Take My Life..

We have entered the Lenten season, and many of us have made plans to “give up” something for the 40 days leading up to Easter–chocolate, or certain meats, or a certain habit. It is traditional to use this time leading up to Holy Week to focus on preparing our hearts to receive the Gift of salvation that comes from Christ’s resurrection on Easter.

But, in a larger sense, there is nothing we can do to prepare for Grace– it is completely unmerited favor. My willingness to deny my sweet tooth for six weeks cannot make me ready for God to allow His wrath to fall on His Holy Son, so that I can be declared righteous for all eternity. It is no more than a gesture.

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God is not impressed by our Lenten traditions. This doesn’t mean that we should not make the gesture; it doesn’t mean that we cannot grow closer to God by such observances. But we must not place too much reliance on them. Jesus Christ is the Author and Finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). He gave up far more than we can imagine in order to rescue us from all that we deserve. Jesus not only gave up His human life on the Cross, He gave up His throne, His status, His omnipresence, and His omnipotence. He allowed Himself to be subject to human authorities, and He served those He had created.

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Jesus didn’t just “give up” something on His way to the Cross. He offered everything He was! May we seek to do the same. May we pray, along with Jesus in the Garden, “..not my will, but Yours be done..” (Luke 22:42)

Fast Forward

I’ve written dozens of blog posts about prayer, and very little about fasting. Fasting is a practice that is often coupled with prayer, but fasting rarely appears in my blog.

There are several reasons for this. I don’t make a practice of dedicated fasting, so I don’t feel comfortable writing about something I don’t know well. or practice often. I also don’t want to give fasting equal time or importance, because I feel it can become a substitute or even an obstacle to prayer if done for the wrong reasons.

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The Lenten season is fast approaching, and it is a time when many people choose to fast, so I am stepping out of my comfort zone a little to give more time and effort to fasting (and discussing it here). Here are a few things I have found:

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  • While we often think of fasting as going without food or water (or both), there are actually many kinds of fasting. Fasting simply means that we do without or set aside something as an act of obedience, reverence, contrition, or worship. Fasting should be done with the goal of getting closer to God, increasing our focus and our dependence on Him. When we fast, we are creating a “space” of dependence– separating ourselves from one thing to be available for another thing– namely prayer and worship. It isn’t about not eating, so much as not allowing food and drink (or other things) to call us away from time with God.
  • Fasting is Biblical. It was practiced by Biblical figures from Moses to King David, Ezra, Daniel, Nehemiah, Esther, and the entire nation of Israel! Jesus fasted and members of the early church practiced fasting as well. Fasting is encouraged, but not required. It is never prohibited, but there are several biblical warnings about improper fasting (see below).
  • For an excellent discussion (by people who have studied longer and know far more than I do), see: https://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-study/topical-studies/what-exactly-is-fasting-all-about.html or any number of other excellent blogs and websites, many of which are linked in the site I’ve listed.
  • Fasting is NOT meant to be an end in itself. There are many people who use fasting as a diet plan, or as an exercise in self-control. This is NOT biblical fasting. Whatever you are “setting aside” in your fast should be “filled” with prayer, meditation, and worship, and that should always be your focus. If you have health issues, a history of eating disorders or obsessive behavior, you should be very careful about fasting. Consider seeking advice or an accountability partner to help you remained focused on the real goals.
  • Fasting will not make you more righteous, or better than someone else who does not practice fasting. In fact, Jesus warned that when we fast, we should not do anything to call attention to the fact– no moaning or sighing, etc. Fasting isn’t about impressing others with our religious devotion. God knows our actions, but He also knows our heart.
  • Fasting is a commitment, and should not be taken lightly. If you decide to do a fast, and you’ve never done one, it’s best to start small and complete it, than to jump in headfirst and fail to keep your commitment. Not because God will be angry or disgusted– remember that God LOVES you and wants you to desire a closer relationship. But God wants each of us to grow to maturity. God will give us grace to do what He asks us to do; but He won’t honor our efforts to “outdo” Him.
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In taking a closer look at fasting, I am encouraged to do it more often. I have done short fasts, food fasts, and fasting from activities, and I can say that such practices often have surprising results. If you are planning to do any kind of fast for Lent, I pray that you will find it brings you closer to God and helps you in your own pursuit of prayer.

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Celebrate Life

My husband has celebrated his birthday this week, and it reminded me of some of the many ways we celebrate life. Before a baby is even born, we share special moments of excitement–sonograms, gender reveal parties, baby showers, picking out names, feeling little “kicks” and movements in the womb. We give gifts and blessings when the baby arrives. We take baby photos and commemorate all the “firsts”– first tooth, first steps, first words, etc. And each year, we remember. We send cards and other birthday greetings; we give gifts and have parties with special cakes and songs and party hats. We invite others to celebrate, as well.

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Not everyone celebrates birthdays, and some people make a mockery of their advancing age, but most of us think birthdays are a big deal, and worth celebrating. LIFE is a big deal. Life is a sacred gift, and we should cherish every moment of it. We celebrate the events of life– achievements, milestones, graduations, new jobs, promotions, relocations, marriages, anniversaries, retirements, and much more. Celebrating life is an industry– cards, balloons, T-shirts, reception halls, catering, special clothing (wedding dresses, tuxes, caps and gowns, etc.), special foods, party favors, confetti, gift items– we spend a lot of time, energy, money, and even “life” celebrating our lives.

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And we also celebrate life at its end. Even as we grieve the loss of loved ones, we seek to memorialize their lives. We hold funerals, publish obituaries and memorials, erect tombstones, build monuments, and write tributes and biographies. We celebrate the achievements, memories, and legacies of those who pass on. Their lives mattered. They don’t cease to matter when death comes. For the Christian, there is a special reason to celebrate the end of life– because it is NOT the end! Imagine the celebration of Life that will never end–the celebration of eternity with the Author, Giver, Redeemer, and Sustainer of Life!

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Many people have wished my husband an happy birthday this week, and they’ve offered prayers and good wishes. Today, I will be praying for many people who are celebrating a birthday. I will offer up a thanksgiving for their life, and celebrate the One who created each unique person on today’s list.

We’re going through a journey that has focused on worldwide death– fear of death and disease, despair, anger, desperation, and hopelessness. We shouldn’t ignore the reality of death around us, but we mustn’t let it overwhelm the life that is within us. Life is worth celebrating–ALWAYS!

My Eyes Have Seen Your Salvation!

Tomorrow marks the Christian observation of Candlemas, or Presentation Day. The Gospel of Luke (Luke 2:21-40) recounts the presentation of the infant Jesus at the temple. This was a purification ritual, and it involved bringing a small sacrifice (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Leviticus%2012&version=ESV) Luke records the sacrifice as “a pair of doves,” underscoring that Joseph and Mary were unable to afford a lamb for the sacrifice. Kind of ironic, given that Jesus was the “Lamb of God.”

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This would normally have been a quiet ceremony. The sacrifice would be offered. The priest might say a few words of blessing and purification for Mary, and spoken of the traditions of Israel and the redemption of the firstborn son. There might have been a few other “new” parents coming to the temple that day– or not. The priest would have gone through the motions and left the new parents to attend to his other duties of the day.

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But on this occasion, Mary and Joseph were surprised by an elderly gentleman, who came up to them and took their son in his arms as he praised God in song:


“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
now dismiss your servant in peace ,
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all people,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for the glory of your people Israel.”

Luke 2:29-32 (NIV)
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We know nothing about Simeon, other than what Luke tells us– He was a man from Jerusalem, devout and religious, who was waiting for the Messiah to be born. He had been told that he would not die before the Messiah appeared, and he had been led by the Holy Spirit to go to the temple on that day.After his song of praise, Simeon blessed Jesus’ parents and spoke prophetic words. Not comforting words about glory and redemption, but rather words of truth and warning.

After the surprising visit from Simeon, Joseph and Mary had another encounter; this time an old prophetess named Anna. Anna was a widow living in the temple, worshiping, praying, and fasting there daily. As soon as she saw the small family, she approached and she too offered blessings, praises, and prophetic words.

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Simeon and Anna weren’t the only other people in the temple courts that day. They weren’t high-ranking church officials or priests. But they were the only ones who recognized in this tiny child the wonder and majesty of God Almighty, and His Messiah.

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It was an ordinary day; an ordinary Jewish custom; an ordinary occasion. It went largely ignored by most. But for Simeon and Anna (and for the gospel writer Luke) it was a revelation.

I don’t expect Candlemas 2021 to be as momentous as that first presentation day. But I hope that we will have eyes and hearts like Simeon and Anna– ready to see the Salvation of the Lord, to recognize it right before our eyes in a hundred seemingly ordinary moments. May we be ready to step forward in praise and share the glory and wonder with others around us.

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Blessings Come Down…

I’ve been reading through the books of Genesis lately, and I was struck anew by the story of the Flood. God caused it to rain for 40 days and 40 nights, and the floods raged for 150 days (See Genesis 7). But the description of the flood does not focus only on rain– instead, it talks about God opening the “springs of the great deep and the floodgates of Heaven” (v. 11).

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There are some who argue that before this time, there had been no rain on the earth (see Genesis 2: 5-6). The Bible is not clear whether there was rain after Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, but it appears that rain was unnecessary in the wonderful Garden itself. God had provided rivers and springs to provide water, and there were mists that rose and settled. If this was still so in Noah’s time, then the falling rain would have been terrifying in itself. Things that fall from the sky can inspire both fear and praise.

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Rain is generally considered a blessing–we need rain in its season, in showers of good quantity, to water crops, provide nourishment for trees and soil, and to replenish springs, pools, lakes, etc. And rain is part of the water cycle…moisture evaporates and rises (like the mists of old) into clouds, where it is held in storage until it rains back down to the earth. Water is a resource, but it is meant to be replenished, renewed, and reused. “New” water is not created, so much as recovered from steam or taken from its current source.

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Not so with God’s blessings and His mercies. They are “new every morning.” (Lamentations 3:22-23) He sends them down like rain or snow, letting them fall in refreshing showers, reminding us that even when we are separated from God, He still loves us, watches over us, and delights to lavish His gifts on us.

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In return, we send up praise. The prayers go up, and the blessings come down. Which reminds me of a song we used to sing in Sunday School.

http://childbiblesongs.com/song-21-wise-man-built-his-house.shtml

God sends rain–God sends blessings. Whether we feel blessed often depends on where WE are. Are we safe in the Ark? In a house built on the solid rock of faith and dependence? Or are we living in perilous ignorance of God’s power to save and sustain us?

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And God Saw That It Was Good…

Throughout the story of Creation, a certain phrase gets repeated– “And God saw that it was good..” God’s purpose and will are always to see the good. At the end of the creation process, God saw that it was “very good.” He placed mankind in a garden filled with goodness, peace, safety, plenty, and promise– a garden filled only with Good.

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The one tree that was forbidden to mankind was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good AND Evil. Humans chose to know and see and experience evil in an effort to be “like God.” We still recognize Good; but now we are surrounded by evil– lies, greed, hatred, selfishness, bitterness, addictions, compulsions, disease, destruction, and death. We cannot go back to the beginning. We cannot just close our eyes and deny, ignore, or excuse evil in our midst. And we cannot control the consequences of our evil choices. We cannot stop death or reshape the past.

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But we must make the choice to look for the Good– to look to the author and creator of all that is good, and true, and noble, and holy. It can be very difficult to do. The voices of this world will continuously call out all that is bad– all our past hurts and present difficulties; all our guilt and shame; everything that is ugly, diseased, unjust, lop-sided, dying, and ruined. And our knowledge of good AND evil will tempt us to justify evil means to “good” ends…

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God, who sees the end from the beginning, has looked through time and space, and pronounced His creation “Very Good.” God who redeems and resurrects, renews and transforms, has promised to make all things new in His time. God not only has the knowledge of Good and Evil– He has the power over both. Our efforts to find Good on our own will end in heartache, failure, guilt, and shame. God knows we cannot redeem our own actions, let alone the legacy of evil we’ve inherited from the past. But the Good News is that He has done it for us! Just as He saw that everything was “Good” in the Garden of Eden, He sees the end result of His redemption– and it is “Very Good.” We don’t have to keep trying and failing to achieve what only God can do. We DO have to trust in God’s ability and His willingness to keep His promises!

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Through prayer, we carry all that is wrong to the One who can make it all “right.” And, through prayer, we praise God for all the Good– the good that God has created in the past; the good that we choose to see in the present; and the good He has promised that we cannot yet see.

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Chasing Epiphany

Today marks Epiphany– the day traditionally celebrating the arrival of the Magi to see the Baby Jesus. (Matthew 2:1-12) The Bible does not give us many details about the Wise Men. We don’t know if there were three or thirty. We don’t know if they all came from the same region, or if they came from many different nations and regions and met up along the journey. We only know that they had studied the skies; having seen a new and very bright star (or comet or conjunction of stars), they plotted its course across the sky and “followed” it to Israel– first to Jerusalem, and then to Bethlehem. They brought gifts fit for the king they expected to meet.

What a surprise it must have been for them to reach Jerusalem. After many days (weeks? months?) of travel, they arrived, only to be met with shock and confusion by the leaders and wise men of Israel. Hundreds of prophesies pointed to the birth of Messiah, yet the Jewish leaders were oblivious to His arrival, almost under their very noses! They were not ignorant of the prophesies– they “knew” that Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Yet, they showed no interest in traveling with the other wise men to meet their own redeemer. Instead, they sent the foreigners to pay homage, while they plotted in Jerusalem to help Herod kill hundreds of innocent infants. These are the same priests, prophets, and wise men who had been studying, praying for, and waiting for the arrival of Messiah for hundreds of years. How could they have missed it?!

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Epiphany is not just the name for this day of the Kings with their three gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh– it is a word that tells of a sudden realization or understanding of the essence of a truth. But how often do we chase an epiphany–pray for answers, or memorize scripture–only to miss the point? How often are we focused on the pages of history, or our computer screens, only to miss the wondrous star in the sky? Are we, like the Jewish leaders of their age, missing the Epiphany?

God is ready to show us the miracle of His Mercy, the sufficiency of His Grace, and the depths of His great Love– are we chasing an Epiphany that is right under our noses? Let’s be ready to look up, to follow the star, and to be amazed!

Out of Time

We’ve said Goodbye to 2020–in another 365 days we will have finished the year 2021. At some point, it will “run out” of its designated time. We live in a world limited by time and space.

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But God lives outside of time and space– He rules them, bends them, and contains them in His sovereignty. I often write about the omnipresence of God– that He is everywhere. In fact, the only place He is NOT is Hell; and He’s even visited there, once… But God is also omnipresent in time. He IS the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob– always, and all at once, along with being the God of everyone who has ever called and will ever call upon His name to put their trust in Him. God IS in the past; He is ever present, and He is already in the future, acting and overseeing His plans and purposes.

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With the birth of Jesus Christ, God did not step out of time– instead, He inserted Himself into time and space and obeyed the limits He Himself had placed. He came exactly when He had determined, exactly where, and exactly how He had planned. And the same is true of His death and resurrection. His death on the cross was not a moment too soon, and not a single second overdue. Yet, Jesus was at the mercy of the very time and space He had created. Just like us, He was limited to being in one place at a time, and limited to the circumstances around Him.

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Nothing shows this better than the story of Lazarus (John 11). A close friend of Jesus, Lazarus became mortally ill. Word was sent to Jesus so He could come immediately and heal Lazarus, but He delayed in coming. He delayed for two days, continuing to work where He was before going to help friend. He knew that Lazarus would not survive. By the time He arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had not only died, but had been buried. Both of Lazarus’s sisters greeted Jesus with the same rebuke–” If you had been here, my brother would not have died…” The God who is everywhere, always, was limited by His physical form, and had to walk to Bethany. He could not continue to work in one area, and be in Bethany at the same time. Nor could He stop time and space so the Lazarus’s sickness could “wait” for Jesus’s arrival days later. But the Sovereign, Omnipresent God had not “run out of time” to save His friend. Even in His human form, in His “inability” to get to Bethany “in time,” Jesus was acting according to His Sovereign plan. He brought Lazarus out of the grave! He was “there” in all of His power and mercy. And He was precisely where and when He needed to be!

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As we enter a new year, it comes with limitations–12 months, 52 weeks, 365 days, and so on–we can’t see what will happen, or where we will be in March or September. It may seem that God is “late,” or “absent” in our circumstances. We may be tempted to stop praying when we don’t see immediate answers. We may, like Mary and Martha, be tempted to scold the very author of Life when we don’t get the answer we want when we want it.

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This year, let us remember that God is beyond time and space. This allows us to trust that He can and will do what is best, when it is best. It also allows us to trust that God can make the most of OUR time as we trust it to Him. We may be limited to 24 hours a day, but we serve a God who can stretch and bend time, and supplement even our smallest efforts and resources with the endless riches of His Grace!

AMEN!

This year is winding down, and many people are ready to say, “Amen!” It was a difficult year for many, one filled with upheaval, disease, uncertainty, and fear. We are ready to say, “Goodbye, and Good Riddance!”

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But when we pray, and we say, “Amen,” it doesn’t just mean “the end,” or “goodbye”. Amen means, “let it be so” or “so be it.” It doesn’t just mean that we are finished speaking to God for the moment. It means that we are giving God the final word– we are turning over all our thoughts, our requests, our praises, our worries, and our questions to God and leaving them in His capable hands.

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And so it is with the year 2020. We are not sending 2020 on its way, attempting to bury its memories or remove it from history. Even in the pain and uncertainty, there were blessings, and lessons learned this year. But it is time to say, “Amen!” Even so, Lord Jesus, let it be as YOU will. Whatever losses, whatever struggles, whatever blessings we have faced this year, let it be to Your Glory and Honor. And let us accept and even embrace the new year, not just for its difference from the past, but for the plans and purposes You have already put in place. Finally, let us be thankful for the year you have given, and the fact that you have been with us every step of the way, no matter how steep or slippery the road. AMEN!

God is faithful. He is steady, and kind, and good– no matter what temporary circumstances we face. Nothing that happened this past year took our Lord by surprise. Nothing escaped His notice. He did not turn His face away; He did not make a mistake, or forget any of His promises. His timing and His ways may not be the same as ours, but His purposes are eternal and eternally perfect. We can rest in peace and confidence because He is Sovereign and Holy and His mercy endures forever! (see Psalm 136).

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Can I get an AMEN?!

Let’s look forward to 2021, because God is already there, and we can trust that He will be in control.

God and Sinners, Reconciled!

Every year, we celebrate the birth of Emmanuel– God With Us. It is amazing to consider the Love of God that brought Him from His Heavenly throne to a lowly manger stall, the King of Glory contained in the tiny body of a sleepy infant.

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But we should be careful not to miss the rest of the story. As wonderful as it is to think that God would love His creation enough to visit among us, to “taste” life as a human, the story gets gloriously magnified as Jesus leaves the manger to enter a ministry. Jesus didn’t just live among us, He healed, taught, laughed, formed friendships, and served among people– many of whom scoffed, scorned, and rejected Him and His message.

And His message was this: God wants– in fact He passionately yearns– to restore the relationship WE have broken. Jesus didn’t come to “taste” human life– He came to GIVE His life as a sacrifice for those who didn’t deserve it, to extend forgiveness to those who had no right to ask for it. The Holy and Perfect God became the guilt and shame of Sin, so that we could be reconciled to Him. He accepted the penalty of Death, so that we could be given eternal life.

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This miracle of reconciliation can be difficult to understand. I sometimes get “stuck” in the weight of my past–I know that Christ offers forgiveness, but I sometimes act as though the penalty hasn’t been removed; only suspended. But that’s not what Jesus taught. Like a leper cured of leprosy, I am clean–no scars, no stains, no relapse–all traces of my disease removed. In this world, I will still feel the sting of the consequences of Sin– betrayal, sickness, injustice, even death. But death is no longer my destiny; it is a temporary rest stop on my way HOME.

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Jesus didn’t come to “taste” human life; He came to “taste” death– and He came to destroy its power, so that we could know true Life, and live it to the fullest!

Joy! Peace! Reconciliation! Eternity! Emmanuel!

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