Inconceivable?

One of my favorite movies is “The Princess Bride.” Based on a modern “fractured” fairy tale by William Goldman, it tells the story of a young couple whose “fairy tale” romance is complicated by his death, her kidnapping on the eve of her wedding to an evil prince, and rodents of unusual size…

One of the kidnappers is a Sicilian mercenary named Vizzini. Vizzini brags about his intellect, and claims to know more than anyone. He also claims that his plot to kidnap Princess Buttercup is perfect to the last detail. But when a mysterious stranger begins following them, and foils each of Vizzini’s efforts to shake him, Vizzini grows more and more rattled. His brilliant plan turns out to be less than perfect. In fact, the mysterious stranger (who turns out to be Princess Buttercup’s long-lost true love) succeeds in rescuing the princess and defeating Vizzini in a battle of wits.

As each of Vizzini’s efforts fails, he declares it is “inconceivable” that the stranger should win. Even in the face of clear evidence, Vizzini finds it unbelievable that his plan should have failed–and failed again! Finally, one of the other kidnappers turns to Vizzini and says, “You keep using this word; I do not think it means what you think it means”.

I often hear people scoff at faith in God– “it doesn’t make sense.” “There’s no proof that God exists.” “How can you believe all those old myths–Noah and the Ark; Moses and the Red Sea; David and Goliath–they’re impossible in ‘real life’.” “It’s inconceivable!” “Stop saying all that stuff about God!” “Stop saying you’ll pray for me.” “Prayer is nothing more than wishful thinking.”

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And it can be difficult to have faith, sometimes. We don’t ‘see’ what God is doing in our lives and circumstances.” We don’t understand the bigger picture. We don’t believe that God sees or hears us in the middle of our struggles. But God tells us time and time again that nothing is impossible for Him; that He knows all that happens, and that He works all things together for the good of those who follow Him (Romans 8:28). God is able to do “exceedingly, abundantly, above all that we ask or think..”(Ephesians 3:20)

Those stories in the Bible; those “unbelievable” stories we hear or read about miraculous healings and lives transformed…we can choose to ignore them, or scoff at them. We can, like Vizzini, claim that they are “inconceivable,” or try to explain them away while trusting our own knowledge and experiences to get us through life. We can ignore the wise counsel of others, ignore our conscience, and laugh in the face of danger. But in the end, we are human. We are fallible. We are not all-knowing or all-powerful. And we are not immune to sin and its poisonous consequences. The only chance of escape is to be rescued by someone who is “immune” to sin– our Savior, Jesus the Lamb of God.

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It may seem “inconceivable” that God would part the Red Sea, or save Noah in the Ark; it may seem beyond belief that Jesus would be born as a human, live among people who denied Him, die on the cross and be resurrected on the third day, so that He could take away the power of sin and death for anyone who will trust Him. But it is precisely this Good News that has transformed the lives of millions of people throughout the centuries since he came.

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It may seem “inconceivable” that God would listen to our “little” prayers and care about our every need– but He does! His Love may be beyond our ability to comprehend or explain– His power extends beyond our wildest imagination. But if we have faith– even as small as a mustard seed (Matthew 17:20)– we can experience God’s Love, Power, Grace, and Salvation in miraculous ways.

Paying for the Privilege

I read a most astonishing article the other day. Wealthy white American women are paying up to $2,500 for a meal and a gut-wrenching session about how racist and bigoted they are. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/03/race-to-dinner-party-racism-women?fbclid=IwAR12AvWdTyht5RV0vfBfZ5XUEnA4441GU8efLSX8xtdfePI2R9KEesCipI8 Over a fancy dinner, they discuss how their privilege has caused them to ignore and deny the needs and rights of others, based largely on prejudices and fear.

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I won’t waste space to analyze all that I think is wrong with this scenario– but I will say the following:

  • $2,500 is a lot of money for most Americans, let alone many others around the world.
  • Talk is (according to the old phrase) cheap.
  • If having difficult talks over a plate of overpriced pasta and wine could solve major problems, I’m shocked that no one else has tried it.

I’m dismayed by this article. I hope that some good comes from these efforts, but I don’t expect such tactics to end racism, bigotry, or ignorance. These women are paying for a privilege on top of all their other privileges– the right to feel righteous and “woke” to lingering problems that have never personally touched them. It would not occur to them to invite 10 women who don’t look like them, don’t live like them, don’t speak like them, and don’t dress like them to come to dinner. They would not share their hospitality, their fine china, or their fancy dessert with a working-class woman with olive skin and an accent, or a single mother fighting to make ends meet and losing the battle– of any skin color. They might give another $2,500 to a homeless shelter or soup kitchen– they would not befriend anyone who needed those services, however.

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Most importantly, they are likely to believe that by “owning” their prejudices, they are absolved of their responsibility to “love their neighbor as themselves.” They can be comfortable in the belief that their feelings “do them credit” and make them better than others who “are in denial” about their “subconscious biases” and “micro-aggressions” toward the people with whom they interact. They may take high-minded actions to force the government to “deal with” people less fortunate than they, but they will take no steps to get involved personally with the families who suffer from injustice and poverty just outside the gates of their exclusive communities.

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But what about me? I may sneer at the hypocrisy and foolishness of others, but what am I doing? Am I any different from the ladies who leave me shaking my head? What do I say and do to combat ignorance, hatred, racism, classism, and injustice?

Lord, my prayer today is that I would pour out compassion– even on these ladies–and on those who need it most. Your heart is that all of us would live in peace and lovingkindness. Help me to see my neighbors as you see them–ALL my neighbors. All the time.

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The real privilege is not of wealth or comfort. The real privilege is to learn to love and be loved as Jesus loves– freely, sacrificially, whole-heartedly and without limit.

Your Life Matters

Last week in America, we marked two important dates. We celebrated the birth of a great hero, patriot, and statesman, Martin Luther King, Jr. And we marked the 47th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, which effectively legalized abortion across the land.

The life of Dr. King was marked by hardship, oppression, violence, and assassination at the age of 39. Dr. King was a brilliant student and gifted speaker. He led peaceful protests and civil rights marches calling for justice and equality under the law for all people. More than 50 years after his death, there are still issues of racial discrimination and racial tensions in this country. The disproportionate loss of life and liberty among blacks in urban areas has led to a new round of protests, some of which go under the name of “Black Lives Matter.” There is a feeling that, especially with the police and government officials, black lives don’t matter– that black lives are devalued and dismissed as less deserving of respect and protection.

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In light of this, there has been “push back” from those who argue that “ALL Lives Matter”, or that “Blue Lives Matter” (blue for police who have become victims of mob violence and angry crowds who feel that the police are responsible for racism and corruption). The argument is that groups like “Black Lives Matter” are not so much about bringing awareness or promoting justice, but are meant to divide us as a nation and exact revenge for past offenses, slights, and perceived slights.

There is speculation about what might have happened if Dr. King had not died when he did. Would he have continued leading non-violent protests? Would the Civil Rights movement of the sixties gained more momentum under Dr. King’s leadership? Would our nation have achieved a new dawn of equality, freedom, and unity, greater and stronger than what we have seen in the last five decades? Would Dr. King be pleased with the progress we have made, or ashamed? Did his life make a difference? Yes. But was it “enough” of a difference? Does it matter to a young person of color growing up in Baltimore or Chicago that Dr. King spoke out, marched, and died for a dream that seems frozen in time and unfulfilled?

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Just two days after our nation wrestled with that uncomfortable memory, we marked one even more controversial. In 1973, our Supreme Court ruled that no state could prohibit abortion. The decision also limited the ability of states to restrict abortion. Since that decision, an estimated 60 million Americans http://www.numberofabortions.com/ (not to mention infants around the world) have been denied the right by legal practice to be born. This is roughly equal to the number of people killed in World War II, though estimates of both numbers vary by source (https://www.nationalww2museum.org/students-teachers/student-resources/research-starters/research-starters-worldwide-deaths-world-war)

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In looking at abortion, we see millions of lives who were determined NOT to matter. They didn’t deserve respect, protection, liberty, education, dreams, food, shelter…not even breath and a heartbeat!

Oh God– let us see life as YOU see it. Every life matters infinitely to You. You have created all life–unique, precious, priceless, glorious, fragile, and yet eternal. You walked among people, healed the sick and broken, reached out to the outcast and isolated, welcomed children, and brought the dead back to life. In Christ, you took on human life– breathed the air, knew joy and pain, weariness, hunger, and strife.

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One life– every life– matters. It matters, not because we are important to the world, but because we are precious in the eyes of our creator. We celebrate the life of Dr. King, because we was considered important in the history of our nation. But God celebrated Dr. King’s life from the moment of his conception. God knit him together in his mother’s womb, just as He does for each of us. God knew the moment of Dr. King’s birth. He saw every tear, heard every laugh, felt every bruise that Dr. King experienced. And God knew the moment of Dr. King’s assassination. He knew the shock and horror it would be for his family. He knew that years later, we would quote Dr. King’s words and even argue about his relevance and impact. But Dr. King’s life mattered to God even if it had been a life of obscurity or failure.

Similarly, and incredibly, every one of those 60 million lives that have been lost to abortion “mattered” to God. He knew and loved them from the moment of conception. And He knew– He KNEW– that they would be aborted; thrown away and discarded by those who should have loved and protected them. And He LOVES those who killed them– their lives “matter” to God as well. Dr. King’s dream was that his children would be judged by the content of their character. God will judge us one day on that basis; but He offers to judge us by the content of HIS character, if we will trust Him to forgive us for the past, and transform us as we live for Him.

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Your life matters to God. It has worth and meaning. You are infinitely precious– so much so that God sent His only son to live and to die for your sake. What an incredible love He has for you! What an incredible love He has for every person you will encounter today!

He Already Knows..

Prayer is a wonderful thing; sometimes it’s also a curious thing. Why do we pray to a God who is omniscient? If He already knows our needs, why do we bother to ask? If He already knows everything we’ve done, why do we need to confess? If He already knows about my neighbor’s cancer, why do I start a prayer chain?

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Prayer is much more than sharing information with God. It is sharing my heart with God. What I pray, who I pray for, how and when and even where I pray– all come from my heart. God knows the information. He knows my heart, too. But He longs for me to take the time and effort to share it with Him (and to listen to His response!). God doesn’t want to be the one I turn to when I’ve tried all the other options. He is my Father, and He wants me to come to Him at every opportunity.

Moreover, when I pray, God is not surprised by anything I say, but sometimes I am! I find that one confession often leads to another– God already knew all that I had done and all about my attitude, but I lied to myself about my motive or about a small act or comment. Only in prayer does God have my full attention, and His Spirit uses that opportunity to help me see myself better, and clean the slate. Sometimes, I ask God for something I want, and God’s Spirit causes me to see what I really need, instead. Often, when I pray for someone I know, the Spirit will remind me of other ways I can pray for them, or bring another person to my thoughts. I may not know the other person’s need– but God already knows!

Finally, I find it a great comfort to pray to the one who holds everything together– the one who knows the end from the beginning, and everything in between. I don’t pray to a God who is kind, but ineffective. I don’t pray to a God who knows, but doesn’t care. God is the maker and sustainer of the universe; He is the lover of my soul, and the Almighty and Eternal One.

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Today may be full of surprises– some good, some disappointing, some even overwhelming. God already knows. He knows our anguish, our hopes, our faults, and our triumphs (even the tiny ones). Many things about my life are difficult to understand or anticipate. I don’t have to know all the answers. I don’t even have to know all the “right” questions. God already knows!

A New Command

34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

John 13:34-35 (NIV) taken from http://www.biblegateway.com
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Jesus was about to be tried and condemned to die. He was giving His disciples last instructions and reminders. But in the midst of it all, He gave this “new” command. I’ve read this passage dozens of times, and yet it struck me, possibly because we have just started a new year, that Jesus calls this a new command. Love one another. As if this was a revolutionary concept; as if it had never been spoken before.

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So I began to search. ” You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. ” (Deuteronomy 6:5 ESV) “Do not take revenge on others or continue to hate them, but love your neighbors as you love yourself. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:18) “So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. ” (Deuteronomy 10:19)

Throughout the Old Testament, the Israelites are commanded to love God and to love their neighbors, especially to those who might otherwise know only hatred or injustice– enemies, conquered peoples, resident aliens, widows, orphans, etc.. Most often, the commands are given in negative terms– how NOT to treat others. “Thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not commit adultery; thou shalt not bear false witness…”

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There is nothing completely new about Jesus’ command in John 13, but it IS new– it is a positive command to show love for one another. And Jesus goes further– “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” This goes beyond simply seeing that others are treated fairly within the broader society. Jesus washed feet. He went out of his way to speak to those who were despised and marginalized– tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers. He didn’t write a check to a non-profit charity and pat himself on the back. He didn’t share a political cartoon about Pharisees or the Roman Emperor with his followers or join the Jerusalem March for Jewish Rights–he challenged the Pharisees face-to-face about their unjust practices and healed the family members of Roman officials. He gave His life– not just on the cross, but in serving others’ needs throughout His earthly life.

Love One Another. It isn’t a suggestion. It is a command–one Jesus gave directly to His disciples. It is not a new command to the Church; but it is one we have not obeyed fully. We love those Christians in our small group at church, or those who share our politics, or those who look and talk just like us. Or we “love” those Christians who are struggling thousands of miles away– from our safe and comfortable lives thousands of miles away.

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I find myself often reading this command, but trying to obey it the same way I look at the Ten Commandments– obedience by omission; obedience in the negative. “Thou shalt not offend. Thou shalt not intrude. Thou shalt not condescend.” But that’s where I stop. I don’t wash feet. I don’t visit the sick or disgraced. Sometimes I send a check or donate a box of unwanted items.

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What would this new year look like if I followed this command more fully? What if, instead of just showing love to those I already like, or when it’s convenient, I reached out across town or across the globe to share my time, my heart, my resources, my skills, with those who need them most? What if I obeyed Jesus’ command to love those around me as Jesus has already loved me?

What if I dared to pray that God would bless others through me, instead of just asking that everyone would “be blessed.”

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In this new year, God, let this be a new command– one that I follow with my whole heart– that I should love others as You have loved me!

There my Burdened Soul Found Liberty

Prayer is often about burdens– the burden of need; the burden of sin and guilt; the burden of worry and distress. We bring our burdens to God, to the “throne of Grace;” we bring them “in Jesus’ Name,”, and we bring them to “Our Father.” But how often do we bring them to “Calvary?”

Not the victorious empty cross on the hillside with a beautiful sunset in the background, but the bloody, hot, dry and dreadful Calvary of the crucifixion? How often do we make the pilgrimage to that rocky outcropping with the smell of blood and sweat and death and agony? How often do we cry out to the one who was lifted up, struggling to breathe, pierced, wounded, broken and humiliated? When do we reach out to touch the scars and bruises he received in our place?

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It is at Calvary that we get the real story of Grace, Mercy, and forgiveness–the real cost of victory and peace. It is at Calvary that we see the full extent of God’s Holiness married to the full extent of His Love. Holiness demands justice; Love demands intimacy– together, they require sacrifice.

And it is at Calvary that we find, in the darkest and most hopeless of moments– God forsaking Himself, giving all He IS to bring justice and reconciliation for all we’ve done–that we trade our burdened souls, our worries, our despair for God’s embrace. Arms stretched so wide they are pulled from their sockets; blood spilled from head to toe; breathless and exposed in His passion for your soul and mine–that’s what God offers at Calvary.

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Why do I pray? I am ambushed and overwhelmed and enraptured by such a love. God had no need to suffer even a moment’s discomfort. He owed nothing to His rebellious creation; no mercy, no explanation, no hints as to His character (or ours). The creator of galaxies had no need to lift a finger to save one puny planet or any of its inhabitants from His own right to un-create them and blot out even their memory. Instead, He showed the greatest act of Love across all of space and time–to me!– At Calvary!

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Jesus Calls Us

I was at worship yesterday. We sang some wonderful hymns and songs of worship. Still, I miss some of the “old” hymns we used to sing in the small country church of my youth. This was one of them:

In case the video does not show up, here are the words:
Jesus calls us: o’er the tumult of our life’s wild, restless sea,
Day by day His sweet voice soundeth, saying, “Christian, follow Me.”
Jesus calls us from the worship of the vain world’s golden store,
From each idol that would keep us, saying, “Christian, love Me more.”
In our joys and in our sorrows, days of toil and hours of ease,
Still He calls, in cares and pleasures, “Christian, love Me more than these.”
Jesus calls us: by Thy mercies, Saviour, may we hear Thy call,
Give our hearts to Thine obedience, serve and love Thee best of all. Amen.

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Prayer is never just a one-way communication. We may not “hear” from God in an audible voice, but He calls us into communion with Him daily. He wants to hear from us; He wants to speak to us–through His word, through our experiences, through friends and neighbors and even chance encounters. We may not have a deep spiritual burden to bring before the throne of grace– does that keep us from needing to share a quiet moment with the lover of our soul?

Suppose the only time you ever spoke to your spouse was when you desperately needed her/his help? What would that say about your relationship? The same holds with our spiritual walk. God wants to speak to us; to have us notice the beauty of the sunrise, or the grace of moonlight in the mist. He wants to bring us hope and comfort in the stories and psalms of scripture. He wants us to share our nagging worries and our minor triumphs– not because He doesn’t know or cannot see–because He wants to share in our struggles and our joys, our deep grieving and our small amusements.

He wants all of this because of His great love for each of us. If we could just see His eyes light up with love when we walk into a room…and if we could hear the love in His voice– we would be undone. Someday, we will be– undone, and remade, and able to catch His eye without shattering in the light of that love.

But for now– He is calling…

Love Lifted Me

I love you, Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;
    my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge,
    my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
I called to the Lord, who is worthy of praise,
    and I have been saved from my enemies.
The cords of death entangled me;
    the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me.
The cords of the grave coiled around me;
    the snares of death confronted me.
In my distress I called to the Lord;
    I cried to my God for help.
From his temple he heard my voice;
    my cry came before him, into his ears.
The earth trembled and quaked,
    and the foundations of the mountains shook;
    they trembled because he was angry.
Smoke rose from his nostrils;
    consuming fire came from his mouth,
    burning coals blazed out of it.
He parted the heavens and came down;
    dark clouds were under his feet.
10 He mounted the cherubim and flew;
    he soared on the wings of the wind.
11 He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him—
    the dark rain clouds of the sky.
12 Out of the brightness of his presence clouds advanced,
    with hailstones and bolts of lightning.
13 The Lord thundered from heaven;
    the voice of the Most High resounded.
14 He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy,
    with great bolts of lightning he routed them.
15 The valleys of the sea were exposed
    and the foundations of the earth laid bare
at your rebuke, Lord,
    at the blast of breath from your nostrils.
16 He reached down from on high and took hold of me;
    he drew me out of deep waters.
17 He rescued me from my powerful enemy,
    from my foes, who were too strong for me.
18 They confronted me in the day of my disaster,
    but the Lord was my support.
19 He brought me out into a spacious place;
    he rescued me because he delighted in me
.

Psalm 18:1-19 NIV (taken from biblegateway.com)
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I grew up hearing hymns– lots of them. My mother and grandmother and aunt all played the piano or organ for church, and often practiced during the week. My father led the congregational singing sometimes, and my grandfather taught himself to play many musical instruments, and used hymns to become familiar with the chords, notes, and fingerings of the instrument du jour. The congregation at our small church sang with more gusto than musical talent, but we sang during the Sunday morning service, the Sunday evening service, the Wednesday evening service, and at any special occasion.

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Two things happened as a result of this: one not-so-good, and one very good thing. The not-so-good thing was that I became somewhat inured to the songs and lyrics– I knew what the songs said, but I didn’t really understand or internalize the truths they contained. However, the very good thing was that the hymns stuck in my memory– years later they came back like the best of friends to comfort me, challenge me, and remind me of sacred realities in the midst of mundane frustrations and worldly confusions.

This old hymn, neglected, out-dated, and seldom sung in our current services, was my lullaby growing up. My mother would sing it over and over as she rocked me to sleep, often running out of verses and words and just humming or filling in with “la, la la, la,” until she reached the chorus.
“Love lifted me. Love lifted me. When nothing else could help, Love lifted me.”

As a young child, I experienced the loving arms of my dear mother lifting me to her lap and rocking me for what seemed like hours until I drifted off to sleep. As a teen, I scoffed at the lyrics a bit–what need had I to be lifted and helped, when I was invincible and young and ready to conquer the world. As an adult, this old hymn came back with power and comfort when my own efforts and life’s stormy circumstances left me with little hope and lots of confusion, doubt, and regret. It reminds me that help and hope can be found even in the raging storms of grief, depression, oppression, and pain. “When nothing else could help…” God could, and did! He can and will!

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“Love lifted me”–such a simple phrase, and by itself not a solid foundation for hope and victory. In fact, there are many popular songs that speak of love lifting a person up, making one feel buoyant and hopeful, joyful or young. But this song speaks of a different and everlasting, all-powerful love– the Love of Christ. And it doesn’t just lift us up from one pleasant place to another. It reaches down into the depths of sin, despair, and even death to lift us up beyond all hope, beyond any strength or effort we could generate or receive from any other source. And this great Love reaches down to lift me–even me! It does not belong only to the elite, the wealthy, the beautiful people, the gifted or the powerful. In fact, this love is especially close and available to those who have done nothing to deserve it; those who have been bypassed and ignored and left to drown in their own shame and sorrow.

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Love. Lifted. Me! My prayer is that this same Love will surround you today, lifting you up, and helping you, just as it helps me and brings me life and hope, to the Glory of Christ our Savior.

P.S. I Love You

There are at least two great songs and one movie with the title, “P.S. I Love You.” The idea comes from a letter– one in which the writer wants to make sure that “I Love You” are the last three words on the page– the lasting impression for the letter’s recipient.

The Bible is many things– a history, a book of laws, a narrative of God’s dealings with humankind–but it is also a love letter. Scattered throughout the lists of generations, the poetry, the prophecies, the gospels, and yes, the letters to churches, are expressions of love. God begins by creating a beautiful garden, creating Adam in his own likeness, and creating a suitable helper from Adam’s side. He gives them everything they need to live and enjoy everything around them–He even comes to walk and talk with them!

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God rescues the nation of Israel from slavery and cruelty in Egypt, and guides them in the wilderness for 40 years–providing food and water, even preserving their clothing and shoes, so they have no lack!

God punishes the rebellious nation, sending them into exile– but He gives them promises, and even in the worst of their punishment, He speaks words of love and healing and reconciliation.

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God sends the ultimate Word of Love in His Son– who loves, heals, forgives, and serves, even to the point of dying! And in the death and resurrection of Jesus, this love is extended to everyone who will accept Him.

Finally, God promises an end to death and rebellion–eternal reconciliation and life with Him who loves us best. His love letter ends with a glorious P.S.:

22 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever… 16 “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.” 17 The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life… 20 He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. 21 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.
(Revelation 22:1-5; 16-17; 20-21.)

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Revelation+22&version=NIV
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Even when God sends punishment, or stays silent in the face of our immediate questions, He never stops saying “I Love You.” I. LOVE. YOU!

Lord, may I take time today to read your love letter. May I savor Your words and may I take the time to read Your Post Script– and respond to Your Eternal and Fathomless Love! Amen!

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