What God Didn’t Give Me

I’m very grateful for all the many blessings that God has given me– for Salvation, most of all. But God has blessed me with family, health, freedom, and so many other wonderful things. But there are several things God didn’t give me. Some of them are things I wanted (or thought I needed!) Others are things I never even imagined.

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God didn’t give me a pony when I was younger. God didn’t give me blonde hair. God didn’t give me the genetics to be 5’9″ tall, athletic, and thin– I never became a ballerina or a model. God didn’t make it possible for me to study in France my junior year of college like I had wanted. God didn’t see fit to make “Mr. Right” fall in love with me in high school or college. God didn’t give me children to raise. God didn’t let my father live long enough to walk me down the aisle when I finally got married. And I never won the lottery (probably because I don’t play!– but still…)

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It’s very human to look around and see what others have that we might desire– things that God did not choose to give us; even things that God has taken from us–and feel resentment, envy, and even anger. But we rarely look at those things others have that we would NOT desire. And we rarely look back and see how things we thought we wanted would not have been good for us, or how God removed things from our lives–even good things–for a better purpose. Sometimes, we cannot know or understand such things this side of heaven. But it might be a good practice once in awhile to look back and see what God DIDN’T give us– and thank Him for His wisdom and provision!

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God allowed me to get chicken pox as a child– but He didn’t let me get Polio, or Diphtheria, Scarlet Fever or Whooping Cough. God didn’t give me blue eyes like my dad– but He didn’t give me Dad’s color-blindness, either. God prevented me from going on a date with one cute and popular boy who asked me out in high school. And the one in college. And the one I worked with. But God delivered me to my husband a virgin, and free of the guilt and shame of a string of failed relationships. God took my father at age 68. But He healed my father after a heart attack at age 50 (the reason I never got to study in France). We had and “extra” 18 years with Dad, and while Dad was sick most of the last years of his life, we didn’t have to see him suffer years of pain, misery, and helplessness. And about that semester in France? Some of my friends went that year– and they were plagued by injuries, nationwide strikes, and other issues. God knew what I wanted in each case; He also knew what was best for me.

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Last year, I was diagnosed with Diabetes. God did not “give” me Diabetes. (That’s another mistake we often make.) God gives good gifts. (James 1:17) But we live in a fallen and imperfect world. Disease, injustice, pain, and heartache are part of this world. Someday, God will redeem the world and put an end to all of these, but for now, there is no guarantee that God will keep us in perfect health or happiness. So I’m Diabetic. I’m not grateful because I have the disease, but I am grateful for so many things related to it. I am grateful that I live in a time when treatments are both available and accessible. I am grateful that I was diagnosed, rather than suffering a coma or dying without help. I am grateful that I have access to healthful foods and the ability to exercise– two things necessary to keep the Diabetes under control. I am grateful that I lived for so many years without the disease. I am grateful for a supportive husband and family members who help keep me motivated. And I am grateful that nothing about having Diabetes changes IN ANY WAY God’s love for me, and His plans to give me eternal life in Him!

Are there things, people, or situations in your life that God DIDN’T give you? Healing that was denied, or blessings withheld? Hurtful things that He allowed to happen in your life? That He took away from your life? God doesn’t want us to pretend that all is perfect in our world. He knows the pain of NOT getting what we wanted, and the agony of losing what we did want. But He also knows the joy that we haven’t yet experienced– the joy of renewal; the joy of restoration; and the joy of completion.

God didn’t give me a pony– nor the hard work of caring for it, or the heartbreak of losing it. God didn’t let me date the popular boy– but He gave me a man of gentleness and integrity. God didn’t give me children to raise, but He gave me grown children, and grandchildren to love. God didn’t “give” me the semester in France, but He did give me opportunities to meet people from France. He gave me opportunities to use the French language I studied– in Florida, Texas, and even the Dominican Republic! God didn’t let my father walk me down the aisle at my wedding. But He allowed Dad and David to meet and even know each other– years before we were married. God didn’t give me perfect health here on Earth– but there will be no disease or death in Heaven.

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Thank you, God, for all that you have given me– even Diabetes–and for all that you have allowed to shape my life. Help me see You in every detail of my life– the pleasant, the painful, the difficult, and the mysterious– and to praise You in every circumstance. Thank you for today, and for all the plans you have for it, and for me. Thank You for being You!

…And His Own Received Him Not

Today is Boxing Day. Some people will leave their Christmas decorations up for awhile longer; maybe even until after the New Year. Others will box up all the holiday trappings for next year. But the boxes and bags that held gifts yesterday are likely put away– some put aside; others in the trash. We laugh about toddlers and pets being more fascinated with the boxes than with the gifts inside, but most of us tear off the paper and rip open the boxes to get to the “good stuff” hidden inside. The ribbons and bows, the gift card holders and glittery greeting cards, while they delight us in the moment, pale in comparison to the gifts and the thoughts behind them.

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What a shame it would be if all the wonderful gifts under the tree remained unopened– boxed away for another year, just to be placed back under a Christmas tree in 2023. What a useless tradition it would be to give gifts that were never opened or used, or even seen!

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And yet…the Greatest gift of all–the very reason for the Christmas season– often remains boxed up and carefully preserved for another year. “Jesus is the reason for the Season,” as some people say. But have we RECEIVED Him? Have we opened up the gift of His coming; of His offer of salvation and reconciliation– or do we just enjoy the idea of the Baby in the Manger and the Wise Men coming from afar and offering gifts; the angels singing in the night sky, and the gentle animals in the stall?

The Gospel writer and Apostle John wrote that Jesus “came unto His own, and His own received Him not.” (John 1:11) God so Loved the world that He gave His son (John 3:16), but the gift remained unopened and ignored by those who should have welcomed Him. He grew up and lived among them– healed their diseases, spoke comfort and truth, laughed and shared sorrows with them– and they cried out, “Crucify Him!” God’s “one-size-fits-all” perfect gift– the “gift that keeps on giving” eternally!–was despised and rejected. And the Gift is still rejected, ignored, scorned, and unopened today.

All the splendor and glitter of the Christmas season will fade away– the decorations will go back in their boxes; the wrappings and trimmings will be forgotten. But the Gift! Let’s bring it out and use it– revel in it; wonder at it. God with Us. God reaching down and out and beyond to bring us Home–forever! And God giving us the privilege and the power to BE His hands and feet and eyes and lips as we minister to those around us! God holding us close as sons and daughters. “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name..”(John 1:12) When we open this gift, we are not just recipients, not merely believers or followers– we are Children of God.

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Lord, help me not make the grave mistake of taking your incredible gift and leaving it in a box, or worse, opening it up and putting it back in a box for later. Help me to live in the “present”– in every way– and to enjoy the privilege of being Your child forever. Amen!

Christmas Prayer

Father, this Christmas, I want to

Confess that I have not really comprehended what Christmas really means. There are times throughout this year when I have not made “room in the inn;” I have not welcomed Christ in the “least of these.” I have not followed the star, or listened to the message of the angels. I have not come to the manger with gifts. I have been like the people of Bethlehem– asleep and unaware of the miracles taking place under my nose. I have not acknowledged that you are

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Here. Not just that you came. Not just that you lived, and died, and rose again. But that you are present with me–Now! Every moment! Forever. Here. Not just beside me, but indwelling…living in me and working through me, flawed and cracked vessel that I am. Living in and working through other ordinary people You send into my life (as You send me into theirs).

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Righteous Redeemer, help me to understand better Your Wisdom, Your Power, Your Glory, and Your Holiness. You did not come to rescue us from some failed plan or cosmic mistake. You are altogether perfect in Your plan of Salvation. Even when I cannot understand Your ways, they are higher and better than anything I can imagine. And Christmas, with all its wonder and glory and contradiction was never a surprise to YOU. It wasn’t Plan B. It was timed down to the minute, scripted to the very last detail, and part of the eternal plan of Salvation.

Inspire me again with the wonder of Your Mercy and Grace. Help me to experience the Joy of the Shepherds, the Awe of the Magi, and the Hush of Heaven as You left Your throne to become a little lower than the angels who shouted Your Glory into the darkness.

Send me, as you sent the Shepherds, to make known Your wonders, as you sent the Angels to tell of Your Good News of Great Joy, and as you sent Your Son into the world to make reconciliation. Strengthen me as an instrument of Your Grace, as a Witness of Your Might, and as an Ambassador of Your Love.

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Transform my thinking. Build my Trust in You, that I would spend less time fretting about my daily needs and the unforeseen circumstances of my days, and more time praising You for what you have done, and will do, and are doing. Help me to embrace Your

Might, Your Majesty, and Your mystery. That the same voice that spoke galaxies into being and the same right arm that raised up empires was wrapped up in rags and laid in a Manger, meek and tiny. That Your glory was hidden in a cattle stall in a quiet village of a conquered nation. That Your plan to bring us life involved Your own painful death at the hands of people You had raised up to power That all of Eternity could be changed in a single instant, even as the Earth slept.

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Accept my adoration, incomplete and uncomprehending as it is. And equip me to Act in ways that bring You Glory and Honor. Advance Your Kingdom, and Thank You for making it possible to be reconciled to You.

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Sovereign Savior and Gracious Shepherd, let Christmas be born in me anew this season. Let me grow in Faith and Obedience. Let me shine like that first star– drawing others to worship You.

Amen.

Christmas Wish Lists

When I was a child, we used to write letters to “Santa” with a list of what we wanted to find under the Christmas Tree that year. Sometimes this was a school project– practice in letter-writing etiquette, etc.– and sometimes, it was done spontaneously after poring through the Sears “Wish Book” Christmas catalog, or after watching Saturday morning cartoons with their endless ads for toys, dolls, bikes, and sugary cereals.

As adults, we often do something similar, drafting a Christmas “wish list” in our prayers and Advent dreams. Our adult lists may be as shallow as those of childhood–a new dishwasher, or a shiny piece of jewelry; a new “toy” boat for Dad, etc. Sometimes, they sound more virtuous– world peace, a healthy economy, a cure for cancer…

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It isn’t “wrong” to have wishes at any time of year. And we should hope for better things in the world around us. But we can get caught up in the idea of Christmas being all about wishes and desires at the expense of the real GIFT of Christmas– Christ Himself! In fact, we can become numb to the fact that Jesus wasn’t just “another” Christmas gift among our “wish list” items.

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The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1: 9-14 (NIV)

Christ didn’t come that first Christmas in response to any person’s wish list. In fact, the Bible says that when Jesus came into the very world He created, He was rejected, ignored, even despised by those who should have recognized and welcomed Him. He didn’t come wrapped in shiny paper and waiting for us to enjoy Him. He came wrapped in rags, forced to go into exile under threat of death, and honored only by humble shepherds and strangers from foreign lands. No one sought Him out on their own. Even the shepherds and wise men were led by angels and a guiding star.

This year, instead of concentrating on wish lists and our desires (even noble ones!), let’s reflect on God’s wish list– that we would turn from sin and rebellion, and be reconciled to Him; that we would make His gift our greatest desire!

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Joy(?) to The World

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I don’t know about you, but I sometimes have problems with Advent Season. On the one hand, it’s a season of joy and wonder; a season of anticipation and expectation. But I find myself contemplating…and as the days get darker, earlier, and the snow falls, then melts, leaving everything brown and gray, I can’t seem to hang on to the joy. It slips through my fingers, leaving me thoughtful and even a little depressed.

I also find myself looking at the glitter and listening to the peppy music of the season and feeling as though all the “Merry” in Christmas is just a soap bubble, waiting to burst. I don’t watch much television, but it seems that every year the “holiday” specials and TV ads get more artificial and shallow. “Buy this!” “Turn up the Tunes!” “Wear THIS to the Holiday party!” “Eat this– Drink that!” “Get away from it all!” It’s more about escaping the ordinary, rather than celebrating the extraordinary gift of God’s Son. The more I try to get “into the Spirit” of the season, the more I seem to miss it…

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It is important to remember that this extraordinary Joy came INTO and THROUGH the ordinary. The angels didn’t announce to the shepherds that they could escape their duties and run off to a vacation cruise; Mary and Joseph didn’t celebrate their first Christmas surrounded by lights and mugs of hot cocoa. The wise men didn’t have a brand new GPS device to help them find their destination, or tasty cookies and fruit baskets to make the journey more “fun.” This “good news of great joy” was the birth of a child– an ordinary event–except that THIS birth was the fulfillment of God’s Promise and the Way, the Truth, and the Life!

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Many millions of people today will not have joyful circumstances to make the season “Merry and Bright.” But they can experience true Joy– the kind that comes from Knowing Jesus–and not just for a day or a season, but forever, in spite of difficulties, pain, and struggle. There IS joy in the journey, but it doesn’t always manifest as mirth and comfort.

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This season, it is our privilege as Christians to offer a different level of Joy to the World–the Joy of forgiveness; the joy of belonging; the joy of eternal Hope and Peace. It may not be in laughter or singing. It may be in holding a hand at the side of a hospital bed. It may be in sharing tears with those who are suffering. It may be sharing a crust of bread with real thankfulness, instead of a feast with stress. Joy doesn’t have to be complicated. It doesn’t require wrapping paper sugar sprinkles. The best gifts we can give this season don’t have to be filled with merriment and laughter. They don’t have to be expensive or even filled with thoughtful intent. They should be the spontaneous response of love and compassion for those around us. Let’s give lots of hugs, smiles, and small tokens of respect and appreciation this year. After all, God’s great gift– the greatest of all– began as a tiny, wailing infant, hidden away in a spare stable, wrapped in rags. But “Behold!” It is still bringing great joy all over the world. (Luke 2:10)

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Let’s not trade certain Joy for temporary mirth this season. Reflect on the Reason, and not just the Season!

It Came Without Ribbons…

In the Dr. Seuss classic, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!,” the bitter and devious Grinch tries to “steal” Christmas from the village of Whoville. He steals all the things the Whos of the village seem to need in order to celebrate a holiday he hates. He hates their gift exchanges, their feasting, their singing, and their general happiness, all of which serve to remind him of his own loneliness and gloom.

With mounting glee, the Grinch proceeds to pile up his hoard of goodies– presents, decorations, food, anything that could serve to make the holiday cheery and bright. He loads up all his stolen loot and takes it to the top of a mountain, where he plans to dump it. But first, he stops to savor the shock and pain he expects to hear as the Whos discover that their holiday has been ruined. He waits in the cold of a clear dawn to hear wailing and lamenting, but the sound he hears instead is singing…the Whos have come together to sing a hymn of gratitude and peace. There is no lamenting; there is no distress. Instead there is a peaceful acceptance that the new day has brought joy and goodwill that has nothing to do with all the trappings of celebration.

He hadn’t stopped Christmas from coming. It came!
Somehow or other it came just the same.
And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so?
It came without ribbons. It came without tags.
It came without packages, boxes or bags.
And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before.
What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store.
What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas!–Dr. Seuss
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The first Christmas came without any of the festive trappings we’ve added over the years. There were no groups of cheery carolers; no jingle bells and tinsel; no greeting cards or candy canes. Jesus came in the dead of night, in the midst of chaos and terror, as people were groaning under the oppression of an invading empire, being forced to travel long distances to be counted and taxed by their oppressors. There were no Christmas parties, no brightly decorated trees, no stockings filled with treats, no cookies and cocoa on a cold night. The gifts would come later– and they would be followed by death threats and exile! But Jesus came! He came just the same!

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This year, Christmas will come– with or without ribbons or tags. Christmas will come to those who are homeless, and those who are lonely in palaces and mansions. Christmas will come in spite of efforts to erase the holiday from our culture. It will come just like the dawn of each new day– quiet in its wonder and glorious in its simplicity. Christmas doesn’t come wrapped in shiny paper or announced with blaring horns and neon lights. Christmas comes just as Christ came so many years ago–wrapped in rags, laid in a straw bed on a cold, dark night; announced to simple people going about their business, signaled by a single star ignored by most, wondered at by others. Christmas will seep into the hearts and eyes of those with child-like faith and willing to sing when things are darkest.

God chooses to come in simplicity– He creeps like the dawning day; He sighs like a gentle breeze; He comes as a harmless infant, or a wandering teacher and healer. And when our Christmas Day comes without ribbons and boxes or feasting and lights– it will come just the same. Christ will enter darkened hotel rooms and alleys, He will sit beside hospital beds and in makeshift refugee shelters. He will sneak into homes where Christians huddle in secret, and He will knock gently on the doors of the lonely and the lost. Because Christmas DOESN’T come from a store. It doesn’t come from our bounty and our glittering decorations. It comes from the heart– the heart of God, who SO loved the world, that He came! And He will come this year, just the same!

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“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 Few Thoughts About Manna

I’ve already posted recently about Ash Wednesday (see the post from Feb. 15), so it may seem strange on a day of fasting and ashes to be writing about food. And manna doesn’t seem to have much of a connection to prayer– bear with me…

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  • Manna was, quite literally, “daily bread.” God sent manna each day for the children of Israel as they wandered and camped in the wilderness on their journey to the Promised Land. It appeared overnight, much like dew, and evaporated in the heat of the day. Yet the small “grains” could be gathered and made into nourishment for the thousands of Israelites who had no other source of bread. Manna and the bread made from it were only good for a day (except on Friday, when twice as much would fall so no work needed to be done on the Sabbath). God provides for our needs daily– we don’t have to worry and fret. Jesus returned to this theme often, including the Sermon on the Mount and The Lord’s Prayer.
  • Manna was uniquely suited for the Israelites in their situation. Manna did not require time to grow, harvest, or prepare. It did not require storage space, as it was collected and used up daily. It did not require yeast, salt, or sugar to be added to it–God designed it to be simple, sufficient, sustaining, and even sweet!
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  • Manna was provided even after the Israelites complained and accused Moses (and God!) of leading them into the wilderness to die. God will not withhold punishment (see what happened in Numbers 11 when the Israelites complained about the manna!), but He will provide for our needs out of His love for us, not as a condition of our righteous behavior. All the people had access to manna, even those who complained or were defiant. If someone went hungry, it was not because God refused to provide– but because they chose not to avail themselves of His gift, or because they refused to accept the nature of the gift.
  • Manna was consistent. God didn’t send manna one week and raisins the next; God is faithful and unchanging–the manna wasn’t just a nutritional provision, it was a reflection of God’s nature! God gives good gifts; it is our selfish nature that often takes His goodness for granted, and asks for what we do not need.
  • Once the Israelites reached the Promised Land, the manna stopped. God’s gifts meet our needs– in His way, and in His time. God does not give gifts blindly or absent-mindedly. God knew exactly how much manna to send each day, and exactly when the manna would no longer be needed. He was watching closely the whole time– every step of the journey.
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So today, whether or not you are fasting, you can rejoice in the knowledge that God has seen every step of YOUR journey. He will provide for our every need, including the need for forgiveness, courage, physical nourishment, and spiritual growth. All we need to do is look for it, gather it, and use it!

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!

What Costs Me Nothing…

We’re coming up to Thanksgiving in the U.S. next week. Many families will sit down to sumptuous meals–turkey with dressing/stuffing (depending on what region you live in), pumpkin pies, sweet potatoes, corn, beans, rolls or muffins, salads, mac and cheese, casseroles, cranberry sauce, and more. Some will settle in front of big screen televisions to watch American football, and parades crowded with giant balloons and marching bands. Some will have modest gatherings with family and friends.

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And the following day– Black Friday– they will rush to malls and giant box stores to take advantage of the spectacular sales. People will buy hundreds of dollars worth of Christmas gifts, all with the satisfaction that they might have spent a lot more if they had not braved the crowds and the 4 a.m. opening times (some will begin shopping on Thanksgiving Day for the “head start.” Others will stay comfortably and safely indoors and spend their money shopping on-line).

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All of this costs money, of course. But for many Americans, it is not a real pinch to celebrate Thanksgiving. And we will say “Thanks,” and count our many blessings. We will also give. Charities and organizations are already taking donations. We can give $10 at the store to help buy meals for the hungry. We can buy small gifts to be sent overseas or to be given to the children of those in prison, or those who are homeless. We can buy coats (or hats or mittens, etc.) for those who have none. These efforts cost some money, too.

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But how much of these efforts comes from true “thankfulness” and how much from other sources– pride or guilt or a sense of duty? For what am I truly grateful at Thanksgiving? Thankful that I have so much? Thankful that I have the power to help others? Thankful that I have the day off to go shopping?

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It is easy for some of us to be thankful and generous–in our own eyes. I can give with the click of a button, and money I barely know I have is taken from my bank account and deposited in the account of a charity I may know very little about. I never have to see the people who are helped, and I never have to see what they have suffered or how my gift makes a difference. In fact, I don’t really have to see whether my gift even arrives where I imagine or does what the charity has promised. Some organizations are more transparent than others, and more reputable or honest than others, but I can feel good just by giving. In some cases, I can “make a difference” without any cost at all– just “like” a certain site, or fill out a survey. I can “give” without even giving!

In recent years, however, I have been surprised by those who have tried to make me feel bad about giving. They are not angry because I have not given, or have given very little, or given to dishonest charities. No. One lady was outraged that I should give to an organization that sends toys, hygiene items, and school supplies to needy children in countries around the world. What caused her outrage? Three things–the toys were “too American”–the instructions were printed in English, or they were “frivolous” toys like jump ropes and “matchbox” sized cars and trucks. Also, some of the boxes and wrapping were printed with cartoon-like children, which she felt were “racist” in their depiction. Finally, the spokesperson for the organization had been portrayed by the media as narrow-minded and “hateful” toward the issue of gay marriage. Her solution: she was never going to give to such an organization. She was urging people to give to groups that were providing livestock, instead. Here, she felt, was a useful gift. Chickens, goats, cows–these were gifts that would truly make a difference. And such gifts can and do make a difference– in rural areas, where there is space and enough grass or other food to sustain such animals. Her gift will have little impact on a child living in Nairobi, or Tegucigalpa, or Kosovo. I am glad she has the means and the desire to give and to help. And the organizations who provide such gifts are worthy–I mean no disrespect to any of them. But giving should be a joyous outpouring of love and thankfulness, of compassion and humility. If that means helping a rural community get milk and meat, that’s wonderful. If it means sending a stuffed animal, some silly socks, and some soap and washcloths to Lebanon, that’s great, too. Even if I don’t like the wrapping paper…

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My point is that a lot of our “giving” has become more about virtue signaling than joyously sharing with others to meet their needs. It costs a lot more in money to send a goat to Peru. But it may cost a lot more in time and energy to spend a day serving meals at a homeless shelter, or volunteer to rebuild in a community hit by a tornado or hurricane. And even though there may be a monetary cost to some of our gifts, in some ways, our “giving” costs us nothing. Not just little or nothing in dollars and cents, but little in emotion or thought or effort. There is nothing personal, or heartfelt, or sacrificial about some of our giving.

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And if that is true of our giving to strangers, what does that say about what we “give” to our families, our neighbors, and to God?

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During the reign of King David, there are many instances of celebration and thanksgiving. But there are also stories of heartbreak, loss, and repentance. In one of these incidents, King David angered God by taking a census. His conscience caused him to ask God’s forgiveness and ask what could be done to take away the guilt. God sent the prophet Gad to give David three choices, but David left it in God’s hands. God sent a vicious plague that swept toward Jerusalem. When the angel of death reached the threshing floor of a man named Araunah the Jebusite, God told him to stop. David could actually see where God had stopped the plague, and immediately went to buy the threshing floor, so he could build an alter and sacrifice to the Lord in repentance and in thanksgiving for God’s mercy.

Read more about the story of David in 2 Samuel 24
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King David had plenty of money. He also had authority, and the respect of his people. Araunah offered to give David not only the field, but the oxen to make the sacrifice. As the king, David could have taken the land and oxen– he could even have demanded them of Araunah. But David paid for it all, saying that he would not give to God that which had cost him nothing.

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In this season of giving, it can be tempting to measure the value of our gift by the monetary cost, or by the value WE receive from giving. But true giving should involve a willing and joyful sacrifice of our pride and our time. Sometimes, this may mean NOT giving a toy or a goat–it may mean giving an apology, or a second chance, or being willing to give up a turkey dinner or a shopping trip, in order to visit a shut-in, or spend some much needed time on our knees.

Having said that, there are plenty of things we can give that cost us “nothing”–smiles, a warm welcome, a listening ear, reaching out for reconciliation, and most of all, a heart-felt “Thank You.” Sometimes, these gestures cost us nothing– sometimes, they are a sacrifice. But they are gifts that really make a difference.

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