlessness; the crisp, other-worldliness of falling snow–that is the picture of a forgiven heart! Just as God sends snow to refresh the earth when it looks the most bleak and dead, so God sends forgiveness to hearts that feel cold and dead inside, weighted down and dirty with guilt and shame and Sin. God covers our sins with His forgiveness– and He brings renewal from the inside; new growth, new blossoms, new fruit from what was empty, barren, and used up. And even when snow gets dirty, or crusty– a fresh blanket of new snow revives, cheers, and brightens the landscape.

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God’s forgiveness is compared to snow, but it is far more powerful. White snow can cover up brown and barren trees and gray streets for a f, but God’s forgiveness comes, not in white, but in bright red. It comes through the shed blood of Christ, freely and lavishly given to wash away the scarlet stain of Sin. Red cancels out red, leaving purity and newness that comes from no other source. No artist can capture it; no scientist can discover its makeup; no Hollywood studio can recreate it; nothing on earth can compare or compete with its wonder and power.

Today, I am thankful for the message of snow, and even more thankful for the forgiveness that God offers. He may have storehouses for the snow, but His power to forgive is beyond measure, and His mercies are new every morning! (Lamentations 3:23)

The Door Will Be Opened…

Ask, Seek, Knock

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! 12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

(Matthew 7:7-12 NIV via biblegateway.com)

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A couple of years ago, I took on a part-time, temporary job with the Census Bureau in which I had to make visits to various households and ask to conduct an interview. I knocked on a lot of doors. Few of them were ever opened. Many of the houses were unoccupied– either the family wasn’t at home, or the home was vacant or even abandoned. At others, there were clearly people at home, but they wouldn’t come to the door. At still others, a person would come to the door, or respond via intercom or speaker, but they would not open up or consent to do the interview. This occurred during the height of the pandemic, so some of the fear and evasion was expected. But even though I was wearing a mask and promised to practice social distancing; even though the interview was less than 10 minutes, and would help their community and country, they would not speak to me or let me step up to or across the threshold. *(For the record, I was not required to actually enter anyone’s home to conduct an interview; most took place across the threshold or through a screen door or even out on the front steps.) A select few, however, were gracious and welcoming. They opened the door, invited me in, offered me a seat, and refreshed my spirit. I knocked on the doors of the wealthy, and those in extreme poverty. I knocked on fancy doors with cyber-security, and doors that were hanging off their hinges. I knocked on the doors of large families, and lonely widows. I knocked on the doors of the dying, and the doors of families with newborns. I knocked on the doors of mobile homes, and lake cottages, and apartments, and old farm houses. Some of the kindest people I found were in so-called “bad” neighborhoods. Some of the people who were the most gracious were those who were in the most pain, and had the least to gain by being kind. Those who were threatening and rude were quick to point out that their time was more valuable than mine– that they were too important, or too comfortable, or too busy to answer a few simple questions. In a couple of cases, I had to leave because I was threatened with harm or faced verbal abuse.

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My job required me to knock on a lot of doors! And throughout our lives, we will have to “knock” on doors– seek out opportunities, ask for needed help, go to places outside our comfort zone– and many of the doors will remain closed. Others will require that we knock several times, or even return another day to knock and seek entrance. But God will never turn away those who knock at His door. God will never tell us we must stand outside or come back at a more convenient time. He will never have a sign that says “No Trespassing,” or “Keep Out!” In fact the only thing keeping us from entering His Courts is our own refusal to accept His invitation; our own pride or guilty conscience, or resentment and rebellion; our own reluctance to approach the door, let alone knock. We don’t need an appointment, or an official summons to “Come!” The invitation is always open, and the door is not locked.

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God is not “too busy”, and our questions, requests, and praises are not “too small” to get His attention. God is gracious. God is available. God is accessible. And God’s opened door is so much more than an entry to someone’s hallway or front room or kitchen. God opens the doors to His very throne room! He invites us to “Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise”! (Psalm 100) He invites us to the wedding feast of the Lamb (Revelations), and to everlasting life (John 3:16).

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Jesus also “knocks” at the door of our hearts, asking to “come in.” (Revelation 3:20) What does He find? Are we “away from home”– so busy chasing after foolish things that we don’t even inhabit our own hearts? Are we ignoring Him, hoping He’ll go away? Are we telling Him to come back another time, or coming up with excuses why we don’t need to speak with Him? Do we try to chase Him away with our anger or bitterness? Or do we open the door, invite Him in, and offer Him a seat?

Jesus urged His listeners on the Mount to Ask, Seek, and Knock. And then, He challenged them to “do to others what you would have them do to you.” How are we treating those who “knock” at our door? Those who need a friend, or a listening ear? Those who need to hear the truth, and the hope that is in us? Trust me– how we answer that “knock” at our door will leave an impression. It will testify to our true nature.

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God doesn’t just hear us knocking, He opens the door and gives us all we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). What are we giving to those who knock on our door?

The Now and the “Not Yet.”

As followers of Christ and believers in an Eternal God, we live in the “here and now,” but we also live in something called the “not yet.” Our life here is finite, but our life in the “not yet” is eternal.

Most of what we pray for belongs in the “here and now.” We pray about what we see and know. We may pray for an upcoming surgery, or a looming job loss, or give thanks for something that happened in the recent past, but most of our prayers do not venture into the eternal future.

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Yet, God speaks to us of things to come. No, He doesn’t always reveal details or give us a calendar of times and dates; but He does remind us that what we see is not the whole picture. And we need to remember this when we pray and when we look around us.

Much of the Old Testament, plus parts of the New Testament, are given over to prophecy– visions, promises, warnings about the future. Many of the prophecies have already been fulfilled– in detail. Some of the prophets prayed for revival in Israel and Judah; others prayed for the coming of the Messiah. Their prayers were answered– but not always in their lifetime, and not always in a way they understood. The Apostles, writing to Jesus’ followers looked forward to His return– but they never saw it in their lifetime.

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see…And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

Hebrews 11:1, 6 (NIV)

Following Christ involves living in both the “now” of immediate life, and the “not yet” of our faith. We can have confidence in what was, what is, and what is to come. And we must learn patience, and stand firm in God’s promises, as well as living “in the moment” of service and obedience,. We cannot sit back and wait for life to come to us; neither can we live such short-sighted lives that we waste our energy chasing after constant gratification and emotional peaks. Sometimes, the very circumstances we are praying for God to “change” or take away are the circumstances He will use to teach us, grow us, and bless us!

Prayer is not just about us and our immediate needs. Today, spend some time praying with an eternal mindset–that God’s will would be done, in His time and His way. And then, trust that whatever is going on in the “here and now,” it is all part of God’s perfect plan. One that we will understand more fully in the “not yet.”

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Infinite Variety

As I look out my window today, I see a wonderful palette of fall colors waving in the wind. There are trees still filled with dark green; others with variegated shades of red and orange and yellow; some have brown leaves– so brown, they are tinged with purple! Back in the spring, the trees had so many subtle shades of green– bright green, yellow-green, and un-nameable greens in between. The colors of nature are astounding in their variety and their ability to change throughout the seasons.

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God loves variety– not just in colors, but in all of life. Giraffes and gerbils; elephants and eels; ladybugs and llamas; koalas and kingfishers; swans and sloths; trees and termites; roses and raccoons…different shapes and sizes, with different lifespans and different habitats. Nature is a kaleidoscope. And precious people, too. Skin tones that span a vast spectrum; different hair; different eyes; different noses; different heights. But also different speech; different ways of thinking and doing; different ways of life–people living in city apartments, isolated huts, houseboats, underground houses–infinite variety.

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Our prayers are also uniquely different from those of other people. And God LOVES to hear the differences as we lift up our unique praises and petitions. God created us to be uniquely ourselves– and uniquely His!

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Just think– at this very moment, someone is praying in a language you’ve never spoken, in a place you’ve never visited. Someone else is praying for needs you have never even imagined, and thanking God for blessings you’ve never dreamed of.

It is a wonderful exercise to pray in a group– dozens, even hundreds of God’s people speaking the same thing in agreement; raising united hearts in praise or even in pain. But there is also something wonderful about listening to others as they express their hearts, knowing that God values each of us for the unique person He made us to be. We can be just as awed by the variety of amazing people we meet as we are by the amazing colors of the autumn leaves. The same God loves to fill the world with infinite variety and beauty.

Today, let’s try to see people for who God made them to be–infinitely precious and unique. And don’t forget that person in the mirror! God loves you. He loves to hear from you. He loves to lavish His love on you and through you, in ways that only He and You can experience.

Leaning…

“What a fellowship; what a joy divine,
Leaning on the Everlasting Arms…”

Bethel Church, Penn Twp., Michigan

Years ago, growing up in a small community, and attending a tiny rural church in southwestern Michigan, we sang this song often at church. As a child, I liked the tune, but had little idea what the song meant. I knew the word fellowship– that was what we called the pot-luck meals and social times we had in the church basement. I knew that Joy was like happiness, only better. I knew that “divine” referred to God and Heaven, and Holy things. But I also knew that leaning was frowned upon– I was told to stand up straight, sit up straight, and never lean back on the two hind legs of the chair in class. How could there by fellowship, and divine joy in leaning? And what were the Everlasting Arms?

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As I have lived, I have grown to understand and cherish these words. There IS a fellowship and a joy divine in learning to lean on the Everlasting Arms of Jesus; to experience the strength and peace that passes my own understanding when I trust fully in Him, instead of in my own plans, whims, dreams, or wishes. There is no shame in leaning on God– in fact, if we don’t learn to lean on the solid wisdom and faithfulness of God, we will slouch into bad habits, “fall” into false teaching, or simply collapse in our own limitations and weaknesses, much like a chair leaning on just two legs! And this fellowship is not only with my Creator, Sustainer, and Savior; it is with all the brothers and sisters around the world who have learned to trust Him, too. I can travel to foreign countries, with different languages and customs, and still feel the kinship and “belonging” with other Christians. It is deeper and more mysterious than just the recognition that we are fellow human beings. It goes even deeper than the love for others who are loved by God. It is the recognition that God’s Holy Spirit surrounds us, flows in and through us, strengthens us, and unites us IN HIM. We are fellow travelers; fellow workers; fellow members of a universal family– one that is more inclusive than nationality, race, ethnicity, language, ideology, or denomination. We can (and do) lean on the ONE who is eternally trustworthy, eternally faithful to walk beside us, empower us, comfort and heal us, and lead us home. And we can lean on each other, knowing that our mutual strength comes from Him.

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I love worship services, and I’m thankful that we have an active church where people worship; where the Bible is taught and revered; where families and individuals are welcomed and loved. But I sometimes miss the old “prayer meetings” in the church where I grew up. Every Wednesday night, while the children were (supposedly quietly) playing games, singing songs, and listening to the great stories of the Bible, a faithful (and sometimes rag-tag) group of adults were upstairs in a huddle. Some pulled up chairs and sat in a circle; others knelt the whole time. They prayed for nearly an hour–prayers of thanksgiving and prayers of urgent needs; prayers expressing worship, and prayers expressing inadequacies and failures; prayers for the children downstairs, for other members of the church family; prayers for the community, the country, and the world. As I became a teenager and a young adult, I was privileged to join in. I watched wise, older men and women express their confidence in God’s provision, and pour out their hearts for their children and grandchildren. I listened to young adults asking for wisdom and guidance as they raised families and witnessed to co-workers. I felt the joy and grief and true “fellowship” that came when several hearts turned as one to God.

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I have since attended many “prayer meetings”– some planned, some spur-of-the-moment; some held in churches; others held in homes or dorm rooms, even on street corners or grocery stores; some lasting only a few minutes; others lasting hours. I was thrilled to be able to attend a “prayer meeting” again this past week. There is something mystical about communal prayer– listening and sharing in prayer with others. The prayers of God’s people are compared to incense– and communal prayer is like a delicately-balanced blend of fragrances, infusing very the room with blessing, and even a touch of Glory. (For more about how prayer is likened to incense, see https://the-end-time.org/2017/06/13/how-is-incense-like-prayer/) It is yet another miracle of the power of prayer, that we can combine hearts and voices to honor God; to lift up very human concerns to the One powerful enough to hold each one in the palm of His hand. It should not replace personal prayer and Bible Study, or communal worship services, but it is a wonderful practice for any Christian to “come alongside” in prayer with fellow believers. It is also humbling to think about how such a seemingly small act can have far-reaching consequences.

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God “inhabits” the praises of His people (Psalm 22:3). When we show up and participate in communal worship and prayer, we get a greater sense of God’s presence, His power, His Glory, His Love, and His eternal purpose. What a Fellowship! What a Joy, Divine!

Holy, Majestic, Awesome God!

5-9 So don’t lose a minute in building on what you’ve been given, complementing your basic faith with good character, spiritual understanding, alert discipline, passionate patience, reverent wonder, warm friendliness, and generous love, each dimension fitting into and developing the others. With these qualities active and growing in your lives, no grass will grow under your feet, no day will pass without its reward as you mature in your experience of our Master Jesus. Without these qualities you can’t see what’s right before you, oblivious that your old sinful life has been wiped off the books.

2 Peter 1:5-9 (The Message) (emphasis added)
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I think one of the hallmarks of a Christian is not knowledge about God, but personal experience of God. And one of the signs of such experience is a reverent wonder– an overwhelming AWE– of God. Of who He is and how He works, what He has done, and what He has promised to do. As we grow in faith, good character, understanding, discipline, and patience, we are ready to absorb the absolute WONDER of this majestic, mighty, amazing God we serve. We revel in our own personal experience of Salvation, but we also begin to see the magnitude of God’s Grace, His Power, His Wisdom and His Holiness.

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Many of the ancient prophets tried to describe their encounters with God’s presence. Daniel and the Apostle John were paralyzed and prostrate when visited by angels. Paul was blinded by the light. Moses’ face had to be covered after being in God’s presence. because his face was so radiant. Isaiah was struck dumb. The list goes on… We may not experience the presence of angels or receive prophecies like they did, but we can experience a sense of ecstasy in contemplating our marvelous Lord and Savior.

One prophet who had such an experience was Habakkuk. Habakkuk lived in perilous and evil times. His nation was in rebellion toward God’s law, and its citizens, from the leaders and priests to the farmers and townspeople, were paying lip-service to God while prostrating themselves to foreign gods and foreign countries. The leaders lived in splendor, while many of their own people starved, or were sold into slavery. Habakkuk, in frustration, prayed to God, pleading for relief from evil, and judgment for the righteous. He had faith, was of good character, understood the law, had developed discipline, and had a passionate patience– but his patience was mixed with frustration. “How long must I wait to see justice and reform?” “How long will my people keep seeking help from wicked foreigners?” “When will we be free of oppression?”

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Habakkuk was not just whining. He had a heart for his own people, and wanted to see what God would do. God’s answer was not what Habakkuk was expecting. God promised justice and redemption– but only after invasion, more oppression, and exile! God was sending a vast and merciless army to crush not only His own people, but all the wicked nations in whom they had placed their trust. God was going to “pull the rug out” from under the entire region. But then, He would punish the invaders, wiping out their power and restoring His people to their own land.

What was Habakkuk’s reaction to such news? At first, he was stunned; then confused. But in a very short time, his horror turned to worship. He resolved to stand at his watch; to station himself on the ramparts to see God at work. And as he waited, his perspective changed. God DID see the injustice and wickedness; the violence, lies, and betrayal. God had a plan– a plan so much grander and glorious in scope– a plan that had been in place from long before Habakkuk was born; long before his complaint. It was a plan that would not leave wickedness unpunished, but would bring justice in its proper time, and allow for redemption, restoration and renewal.

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Habakkuk’s prayer (chapter 3) is a marvel of praise and worship:
“His glory covered the heavens, and his praise filled the earth. His splendor was like the sunrise; rays flashed from his hand where his power was hidden…” (v. 3b-4)
“You split the earth with rivers; the mountains saw you and writhed. Torrents of water swept by; the deep roared and lifted its waves on high. Sun and moon stood still in the heavens at the glint of your flying arrows, at the lightning of your flashing spear… (v.9b-11)
“I heard and my heart pounded; my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled. Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us. Though the fig tree does not bud, and there are no grapes on the vines; though the olive crop fails, and the fields produce no food; though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord. I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he enables me to go on the heights.” (v. 16-19a NIV)

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How often does my heart pound and my lips quiver as I contemplate our Awesome God? How often am I joyful in God my Savior– especially in the midst of expected hardship and continuing evil around me? How often do I limit my sight to what is immediately before my eyes, instead of looking up at the one who holds every moment of the past and future; who controls the vastness of millions of galaxies, yet also sees each individual hair on 7 billions human heads, knows every grain of sand in the desert, and every drop of water in all the oceans; who tracks every molecule in the universe, but knows me by name?!

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May today be a day filled with reverent wonder, as we consider the Holy, Majestic, and Awesome God who has the power to redeem, inspire, and strengthen us for whatever lies ahead.

“Idol” Thoughts…

I was in an odd mood the other day, and I started thinking about “Christian” Book Stores. There used to be several bookstores in the area that were “Christian” book stores. They sold Bibles, Bible study guides, devotional guides, prayer journals, hymnals and song books, contemporary Christian CDs, Christian DVDs, and all sorts of “Christian” gift items– tee shirts, wall hangings, jewelry, even candles! If it looked, sounded, felt, or even tasted “Christian” you could probably find it there.

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Many of these stores are now out of business. And it made me sad at first, but I think it’s worth a little analysis:

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  • Maybe the most obvious reason why any store or set of stores goes out of business is the law of supply and demand. As more and more Christian book stores popped up, they filled the market with more and more “stuff.” Every store had Bibles and books, but the demand was for “stuff.” Bracelets and CDs, Mother’s Day gifts, Christmas- and Easter-themes decorations…Bibles were relegated to the back of the store on a couple of shelves. And most of the stores ended up with the same “stuff” as the other stores– the same candles and t-shirts and throw-pillows and coffee mugs with the same “Christian” sayings. Other store chains caught on– you could buy the same coffee mug or DVD at Hobby Lobby, or Walmart– at half the price! And, of course, with e-publishing, streaming services and Spotify, etc., books, DVDs and CDs are almost a thing of the past, anyway. Years of buying “stuff” has resulted in families who can’t even give away all their “precious” used art and decorative items from 20 years ago. The demand just isn’t there.
  • More subtle is the psychology of the “Christian” Book store patron. Buying mugs and key chains and bracelets at a “Christian” book store is a form of virtue signaling. Buying a t-shirt with a provocative Christian message can make you feel like you’re witnessing for Christ– without actually having to engage in conversation or develop a relationship with anyone! That feels great for awhile, but the reality is that feelings and virtue signals change. It’s not trendy to wear WWJD bracelets anymore– it’s not even trendy to be a “Christian” anymore–much better to be an open-minded, accepting, and loving “Christ follower.” “Christian” has a bad connotation these days– judgmental, narrow-minded, and hateful. People who used to proudly stroll the aisles of Christian book stores are now full of disclaimers about their church affiliations.
  • More subtle still is the psychology of the “Christian” Book Store itself. There really is no such thing as a “Christian” book. There are books written by Christians, and about Christians, and for Christians, but a book is an inanimate object. It cannot be a “Christian” or a “Christ Follower,” or a “Believer.” The same is true about any of the other products sold at any store. There are no “Christian” pot holders or hand lotion sets or wall art. A store catering to a “Christian” audience must not expect to be wildly popular in a secular world. We don’t see a trending wave of Buddhist book stores or Muslim book stores, or book stores specializing in Wiccan coffee mugs– though we may see such trends come and go in the future.
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What makes me saddest about the disappearance of the “Christian” Book stores is not that there are fewer cool t-shirts to consider buying, or that I have to travel farther to find a bookstore with a great “Christian” Sci-fi section, or a larger selection of devotionals. It is that, on some level, my “Faith” became an idol. I filled my bookshelf with “good” books, while neglecting to read the most important book of all. I spent time browsing aisles of great music, but less time singing from my own heart. I spent money on items that proclaimed my Faith, but spent less time and energy living it out.

There is nothing “wrong” or sinful about “Christian” Book Stores. I am very grateful to live in a country where I can freely shop for Bibles, and even a couple of throw pillows that remind me how much God loves me. I love that I can wear cross necklaces, or listen to wonderful songs about Christ without facing imprisonment or torture. But I want to be careful not to take for granted a culture that makes following Christ easy. I don’t want to worship the “Christian” culture and not the Christ it claims to love.

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One of the first items I remember not being able to find in the “Christian” Book Stores was a prayer journal. Oh, they had several leather-bound journals where you could write notes, or ones that had “prayer prompts” written on gilt-edged pages. But I wanted one like the one I had found years before– it had pages with information on various people groups around the world as prayer prompts, and space to list names and even answers to prayer. I have since created my own notebook-style prayer journal that tries to replicate that older one.

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And perhaps that is a good thing. “Christian” books promise a lot–journals that prompt us to pray; devotionals that basically do the “worship” for us; even Bibles that speak to us in comfortable language, so we don’t struggle with unfamiliar words. But ease and comfort do not produce growth. “Christian” book stores do not necessarily produce strong Christians, either. Only Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit, can do that. Christian Book Stores can be a valuable tool, or an idol.

The Power of “Thank You”

It happened that as he made his way toward Jerusalem, he crossed over the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten men, all lepers, met him. They kept their distance but raised their voices, calling out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Taking a good look at them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.”They went, and while still on their way, became clean. One of them, when he realized that he was healed, turned around and came back, shouting his gratitude, glorifying God. He kneeled at Jesus’ feet, so grateful. He couldn’t thank him enough—and he was a Samaritan. Jesus said, “Were not ten healed? Where are the nine? Can none be found to come back and give glory to God except this outsider?” Then he said to him, “Get up. On your way. Your faith has healed and saved you.”

Luke 17:11-19 (The Message)

Have you ever been thanked for doing your job? I don’t mean praised or tipped or even promoted…have you ever had someone look you in the eye and thank you for a job you did? Not because they had to, or because it was expected–not because they were trying to flatter you– but because they were genuinely grateful? It is a powerful, humbling, and even startling experience. I can count in the fingers of both hands the number of times I have been genuinely and personally thanked for things I did in the course of various jobs. Such expressions have come from unexpected sources, and have made lasting impressions.

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Our culture has been one of polite gratitude– I grew up being reminded to thank salespeople, waitresses, bellhops, bank tellers, gas pump attendants (yes, I’m THAT old!), ushers, and anyone who held a door, or provided a small service. We’ve lost a lot of that– we EXPECT good service (some of us expect even more than that, and are more prone to complain if we don’t get it. And, in the age of self-service and entitlement culture, we are less likely to receive the kind of good service I remember as a child. The end result is a lot of complaining and resentment. But even good manners is not the same as genuine, heart-felt gratitude. Someone can say all the right words and still leave you feeling drained and even hurt. Someone can leave a huge tip after being beastly–you still remember the abuse. And someone can be grateful, but leave you unsure if they even noticed your effort.

The Gospel of Luke tells a story that illustrates this well. Jesus, while traveling through the region between Galilee and Samaria, comes to a village with ten lepers. Keeping their distance, but wanting to catch Jesus’s attention, they shout out and ask for a miraculous and merciful healing. Jesus takes pity on them. He doesn’t shun them, but He doesn’t make a big fuss, either. He simply sends them on their way to show themselves to the local priest and be declared healed. It is after they leave that they realize they are indeed clean! Nine if the men continue on, grateful (we assume) and overjoyed. But one man makes the decision to turn around and thank Jesus face-to-face. He shouts and glorifies God and thanks Jesus repeatedly. And he was a Samaritan–an outsider; a rogue Jew–the type of person who wouldn’t be expected to show “good manners” to a Jewish teacher. Jesus points out to His disciples that there were ten men who were healed, and only one who came back to show his gratitude. He then speaks directly to the healed man, and assures him that his faith has both healed him and saved him.

This story does not go on to tell us whether or not the ten men offered the “appropriate” thank offerings that were set up in the Laws of Moses. It does not mention whether or not these men spoke of their healing or their gratitude among their friends and neighbors. We should not assume that the nine others were ungrateful in any way. Yet Jesus calls attention to the tenth man. Not because he was more important than the others, or felt more gratitude than the others, but because he took the effort to show it in person. It didn’t cost him any money or a lot of extra time, but it made an eternal impression that was recorded for us to learn from centuries later.

What a small thing, to say “thank you” for a helping hand, or friendly advice, or good service. It doesn’t require a costly demonstration, or empty flattery. Just a simple, direct, and heart-felt expression of gratitude. But what a powerful gesture. One so powerful, even Jesus was moved to stop and comment on it. Think how much good we could do if we took the extra moment to say, “thank you” to someone today? Think how much we have to be thankful for!

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Heavenly Father, THANK YOU for all that You do and have done; for all that You ARE! Thank you for those who do good, who show kindness, and who give their time and effort in service. May we be truly grateful, and quick to show our gratitude today. Amen.

Proclaim Liberty to the Captives

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed…”

Luke 4:18 (ESV)
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Yesterday, we observed a holiday, relatively “new” on the national scale, of “Juneteenth.” Many people across the United States (and elsewhere) still don’t know the meaning behind this day. On the nineteenth of June, 1865, federal soldiers entered the city of Galveston, Texas, with news of the Emancipation Proclamation and the victory of the Union over the Confederate Army in the Civil War. The Emancipation Proclamation, in which President Abraham Lincoln declared freedom for all slaves throughout the Confederate States, had been signed on January 1, 1863. The war had been over for more than two months. President Lincoln had been assassinated in April. But news of the proclamation had never reached as far as Galveston; nor had news of the defeat of the Confederacy. Far from the ravages of the war, and far from the events of Washington or Richmond, the people of Galveston continued with life as it had been. For two-and-a-half years, people who had been declared free continued to live as slaves. News of their freedom came with shock and joy! Finally, those who were considered free in the eyes of the law KNEW they were free, indeed!

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It would take more than 100 years for many of the injustices to be addressed that had grown up around slavery. Many of them are still being contested. But the celebration of the good news of Freedom continues, along with the hope that we will continue to build a better Union for All.

Civil Rights activist Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gesturing during sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church. (Photo by Donald Uhrbrock//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Several centuries before the American Civil War, Jesus stood in the synagogue and read a prophetic passage from the book of Isaiah, in which He declared that He had been anointed to proclaim, among other things, “liberty for the captives.” He wasn’t talking about those who were in physical or institutionalized slavery, but for all of us who are slaves to sin. Unlike the slaves of Galveston, many of us are unaware of our captivity. But like them, we have been declared Free. What good news! Yet, we continue living in ignorance, both of our slavery, and of our potential freedom.

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How many of us, even those of us who claim the Salvation of Christ, continue to live as though we are slaves? How many of those around us live as slaves without knowing they can be free? Today is a great day to proclaim the Good News– Jesus Saves! We can walk in Freedom and Newness of Life! Hallelujah! Carry the Good News to those who have not heard. Proclaim Freedom to the captives, and Liberty for those who are oppressed.

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Juneteenth is a time of celebration and exhilaration– for those who understand the gift of freedom. God offers us freedom–not from the trials or work of ordinary life– but freedom TO LIVE–abundantly, eternally, and fruitfully! In Christ, life has purpose, promise, hope, and joy. Death and sin and shame have been defeated– the war is over! Freedom is ours!

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I hope that today (and every day!)is a day of celebration for all of us who know the Freedom of Life in Christ.

Looking For God In the Storm

On Monday night, several strong storms moved through our area. There were also severe storms in other places, like Mexico City, and around Manila– high winds, heavy rains, hail, and flash flooding. Our town did not see much damage, but some nearby towns had many trees down and power outages, followed by near record-high heat.

Often when storms come, we question– “Where is God?” Doesn’t He see our suffering? Why does He allow it? We look for evidence of God’s goodness in spite of the storms in our life. We may even look for evidence of God’s goodness in the aftermath of a storm– “Well, it could’ve been worse..” But in the past couple days, I have seen evidence of people finding God IN the storm. At least a couple of friends were watching the storm approach and/or pass by, and they were able to capture a picture showing lightning striking through a rainbow!! Others have pictures of a glorious red sunset. Both pictures remind us of God’s faithfulness and His promises. God never promised that we would never see storms, but His rainbow reminds us that He will have mercy. A red sunset also speaks to sailors and farmers of better weather to come with a new dawn. God is not absent, waiting to speak after the storm is past. He is right there in the middle of the storm for those who are looking.

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Another thing I noticed is that several people have become evidence of God’s care in, through, and in the aftermath of the storms. Several people have volunteered to help clean up downed trees, or offered to provide food and water, or even (air-conditioned) shelter for those without power. Many such people have suffered some damage themselves. But their hearts are open to help their neighbors in their time of need.

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I don’t recommend that we put ourselves in grave peril to see signs in the raging storms, nor am I trying to shame those who cannot volunteer to help in times of crisis. When storms come, it is wise to take shelter and TRUST that God sees us, knows our greatest needs, and will not leave us without hope. But it is also a great time to look for ways we can both SEE God and SERVE others.

Praying can help us in both ways. We should seek to praise God at all times–even in times of storms and trials. Instead of focusing only on the problems we face, we can be reminded of all the times God has been faithful in the past and remember all the promises He has kept! Instead of focusing on our own losses or pains, we can focus on praying for the needs of others and praying for wisdom in how to be helpful and encouraging. Because God is with us. Always!

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The same mighty power that brings the storm is available to withstand it. God IS present IN the storm, just as He is present before and after. Sometimes, we ignore Him during times of ease and comfort. Sometimes we miss His voice in the raging wind and pounding hail. Sometimes, like Jesus’ disciples, we forget that God controls the winds and waves, and we let fear get the better of us for awhile. We wonder if God is “asleep on the job.” (See Mark 4:35-40) But a single word is enough to calm whatever storm is raging around us.

What a powerful God! What an encouraging reminder.

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