Hearts, Hype, Hatred, and Hope

Today marks the celebration of St. Valentine– Valentine’s Day. It is a day of hearts and flowers, romantic dinners and gifts, all celebrating love and marriage. Many people choose to marry on Valentine’s day; many more choose this day to propose marriage (my dad did, in fact, and he and my mom were married just a few months later in 1963).

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Gifts have gotten more elaborate and expensive over the years, though there are many who choose simple, homemade gifts or cards, as well. Advertisers promote their products as being perfect expressions of romance and love–diamonds, lacy nightwear, expensive candle-lit dinners, vacations, deluxe tool boxes, cars, spa treatments–if a new broom or pair of socks can be made to look romantic, look for them to be advertised as “perfect” for this year’s gift.

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I have a long and difficult history with Valentine’s Day. I remember, as a school girl, being forced to choose, sign, and address valentine cards for every person in my class at school. Some were easy enough, but I had to send cards to classmates I didn’t like; classmates who teased or bullied me, or were just “icky.” I think most parents did the same, but I noticed that I rarely got cards back from everyone, and sometimes, the “icky” kids only got two or three cards, which they hid away in their desk or threw away. I never knew if they were glad to have gotten the few cards, or if they were embarrassed and hurt (especially if they had no cards to give to anyone).

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As a young woman, I disliked Valentine’s Day for its way of sorting out the “loved” from the “unloved.” I was loved by my parents, and liked by friends and colleagues, students and neighbors. But every 14th of February, I was reminded painfully that I was not considered “loveable” by the young men buying candy, flowers, or engagement rings. Year after year passed with no gifts, no dates, nothing to signify that I was worthy of romantic love or attention. As I write this, I know there are millions of young women who are facing pain and rejection today, where they might feel confident and happy on any other, normal, day.

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This year, Valentine’s Day seems like a bad joke– talk of love and romance rings very hollow when I see the amount of hatred being spread on social media. Should I feel “loved” if I receive a card from someone who spews hatred and death wishes for people they barely know because of something they said about politics or the environment? If I followed my parents’ rules and bought valentine cards for everyone at the office, would I be brave enough (or foolish enough) to send them?

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The original St. Valentine (though this is disputed and there may be more than one martyr with the same name from around the same time) is believed to be a young martyr who was beaten, stoned to death, and beheaded for marrying young Roman soldiers against the mandate of his emperor. It was felt that soldiers would fight better if they were unmarried and unencumbered by family ties, but soldiers who had converted to Christianity wanted to live pure lives, married to one woman, and faithful to their vows. St. Valentine was committed to helping these men and women live their new found faith and show love for each other, and for God. For that, he was jailed and sentenced to die a horrible death. There were no greeting cards, no diamonds, no spa treatments on that day. There was suffering, death, sacrifice, humiliation, and loss. And plenty of hatred.

But St. Valentine’s death had quite the opposite effect than the emperor intended. God’s love has a way of shining brighter for being targeted, tormented, and beaten down. Real love doesn’t show itself in new clothes, hothouse flowers, or candle-lit dinners. It shows itself in a pouring out of self, and being willing to suffer for others– even those who do not love us back.

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This Valentine’s Day, I live in hope that Christians around the world will demonstrate the true love that comes from God– a love that practices Grace, Kindness, Forgiveness, Humility, Patience, and Joy, even in the face of Hatred and Evil. Hatred shouts and raises its fists. Let Love whisper and reach out hands of service. Let Love kneel and pray for our enemies, and bless those who curse us. Let love be ready to die rather than spread hatred and return evil for evil.

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Love One Another (1 John 3:11-24 ESV)

11 For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12 We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. 13 Do not be surprised, brothers,[a] that the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. 15 Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.

16 By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? 18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

19 By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; 20 for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; 22 and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God,[b] and God[c] in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.

Gifting “Outside the Box”

This year has been a difficult one for my family financially. With Christmas coming, there is no money for expensive (or inexpensive) gifts– barely any money for bills. We always like to say that it’s not about the gift, and that “it’s the thought that counts,” but we don’t enjoy putting those words to the test. Like it or not, we have a tendency to equate Christmas with shiny decorations and festive packages– especially for the kids and grandkids.

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Even the first Christmas featured gifts from the Wise Men of the East– Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. But what gifts did the shepherds bring? The Angel hosts? Jesus’s own parents? What they brought– love, worship, Good News of Great Joy– was priceless and just as precious as the physical gifts of the Wise Men.

This Christmas, whatever gifts you choose to give; whatever gestures or actions you perform–let them be done with joy and with a full heart. After all, the REAL gift of Christmas wasn’t wrapped in a box. It was wrapped in flesh and blood, sacrifice and suffering. “For God so Loved the world, that He gave His only Begotten Son…” (John 3:16)

Our gifts matter– small gifts, fancy gifts, hugs, smiles, time spent listening, words of encouragement, even just sitting in silence with someone who is in pain.

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One of the greatest gifts we can give this season and in the coming year is the gift of prayer. Try this challenge for 2020. Choose a person (not necessarily someone in your family or close circle of friends) and pray for them every day for one month–if you know them well enough, ask them for specific ways that you can pray for them. Write their name and/or their requests somewhere (a calendar or datebook, index card..) where you will see it. At the end of the month, send the person a card or note or text message, or give them a call– let them know you’ve been thinking of them every day and praying for them.

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A few warnings:

  • DO NOT use this activity as a form of intimidation, “virtue-signaling”, or with any selfish motive. Be careful not to make this about the other person’s “neediness”– their inability or unwillingness to talk to God on their own; your superior righteousness or religiosity. Pray for their health, their well-being, and any needs that THEY express. Remember, this is a gift, not an intervention. If you are not praying that way, don’t pretend you are actually giving a gift.
  • Be ready to commit. You may even want to begin with one week, instead of a month. But don’t begin until you are ready to finish well. That doesn’t mean if you miss one day you’ve failed. But it does mean that you need to have an intention and a plan.
  • Follow through! It’s one kind of gift to offer to pray– but it’s kind of like giving a child a gift that requires batteries, and not providing the batteries…
  • Beware–gifts like this tend to come with surprises and unexpected obstacles:
    • Your offer of a gift will not always be accepted. Even if it is offered in the best of spirits, some people will find it offensive. You can still pray for them, but don’t expect gratitude or cooperation.
    • Your commitment will be tested– you may find yourself “extra” busy, or suddenly find it difficult to focus and remember your commitment; you may even find yourself tempted to give up for no reason or you may question the value of your gift.
    • Your prayer life may get challenged in unexpected ways– as you pray for someone new, you may be convicted of your own needs, your own unworthiness, your own lack…
    • You may be surprised by the realization that in giving, you also receive. As you pray for someone you don’t know well, you will find yourself developing a heart for them and wanting to know them better. You may find yourself blessed with a new and growing friendship, or a better understanding of needs and experiences you never knew before.
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Are You Ready?

Someone asked me yesterday if I was “ready for Christmas.” They wanted to know if I had prepared for the holiday– had I bought and wrapped presents for the family, sent out Christmas cards, decorated the house, baked cookies, etc.? I had to admit that I was not ready in that sense. I don’t generally do much in the way of decorating, and I’ve cut back on the cookie baking, too. I’m not sending greeting cards this year, and I don’t have all the presents purchased or wrapped.

But I AM ready for Christmas– I’m ready to celebrate the coming of Jesus to Earth; His life, death, and resurrection; the new life and hope that resulted from God’s boundless love. I’m ready to sing carols and light candles and rejoice! I’m ready to be awestruck again by the ancient story of shepherds and angels and wise men from the East; of the little town of Bethlehem and the manger stall and a bright star; of a newborn child; the Lord of all Creation wrapped in rags; the Word of God willingly limited to unintelligible cooing and soft cries, to nakedness and infant human weakness.

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Being “ready for Christmas” means different things to different people. To many, it means surviving the stress of shopping, going to rounds of holiday parties, and trying to remember that it is supposed to be a season of “peace on Earth.” For others, it means watching the celebration from the outside looking in; facing loneliness, grief, regret, and envying or resenting those who have found joy when all they see is darkness. For some of us, it means reflecting on the amazing transformation we experience because of the coming of this single baby. We remember that there was a time when there was no Christmas– only a dim hope that God would someday send a Savior. Once the prophets could only speak of what had been promised, but not yet seen– could only remind people to “get ready” for something they had never known.

The world was waiting for the Messiah’s coming, yet it was unprepared for His actual arrival.

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But the story of Jesus Christ didn’t end with Christmas. It didn’t even end at Easter, with the glorious resurrection. We await the triumphant return of the risen Christ. He is Coming! He will return in an instant…no long period of Advent; no countdown calendars or lists of things to get ready; no angels or stars to announce His arrival; no Christmas pageant or Easter sunrise service–just a trumpet blast and an explosion of Glory. He will not arrive as a helpless babe, or a suffering servant, but as a conquering King. There will be no carols about little towns and sleeping cattle; no time to “let every heart prepare Him room.”

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Today, we prepare to celebrate Messiah’s coming. We spend time and money and energy getting “ready” to recreate the Advent of Jesus Christ. How much time have we spent getting ready for His return? I pray that this Christmas season will mean more than just a happy celebration of one event– even one as joyful as the Birth of Christ. Let us prepare our hearts to live out the joy of His Salvation, and prepare to receive our King in triumph.

Nought Be All Else to Me…

“Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my Heart;
Nought be all else to me, save that Thou Art.”

 

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christand be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in[a] Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 3:7-14 (NIV)

Have you spent time recently with someone who is young and “in love” for the first time?  You may spend time with them, but their time, their thoughts, their energy, their conversation– all revolves around their loved one.  All the other things in life are secondary, and life is lived on auto-pilot.  They forget to eat; forget to do even the most ordinary tasks, and daydream through whatever tasks they do manage to complete.  What time is it?  What are they wearing?  Is the snowing?  Raining?  Have they spoken to their parents today?  They don’t know!  They don’t care.  But they can tell you how long it has been since they’ve spoken to “that” person.  They remember what they wore, what they ate last night, what they said two days ago, and how their hair reflected the moonlight…

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God is not so foolishly forgetful as we are, but he loves us with that same kind of abandon…he knows the very hairs on our head.  He knows our thoughts and every joy and hurt in our heart.  He loves the sound of our name, and the sound of our voice as we call to him.  He longs for the same ardent love from us.

When we sing a line like “nought be all else to me, save that Thou art,”  or we read the Apostle Paul talk about everything else in his life being rubbish or garbage, we are not literally saying that everything is worthless, or that we would rather sit alone in a darkened room than to live our lives in the world and interact with those around us.  God has not called us to be hermits who pray in locked rooms on our knees for 20 hours a day.  He does not call us to fast to the point of starvation, or shun all human contact.  Jesus himself did not despise food or rest or people.

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But He did say some startling things about the importance of God in relation to all the things of this world.  God gave us wonderful gifts– sunlight, water, food, blue sky, grass and trees, families and friends.  God wants us to enjoy them–AS GIFTS.  Never should we love the gift more than the giver.  Never should we take the gifts for granted or forget that they are gifts– not earned, not the work of our own hands.  If we are not careful, they can become idols and distractions.  Suddenly, we are torn in our affections.  God wants us to love our neighbor, but not to worship her/him.  God wants us to nurture our families, but he wants to be part of that process, not left on the sidelines.  God wants us to use our talents and our gifts to benefit others.  And God’s gifts, while always “good” are not always pleasant or easy.  Loving others can be risky and exhausting.  Putting God first often means sacrifice and ridicule.  And some of God’s gifts may be wrapped in hardship.  When we experience tragedy, like a house fire, that is not a “gift” from God.  But God will send us gifts even in times of grief or stress– an understanding friend, a temporary shelter, a renewed sense of purpose–in the midst of our darkest moments.

Young love, while ardent and intense, often burns itself out.  TV shows and football games become more “important” than deep conversation and longing looks.  “He makes me laugh,” turns into, “he never takes anything seriously.”  “She walks in beauty like the night,” becomes, “She snores like a pig!”  Worse, we take for granted that we know each other “well enough.”  God knows this– he warns us that the same thing can happen to us in our relationship with Him.  We can easily be pulled away or lulled into a false sense that “all is well” even as we drift off course.  We need reminders of God’s rightful place in the center of our attention– our focus and vision fixed on Him.

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“Nought be all else to me”  isn’t about the things of this life disappearing or being worthless; it’s about them being “worth” less than the one who rules over all things.

Make Every Effort…

2 Peter 1:3-9 New International Version (NIV) (Biblegateway.com)

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind,forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.

There are a great number of Christians who face discouragement and frustration in their daily life.  Sometimes, this is because they are busy looking at their circumstances and feeling overwhelmed by them.  But sometimes, there is a general discontent; a malaise of lukewarm commitment and lackluster results that can cause once fruitful Christians to wander away from the faith and even disparage their former churches.  “I wasn’t being ‘fed'”… “It just wasn’t working for me”…”I got tired of the persecution (not genuine persecution, but the feeling of being mocked and unpopular at parties and reunions)”…”the church just isn’t relevant anymore.”  These are a few of the excuses I have heard from people  who were once joyful and eager to share their faith.  I don’t doubt that they experienced Salvation– but they are missing out on sanctification– they have done little to build on the solid rock.  They blame the church, their pastor, other Christians, even God for their lack of spiritual growth.

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Yet, in this passage, the Apostle Peter tells us that Christ has given us EVERYTHING we need to live a godly life– not the church, not other Christians, not the experience we get from a worship service– all we need has been given to us through Christ; his death and resurrection; his promises and his example of holy living.

But, like any gift, it must be used to be effective.  A lamp may look good sitting on a table, but if it isn’t plugged in and turned on (or filled with oil and lit), it does little more than gather dust.  Similarly, if I don’t maintain tools or appliances, I can’t expect them to continue to be useful– they will get corroded, filthy, worn, and broken.

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Peter urges us to USE the gifts we have been given.  This is not a call to base our salvation on works, or to make a checklist of “good things” to make us a “better” person.  Rather, it is a blue print of building on the gifts we have to become more productive, more secure, more established in our Christian walk– to become the mature people God means for us to be. When we don’t follow this blueprint, Peter warns, something awful happens.  We become nearsighted–we narrow our focus on our own experience and our own resources, rather than utilizing the wonderful gifts God has made available to us.

  • Faith–it starts here.  If we don’t trust in God’s provision, His mercy, and His power, we won’t build on the right foundation.
  • Goodness–Such a deceptively simple word, but it is packed with power.  Post-modernists like to sneer at the idea of goodness.  It seems dull, meek, bland, and insufficient.  At the same time, we want to assure ourselves (and everyone else) that we are, in our own daily life, good…good enough to earn respect, better than someone else down the street, “good” just because…we are not “bad”.  It is difficult to concede that, left to our own devices, we will not achieve goodness automatically– it takes effort to deny our own desires and whims to do the right thing, the just thing, the “good” thing.
  • Knowledge–Sure, I “know” what the Bible says…right?  I already “know” what Jesus would do– that’s why I wear the WWJD bracelet– to remind me of what I already know…How many Christians actually make a daily effort to learn more about Christ?  How many blindly stumble along, confident that what little we know is more than enough?
  • Self Control– Not going around pointing out everyone else’s fault, but working to keep our own anger, bitterness, selfishness, envy, etc., in check.  Actually making the effort and not adopting a false humility that says, “I know I still struggle with ________, but God’s not finished with me yet!”
  • Perseverance–Staying the course, even when it doesn’t “feel” good, or effective.  Trusting that God IS still at work, instead of just using that as an excuse for not making a genuine effort to improve our relationship with Him.  How many of us have missed out on blessings and miracles because we simply threw in the towel one day early, or didn’t climb that last step.
  • Godliness, Mutual Affection, Love–I’ve put these three together, not because they are the same, or because there is nothing to say about each one, but because I think this is where many Christians want to be, without going through the previous steps.  We want to think that we are not only Godly, but God-like in our habits, words, thoughts, etc.  We want to think that because we have a close-knit group of friends at church (our Holy Huddle) that we have mastered Mutual Affection.  And we think that if we love at least the idea of people who are different from us, people who are oppressed or hurting, that we are not “hateful”–we deserve a crown of glory.

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Unfortunately, I have fallen into the trap of wanting the results and the benefits of Christ’s gifts without the “every effort” they deserve.  Saying “hello” to neighbors on the street or defending “morality” on FB is not the same as taking up my cross.  And it’s not that there’s anything wrong with being friendly or standing up for what’s right– it’s a start.  But like the lamp that isn’t turned on, I’m not sending out light– I’m not fulfilling my purpose.  And until I make “every effort”, not just the ones that look good or feel good, or seem easiest or most important, I can’t shine in the darkness around me.

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An Encouraging Word

It can be a dog-eat-dog kind of world out there.  Every day, I hear of people who are facing difficult and trying circumstances– health issues, loss of a job or home, loss of a family member or close friend, depression, oppression, harassment, rebellious or estranged children, abuse, academic failures, exhaustion from being provider, caregiver, etc.– even just daily stress.  It can really take a toll.  But it becomes even more difficult when we isolate ourselves.

When I get stressed, I tend to withdraw.  I don’t want others to think of me as a failure, or to think less of me in my struggles.  But this is one of the worst things I can do.  First, it means more worry and stress because I’m bearing the burden alone!  Second, it forces me to cover up my level of anxiety or depression be pretending that things are fine then they aren’t.  That would all be bad enough, but it gets worse.  Isolating means my focus turns inward– my problems become bigger, not smaller;  I’m so close to the problem, I’m not able to “look outside the box” for solutions, because my box keeps closing in on me.  I can’t see beyond my circumstances to understand if they are temporary, or if they necessitate some life changes on the other side of whatever crisis I’m dealing with.  And, worst of all, the only voice I listen to is my own, rehearsing and reminding me of the difficulties or failures I’m facing.

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We all need an encouraging word now and then; a voice telling us that we are not alone; that all is not lost; that there is hope.  I have been blessed with wonderful family, friends, and neighbors who are great about encouraging me, even when I try to shut them out or pretend that everything is grand.  Sometimes that encouragement comes through conversation; sometimes a card or text message or a shared piece of scripture; sometimes it comes through prayer.  I may not even know who prayed, or what words they used until days or weeks later, but their faithfulness in praying has become a lifeline when I feel isolated and overwhelmed.

This does not negate my need to pray and ask God for wisdom, healing, or strength for myself, nor does it suggest that God doesn’t answer my prayers.  Instead, it shows a pattern– God often answers our prayers by incorporating and using those around us.  God’s goodness and his love are shown best in teamwork.  We run the race to win, but we race together as teammates, not competitors.  We share sorrows, struggles, and joys. We come alongside; we lift others up, and they lift us up in return.

Encouragement does so much, we sometimes underestimate its power.  In a world of sniping, criticism, name-calling, and finger-pointing, encouragement does the following:

  • It lets someone know that they are seen and heard– that they are being noticed, thought of, and valued.  This shouldn’t be uncommon, but in a world where we are connected to so many be technology, and to so few face-to-face, it is HUGE!
  • It give us perspective to realize that we are not alone in our problems and not unique in facing difficulties.
  • It reminds us that hope and help are gifts to be shared, not something we must earn.
  • It gives us a purpose and a mission to be part of God’s redemptive work– Jesus gave encouragement and hope to those who needed it most, not to those who “deserved” it.

It can be a dog-eat-dog world out there, but we are not dogs.  We are children of the King.  Let’s send out some encouraging words today!

A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. (Proverbs 25:11 (ESV)

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Also see James 5:13-16 on praying for one another.

Surprise!

The world is full of surprises– some good, some bad.  Open your mailbox on any given day, or walk down the street…you are bound to see something unexpected.  You may get a bill you forgot about, or run into an old friend.  There are surprises in the weather patterns, in traffic patterns, in relationships, in jobs, all around our houses and neighborhoods, in world events.  Some are shocking, some delightful, and any of them can change our days or even our lives.

We like pleasant surprises; we fear the unpleasant ones.  But most of us don’t pray for them.  We pray for miracles–healing and rescue and transformation–pleasant outcomes that we hope for or imagine.  We pray for ease and comfort, or wisdom and strength to face the bad times.  But we don’t ask God to surprise us.

Why don’t I ask God to awe me?  Dazzle me?  Surprise me?  Sometimes I fear that he might surprise me with what my past actions deserve.  More often, I simply want to stay in the comfort and simplicity of what I already know.  I don’t want to be delighted; I just want to be entertained.

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One thing I know, but I need to be reminded:  God does not give bad surprises.  He does not send ANYTHING into my life that can’t be used for my good and his glory.  The world will send tragedy and I will have to face the consequences of Sin– mine and others’.  I may be unfairly treated at work; I may be struck by a drunk driver and paralyzed.  I may face difficult losses, and inexplicable circumstances.  And the mistake is to see these as “surprises” from God.  God never promised a pain-free, problem-free life in this world, but he surprises us with the kind of gifts that overcome and even confound our tragic circumstances– the power to forgive, to be joyful, to have peace, and share love.

John 16:33 English Standard Version (ESV)

33 I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Matthew 7:9-11 New International Version (NIV)

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

The road ahead is full of surprises–that’s a great reason to pray.  God loves to surprise us with good things– that’s another great reason to pray for them!

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