Greater Love Hath No Man…

One hundred four years ago today, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month or 1918, the warring nations of Europe and the World fell silent as an Armistice was signed ending the “Great War” (later known as World War I). The War had been devastating in its scope and violence. Millions of people lost their lives; millions more were wounded and permanently scarred by the fighting. Entire cities had been leveled; farms and villages had been ravaged, and economies would take decades to recover.

“The War to End All Wars” did not. It was a failure in almost every regard. Bitterness built up in the decades between 1918 and 1938, spilling into another devastating war. All the noble efforts to promote peace and unity broke down. All those lives sacrificed in the hope of bringing lasting peace were lost, seemingly in vain. And for the soldier who survived, there was continued hardship, struggle, and often, life-long pain and suffering.

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Today, we honor those who have risked their lives to serve their county/countries. Soldiers, medics, chaplains, and innocent civilians who risk their lives do so for a reason. Often, we lose sight of the reasons after so many years, but the primary reason for most soldiers is the protection of loved ones back home and fellow soldiers in the fight. Many of us live lives of comfort and safety, little knowing the dangers of war, famine, and extreme hardship. But soldiers know a life of privation, courage in the face of fear, and the searing loss of violent death. And most of them know this life as a voluntary sacrifice. They willingly lay down their lives, both figuratively and sometimes literally, to save, protect, and improve the lives of others. It is fitting and right to honor such commitment and sacrifice.

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Jesus, when speaking to His disciples at the Last Supper, said,  “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:12-14 ESV) After all these years, many of us look at these verses as a moral principle, but not as a commandment. Jesus did not say, “I would really like it if you would love each other sacrificially,” or “I would prefer if you treated each other the way I treated you.” He gave it as a command that we love as Jesus loved.

So that begs the question, “How did Jesus love His disciples?” Ultimately, He DID lay down His life, paying for their sins (and ours) through His death on the cross. There has never been a greater sacrifice, not on the battlefield, not in public service, nowhere in Heaven or on Earth. But Jesus also gave us several examples of “sacrifice” in His life with the disciples. He served. He forgave. He loved. He nurtured and taught. He listened.

It used to be popular to compare Christians to soldiers– to promote service, sacrifice, and discipline in the Christian walk. This has largely fallen out of fashion, as society has diminished the role of the soldier, and the respect it used to give them. But the Apostle Paul used the comparison often, even listing the Christian’s “armor” in Ephesians 6:10-18. We should put on the belt of Truth, the breastplate of Righteousness, the shoes of the Gospel of Peace, the shield of Faith, the helmet of Salvation, and the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Of course, we are not commanded to kill, main, or promote warfare and destruction. But we ARE called to be prepared to die for– and LIVE for– the cause of Christ. We are to train, prepare, and stand firm in the Faith. More that that, we are commanded to serve– even sacrificially– our brothers and sisters; we are to be willing to lay down our lives for others.

Today, as we reflect on the sacrifices made in the past, let us renew our commitment to love like Jesus, to serve like soldiers, and to stand firm in our commitment to the One who paid the ultimate sacrifice for us. And, especially in a world that does not know peace, let us pray for those who are touched by war, famine, hardship, violence, and loss. Let us work to bring peace, forgiveness, and practical help to those around us who suffer.

How Much Is That Doggie In the Window?

How much is that doggie in the window?
The one with the “waggly” tail…
How much is that doggie in the window?
I do hope that doggie’s for sale!

Two songs about puppies–how could that possibly relate to a life of pursuing prayer? Well, I’m going out on a limb, but let me try to connect the dots.

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple”

Luke 14:26-33

33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Matthew 6:33-34 (NIV)

22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; 24 for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. 25 But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.

James 1:22-25 (NKJV)

Children love puppies. Most children have expressed desires similar to the ones in both of the songs above. They wish and dream and beg for a pet to love; a furry “best buddy” to play with and befriend. There is a longing deep in our hearts for someone to understand; someone who is always ready to greet us with unconditional love and companionship. And sometimes, we have a tendency to take this desire–this wish– and see in our relationship with Christ its fulfillment. Christ is the our “forever” friend; someone we can talk to; someone who will share our burdens, and walk along with us “most everywhere.” This is not “wrong.” But Jesus warned His listeners that becoming a disciple would involve more than just dreams, wishes, and good feelings.

Following Christ comes with a cost– we cannot just wish for God’s presence when it is convenient and jolly, and escape or turn our backs when our Christian Walk involves sacrifice or hardship. Jesus is not just our Friend; He is our Lord! We need to be ready to let go of anything that would hinder our relationship with Him; we need to be willing to risk and even lose things we love in the pursuit of the One we Love Best. After all, Jesus gave up everything– including His Life– to make our relationship and reconciliation possible.

Jesus challenged His followers to “count the cost” of their discipleship. It’s more than just wanting a “fuzzy feeling” of belonging and listening to the Wisdom of God. It’s committing to a life of growth, work, and submission to His Will and His Purposes. A child may want a puppy, but may not be mature or responsible enough to care for it. We may want a relationship with Christ, but we need to measure our willingness to do His Will and make changes and sacrifices.

The Christian Walk is far more than just “dreams and wishes.” It is more than just asking about the initial price– because that is far beyond what we could ever pay! Redemption and Eternal Life are beyond any price. But they are also free! The cost of our Salvation has already been paid. The cost of our sanctification– our growth and maturity– is what we need to consider as we walk forward.

And the joy we will experience on this journey is greater than the joy of having a puppy–greater than the fulfillment of all our dreams and wishes–it is nothing less than the Glory of Eternity in the Presence of the One who truly loves us perfectly and unconditionally! That is worth the pursuit. That is worth EVERYTHING.

A Prayer for the “Slurpee” Babies

Today is July 11. In certain parts of America, it is known as “Slurpee” Day. “Slurpee” is a brand name for a slushy drink sold at 7-Eleven convenience stores around the country. And since we write our dates with the month, followed by the day, today is “7/11.” Many 7-Eleven stores will be offering specials on their “Slurpee” drinks all day. And on a hot July day, that’s a great deal!

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But today is also the birthday of a very special person in my life. I can still remember the day she was born, and seeing her for the first time. She was beautiful (and still is). She had a full head of thick auburn hair, and seemed delighted to be alive and in the world– and we were all delighted to greet her! I remember commenting that she was a “Slurpee” baby– being born on “Slurpee” day. But shortly after she was born, it became clear that all was not “right” for “Chelsea” (not her real name). Chelsea did not respond to sights and sounds like other babies. And she started having violent seizures. Doctors soon determined that Chelsea had experienced several small strokes when she was in the womb. They also determined that such strokes would continue, and her chances of survival were slim. Immediate brain surgery would be necessary. At one point, the prognosis was very grim– even with surgery, she might be blind, deaf, and unable to control the movement in her limbs–essentially, she would be a vegetable if she survived at all. The first year of her life was a roller-coaster of surgeries and hospital stays, followed by extensive therapy and treatment that continues to this day. But she survived!

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So today, and every July 11, Chelsea, and her friends and family, celebrate her life– her survival, her triumph, and her continuing struggle. Chelsea will be 15 this year! She cannot walk, and she has trouble talking and using one arm. But she excels at school–she loves reading and music (Yes, she can see and hear!) and she loves anything having to do with animals, especially dogs and horses! She loves jokes and riddles, and loves to listen to her Daddy play the guitar, or spend time with her many friends. She even loves cool treats– not necessarily “Slurpees,” but sweet drinks and yogurt parfaits! Her life is not easy. Her parents still have to help her dress and eat, even though she is almost fully grown. She has to use adaptive technology to write and do her schoolwork (and what an incredible blessing that it exists!) She spends most of her days in a motorized chair. And, like most teenagers, she has “moody” days and gets frustrated–her physical limitations add to that frustration. But she loves life, and she inspires those around her to embrace the positive.

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I am writing about “Chelsea” today, because I love her– she is my grand-niece, and my favorite “Slurpee” kid! But I’m also writing because there are many other “Slurpee” children like her who are not alive today, or who are made to feel unwanted and “less than” other children. Chelsea’s health issues were not detected until after she was born. Had they “discovered” the damage she sustained in the womb, chances are very great that her mother would have been encouraged to have an abortion. The early prognosis was so horrific, and the struggle so difficult, that it would have been seen as the “most humane” option. Her “quality of life” would have been weighed in the balance, and her right to experience life– even at it’s most difficult moments– would have been invalidated by those who claimed to “have her best interests at heart.” Her parents could have made the choice to put her in an institution, or give up on her chances to live a purposeful and fulfilling life. Instead, they made numerous personal sacrifices, and have advocated for Chelsea’s well-being. And, if you ask them, it was worth it all!

I’m not here to judge those parents who have had to face this horrible choice, or those who have determined that they could not provide the care needed to raise a child with “special needs.” The needs are very real, very difficult, very expensive, and sometimes heart-rending. Most people I know have never had to face such challenges. And even my nephew and his wife were not called on to decide on Chelsea’s fate until after they had grown to love her for the baby she was. And there are days when they feel overwhelmed by the responsibility to care for a child beyond what they had ever planned. But I have also known Chelsea, and other wonderful children with extreme needs, who make the world a better, richer, more empathetic, and more joyful place– not because they are “special needs”, but because they are uniquely SPECIAL individuals! I also know of parents who have opened their homes and arms to foster and adopt children with special needs. Their courage, love, and sacrifice have made it possible for thousands of lives to reach their incredible potential.

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My prayer today is that Chelsea, and all children who are marginalized because their lives are somehow deemed “less” than someone else’s, will find strength, hope, laughter, and respect. And that those of us who have had a “normal” childhood and family experience would embrace the joy that comes from LIFE itself, and praise the one who gives it– precious, abundant, and eternal life!

Look UP!

(Note: this was originally posted in September of 2019. Please enjoy…)

Psalm 121:1-2 Revised Standard Version (RSV)

121 I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From whence does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
    who made heaven and earth.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+121%3A1-2&version=RSV
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Genesis 22:10-14 Common English Bible (CEB)
10 Then Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill his son as a sacrifice. 11 But the Lord’s messenger called out to Abraham from heaven, “Abraham? Abraham?”
Abraham said, “I’m here.”
12 The messenger said, “Don’t stretch out your hand against the young man, and don’t do anything to him. I now know that you revere God and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, from me.” 13 Abraham looked up and saw a single ram caught by its horns in the dense underbrush. Abraham went over, took the ram, and offered it as an entirely burned offering instead of his son. 14 Abraham named that place “the Lord sees.” That is the reason people today say, “On this mountain the Lord is seen.”

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+22%3A10-14&version=CEB
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Where to we look when we’re in trouble or need answers? I worked for many years in libraries– we “looked up” all kinds of answers for people. We looked in dictionaries, thumbed through heavy reference books, and scrolled through many websites. But even though we called it “looking up”, we spent most of our time looking down!

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Many people spend hours looking down at phone screens all day, or looking ahead as they drive down the road. Very few of us spend time looking up to see the clouds, the sunset, the towering buildings or trees on the horizon. And we spend too little time “looking up” to see how God is working in, around, or through our circumstances.

Abraham set off with his son, Isaac, to make a sacrifice. He had made provisions– he brought enough food for three days’ journey (and three days back!). He brought wood, and even fire. But God had asked him to “offer” Isaac as a sacrifice, so he took no ram–but he brought a knife. God’s instructions were ambiguous–He did not tell Abraham that he must kill his son, Isaac, only that he was to take him up the mountain and “offer” him.

The writer of the book of Hebrews references this event:

Hebrews 11:17-19 New International Version (NIV)
17 By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18 even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”[a] 19 Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.
Footnotes:
Hebrews 11:18 Gen. 21:12

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=hebrews+11%3A17-19&version=NIV
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Abraham had looked up at the mountain; he had “looked up” how many provisions to take along; but at the crucial moment, when he looked up, he finally saw God’s provision. It was never God’s intention that Abraham actually kill his beloved son. It was God’s intention that Abraham (and Isaac) listen and act in faith. And so they did. The ram was already there– waiting for Abraham to look up!

Later, when the Israelites (Abraham’s descendents!) were wandering in the wilderness, they were faced with many trials. God sent pillars of cloud and fire to lead the people as they “looked up” and followed them. When snakes came into the camp, God had Moses make a pole with a brass snake at the top. Anyone suffering from a snake bite could “look up” at the pole and be cured. Jesus referred to this story as an illustration of us own crucifixion–saying that in just the same way, he would be “lifted up.” Those who “look up” in faith to the crucified and resurrected Jesus can be cured of their sin, and given new life! https://www.christianity.com/jesus/is-jesus-god/old-testament-prophecies/jesus-is-like-the-bronze-serpent-moses-lifted-up.html

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Let’s “look up” today in faith, knowing that God sees our circumstances; knowing that as we act in obedience, God will provide our every need.

His Banner Over Me is Love

Tomorrow is Flag Day in the United States– a day in which we honor our nation’s flag and all for which it stands. It is an odd holiday in a sense; most countries have a national day of celebration, but not a whole day just to celebrate their flag. We already have an day to celebrate our Independence, and days to honor the sacrifices of soldiers or the dates of famous military victories in our history. Why should we spend a day honoring our flag. Isn’t that arrogant? Isn’t it taking nationalism a bit too far?

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Flags and banners are important to us. They are a visual representation of an idea or a series of ideas–“America,” perhaps, but also, “Freedom,” “Loyalty,” “Sacrifice,” “Honor,” “Bravery,” etc. We have national flags, state flags, organizational flags, family crests, even sports team flags and mascots. Flags can be used to rally troupes and inspire citizens, signify commitment to a cause or nationality, show pride or loyalty, and represent ideals held by those in a group. Colors, shapes, stripes, animals or plants, stars, shields, letters or single words– all represent something important or noble to those who see them on a flag or banner. And there is no real point to having a flag if you are never going to display it or let it fly high for all to see.

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In the Song of Solomon (Song of Songs) the bride tells that her lover has brought her to a house of feasting, and that “his banner over me is love.” (Song of Solomon 2:4) The Song is an allegory that can be seen as Christ and His Church. Christ also has a banner–and it is Love–not the romantic love of the Song, but everlasting and limitless love! His Love rallies us, unites us, inspires us, and leads us. When we look for a symbol of who Christ is (and what the Church should be) we use a flag of white with a cross symbol in red on a blue (or sometimes purple) background for the corner. The white represents Christ’s purity, and the pure white robes that will be given to His saints. The blue/purple represents Christ’s majesty and authority. The red of the cross is a reminder of the blood He shed on Calvary’s cross.

Banners and flags are important. But we don’t need a flag or banner to represent Christ’s love– WE are to be His banner for the world. The world should be able to look at us and see a reflection of the limitless and unconditional Love of Christ in the way we speak and interact with others, and the way we live our lives.

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Today (and tomorrow) when we happen to see a flag, let us remember that we are Christ’s ambassadors– we do more than just absorb God’s love– we are to reflect it, and be living symbols of God’s great love for the World. We should be visible testimonies that God’s love is all-important, and available to all! May that be more than just a prayer– may it be our earnest pursuit every day.

No Greater Love…

This coming Monday we will be celebrating Memorial Day in the U.S. It is a day to remember those who gave their lives in battle, defending our nation, our people, and our way of life over the course of almost 250 years. We decorate the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers and flags and plaques honoring their sacrifices. It is a strange sort of “holiday.” We don’t like to think of wars and battles– we ache for those who are terrorized by wars in the current days. We don’t celebrate war and violence– our highest goal is to achieve and preserve peace and safety. And it can seem somewhat morbid to “celebrate” the fallen soldiers of bygone days.

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But we are not celebrating their deaths. We are celebrating the causes for which they fought and died. We celebrate freedom, and justice; the rights of individuals to pursue liberty and fulfill their dreams. These are causes worth fighting for, and yes, even dying for. We mourn the loss of life, and we grieve the necessity of fighting and struggling to preserve basic rights. But we are grateful for and humbled by the examples of those who have shown the courage and strength to give their all. We honor these sacrifices when we decorate the graves of fallen soldiers, or hold services and memorials at cemeteries. It is not meant to be a time of joyful celebration, but a time of solemn reflection and humble gratitude.

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But Memorial Day can also be a time of reflecting on an empty grave– that of Jesus Christ, who gave His all for a cause even greater than liberty and justice in a particular nation or time or for a particular group of people. Jesus gave His life to reconcile an unholy human race with a Holy and Righteous God. He fought against Sin and Death, and conquered them both. And we cannot decorate a grave to honor His sacrifice, because, unlike all the soldiers we honor next week, Jesus did not just preserve a cause or a way of life– He became Life for us. His grave is empty as a symbol of Death’s defeat!

It was Jesus Himself who said, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13 NASB) Soldiers who lay down their lives often do so to save the lives of their comrades at arms– their friends and fellow warriors– as well as their countrymen and women, their neighbors, and their families. And it isn’t just soldiers who give their lives. Recent news stories tell of teachers, police officers, and other individuals who have sacrificed their lives for the sake of innocent shoppers, students, and neighbors. Such sacrifices are tragic, but they are also heroic, and deserving of our acknowledgement.

We take time to honor those who died for a cause. How much more should we honor the One who died to bring eternal freedom and life to each one of us! And how much more should we be willing to give our lives for the sake His Kingdom! There is no greater love that we can show.

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Without the Shedding of Blood..

Last Monday, I went into the doctor’s office to get the results of my latest blood test. It had been a while since my last check up, and my doctor told me that I have developed Type 2 Diabetes. This requires that I make some changes to my diet and lifestyle– more veggies, more exercise, less pasta and fewer desserts– and pay close attention to my blood sugar levels. Every day, I have to prick my finger and get at least one drop of blood on a test strip, and feed that into a glucose meter. It takes just about a minute, and just one drop of blood, but it has to happen every day.

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Millions of people around the world deal with diabetes, and I am so grateful that we caught it, and that it can be managed with these few changes. But I was surprised at how much I resented the daily “prick.” It is not painless, but it is not difficult, either. Still, I resisted, even when my husband offered marvelous support and help. I know this is part of what it will take to keep me healthy, but oh how I miss the freedom I took for granted just days ago!

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It got me thinking of the ritual sacrifices that were set up for the nation of Israel. Every day, animals were not just “pricked,” but slaughtered–their blood poured out and their flesh burned–to represent the atonement necessary for sin. Hebrews 9:22 says that “without the shedding of blood, there is no remission.” There is no way to be made right with God without the shedding of blood. And the blood of rams and lambs, while it represents the atonement we seek, is inadequate to cleanse our souls of the stain of sin. Our own blood is tainted with sin in exactly the way my blood is tainted with glucose. My blood is not only imperfect, it is unpredictable, and even poisonous, if left untreated. And even with the “shedding of blood” every day to check my glucose levels, there is no “remission”; the only way to treat my condition is to have a change– a permanent and drastic change– in my lifestyle. For Sin, there is only the shedding of perfect blood applied to my condition that can make me whole.

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Though I have to shed blood every day to check on my blood sugar, I don’t have to shed blood every day for my Sin condition. But I do have to accept that Christ paid–in His perfect Blood– for my soul. He only had to do it once, but because of His sacrifice, I can be renewed every day– empowered to live the kind of life He wants me to live; empowered to grow and make healthy decisions, and righteous choices; empowered to live free of the guilt and poison of being enslaved to Sin.

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With healthy choices and medication, I will be able to manage my blood sugar levels as I grow older. And I will never have to feel a “prick” or shed a drop of blood in eternity– there will be no death, and no disease! And all because of the Lamb who was willing to shed His blood for me– and for you! Not just a drop, not just another drop each day, but a once-for-all, extravagant, living sacrifice.

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And it is THIS Christ, THIS God, that listens to my prayers each day– even the ones when I whine about one little drop of blood for my glucose meter!

Sifting Through the Ashes

A Poem for Ash Wednesday

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Father, I look around, and all I see are the ashes:
Broken dreams, lost opportunities, burned-out passions..
Everything else is consumed.

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I sit here, on this heap of ashes: sifting through cold dust motes–
There is no heat, no burning embers, no trace of what was.

Such is the nature of sacrifice.
You don’t desire the stench of a half-burnt ram, or a singed goat.
You don’t relish a pile of smoking bones, or a half-hearted heart.

But you honor ashes and sacrifice given
With a whole and willing heart–
Even a broken one.


Your holiness consumes all that is temporal.
The ashes left are what you desire; the essence, the emptiness.
In exchange for them, you pour out
Life and blessing, gladness and healing.

As I sift through the ashes, I will not find the life I built,
The dreams I nurtured,
The honor I sought:
Instead, I will find evidence of the Holy Fire.
The ashes will be scattered to the wind.
They will fall on the waters.
They will become incense and prayers.
I will wear them on my forehead:
Your Holiness has burned away the dross.
My sacrifice is gain, not loss.

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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.

Cleanliness or Brokenness?

“Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” If you grew up hearing this old maxim (as I did), it may seem like something very wise–even Biblical. After all, so many of the chapters in Leviticus talk about ritual washing and being clean (or unclean). God’s people should be clean and tidy, organized and pure. But if you continue reading through the Old Testament, God becomes very angry with His people. Sure, they are following the letter of His law. They are bringing sacrifices, making sure that they wash everything properly and measure out the right amounts of incense. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees even tithed their spices! Yet, Jesus called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers,” (Matthew 12:34) and “whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” (Matthew 23:27b NIV)

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We spend so much time worrying about appearances. But just because our lives look “clean” and “tidy” doesn’t mean that we are close to God. God isn’t impressed by our outward observance of His laws or by our neat appearance. Jesus did not reach out to the clean and tidy Pharisees; He went out of His way to speak to lepers and tax collectors and others who were considered “dirty” and tainted.

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That doesn’t give us a pass to be slovenly or careless about hygiene! But it does mean that we should care less about what others see, and more about what God sees–on the inside. God wants to see hearts that are humble and willing to serve. He doesn’t want clean hands that are unwilling to reach out in love; He doesn’t want spotless houses or cars filled with complaining, gossip, and anger. God hasn’t asked us to “tidy up” our lives or “get our act together” to impress our neighbors. He asks us to repent of our uncleanness; to be broken in spirit, so that we will submit to His yoke and follow Him. HE will provide the cleaning we need, through the power of His “once-for-all” sacrifice!

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In other words, “Brokenness is next to Godliness; and Godliness leads to Perfect cleanliness.” Our sins cannot be covered up or cleaned up by our efforts; they can only be washed away by the Blood of the Lamb. Only through Him can we become truly clean.

When we come before God in prayer, let us come, not just with clean hands, but with hearts that are open and tender, willing to listen to His words of wisdom, and follow in His footsteps.

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