“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.

When Christmas Wasn’t Merry

I know several people who had a very Merry Christmas this year. Some of them flew to exotic locations and spent Christmas on the beach, or in a big city with lights and dozens of family members. Some of them spent a cozy Christmas in a cabin with roaring fires and glittering snow-covered trees, eating sumptuous meals and unwrapping expensive gifts.

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But most of the people I know spent a Christmas that wasn’t “post-card” perfect. Some of them were alone in a small apartment with no presents and no heat. Some were working at a job they hate because they had no other option. Some were grieving loved ones lost in the past months. Some of them are facing economic mountains– debt, job loss, medical bills or taxes they cannot pay, no money for rent or groceries… Some are battling cancer or alcoholism, anger, or fear. Some are estranged from their families, or separated from loved ones because of COVID, or deployment, or divorce. And some are facing persecution, starvation, homelessness, disease, or war.

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Christmas comes, whatever our circumstances– and so does the Christ Child. Jesus didn’t come to the earth to bring us all “better” circumstances or worry-free holidays, but to deliver us from eternal death, and equip us to endure the circumstances we face in life. Jesus himself came in chaotic and stressful circumstances, and He came, knowing that He would face rejection, hatred, injustice, and death on a cross.

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There are millions of people who spent a “Merry” Christmas and missed the whole point. Some of us indulged in a gift-giving frenzy that left others in the cold. Some of us allowed envy, fear, greed, or bitterness to color our Christmas. In the process, many of us lost sight of the true gifts of Christmas– Peace, Joy, and Goodwill. In fact, “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.” (2 Peter 1:3)

And these gifts are not temporary, like earthly Christmas gifts. They are always available, and they never break, expire, or grow dim. My prayer for this year(and the year to come) is that we all may find–and share!– these eternal and astounding gifts, this “inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade…kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4)

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Christmas Day may not always be merry in this life, but because of Christmas we can face an eternity that will never disappoint, and we have a living Hope that can carry us through even the darkest hours!

Render Unto Caesar…

I don’t like paying bills. Utility bills, insurance premiums, credit cards, and taxes– property tax, income tax, even sales tax. Every month, the bills come, and the checks go. And if we don’t pay the bills on time, there is an extra fee and interest charges.

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I just finished paying off a student loan from over a decade ago. The original loan was compounded by interest, and it took longer to pay off than a car loan for a larger amount! Bills and fees and payment schedules are not unusual or unexpected in this world. And we pay (if and when we can) because we are honest and upright citizens. It is a duty, but not a pleasure.

Jesus even had to pay taxes. He was asked about it– even challenged over it. The Pharisees wanted to trap Jesus into taking a stance and offending many of His followers or running afoul of the Roman government. They asked, “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Matthew 22:17)(https://biblia.com/bible/esv/matthew/22/15-22) Of course, if Jesus said it was right to pay taxes, He would anger those who were fighting to be free of Roman oppression. Paying taxes to Caesar, in effect, legitimized Roman occupation and subjugation of the Jews. Much of the tax money was used to extend Rome’s control over the Jews, and to pay the soldiers and officials who made life miserable for Jesus’ followers on a daily basis. And it was common knowledge that many tax collectors were corrupt and cheated the people to line their own pockets, as well. The Romans worshiped countless gods and goddesses, but had no respect for the God of Israel. It was humiliating, and burdensome, and unjust to pay taxes. And yet, if Jesus said it was NOT right to pay taxes, He would be inciting open rebellion against the Roman occupation. He and His followers were be arrested and killed.

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But Jesus did not fall into the Pharisees’ trap. He asked to see a common coin. He asked whose face and likeness were on the coin. “Caesar’s.” And then Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

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I was reminded as I opened bills and wrote checks earlier this week, that I do NOT receive a bill from God. I owe God everything– my life, my next breath, my health, my hope of eternal life. Yet He never sends me a bill, or an overdue statement. He charges no interest, or late fees, even when I let distractions keep me from giving Him the praise and honor that is due to Him. Even when I choose to go through my day without sharing my heart’s longings with Him.

I may not like paying bills, but I do it. I “render unto Caesar,” even as I complain about taxes and interest fees. But do I “render unto God what is God’s?” And when I do, is my attitude the same as it is when paying bills? God forbid!

God never cheats; He never asks for something He doesn’t deserve. And He has given me far more than I could ever ask or imagine, through the power that is at work IN ME! God doesn’t give loans– He gives gifts of eternal value.

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What can I render unto God today? Surely I can give Him praise, and share His grace and goodness with others…it isn’t impossible. It isn’t beyond my duty. It isn’t isn’t even “taxing!”

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…

man wearing black coat facing woman wearing black coat near tree
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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.

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