Putting It All On the Table

In 2 Kings, chapters 18 and 19, we can read about the reign of King Hezekiah of Judah. During his reign, a mighty king, Sennacherib of Assyria, came to lay siege to Jerusalem. Sennacherib taunted King Hezekiah, sending him a letter boasting about the might of the Assyrian army, and all its conquests. In the letter, he also taunts King Hezekiah about trusting in God to save Jerusalem, suggesting that God was unable to rescue the Jews, while simultaneously suggesting that God had given the Assyrians His blessing.

Hezekiah had already made some provision for the coming siege. He had his workers divert the water supply that flowed out of the city, creating a system of tunnels that kept the water inside the city walls and filled pools and wells for the people to withstand the siege while depriving the invaders of a crucial resource. (Evidence of these tunnels has been discovered by archaeologists, including carvings by two work crews who were “competing” to see who could complete their part of the tunnel fastest!)

Entrance to Hezekiah’s Tunnel in Jerusalem

But Hezekiah did not trust in his preparations. He did not trust in diplomacy or alliances. He took the offending letter from King Sennacherib into the Lord’s temple and spread it out before the Lord (2 Kings 19:14). He prayed earnestly, never mentioning his own efforts and preparations, but reminding himself of God’s power and glory. He even acknowledged that the Assyrians had been victorious in their other conquests! But then he asks for God to rescue the nation– “then all the kingdoms of the earth will know that you alone, O Lord, are God. “(v. 19).

I was struck as I read this recently. Hezekiah was a king. He had done a great deal to bring reform and renewal to the kingdom of Judah. He could have appealed to God on the basis of his own efforts. He could have asked for God’s help for his own sake, and for the sake of his people. He could have spoken about how Sennacherib taunted the army, or the king. He could have cried out in panic and outrage that God would allow Judah to be invaded. But he put it all on the table, literally, asking God to judge Sennacherib’s words and respond for the sake of His Sovereign Glory.

God DID respond, and the Assyrian troops were routed by the Angel of the Lord. Sennacherib returned to his home, and was assassinated in the temple of his false god by his own sons. Hezekiah’s troops didn’t even have to lift a finger!

What situations am I facing today, that need to be brought to God in prayer? What threats seem to hover over me? Do I respond as Hezekiah did? Or do I try to bring only the part that seems “too much” for me to handle? Do I bring my own agenda, or my own efforts to cloud the issue? Do I worry more about my own reputation than I do about God’s honor?

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Lord, may I be more like Hezekiah–may I lay everything on the table before You, knowing that Your power is more than sufficient, and that Your honor and glory are greater than any force at work against me. Protect and defend those who humble themselves before You. Destroy those forces that would seek to exalt themselves and taunt Your Holy Name. Rise up, that “all the kingdoms of the earth will know that You alone, O Lord, are God!”

For Righteousness’ Sake

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

Matthew 5:10 (NKJV)
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Yesterday was Easter (in parts of the world)–the celebration of Christ’s resurrection and victory over Sin and Death. We have much to celebrate. But we also have a mission. We have the assurance of eternity in Heaven, but in THIS world, Jesus warned us, “you will have trouble.” (John 16:33). We will be misunderstood, mocked, and persecuted. We will have to face the temporary consequences of living in a fallen world– anger, greed, abuse, violence, betrayal–even bad weather and natural disasters!

In giving the Beatitudes, Jesus turned common expectations upside-down. Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are the meek; blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake… We don’t consider poverty, powerlessness, suffering and persecution blessings to be desired. Yet Jesus, the One we follow, gladly endured all of these for our sake! Notice that the “blessing” is the same here as in the first of the Beatitudes– “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The Kingdom of Heaven is not reserved for those who are victorious in their own power or through force of will or extraordinary effort. But it is reserved for those who persevere in the face of evil–those who lean, and those who rest, and those who stand IN THE POWER of God.

Notice, too, that we are blessed if we are persecuted “for righteousness’ sake.” There is no blessing for suffering due to our own stubbornness or foolishness. There is no blessing for those who are persecuted for their own pride and judgmental nature and unforgiveness toward themselves or others. (see 1 Peter 3) https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Peter+3%3A8-17&version=CEV

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We live in a culture that celebrates “victimhood.” Those who suffer injustice– even perceived of implied injustice–are considered to have a special status. Those who claim to have been offended or hurt by individuals or groups often demand recognition for their “bravery” or retribution for their suffering. This happens even among certain Christians, who claim to be “persecuted,” when they are merely suffering the consequences of their own hubris and self-righteous posturing. This is a monstrous injustice to fellow Christians who are truly suffering persecution “for righteousness’ sake.”

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My prayer today is that I will emulate the example of Christ– that I will serve, humbly, willingly, sacrificially, enduring any persecution that comes as a result, and lifting up fellow Christians who are suffering, as well as their persecutors! For righteousness’ sake– for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Blessed Are the Merciful

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7).

Am I merciful when I pray? That’s not a question I normally ask, but I’m looking at the Beatitudes, and how they relate to my pursuit of prayer. I pray for justice; I pray for healing; I pray to be more Christlike, but do I specifically pray about mercy? Certainly, I thank God for HIS mercy toward me, and I hope I show mercy to others, but does it enter my prayer life?

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It’s easy to pray for mercy for ourselves, when we know we deserve justice (and punishment). It’s easy to ask for mercy for our loved ones. But do I pray to become more merciful? Do I pray for a greater love of Mercy? In Micah 6:8, we are told that God requires three things– to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with Him. Often, it is easier to love justice, do mercy (when it suits us) and walk in our own way, asking God to follow US as we go through the day– bless me, bless my work, bless my travels, etc..

Mercy requires a knowledge of justice and a humble acceptance of God’s sovereignty. Justice is NOT whatever we think is “fair” or “equitable” in a certain set of circumstances. Justice is defined by God, and the only way to “do justice” is to obey His will. We will not “love mercy” until we experience it at God’s hands.

That’s really what this Holy Week is all about–God’s justice, God’s Mercy, and His Victory and Lordship. As we go through this week, in preparation for Easter, it is vital to meditate on what Jesus DID for justice to be satisfied, the depth of His Love that caused Him to suffer and die to provide, not just mercy, but Unspeakable Grace, and the humility He demonstrated in His time on earth– serving, sacrificing, even dying the painful and humiliating death on a cross–all for me; all for you.

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And we must be careful about making Mercy all about us and all about the here and now. We live in a culture of “instant gratification.” We want God’s mercy to “fix” the immediate problems we see around us. Those who are merciful WILL be shown mercy– but we may not see instant ease and comfort in a situation where others hold a grudge, or where the natural consequences of our sin still exist. We have been justified before God– He will not count those sins against us–but we still live in the fallen world where sin leads to death and destruction. God will redeem all things in His time, and we can trust that His mercy will triumph over even the worst of circumstances, but we may still have to endure suffering for a season.

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When we come to God in prayer, we have no right to withhold mercy– either from those who may have offended us, or from ourselves for things we did in the past. Mercy is a gift– one we cannot give without having received it, and one we cannot hold on to without sharing it freely. When we pray for our enemies, we must pray with a heart of mercy– not because they deserve it, but because God’s sovereignty demands it.

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Blessed Are the Poor In Spirit

I want to spend some time this month exploring the Beatitudes and how they relate to our prayer life. Today I want to look at Matthew 5:3: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.”

How do I approach God’s throne of Grace? Do I come with a list of what I want, and what I’ve accomplished for God? Do I come reluctantly, grudgingly, holding back some part of who I am or who I have been? Do I come flaunting my self-righteousness? Or do I come empty of all but my desire to be in the Presence of my Maker?

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Many people have interpreted (and misinterpreted) this phrase. Jesus does not insist that we be financially destitute, or drained of all enthusiasm or emotion. But He does require that we come recognizing our need of Him. We may not be physically needy in the moment– we may be well-fed, comfortable, or even wealthy by human standards. But we are all in need of God’s presence and His provision. On my own, I may believe that I have earned all that I seem to possess, but I cannot supply the air that I breathe, or guarantee that my health will remain perfect, or that I will be able to keep what I think I own, or force others to accept or respect me. “Man supposes, but God disposes” is an old phrase, but an accurate one.

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When I approach God in prayer, no matter how rich or poor I may seem, I am dependent on God for everything. And this is true for every one of us. So I don’t approach God as someone “needier” or “less needy” than my neighbor. And I don’t approach God with any power to bargain or demand, or even to request– except that God has invited me and sought me out in His Love and Mercy!

And this is the rest of the Beatitude– “for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.” God has opened up Heaven and invited me to walk with Him, to learn from Him, to receive His blessings, and to live with Him throughout eternity. His riches! His Glory! His Presence! Every time I pray, I trade my poverty for God’s bounty. I trade my confession for His forgiveness. I trade my helplessness for His Wisdom and Power to triumph over adversity and confusion, grief and doubt, sickness and lack.

It is when I come to Christ believing that I possess or control all that I suppose to be “mine,” that I lose the Blessing of His sufficiency and His perfection.

“Thank you, God of Mercy, and Ruler of All, for the privilege of coming to you. I come empty and spent–show me where I am holding on to something less than You, or trying to claim Your wealth as my own. Teach me to rest in the sufficiency of Your kingdom, even as I continue to serve you here on earth.”

A Lenten Prayer

Father,
I gave up nothing for Lent this year.

I went on a “weight-loss” plan because my doctor said I should.
Even so, I didn’t give up meat or chocolate,
Or sweets, or even television, like some others did.

I didn’t give up shopping.
I didn’t give up social media.
I didn’t give up…anything for this short season.

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But today I acknowledge that Lent isn’t really about
What I have or haven’t given up.
It’s about what YOU gave up.
You gave it all:
Your Glory;
Your Power;
Your Majesty.
You became a simple man.
A servant of men.
A man without a home;
Without prestige;
Without a title.

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You were betrayed;
Falsely accused,
Corruptly tried,
Shamefully condemned,
Brutally beaten,
Crucified.
So that I might gain eternal life.

You do not judge me for what I haven’t given up for a season.
You do not withhold your love and forgiveness;
Waiting for me to learn the disciplines of Lent.
You ask for more than that– and less.
You ask me to follow you–to leave it all behind.
You ask me to give up my life– only to find it again in You.

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Let me reflect today on what more I need to give up:
My pride.
My apathy.
My selfishness with time and money.
My need to have my own way;
My own comforts.


May I be free to serve you;
To serve others.
May I be ready to give up whatever is
Keeping me in thrall;
Keeping me enslaved;
Keeping me from serving you with abandon.

Show me how to let go
Of all but You–
That You may be my All.

Fixing the Snarls

A few years ago, I got really ambitious and decided I would take up crocheting. My grandmother taught me the basics many years ago, and I thought I would be able to pick it back up and make delightful scarves and mittens and maybe even afghans… Except, when I started a scarf, I ended up with a nice start attached to a horribly snarled up ball of yarn. No problem. I would simply work at the snarl until it melted away, and continue with my scarf. Except it didn’t melt away. I was able to “move” the snarl a foot or so down from where it was, but I couldn’t work it all the way out.

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I struggled with that snarl far longer than I should have, and eventually gave up the project and moved on to making candles (another story for another time). But I learned a painful lesson. I would love to say that I prayed about the snarl and God unraveled it for me, but that didn’t happen. I prayed– yes; but God allowed me to continue in my stubbornness and self-confidence to do battle with a few yards of green yarn for days, when I could have been doing more productive things.

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I have a great need to try to “fix” things– I think most of us do at some level. We live in a broken world, and we know that there are things that are “snarled” all around us–relationships, situations, circumstances–that need fixing. And God has given us opportunities to do good works that can make the world around us better. But it is not our job to “fix” the brokenness in the world. Only God can really “fix” it–even though He may give us work to do along the way.

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And that brings me back to prayer. No, God didn’t “fix” the snarl in my yarn. And He didn’t “fix” my stubborn attitude or my willingness to finish the project another way or ask for help from someone else. God isn’t interested in making our lives (or our projects) easier for us by removing our problems. And God isn’t impressed by our stubborn efforts to “fix” the situations in our lives. God’s ways are not our ways (see Isaiah 55:8-9; and check out https://blackaby.org/gods-ways-are-not-our-ways/.

So many times, we think of prayer as a last resort, as a crutch to fall back on when our efforts seem to be failing, or when we think a situation is “too big” for us to handle on our own. Even in the things of Christ, we tend to plan first, and pray later. Prayer becomes our Plan B. But what if, in the grand scale, prayer was always our Plan A? What if we started the morning, not looking at our planners and calendars, but listening for God’s direction? Even if it meant scrapping our own plans and leaving the “snarls” to God? What if, as our churches planned for programming and outreach, we resolved to do nothing until we had prayed for a month about our goals for the coming year? What if our churches had more people coming to prayer meetings than coming to Family Game Nights or Teen Overnight Parties? In my own life, what if I spent less time writing in my prayer journal than asking God to inhabit my prayers?

In the book of 1 Samuel, King Saul undertook a mission for God– God had chosen him to be King over all Israel, and to lead the nation against the wicked peoples in their midst. Saul led his warriors in battle, and even had success, but God rejected Saul because of his disobedience. Saul wanted victory to confirm his status as a warrior and a king. He listened to God’s instructions– superficially. He even insisted that he had followed God’s instructions– after all, he defeated the enemy! But he didn’t do it God’s way or for God’s glory. God gave him victory in many battles, but Saul was impatient, imprudent, and impudent. Saul ended his reign in shameful defeat because he wanted to “fix the snarls”– his way.

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I’m not saying that my prayer journal is wrong, or that churches shouldn’t do programming– not at all. But it is something to think about, before the next yarn snarl comes along… Am I busy trying to “fix” a situation that I can’t (or shouldn’t) fix, when I should be watching for God’s next assignment? Am I trying to win a battle to prove myself worthy, or am I letting God set the terms and take the Glory that is rightfully His? Am I busy asking God to unsnarl yarn, when He wants to move mountains?

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Search Terms, Algorithms, and Prayer Requests

I used to work in a public library. I was the Youth Services Librarian, which meant that most of my time was spent working on building up the collection of children’s books, planning and presenting programming and story times, and going into schools to do book talks and promote library offerings. But I also spent time at the reference desks– both in the Children’s Area and the Adult Services area– and some of my time was spent finding answers to a wide range of questions:

  • Does the library have books or articles about Okapis (for a 4th grade report)?
  • Do you carry tax forms for my out-of-state business?
  • What are the school colors for _______ college (a small community college in Nebraska)?
  • Do you have a picture of the Egyptian queen Hatshepsut?
  • What is the title of a children’s book that featured muskrats making chicken soup?
  • My great-aunt left me a set of dishes and I want to know if they’re worth anything.
  • Do you have a recipe for pemmican?
  • What color is yak’s milk?
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Some questions were easy to answer. Some required a little research within the library’s resources. Some were next to impossible and required hours of searching databases, or calling on expert help. Searching a database can be tricky. You need to find solid key words and search terms. For instance, our computer catalog did not recognize the the search term “cooking” or “cookbook.” You had to use the term “cookery” to get the best results. You could also use “cook***” to force the algorithm to look at all words that contained the letters c-o-o-k and any other letters that followed, such as cooks, cookies, cookery, etc. (Many library databases have since been updated, so searches will automatically redirect or refine common terms like this.)

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Databases and search engines are amazing things, but they have limitations. They will only search for what you type in, and they will only search in the way they are programmed to do so. Computers (currently) “think” laterally–they do not make leaps of imagination, nor do they second-guess what you might have meant to ask but didn’t. If I want to know about pemmican, but I misspell it, the search engine may not find what I’m looking for.

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That’s where algorithms come in. If I misspell pemmican by leaving out the second “m”, the algorithm will look for words close to what I typed, based on thousands of other inquiries. It may ask if I meant to search for pelican, instead. Or it may ask if I want pemmican. But if my spelling is really bad, or if the word I type in is actually another word, the search engine may miss my real inquiry altogether, and send me on a fruitless search. If I’m searching for a children’s book with muskrats and chicken soup, and the search engine doesn’t find both terms in a description, the algorithm will usually stick with the first term, and give me a list of children’s books with muskrats. Hopefully one of them also includes chicken soup… If I type the key words in reverse, I will get a list of children’s books with chicken soup…hopefully one of them includes muskrat characters! And algorithms can be skewed by advertisers or other interest groups that pay to have their information appear more often or first whenever certain search terms are entered.

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How does any of this relate to prayer requests?

When people request prayer, they are usually focused on what they perceive as their greatest need. They are searching for an answer; a solution to a specific problem or situation. “Pray for complete healing.” “Pray that my son/daughter will…” “Pray that I get this job.” And it is tempting to pray very specifically. This is not wrong. But sometimes, it limits how we see prayer and how we look at God’s answers. The opposite is also true. Sometimes, we pray so broadly, that we may not see God’s answer for what it is. Sometimes, we pray, hoping to change some sort of algorithm and get to the “top of the list” or get the “right” answer. This is not what prayer is about…we know this, but sometimes, our wants blind us to what we are actually asking (or asking others to ask for).

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So what are some of the key words we can use in our prayer requests and prayers? Jesus gives us a fantastic blueprint in The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13):

“Our Father”–remembering to whom we are praying is vital. We are not praying to a distant, absent-minded, shadowy figure; He is our Father. He knows what is necessary, and what is best.

“Who art in Heaven”–God is Omnipotent. There is nothing we can ask or imagine that is too big, too difficult, or too much to ask. That doesn’t mean that God will give us whatever we want, whenever we want it, but it does mean that God is not limited by the same things that limit us!

“Hallowed by Thy Name.”–God is not our “genie in a bottle.” He doesn’t work for us, or at our command. God is sovereign; He commands the Universe. And even though He makes Himself known and wants a relationship with us, He is not like anyone else–He ALONE is GOD. When His answers seem “wrong,” or don’t make sense, it isn’t because He didn’t hear us, or because He doesn’t love us, but His ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9).

“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven”–There are a lot of “good” things that are NOT part of God’s best will for us. There are a lot of difficult and painful things that God can use for our good. He wants to hear the cry of our heart–“I want to be healed.” But He also wants to hear our willingness to accept that healing may not be immediate or easy.

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“Give us this day our daily bread”– It is not “wrong” to pray for things in the future, or to pray for “big” or complex things, but our dependence on Him is shown best when we acknowledge our everyday basic needs are met by Him.

“And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”–Don’t be fooled. God will not ignore our hidden resentments, hatred, disdain, rebellion, and unforgiveness. Our requests can be sidelined by holding on to grudges and harboring secret doubts about God’s essential fairness, as well as hanging on to sinful habits.

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God doesn’t need algorithms or special prayer “search terms”. We can come to Him with our requests, and He knows precisely what we want and what we need. But we will learn more about ourselves and about who God truly is when we refine our hearts and our prayer life.

The Measure of Success

My senior year of high school, I was voted “Most Likely to Succeed.” I’m not sure what that meant to most of my classmates, but it was both an honor and a burden to carry. While I was honored by my classmates’ faith in my ability to become some sort of “success,” I was also daunted by the mantle I felt I had to bear. Would I become famous? Wealthy? Important in public affairs or business? My immediate and modest goal was to become a teacher. But I had visions of becoming a well-known author. I also dreamed of becoming a wife and mother; of having a loving, happy family, and a nice home.

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God’s plans are not our plans. God has placed many opportunities in my path– opportunities to serve myself and “get ahead,” and opportunities to serve others. I can say from experience that serving others brings more satisfaction in the long run, but it doesn’t feel like “success” as defined by most of our society. I’ve never achieved what most would consider “success.”

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Some days, I feel wistful and even a bit resentful about some of life’s circumstances– children I was never able to have, or jobs I might have pursued with more ambition. But then, I think of all I might have missed– friendships, victories over certain struggles, lessons learned. My life isn’t finished– God may yet give me the opportunity to do “great things.” But already, He has given me the privilege of doing small things for Him over the course of many years. And it is more than enough.

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One of the greatest measures of true success is to look at the life of Christ. After all, His life, death, and resurrection changed the entire course of history! Time is measured by His arrival on this planet– everything happened either before or after His birth. Billions of people have called themselves “Christians” after Him, and lived their lives in His service. But what did He actually accomplish in human terms? He was not a ruler or political powerhouse. He never owned a house, let alone villas and mansions. He never wrote a book (even though thousands of books have been written about Him). He didn’t invent anything, or found a corporation, or make a monumental scientific discovery. He never led an army. He healed several people, but He didn’t cure cancer or wipe out leprosy, or put an end to blindness. He didn’t rid the world of poverty, hatred, greed, or injustice. At the time of His death, He owned only the clothes on His back– and they were taken from Him! His friends deserted Him as hundreds shouted for Him to be crucified. He was nailed to a cross between two nameless malefactors, and died. He was placed in a borrowed grave. People who had expected great things of this Messiah ended up turning on Him and thinking Him a failure and a blasphemer.

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Jesus did not pursue worldly success. He told parables. He dined with sinners and saints alike. He laughed. He cried. He prayed. Jesus served others, and yet He challenged authorities. He drew crowds, and performed miracles, but He died alone. Jesus did not come to show us how to “get ahead.” He came to show us how to live more abundantly, not more successfully. (See John 10:10)

 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2: 1-11
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God can use our worldly success, if we achieve any. But He delights in our humble prayers, our small acts of service, and our obedience. Jesus lived a humble life. He could have done anything He wanted, fulfilled the loftiest of ambitions, and crowned Himself King of the universe. But His success came from the unlikeliest of lives, and the most humiliating death. He lived the perfect and abundant life He offers us.

I don’t live a perfectly humble life. I chafe at my own weakness, sometimes. Yet it is when I stop chasing “success” and perfection that I find it –in Christ.

My prayer today is that someone reading this will be encouraged. If life feels like a series of missed opportunities to find success and fulfillment; if you feel like your life has let you down, and that God cannot use you for some great purpose– take heart! He loves to pour His love and holiness into broken vessels and exalt those who are humble and weary and “not enough.”

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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