Greater Love Hath No Man…

One hundred four years ago today, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month or 1918, the warring nations of Europe and the World fell silent as an Armistice was signed ending the “Great War” (later known as World War I). The War had been devastating in its scope and violence. Millions of people lost their lives; millions more were wounded and permanently scarred by the fighting. Entire cities had been leveled; farms and villages had been ravaged, and economies would take decades to recover.

“The War to End All Wars” did not. It was a failure in almost every regard. Bitterness built up in the decades between 1918 and 1938, spilling into another devastating war. All the noble efforts to promote peace and unity broke down. All those lives sacrificed in the hope of bringing lasting peace were lost, seemingly in vain. And for the soldier who survived, there was continued hardship, struggle, and often, life-long pain and suffering.

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Today, we honor those who have risked their lives to serve their county/countries. Soldiers, medics, chaplains, and innocent civilians who risk their lives do so for a reason. Often, we lose sight of the reasons after so many years, but the primary reason for most soldiers is the protection of loved ones back home and fellow soldiers in the fight. Many of us live lives of comfort and safety, little knowing the dangers of war, famine, and extreme hardship. But soldiers know a life of privation, courage in the face of fear, and the searing loss of violent death. And most of them know this life as a voluntary sacrifice. They willingly lay down their lives, both figuratively and sometimes literally, to save, protect, and improve the lives of others. It is fitting and right to honor such commitment and sacrifice.

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Jesus, when speaking to His disciples at the Last Supper, said,  “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:12-14 ESV) After all these years, many of us look at these verses as a moral principle, but not as a commandment. Jesus did not say, “I would really like it if you would love each other sacrificially,” or “I would prefer if you treated each other the way I treated you.” He gave it as a command that we love as Jesus loved.

So that begs the question, “How did Jesus love His disciples?” Ultimately, He DID lay down His life, paying for their sins (and ours) through His death on the cross. There has never been a greater sacrifice, not on the battlefield, not in public service, nowhere in Heaven or on Earth. But Jesus also gave us several examples of “sacrifice” in His life with the disciples. He served. He forgave. He loved. He nurtured and taught. He listened.

It used to be popular to compare Christians to soldiers– to promote service, sacrifice, and discipline in the Christian walk. This has largely fallen out of fashion, as society has diminished the role of the soldier, and the respect it used to give them. But the Apostle Paul used the comparison often, even listing the Christian’s “armor” in Ephesians 6:10-18. We should put on the belt of Truth, the breastplate of Righteousness, the shoes of the Gospel of Peace, the shield of Faith, the helmet of Salvation, and the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Of course, we are not commanded to kill, main, or promote warfare and destruction. But we ARE called to be prepared to die for– and LIVE for– the cause of Christ. We are to train, prepare, and stand firm in the Faith. More that that, we are commanded to serve– even sacrificially– our brothers and sisters; we are to be willing to lay down our lives for others.

Today, as we reflect on the sacrifices made in the past, let us renew our commitment to love like Jesus, to serve like soldiers, and to stand firm in our commitment to the One who paid the ultimate sacrifice for us. And, especially in a world that does not know peace, let us pray for those who are touched by war, famine, hardship, violence, and loss. Let us work to bring peace, forgiveness, and practical help to those around us who suffer.

God is Not On “Our Side”

Tomorrow is Election Day in the United States. It is a “mid-term” election. We will not be electing a national president, but we will be electing (or re-electing) all 435 federal Representatives to our national legislature, several Senators, some state Governors, and many state legislators. Some towns and cities will be electing mayors and council members; many school districts will be electing board members. There will also be many proposals on the ballots– in my own state, we will be voting on whether or not to change our constitution to legalize abortion, whether to change our voting laws, and whether to amend our statute on term limits for state officials.

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Pundits and worried voters will tell you that there is a lot at stake tomorrow. They will make it sound as though the world will end if “their” side doesn’t win–if their proposals don’t pass or their party’s candidates lose the vote count. While there IS a lot at stake in the vote, there is also a lot of hope, regardless of the outcome. No matter who “wins” or what proposals get passed, God is still on His Throne. It is God who forms nations, raises up rulers, or puts them down, and who sees the hearts and minds of all people.

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God is not an American. He is not a Democrat or Republican. God is Sovereign over all the Earth. He does not “take sides,” in any way that we would understand. God, who promised to be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob– who promised to lead them to a land He would show them, and to establish their nation–is the same God who raised up Nebuchadnezzar to rule the Israelites during their exile. He is the same God who raised up Pharaoh, who enslaved the people of Israel, and used Pharaoh’s own stubbornness to reveal His power during the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea. God uses unlikely people to accomplish His purposes, NOT our agenda.

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I believe that Christians have a clear duty to vote and to participate in civic matters. And I believe that Christians should be informed and critical voters, not rubber-stamping a candidate or agenda just because s/he/it “looks good.” But I also believe that Christians are to be honest people of integrity and honor, regardless of the outcome of a particular election cycle. That doesn’t mean that we can’t speak out against injustice, corruption, or deceptive campaign ads; nor does it mean that we can’t be conflicted about imperfect laws and candidates. In the final analysis, our ultimate allegiance and our ultimate trust must be found in God and in His Word. We are citizens of God’s Kingdom first, and our nation after that.

Groups, whether political or social groups, must be very careful about claiming that “God is on our side.” We must be far more concerned with whether or not WE are on GOD’S side! As individuals, are WE humble, honest, obedient, and committed to the truth? Are we working to build up our neighborhoods? Are we caring for the poor, the widows, and the fatherless among us? Are we turning a blind eye to evil in our midst, or worse, winking at corruption or excusing those in power when they abuse it in “our” favor?

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God promises never to leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). He promises to be by our side, all the way, all the time. But He never promised to be ON our side. It may be His will to bring judgment to our nation, our state, or our city, in the form of corruption and even failure. It may be His will to lead us through a time of hardship, chaos, and persecution. It may be His will to bring swift correction and justice where we have felt comfort and let our own moral standards grow lax. God’s will is always for us to grow, to improve, to become more disciplined in our own lives and more compassionate toward others around us. And His will is more important than our own comfort or being proved “right” over our political rivals.

Whatever God’s will is; whatever the outcome of tomorrow’s election, I pray that I will be a good citizen of His Kingdom, and a good citizen of my country. Of course, I hope that good measures and Godly candidates will prevail, but I know I can trust my Savior more than I can trust a ballot box. And His reign has no term limits!

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Passionate Patience

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’ve seen lots of posts recently about the “-ber” months–September, October, November, December–and the excitement for some as this season comes ’round. September in Michigan is filled with ripening fruits and changing colors. October brings pumpkins, apple cider, and frosty mornings. November is often spent thinking of and planning for Thanksgiving– bountiful feasts and time with family. And December brings the Christmas season– snow, caroling, giving and receiving gifts, and families gathered around trees and fireplaces, sharing old memories and making new ones.

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Part of this season of summer morphing into autumn and “falling” into winter is anticipation. The first apple harvest; the first frost; the first snowfall; those eager moments of wondering what will be under the Christmas Tree…we know they will come, but when, and how?

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My birthday is at the end of November, and as a child, I always loved Thanksgiving. It meant that family would gather, and at some point, they would sing “Happy Birthday” and there would be a cake among all the wonderful Thanksgiving desserts with my name on it! Four weeks later, Christmas would come, and the same excitement filled the house. It was difficult to be patient, but I learned that everything special was worth waiting for. In fact, sometimes, the anticipation is part of what makes such times more wonderful. There is no fun in rushing through precious moments or “ruining” the surprise of what is to come; nor is there any virtue in losing passion for what is possible, just because we can’t see the outcome, yet.

The Apostle Peter gave early Christians a list of attributes and spiritual traits that they should be developing in increasing measure. One of these attributes is “passionate patience.” In other translations, it is also called “perseverance,” “endurance,” “patience,” and “strength to keep going.” I like this wording, “passionate patience,” because it reminds us that patience isn’t just passive and meek. Especially as we work on building our spiritual understanding and alert discipline, patience becomes a powerful trait– one that distinguishes Christians from those around them. Some people are marked by impatience, anger, and dissatisfaction. Others are marked with complacency and resignation. Christians are asked to be passionately patient! Our faith and hope should radiate, even as we endure trials and anticipate God’s movement in the world around us.

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Jesus modeled “passionate patience” in His ministry on earth. Peter was witness to Jesus’ endurance in the face of rejection, unbelief, misunderstanding, and injustice– both to those around Him, and personal injustices. Jesus remained faithful, passionate for the truth, and compassionate toward others. He did not give in to despair, or waste His energy in anger or revenge. He did not make excuses for inaction, but He did not “burn out” in useless activities, either. He confidently did what the Father told Him to do– no more and no less.

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How do I reflect “passionate patience?” When I look around me and see injustice, do I explode in anger? Do I shrug my shoulders in resignation? Do I lose faith and passion? Or do I remain positive and faithful in doing what I know to be right and speaking up for the truth? Do I spread compassion or consternation? Antipathy, anger, or aspiration? When my life circumstances are filled with pain or hardship, do I endure? Do I persevere? Do I thrive? Or do I complain? Do I remain passionately hopeful, or give in to anxiety or despair? Do I wait for God’s strength and wisdom, or do I try to “fix” things in my own power? Do I accept help and guidance when I need it, or resent others’ efforts? Do I spread hope and healing? Or do I spread doubt and gloom? Do I grow bitter or better? I’d love to say that I respond with the kind of endurance, patience, and fortitude that Peter spoke of. And sometimes, with God’s help, I have. But I have much to learn, and room to grow!

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I pray that God’s spirit will help me grow in “passionate patience,” as I actively seek to follow Christ and reflect His love today.

Be Ready!

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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Do you plan for emergencies? Most people have some basic idea or plan for expected circumstances; a first-aid kit for home accidents; a small store of food or water; perhaps a generator in case of a power outage… But how many of us have a plan for the unexpected? Not just a vague idea of “what if…” but a plan. Some people have a stock of toilet paper and bottled water for their house or apartment, but no plan for what to do if they need to evacuate or relocate due to a flood or hurricane, or if they lose electricity for more than three days due to a storm, or if their building should catch fire.

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On September 11, 2001, when airplanes flew into the Twin Towers in New York City, several thousand people had to be quickly evacuated from the burning buildings. There were some plans in place; most had been misplaced or forgotten. And the chaos and confusion led to mixed messages– “stay put and wait for help…”,” don’t use the elevators…”,”get out as quickly as possible…”,” the stairways are unsafe…” But the vice president for corporate security at Dean Witter/Morgan Stanley, Richard Cyril Rescorla, was prepared for the worst. He had been planning and rehearsing for years after the failed attacks in 1993. He quickly implemented his detailed plans, ushering hundreds out of offices and into the stairwells, where they descended to safety in spite of the smoke and panic. He went back several times, checking to see who else needed help and guidance. Regardless of where they worked or who they were, Rescorla came with calm reassurance and authority, sending them into the path of rescue workers who could then offer greater assistance. Rescorla himself never made it safety– as he kept going up to get others out, he became trapped and perished when the towers fell. However, his years of planning, and his dedicated efforts on that fateful day saved the lives of hundreds, if not thousands of people. (See more here: https://www.911memorial.org/connect/blog/recognizing-war-hero-who-led-wtc-survivors-safety-911 )

We may not be called on to face another disastrous day like 9/11, but we are called to be alert and ready as we follow Christ. Those who followed Christ during His earthly ministry were called disciples. The name comes from the same root as discipline. They literally “walked” with Christ. They went where He went; they ate what He ate; they slept where He slept; they did whatever He asked them to do. If we seek to follow Christ, we must be ready to live lives of alert discipline. This comes after we take our first steps of Faith, and build on our character and understanding of God’s will. Our actions should not just be spontaneously “good” in the short-term, but patterned on the need to be prepared for the kind of challenges and trials we should expect to face. Just as Jesus was prepared for those who came to challenge Him with trick questions and false accusations, we need to be prepared to be challenged, rejected, and subjected to persecution. And we need to be prepared to respond, not with haughty complacency, outraged panic, or defensive tantrums, but with calm confidence and compassion.

The Apostle Peter, earlier in his letters, urges believers to be ready to give an answer (or a reason) for the hope that they have in Christ. (1 Peter 3:15) And this should not be a knee-jerk reaction to being challenged, or a snide commentary on doctrinal matters. We should be ready to be witnesses for the Majesty, Power, Grace, and Love of God as it has been experienced in our life and the lives of those around us. God never asked us to be His defense lawyers. He asks us to be faithful witnesses–not just of the facts about Him, but about our relationship WITH Him.

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We also need to be prepared to be relocated or evacuated from lives of comfort, complacency, and expectation, in order to GO into the world and spread the Gospel. We will not all be called to be “missionaries” in the traditional understanding of the word, but we ARE all called to be on mission– to be ready to share our hope, our resources, our time, and our love– with others, near and far.

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Today, I pray that God would continue to teach me as I live in obedience…that I would be alert and ready to speak, to walk, and to serve where and when and how HE sends. May I be ready to usher many others to safety as I share and live out the Gospel of Christ!

Running the Race

I am NOT a runner. If you ever see me running, I’ve either just encountered a snake, or there’s a wild animal chasing me. So I don’t know a lot about running a marathon, or even a 5-or 10-K race. Even in my daily life as a Christian, I prefer to use the term “Christian Walk!” But the Bible uses the imagery of a race to describe the Christian life. In our pursuit of Christ-likeness, including our pursuit of prayer, we need to think like a runner.

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For those of us who don’t run, this may pose a bit of a challenge, but the Bible gives us clear principles that provide good guidance.

  • Keep moving forward: “12-14 I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.” (Philippians 3:12-14 The Message) Runners don’t worry about what is behind them. They are focused on the goal– reaching the finish line. We need to stop focusing on our past, or the anxieties about the road ahead, and keep our focus on the ultimate goal.
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  • Travel light/Get rid of the baggage: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us..” (Hebrews 12:1 NIV) What is weighing me down, that I need to let go of, if I want to keep running with endurance? I wrote earlier this month about the expectations attached to the “model” woman in Proverbs 31. Expectations, guilt, unforgiveness, shame, wanting to please other people, even our own self-talk can weigh us down, slow us down, and wear us out. It’s time to let go!
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  • Run with the pack: Running alone can be good for meditation, but we need the challenge and the encouragement of others if we want to train and grow stronger. Reconsider the passage I quoted above in its larger context: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:1-3 NIV–emphasis added) We need to surround ourselves with companions, role models, teachers, friends, and others who can encourage, sharpen, comfort, and help us in our pursuit. And we need to remember that NO challenge or opposition we face is unknown to Christ. He is our ultimate role model, and, along with the Holy Spirit, our greatest coach!
  • Run/train with purpose: “25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.” (1 Corinthians 9:25-26 NIV) I know many people who “know” a lot about the Bible; they’ve grown up in the church or attended seminary; they’ve memorized scripture or studied theology– only to leave the church and their faith. I know many others who have a “faith” that bears little resemblance to the Bible’s teaching– it is based mostly on their “feelings” about God and a “truth” that is relative to their circumstances and changing emotions. Pursuing the Christian life involves discipline– being a disciple–and that involves all areas of life– studying the Bible, and putting it into practice. It’s not enough to “know” about doctrine or to “feel” like a Christian. We must pursue Christ-likeness in our words, prayers, habits, relationships, etc..
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  • Don’t run on “no fuel.” “29 He gives power to the weak, And to those who have no might He increases strength. 30 Even the youths shall faint and be weary, And the young men shall utterly fall, 31 But those who wait on the Lord Shall renew their strength; They shall mount up with wings like eagles, They shall run and not be weary, They shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:29-31 NKJV). It is tempting to run on an empty stomach (see traveling light above), or to start running without stretching or warming up. Anything we do in our own wisdom and power– even “good” things like prayer and Bible study, can leave us empty and worn out. We need to come back to our source of wisdom and power–(See Hebrews 12: 2-3 again!)
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Running a race isn’t easy. Walking through life is a challenge, too. Pursuing Christ-likeness in our habits, including our prayer life, takes dedication, discipline, guidance, and endurance. But God is faithful to provide all that we need to finish the race and gain the prize!

The “Curse” of Proverbs 31

If you are a woman who has grown up “in the church,” you are probably familiar with Proverbs 31. It is the chapter about a virtuous woman. She is the role-model that is held up for young girls and older women alike. And she is, like Mary Poppins, “practically perfect in every way.” She gets up before the sun, stays up late into the night–always busy, always productive; she never slows down. She never has a bad hair day, never loses her temper, never forgets to pack a lunch or fold the laundry. She never nags, never scolds, never pouts, and never has to raise her voice.

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It helps that she has serving girls to do her bidding, and has her own business. She appears to be independently wealthy and active, yet she has time to raise children who “rise up and call her blessed,” and satisfy her husband, who “lacks nothing of value.”

I would love to say that I am just like that woman. Most days, however, I feel nothing like her. I don’t have money to buy a new field. I don’t get up before the sun and my hands are not eager to work. I don’t make and sell linen garments. No one is running around calling me “blessed” or singing my praises… I can never measure up to this woman. I feel cursed.

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But a closer reading of this chapter makes me think again.

While the woman described in this chapter is a model to emulate, she is not the norm. Nor is she the standard to which I must adhere to “earn” my way into God’s good graces. Indeed, God’s Mercy is the richer and His Grace more precious for knowing that I cannot “measure up.”

Instead of using Proverbs 31 to beat myself up for not being perfect (or using it to discourage or intimidate others), I need to learn from it. Here are a few things I’m hanging on to as I read through it this week:

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  • “She brings him (her husband) good, not harm…” (v. 12) What are some ways I can bring good, not harm, into my home and marriage? How can I listen more, nag, less, be more available, and otherwise show love and care? I won’t be perfect, but I can look for ways to improve!
  • “She works with eager hands..” (v. 13) “She sets about her work vigorously…”(v. 17) I may not be spinning wool or flax in the early light; I may not have serving girls to order, but I have hands and work to do throughout the day. How can I do a better job of seeing chores as opportunities, rather than oppression and drudgery? How can I bring a greater sense of purpose to my tasks? I may not have serving girls, but I have appliances–am I “ordering” them properly by taking care of them, instead of just taking them for granted? And am I grateful for their help?
  • “She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy…” (v. 20) What can I do to “give” more–donate, volunteer, provide hospitality and encouragement? How can I keep in mind that during various seasons of life the “poor” and “needy” may be in my own home and family–children or grandchildren needing nourishment and discipline; parents needing care and support…How can I be more available to those outside of my home, or during my work hours? Can I send an e-mail or make a call to offer encouragement? Can I share a recipe with a friend, or invite them to come with me shopping or to church? Can I make time to pray with a neighbor? Can I clean out a closet and donate clothes or linens?
  • “She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue..” (v. 26) What a challenge!? What is “on my tongue?” Gossip? Criticism? Complaining? Idle chatter? Do I speak too much? Do I remain silent when I could offer needed instruction, encouragement, or correction? Do I speak with gentleness and compassion? With conviction and truth?
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  • “…she does not eat the bread of idleness..”(v27). Ouch! Everyone needs to rest– even the seemingly indefatigable woman of Proverbs 31! But am I becoming “fat” on leisure time? How much time to I waste on distractions and entertainment that could be put to better use?
  • “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord will be praised..” (v30) I may strive to be an “accomplished” woman– someone who is poised, talented, successful in business and society, with a picture-perfect house and garden, children on the dean’s list or the winning sports team; I can be will-traveled and well-educated, someone who seems to “have it all”–and still NOT be a woman of noble character. God isn’t impressed by my clothes or my achievements; He doesn’t give me credit for being “better” than my next door neighbor, or having the best kitchen on the block; God will not love me any more for being more successful or productive than anyone else. If my house is cluttered, my hair is untame-able, my kids have public melt-downs, and I don’t belong to the “in” club; if my business fails, my car is rusty (or I don’t have one), and my husband and I wear second-hand clothes, God still sees my heart. I can still be a woman who fears, trusts, and serves the Lord– one who is loved, accepted, and even “praised” by the One who matters most!
  • Finally, I can Pray to become a woman/wife of noble character (v.10), striving for good habits, rather than fretting over and wallowing in bad ones. I can trust God’s willingness and ability to transform my life and my attitudes. In fact, I am reminded of a seemingly unrelated portion of scripture from Philippians:

8-9 Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.

Philippians 4:8-9 (The Message)
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I need to spend less of my time worrying about getting things “done”, than getting them done God’s way! I don’t need to fear the “curse” of Proverbs 31– failure to measure up to a model– instead, I need to see the opportunity to become a woman after God’s own heart– one who accepts God’s help and wisdom to become the woman HE wants me to be. I pray that God will give me the chance to develop–and help others–today and each new day.

“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.

A Garden of Prayer

It’s gardening season– many with gardens are reaping an early harvest of tomatoes, peas, beans, and other vegetables. I live in town, and have no space for a garden, but I have memories of working in my mom’s and grandma’s gardens. Gardening takes a lot of work, and involves a lot of elements. A life of prayer also requires a lot of discipline and certain elements:

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  • Plowed ground– we need hearts that are softened and humble, ready to listen and respond.
  • Seeds of faith– even those as small as a mustard seed!
  • “Son”-shine–we can follow the examples of the prayers of Jesus, as well as His teachings on prayer.
  • Living Water–Jesus gives us living water in His words and His life. The more we spend time with Him (through prayer and in His Word), the more we will experience the nourishment He provides!
  • Cultivation– it is not enough just to plant a seed and leave it. We need to spend time in devotion, worship, prayer, scripture reading, and fellowship daily if we want growth. We also need to “weed out” sinful habits and thoughts that keep us from trusting God’s will and timing.
  • Workers for the harvest–Our lives should be producing fruit. But fruit that isn’t harvested and shared will go to waste! And we should also be ready to harvest the fruit of others– encouraging and building one another to better growth and adding to the Kingdom.
  • Helper “Bees”– like Bee Kind; Bee Patient; Bee Humble; Bee Generous; Bee Industrious; Bee Joyous; Bee Faithful; Bee Grateful; Bee Truthful; Bee Gentle; etc.
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Prayer is always “in season,” and always produces a harvest. It takes dedication and faith, but it is so worth it!

Do You Not Know? Have You Not Heard?

Within the last couple of weeks, several major news stories have broken in the United States, where I live. The Supreme Court has ruled on several major cases, with “game-changing” results. Important national issues, such as gun control, abortion, and freedom of religious expression were involved, and many Americans are either elated or upset by the decisions that were rendered.

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My husband and I don’t have television; no 24-hour news channels, or opinionated talk shows, or even late-night comedian commentators reminding us of the “big news” of the day. But we have internet, and radio, and we talk to people who have access to TV. We would have to live under a rock to be uninformed of what has been happening. Yet we find that many people who have access to “news” have little or no understanding of what these decisions actually mean for our nation or its citizens. The Supreme Court did not “abolish” abortion; it did not eliminate gun controls or restrictions. It did not “bring prayer back into the schools.” What we “know” and what we have heard are not always the same.

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The prophet Isaiah, writing to the people of Jerusalem (Judah), repeats the phrase, “Do you not know? Have you not heard?” The Jewish people were supposed to know God’s eternal character. They were supposed to have heard His laws, and heard the stories of His faithfulness throughout the years. But the message had become garbled, distorted, and even lost. The people were going to be disciplined– they would go into exile; yet God would bring them comfort and forgiveness and restoration. Isaiah reminds his readers and listeners of God’s timeless character– His power and authority; His compassion and healing; His care and His discipline for those He loves.

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21 Do you not know?
    Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
    Have you not understood since the earth was founded?
22 He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
    and its people are like grasshoppers.
He stretches out the heavens like a canopy,
    and spreads them out like a tent to live in.
23 He brings princes to naught
    and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.
24 No sooner are they planted,
    no sooner are they sown,
    no sooner do they take root in the ground,
than he blows on them and they wither,
    and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.

25 “To whom will you compare me?
    Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.
26 Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:
    Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one
    and calls forth each of them by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
    not one of them is missing.

27 Why do you complain, Jacob?
    Why do you say, Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord;
    my cause is disregarded by my God”?
28 Do you not know?
    Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
    the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
    and his understanding no one can fathom.
29 He gives strength to the weary
    and increases the power of the weak.
30 Even youths grow tired and weary,
    and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the Lord
    will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint.

Isaiah 40:21-31 NIV

It’s not that Isaiah’s fellow citizens had never heard about God; it’s not that they had no knowledge of God’s laws or of His character. But they had become complacent; they had knowledge, but no understanding; no insight. They knew about God; they no longer KNEW God.

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How often do we hear a bit of news and react without understanding all of its implications? How often do we jump to conclusions about what God is like, or what His will might be? How many times do we assume that what we think or feel comes from the Bible, without consulting it? How often do we pray, not that God’s will should be done, but that God should do our will?

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Violence (including shootings), abortion, religious intolerance and persecution– all have been around for centuries. Human laws and justice have a long history of being twisted, ignored, amended, rewritten, forgotten, and supplanted. Supreme Court rulings can be overturned; laws can be rewritten or struck down; cultural expectations and trends will change. While I may feel cause to celebrate some of the Supreme Court’s recent rulings, or be discouraged by others, now or in the future, I cannot put my hope and trust in them. But I can put my hope and trust in the power and authority of God! God’s rulings are absolute and eternal.

And if I hear nothing else today; if I know nothing else for certain– I can rely on His truth and His faithfulness forever!

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Praying for Bahrain

I have never been to Bahrain. I know very little about Bahrain. All I know is that it is a small country in the Middle East, located on a series of islands in the Persian Gulf. But I prayed for Bahrain the other day. It’s on my prayer calendar/journal. Every day of the year, I have a nation, city, or geographic region (desert, ocean, continent) to pray for. It’s somewhat random, and personal–many of the “cities” are really local small towns or places close to my heart–and it doesn’t make my prayers virtuous or important. My prayers can’t “save” the world, or any corner of it, from natural disaster or political corruption, disease, or any other malady common to our fallen world. So why do it?

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First, because God loves and cares about the whole world. It’s easy for me to focus on my surrounding community; my state; my country. I know the people and language and culture here. But there is nothing exclusive about God’s love. Throughout the Bible, it is clear that our God is a global God. Sure, God “chose” Abraham and the nation of Israel to display His Holiness. But He also raised up other nations and leaders– Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, the Queen of Sheba, Caesar Augustus–and sent prophetic warnings to Babylon, Edom, Assyria, Egypt, and many other nations who neither knew Him nor worshipped Him. I don’t know enough to know how many of the people of Bahrain are Christians, Muslims, Atheists, or any other religion. I don’t know how many of them are suffering from depression, domestic abuse, or disease. But I know that God knows– and cares. Even though I am praying “blind,” I am making an effort to “see” God’s heart for others.

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Second, as I pray for various nations, I become more interested in them. I learn more about them. I recognize them when they are mentioned in the news, or when I hear about people who live or visit there. Again, this doesn’t make me a better person, or my prayers better than anyone else’s–but it helps me be a more informed (and hopefully more compassionate) person than I was yesterday or last year.

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Praying for others reminds me of two important truths: I am very small in the scheme of things– one of more than 8 billion people on the planet! I cannot know them all; I cannot care for them all or influence them, or change their situations. But God can! I serve a God who not only knows all 8 billion individuals; He knows their thoughts, their pasts and their futures–He even knows the number of hairs on each head! The second truth that arises from that is that, small as I am, I am known by God. He cares about ME, just as He cares about each person that breathes. HE can change the small circumstances of my life, and the lives of those I know and love; AND He can raise up kingdoms and break down empires!

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Pursuing prayer is about following God. Part of that is learning discipline. God isn’t “grading” me on whether or not I pray for Bahrain, or Belarus, or Boston, or the tiny local town of Baroda. He isn’t going to turn His back on me if I don’t pray for any of these places. And He won’t love me more if I do. But I will get better insight into His character as I learn to pray faithfully, consistently, and compassionately for others– wherever they are.

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