Holiday Poison

Yesterday was Thanksgiving across the U.S. Many families enjoyed a large dinner, surrounded by family or friends. Traditionally, this dinner might include turkey (or ham or both!), vegetables and fruits (potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, baked beans, corn, squash or some kind of greens, cranberries or cranberry sauce, apples or fruit salad), dressing, stuffing, rolls, and/or bread, and some dessert, such as pumpkin pie, pumpkin roll, apple pie, or cake. It’s a holiday which focuses heavily on food and eating.

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Because of this, it is also a holiday that carries the risk of food poisoning. Turkey and other meats, if not cooked properly or long enough, can make people sick. So can leftovers that are left out too long or not stored properly after the big meal.

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But there is another kind of poison that can ruin Thanksgiving. It may not make us immediately physically ill, but it is not less dangerous. It is the poison of ingratitude. Like salmonella or other types of bacteria, ingratitude can be invisible. It can hide, waiting to attack without warning, causing everything to have a bitter aftertaste. It may cause violent reactions, such as rage, or lie dormant, causing depression, apathy, or a general dissatisfaction. And just like food poisoning ruining a holiday built around food, ingratitude is a natural problem to have during a time set aside for thankfulness.

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One of the most insidious forms of this holiday poison comes through comparisons–we gather to be near family we love, only to compare ourselves with them. Which one is happier? Wealthier? More popular? More intelligent? Better looking? Is the host’s house nicer than mine (or is my house “good enough”)? Did I work harder? Did my contribution to the meal taste “better”(or was it passed by– again)? Why am I still sitting at “the kids’ table?” The list is endless of the petty grievances that we allow to overwhelm our intentions to be thankful and live in peace. Someone says something to “push our buttons,” or they seem to ignore us completely.

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Another form of holiday poison spreads from person to person–complaining, venting, sounding off, moralizing, criticizing, blaming…what began as a thankful, joyful gathering becomes a snake pit of biting, poisonous talk. And we react. We take the bait, become defensive, get sucked into that political discussion we vowed to avoid, or we revisit old wounds we thought we had put behind us.

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But unlike food poisoning, bitterness and ingratitude are choices. We can’t always choose our circumstances, nor can we choose what others say or do. But we DO choose our reactions and our attitudes. I can blame someone else’s anger or selfishness for my bitterness, but they didn’t MAKE me succumb to their poison. I can compare myself to others and feel arrogant or inept, but no one forces me to live someone else’s life or measure up to their circumstances.

God has given each of us life and breath, and a purpose. Some of His gifts to us are universal and exactly the same for each person. He has given us each 24 hours in each day; He gives sunshine and rain, day and night, and air to breathe. But some of his gifts are unique to each individual. Our response should be to open our unique gifts, so we can enjoy them and use them, NOT waste time coveting someone else’s gift when we have neglected even to open our own.

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I wish I could say that “holiday poison” was easy to avoid– it’s not. It is human nature to grumble and whine and wish for what we do not have. But it IS possible to get healing. It starts with humble confession. We DO wish for what we do not have–and the more we deny and try to bury our failings, the more susceptible we are to the poison they can bring. If we confess our feelings of inadequacy, our desire to have “more” or “better” in life, we can turn to God freely and let Him give us a better perspective. Suddenly, we “see” blessings where we used to see burdens, we can see hope where once there was only grief, and we see opportunities where we only saw obstacles before.

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And God’s power to transform our attitude is just one more wonderful thing to be thankful for!

Do Be Do Be Do…

I was reading the other day, and thinking about how often we read the Bible with preconceived notions. We sometimes think the Bible is a guide that tells us what to do or not to do. But a good portion of the Bible tells us, not what to do, but how to be. Even the Ten Commandments don’t tell us what to do— rather they tell us what we should NOT do.

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God has given each of us free will, and created us with distinct skills and personalities and sets of circumstances. We will not– indeed we cannot– all do the same things. God doesn’t expect it of us. And He does not expect us to earn our salvation by what we do. What He does expect is that we will do those things that bring us closer to Him and closer to the people we were meant to be. His power will take care of the rest.

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We have a tendency to get caught up in what we (and what others around us) are doing; we tend to judge and compare and criticize. Instead, we should concentrate on who and what we are becoming:

  • We want to learn–but do we want to be teachable?
  • We want to make money– but do we want to be generous?
  • We want to build a reputation– but do we want to be honest and reliable?
  • We want to have friends– do we want to be available?
  • We want a family–do we want to be intimately known and knowable?
  • We want freedom–do we want to be responsible?
  • We want justice– do we want to be just?
  • We want happiness–do we want to be content with what we have?
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Jesus didn’t give His disciples a long “to do” list. He didn’t give them detailed lists of things to do. He gave them “Beatitudes”– “Be” “Attitudes”

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:3-12
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Of course, much of who we are and who we become depends on what we do. And it is important to do what is right and honorable, just and compassionate. But it’s the “being” that is the goal, not merely the “doing.” God knows we cannot “do” what it takes to be perfectly righteous in our own power. But He will give us the guidance, the strength, and the encouragement to “become” more like Him as we live out the above attitudes.

I Just Want Them to Be Happy…

..but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Romans 5:3b-5 ESV via biblegateway.com
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I once had to drop out of a thread on social media. (Actually, I’ve had to drop out of a number of threads, but that is neither here nor there…) The thread was about parenting, and priorities. The main thrust was that, as a parent, one’s top priority was to make one’s children “happy.” If your child wanted a particular toy for her/his birthday, you would certainly do whatever you could to get “that” toy. If your child wanted the latest fashion in shoes, you would certainly try to buy them. If your child wanted to be successful, you would do whatever you could to see that he/she got into the “best” schools and had the “best” opportunities in life. And if they wanted to do something of which you disapproved, you would still encourage them to follow their dream– if it would make them happy. Of course, this didn’t include letting your child abuse drugs or become a criminal. But in general, it meant sacrificing and taking a back seat to your child’s emotional well-being.

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On the surface, this seems like good parenting. Of course, I don’t “want” my child to be miserable, or unsuccessful, or “left out.” And I don’t want to impose my dreams and wishes onto my child, or live my life through him/her. I would not wish hardship and suffering to come to anyone, especially those I love. Except…I want them to develop endurance, and character, and hope, and compassion, and wisdom, and humility, and faith. And all these things come from suffering, losing, and learning from difficult experiences.

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I dropped out of the thread for a couple of reasons: I have learned that whenever the subject of parenting comes up, my experience (or lack thereof) makes my opinion “invalid” to those who disagree. “You’ve never had children. You don’t know what it’s like.” But I know what it was like to BE a child, and to have parents. I’ve observed the results of parenting by others, both good and bad. I know that even good parenting can’t guarantee “happy” teenagers! And even “bad” parenting can produce children who break the cycle and become adults of integrity and joy. The other reason I held back was that, in my experience, those who post such threads only want their own opinions confirmed. The people posting on this thread were not “bad” parents–in fact, they probably would agree with me if we had the time to sit down and talk through the issue. But one of the downfalls of social media is that we want short, pithy advice, instead of long and serious discussions. We don’t want nuances; we want comfortable “likes.”

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I don’t want my family members– my step-children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and cousins, etc.–to be defeated by suffering. I don’t want them to be overwhelmed by depression and anxiety. I don’t pray for them to be hurt or frustrated, because “it’s for their own good.” But I do pray that they will learn strength and courage, faith and trust, hope and joy as they overcome struggles, conquer fears, fight life’s battles, and walk in obedience to the One who has won the final victory. I don’t “just” want them to be happy. I want them to find the lasting joy that comes from developing a Godly character. That may bring me to tears when I see them fighting illness and hardship, persecution, depression, and other setbacks. But it also keeps me on my knees and reaching out as they understand that I’m there whether they’re sad, or angry, or hurting– and so is the God who loves them forever!

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Lord, Lord!

21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy by thy name, and by thy name cast out demons, and by thy name do many mighty works? 23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.

Matthew 7:21-23
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In just the past three weeks, three of my family members and one of my friends have made the decision to be baptized as a public declaration of their decision to live for Christ. All of them (and the others who were baptized at the same times) were baptized by immersion, signifying that they have, spiritually, died to self, been buried, and are raised with Christ to eternal life. This is not a step to be taken lightly, and I have confidence that all four (and more) of those I know are serious in their passion to follow the Lord.

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When I write about prayer as a pursuit, I hope to convey that prayer is part of a larger pursuit of seeking God. And seeking God must include acknowledging Him as Lord above all– especially self. Jesus warned about people who claim to follow Him in word, but do not obey Him. It is, unfortunately, very easy to “speak Christian-ese”: to sound righteous and reverent when we are around others who claim to believe, but justify behaviors that may or may not stem from selfish motives.

There are obvious examples of hypocrisy in our world, but in His famous “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus warns that many who seem to be doing good deeds, and “talking the talk” will not be part of God’s eternal kingdom. We are not to be seduced into thinking that God will be impressed by charitable giving, memorizing Scripture, or working on the Mission field if we are not willing to repent of our “secret” sins and false attitudes. And it is not for us to point fingers at “other” hypocrites– it is for us to humbly assess whether or not we are truly acting in obedience and submission to our Lord, or satisfying our own selfish desires and hoping for God’s stamp of approval.

Prayer should be a two-way communication. We pray to God, but we also listen for God’s guidance, wisdom, conviction, and encouragement. And we must act in obedience, and confess our disobedience if we want to “keep the slate clean” and keep a close relationship. When we refuse, we are just giving God lip service, and using His name to impress others and deceive ourselves. Others may judge us on appearances, but God sees what is in our heart. And “in that day” (v. 22), He will not let imposters through the gates of Heaven.

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The Good News is that Jesus doesn’t leave us hanging in verse 23. He goes on to say, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house upon the rock..” (Matthew 7:24) Jesus is our Lord, but also our Savior and our Advocate. When we call on Him AS our true Lord, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins (1 John 1:9), and His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3a)

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The act of Baptism alone does not have the power to save us. The practice of prayer alone has no saving power. But the pursuit of a relationship with Christ depends on such acts of obedience, humility, and trust. And the other good deeds that come from that relationship will not only help others, but will please God and strengthen that relationship. Instead of hearing, “I never knew you,” we can hear, “well done!” Not because of what we’ve done, but because of the partnership we’ve developed in God’s work.

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May God bless all those who have recently taken the step of Baptism. And may we all continue to pursue that relationship of dying to self, being buried with Him, and rising to new life in Christ!

Risky Prayers

When I was a teenager, I read about Solomon and how he prayed for wisdom. God granted his request, and made Solomon the wisest ruler in Israel’s history. He also blessed Solomon with riches and fame, peace, and power. (see 1 Kings, chapter 3) I thought about what I should pray for in my own life– what attribute would I need as I became an adult, a wife, a parent, etc. I prayed for patience.

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When I said that I wanted to pray for patience, several wise and respected adults cautioned me NOT to pray such a prayer! “You know what will happen…God won’t “give” you patience…He’ll bring all kinds of things into you life to “teach” you patience. You never pray for such things. It’s like asking for trouble. Be careful what you pray for.”

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Looking back almost 40 years later, I would have to say that God answered my prayer. And, as I was warned, He allowed things to come into my life to try my patience and develop my patience. I remained unmarried until I was 46. I never had children of my own. Perhaps some people would wag their finger and say, “See, I told you so.” But I would not change my prayer or change my life’s circumstances. God’s answers were not what I expected, but His ways were better than my expectations. I wanted patience so that I could better handle life’s little ups and downs– so I could be the kind of wife and mother who was always composed; always at peace. Instead, I worked with teenagers and toddlers– many of whom knew very little peace at home. I wasn’t perfectly composed. Sometimes, I yelled at my class, or lost my temper with colleagues. Sometimes, I had to deal with crises–students who died in tragic accidents or by suicide; toddlers at story time whose parents were going through divorce or facing cancer. And all the while, I waited for the husband and family of my hopes and expectations.

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I had prayed for patience– and I found it ONLY when I depended on God. All those years I was single and working with “other people’s” children, I learned to lean on God’s timing and wisdom. Even through the pain and tears, and wondering why God seemed silent and my dreams seemed to be out of reach, God was there, listening to my cries, giving me strength to keep going. And He is still doing the same for me now. My circumstances and expectations didn’t change who God was. But they helped shape who I was becoming, and who I am today.

During this time, I also watched peers who seemed to “have it all.” They had beautiful families, beautiful houses, handsome husbands, and fast-track jobs. But underneath, they were lonely and unfulfilled. Many of them ended up divorced, disillusioned, or burned-out. Some of them have turned (or returned) to God; others still struggle, trying to do everything their own way, and trying to juggle too much alone.

God doesn’t demand that we pray “risky” prayers. But when we choose to follow Him, we will have to take some risky steps. We may have to let go of our expectations; we may have to go through rejection and hardship. But what God has in store for us is worth the risk.

I’m not wealthy or famous. I wouldn’t recommend that everyone pray for patience, or wisdom, or some other virtue, thinking that God will make life easier or richer. (I think that’s what worried some of the people who “warned me off” praying this way.) But if you want to know God in a richer, deeper way, it will require a leap of faith.

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What “risky prayer” have you been putting off? Today is a perfect day to take that next step. I promise, you won’t regret it.

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