Posted in Faith

Knowing His Invisible Kingdom

Know God, Know Peace

“Heaven is not here, it’s there,” Elizabeth Elliot writes. Jesus put it this way: “Store up for yourself treasures in heaven, for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:19-21).

We Christians know this truth, and yet we often have just as much trouble with a divided heart as any other human. We concentrate too much effort on thinking about the clothes we wear, the electronics we own, the kind of house we call home and too little time focusing on how great God is, how able He is to provide for each and every true need, just as He has promised.

Elliot continues,

“If we were given all we wanted here, our hearts would settle for this world rather than the next. God is forever luring us up and away from this one, wooing us to Himself and His still invisible Kingdom, where we will certainly find what we so keenly long for.”

In recent years, I am discovering that what I make complicated, God simplifies. I keenly long for peace, and yet I have spent a lifetime trying to accomplish things as if peace can be earned rather than accepted. If I could do enough, then I would feel better. If I was feeling nervous or off, then I obviously hadn’t been doing enough.

But God’s love for us isn’t based on a formula. He offers the gift of His grace, and when we truly accept it, we will know peace.

I know that intellectually, but only recently have I begun to understand the spiritual truth of God’s gift of grace. I have discovered that truth by following His instruction to keep my mind always on Him. That means I spend a lot more time thinking about the things around me I am thankful for. If I feel afraid, I have a conversation with the One who actually knows my future and has already planned for it. The more I put myself in conversation with God, the more I think about His Word, the more I am beginning to see the world from God’s view instead of my own.

“Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding,” the Proverbs tell us (3:5). Take every thought and make it captive to Christ, Paul exhorts believers, and “set your mind on things above, not on earthly things” (Col. 3:2). A mind focused on God puts on the armor of God, and a mind shielded by the armor of God is a mind truly at peace—no matter what the world throws its way.

My focus has shifted gradually. At first, thinking about God, especially when I would rather be pouting or brooding, seemed awkward or artificial. But very quickly, I discovered that talking to God about things I was grateful for and asking about things I felt unsure about, even little things like sweet dreams, started to become more and more like second nature.

The really exciting thing about keeping my mind on God is that I know I am just beginning in this practice. I am sure there are times ahead when I will forget, get caught up in the things of this world even though I know better. But there are also plenty of opportunities for me to get better and better at putting God first. The rewards of balance and peace that putting God first brings are truly a glimpse of the invisible Kingdom for which we keenly long.

In Christ,
Ramona

 

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Posted in Christian Living, Faith

How Do You Cope? : Turn Your Mind to Jesus

A mind focused on Jesus learns to cope

God is awesome. He deserves our love and our praise. If we are wise, He also deserves the courtesy of our fear. Do you doubt it?

Sitting in the comfort of a home this week that kept the unending rain at bay, I thought about the mightiness of our LORD, how the strength of terrible weather, which I think goes part and parcel with a fallen world, reflects the awesome power of our Creator.

But God’s greater strength showed itself through His people, who reached out from all over Houston and this country to help those who have lost everything, washed away like so much refuse as the rain continued to pour.

Long after the news cameras tire of stories about boat rescues and flooded highways, people in Houston and across the Texas coast will be doing the most important work of all, which is learning to cope with the challenges that will continue for months and even years to come. God will show His strength in helping people cope, too.

Coping is a skill I’ve been honing the last several years. My grandmother, father-in-law and brother-in-law have all died, the latter within days of each other. My mother is battling ALS. Had I not learned to cope, I wouldn’t get out of bed.

Christ is the avenue to our best coping skills. When your mind begins to wander into worries you can do nothing about, think on Him. Draw your mind to Christ by thanking Him for the things around you, for the blessings you are most grateful for. Before you know it, He will bring your mind to a place of peace that pushes away the worry. He may give you the next step to take. He may send you to a scripture that expresses just how you feel. He may simply help you to just be still.

Time with the Trinity is more important than anything. Spending time in God’s word is the only way to learn just who He is. If you know your Bible, you know if the messages you feel are truly in alignment with that word or just the murmurs of your own heart’s desires. When you truly bend your will to God, you learn to accept the times when what you want is not what God says you need.

In Houston, there is a religious venue for every 1,000 people. This is a big city with a big heart for God. I like to think this belief plays a large role in our reactions to natural disasters. In these last few days, images of neighbor helping neighbor reflect the kind of things that happen when we take the love Christ has for us and pay it forward.

A mind set on the things of this world is subject to worry and angst. A mind set on our awesome God is destined to calm and peace. I know which mindset best serves me in times of ease and conflict. I hope you also prize your time with God so that no matter how the rains and winds blow, your mind is at heavenly peace.

In Christ,
Ramona  

Posted in Christianity, Faith

Gotta Serve Somebody

Gonna have to serve somebody

If there is one truth to which we should commit our whole selves, it is this: no matter how free we think we are, the very choices we make underscore our actual servitude, either to our Holy God or to the sinful nature that is the natural state of man, and woman, in a fallen world.

In his 1979 album, Slow Train Coming, Bob Dylan included a single that reflects on this truth, entitled, “Gotta Serve Somebody.”

Dylan writes,

You may be an ambassador to England or France,
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance.
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world,
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
Indeed you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord,
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
You might be a rock ‘n’ roll addict prancing on the stage,
You might have drugs at your command, women in a cage.
You may be a business man or some high-degree thief,
They may call you doctor or they may call you chief.
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes you are,
You’re gonna have to serve somebody.
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord,
But you’re gonna serve somebody.

The apostle Paul acknowledges the truth of this concept in his letter to the Romans. After explaining about the burden a sinful life places on the individual, he exhorts the benefits of choosing instead to serve Christ.  “You have been set free from sin,” he writes, “and have become slaves to righteousness” (6:18). Before righteousness, the possibility of which came to us when Jesus died on the cross for our sins, we were slaves to evil, which only made us more and more wicked. When we embrace being a slave to righteousness by accepting Christ as our Savior, we are made more holy, which leads to eternal life instead of death/damnation.

“What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of?” Paul questions, referring to the sinful lifestyle that marks any life that does not choose to walk with Christ. “Those things,” he tells us, “result in death!” (6:21) Paul continues,

But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:22-23)

When Jesus promises us that His yoke is light, He is in part pointing toward this difference between serving “the new way of the Spirit,” as Paul describes it, “and not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:16). Allowing one’s self to be ruled by the Spirit is choosing to serve our Holy, Forgiving God. His are the mercies that endure forever. Actions based on faith in Him make us a slave who does not feel the burden of his/her servitude, but instead experiences the lightness of spirit that exudes love and helps one sleep peacefully at night.

Our sinful nature, the body that is subject to death, is always ready to catch us in a moment of weakness, to be the sin living in us that causes us to stumble. Only as we repeatedly choose to be ruled by the Spirit of Truth in us do we join in Jesus’ triumph over death into a life spent with the easy yoke of a loving Lord.

Before Christ, all believers could expect was atonement for sin. They sacrificed on a regular basis to be washed clean of sin and even had ceremonies where they atoned for sins committed of which they were not even aware. At any given moment, even the most righteous of believers could be carrying around sins for which atonement had not yet been achieved.

When Christ died on the cross for the sins of all, the ultimate sacrifice, He achieved for us not only atonement but actual forgiveness for our sin. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” Paul proclaims (Romans 8:1). We will be judged for our choices in this life, but those who have accepted Christ as Savior will never be condemned for those choices. 

It saddens me that Christians sometimes give the mistaken impression that we think the gift of Christ is exclusive to us, when what Christ offers is open to everyone who breathes. In the early days of the church, Peter tells his fellow Jews, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34-35). Christ’s love extends to all comers, from the lowliest, most despised sinners to the most exalted people in the world. What He requires is a heart that loves Him in return, that understands the great benefit of choosing to serve the Lord and His righteousness instead of the evil one who plies his duplicitous trade in this fallen wasteland we call our mortal world.

You gotta serve somebody. Those serve best who choose, as Joshua of old, to serve the Lord. (Joshua 24:15) The way of the Spirit is truly the lightened burden that casts off the crushing weight of a life bound by sin.

Each morning is a new day to choose to serve the Spirit. Will you join me in making a conscious choice each sunrise to serve a Christ Who loves you so much, He swallowed the wrath for your sin even though He had never sinned Himself? He is the only Master worth serving, the only One to whom service causes us to rise rather than stumble.

In Christ,
Ramona

Posted in Christianity, Love

Seek Right By Letting God Do The Heavy Lifting

1 John 4:16

In their song, “Sawmill Road,” Diamond Rio reminisces about the past, lamenting that innocence went out of style, and we just watched it go. 

Too often these days, I feel the truth of that statement. In an effort to be politically correct, we have forsaken not only morality but even decency in our misguided efforts to avoid giving offense or to simply appear “cool.”

Could our failures come from a lack of understanding of the true nature of love? Jesus tells us that the whole of the commandments can be summed up in two objectives: first, love God above all things, and second, love others as you yourself want to be loved.

Too many of us make the mistake of thinking love means putting no restraints on others, that if we really love someone, we will let them just be themselves. But the love God models for us just doesn’t work that way. The freedom God gives us in love is to choose to do right, to choose to stay in relationship with Him, where the only true peace on this earth can be found. That also means we have the choice to disobey God, to take ourselves out of relationship with Him because of our sin. That choice usually brings about very unpleasant consequences. God’s love means letting us experience those things, too.

Choices that go against what God clearly asks of us disrespect our Maker and put us out of close relationship with Him. We all make these mistakes at some point in life, which is why we all need grace to save us. But, when we continually make choices that show God we do not actually love Him or even want anything to do with Him, we have to be aware that eventually He may just give us what we ask for. Is it possible that hell is not so much fire and brimstone but a reality in which there is no God?

For God, love is not never having to say you’re sorry. His word repeatedly reminds us that a loving father disciplines his children, that God will humble a proud spirit, that He alone determines not only how the tides ebb and flow but also the rights and wrongs of a world He alone created.

We humans too often mistake freedom of choice for a license to be free. God has gifted us with the will to choose to serve Him. But that free will does not negate the straight and narrow path that God has defined as the true sign of walking by faith.  Our freedom to do whatever we feel like is really limited to the narrow choice between following God or refusing to accept Him as Master.

What does God-love do with sinners? One of the best examples comes from Jesus’ experience with the adulteress in John 8. The spiritual leaders in the town want to stone the woman who has been caught in adultery. They are within their rights according to Mosaic law, but they want to catch Jesus in a trap. So, they ask Him what they should do. He replies, let the person who is guiltless himself throw the first stone. Since no one is without sin, the crowd disperses without lifting so much as a pebble. Jesus tells the woman He will not condemn her for her one sin, but He tells her to go forth and sin no more.

There are several love lessons in this interlude.  The first is that God alone has the right to condemn. This does not mean that God alone has the ability to recognize sin. Not only did the spiritual leaders know the sin committed by the adulteress. They also knew the sins they themselves were guilty of, the sins that kept them from picking up the first stone. The responsibility for not sinning falls on the shoulders of the individual. Jesus tells the woman, “Go, and sin no more.” Having been forgiven this sin, the woman is now tasked with refusing to fall into the trap of that sin ever again.

God loves the sinner but hates the sin, a balancing act we humans find hard to accommodate at times. We don’t quite know how to speak out against sins like adultery without giving offense to the adulterer. Sometimes, we take the risk and wind up making enemies because our listener hears only condemnation and not love.  Other times, we remain silent and leave the impression that actions that actually go against God are somehow OK.

When I live my life right, I am so busy keeping my thoughts on God and the ways that He wants me to make a mark on this world through helping others, that I am too caught up in living Christ to find time for judging other people. When I do these things correctly, I am also reflecting the kind of peace and “togetherness” that draws other people. They want to know what it is about me that makes me who I am. I become a living example for them of the importance of Christ in one’s life. When they decide to accept Christ, He does the work in them that will keep them from sin, just like He works on me every day of my life.

Trusting God to do the heavy lifting in this life is one of the hardest things for me to do, and yet when I succeed in embracing this philosophy, my life is always at its best. I pray to remember this lesson the next time I am confronted by those who want me to accept choices that go against God’s definition of right.

Posted in Faith

How God Lifted Me


There are no better lessons in grace than those in-the-valley moments in this life that all humans must face at one point or another. In those shadowed, veiled times, we might be tempted to turn away from a God we didn’t have such a great understanding of in the first place. Or, we might turn to Him for miracles that He sometimes grants and often provides in some out-of-nowhere way it may take years of living to figure out. We might just wallow, giving ourselves heaping mouthfuls of mud to go along with the bitter tastes in our mouths.

The first lesson to learn in the valley is that you are not alone. Even if you are having a rather one-sided argument with God at the moment, blocking out his ever-presence in your life, you don’t have to seek too far away in the valley to see the tell-tale signs of fellow sufferers. Being human, you’re likely to gravitate toward those who have chosen your same approach to hardship so that you might commiserate together.

I’ve been in the valley for the last several years. My husband’s family and my own have faced challenges with terminal illness of those we hold closest to us. My father-in-law and brother-in-law each lost his battle with cancer within weeks of each other during the holidays the year before last. My mother was diagnosed with ALS, and my parents daily struggle with the challenges of coping with this dreaded, dreadful disease.

So, as much as anybody out there, I think I have the right to ask the unanswerable questions, like why God lets bad things happen to good people, or why nature itself has to be as evil as any serial killer you can find on the FBI’s most-wanted list.

But, these really weren’t questions I had to find answers for as this long journey in the shadows continues for me because God has granted me so many spiritual mentors and fruitful lessons from my Bible studies. I know that God cares for all of us. I know that this life with all its troubles is not what He had originally planned when He plopped Adam and Eve in a garden paradise. I survive because I have faith that God will work to the good even the most horrific things that happen in this life for those, like me, who strive to walk by faith in our belief.

My spiritual mentors have been many. I have friends who hold God close to their hearts. They have introduced me to great Bible teachers like Ravi Zacharias, Andy Stanley, and Randy Harris, men who do a good job of putting Biblical concepts into modern-day language. These are men who value the love of Jesus and who know that grace is something we all need in equal measure. Instead of judging other people, these mentors have taught me to seek the good in others in order to spread Jesus’ most precious gift of forgiveness through grace.

As a writer, I admire what apologists such as Philip Yancey and Sarah Young and novelists like Charles Martin and Francine Rivers can do when they put pen to paper and allow God’s gift to flow through them.  I have learned that it’s okay to ask questions about and of God, that staying in a mode of thankfulness draws me closer to God, that the strength of our relationships on earth can reflect the strength of our interactions with our Savior, that the kind of love that truly puts the other first will never fail.

My days have been dark and will be darker still, but I will continue to walk by faith. These are no longer bumper-sticker words to me, but the result of persevering. I study my Bible, I pray continually, I share my belief with others, I am open to learning from God and fellow believers. Some days, many days, I have to choose that today is a good day for a good day.  I have had to learn to cut myself some breaks. I have learned that helping others even when my own world is crumbling helps me feel better.  I lean on the understanding that this life is about becoming something for the next life. God, my potter, is molding the clay that is me into a masterpiece for His kingdom.

I am comforted by the idea that some day, when my perseverance is complete, the angels will dance.

Posted in Christian Living

Kind Words: The Little Things That Mean A Lot

Running on the treadmill earlier this week, searching as usual for anything to think about other than the sweat making its steady stream down my back, I remembered a sunny day many years ago when I had just finished an outdoor run in the park at my hometown.

“You have really good form,” an unfamiliar voice wafted past the pounding in my ears to me.

I looked up to see a younger girl in perfect shape. She had no reason to compliment the thirty-something bookworm who had just jogged around the track at a speed many could walk. Still, she took the time to let me know I was doing something right.

I thanked her roundly and headed back to my car to drive home, my back a little straighter, my heart filled with the warmth of human kindness. I was the kid whose third-grade teacher gave her a ball and jacks to work on her eye-hand coordination. When others were perfecting dodge-ball moves, I was the one with her nose in a book, watching enviously from the sidelines. I did not get compliments on anything athletic. Ever.

But, ever since that day, I have always felt that my jogging form is good, worthy of compliments. I have some foundation for this confidence besides one stranger’s kind words. My husband actually has taught me the running form the young lady admired that day on the track. Still, her words, which took only a moment of her time, have stuck with me through the years. Laboring on the treadmill in the gym, I know I am not the fastest person in the room, but I also know I pump my legs like a real runner, all because a stranger decided to compliment me on a windy, West Texas day.

Words really are just that powerful. They can build up or destroy with minimum effort on the speaker’s part. No wonder the Bible warns us: But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken (Matt. 12:36).

Knowing the power of words is one reason I try to speak my compliments to strangers instead of just thinking them in my head. I admire a scarf or jewelry, I note the pretty eyes or hairstyle, I praise the young boy who holds open the door. So far, no one has rebuffed me for saying something nice to them. It’s literally one of the smallest things I can do to spread the love Jesus feels for all of us.

Kind words serve me in other ways. When I spend my time thinking about kind words, I put myself in a place of love and thankfulness that pushes out anger and fear and ultimately draws me closer to God. When I am in His presence, I find it even easier to discover kind things to say. It is a cycle of love that we should all want to be caught up in.

In an old song, Kitty Kallen croons,

Blow me a kiss from across the room
Say I look nice when I’m not
Touch my hair as you pass my chair
Little things mean a lot

When it comes to living each day as Christ-like, embracing the idea that little things mean a lot can go a long way toward spreading the love of Jesus. In fact, if we concentrate on the little things, God promises He will do the heavy lifting:

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)

Never underestimate what God can do with your kind words. His mercy is no little thing, but the little things are exactly what He calls on us to strive for, keeping each day’s worries unto itself, leaving the bigger picture to our awesome, heavenly Father.

You are special, and you are loved.  What kind words have made a big difference in your life? Think about God’s blessings in your life and be inspired to go forth and be kind.

In Christ,
Ramona

Posted in Christianity, Love

More than a Fish Story: An Old Testament Lesson in Grace

not just another fish story

On Memorial Day, we remember with a measure of sadness and a whole lot of pride those brave men and women who have given their very greatest gift for the sake of defending our freedom and way of life.

It seems like an appropriate time to remember the person who paved the way for such magnificent sacrifice, our Lord Jesus, who, having lived a human life and managed what none of us will ever do, that is to be without sin, sacrificed Himself so that we might have eternal life through His grace.

Most people want to place grace solidly in the New Testament. Some like to see God as a sort of split personality—the wrathful, war-like Judge of the Old Testament versus the loving, saving Lamb of the New. But God is the same yesterday, today and forever, so it isn’t really any surprise to find examples of His grace throughout the story of our relationship with the Eternal.

Take the narrative of the reluctant prophet Jonah. If you haven’t read his story since you were a child and more prone to concentrate on the concept of a man inside a fish, take a bit of time today with me to look at this Biblical episode, which is so about grace.

As I read Jonah’s story during my Bible study this week, I was impressed anew by its parallels to some of the events in Jesus’ life, and I was struck by its overpowering message of God’s grace. In fact, I found that some of Jonah’s goofiest reactions to God’s calling for him only go to underscore the truth of God’s mercy.

Jonah arrives on the Biblical scene at a time when the Jews could be doing better. They are a divided kingdom, running through a succession of kings who take turns being for God, ambivalent, or outright disobedient. Sometimes they worship as they ought. Other times, they cling to pagan idols.

But Jonah isn’t sent to prophesy to the Jews! Instead, God wants Jonah to warn the Assyrians in the metropolitan city of Nineveh to repent before He executes a mighty punishment on them. There may be more immediate reasons that God places Jonah on this path, but there is also an inkling here of God’s future message of grace. He wants all to be saved: Jews, God-fearers, Gentiles, even enemies of His chosen people like the Assyrians. And, as we shall see, this story also shows how often the Gentiles turn more quickly to God’s message of grace than His chosen people.

When called, like so many of us, Jonah doesn’t want to go. So, forgetting that God is everywhere, Jonah hops a ship and tries the impossible feat of outrunning Him. Jonah doesn’t get far. A storm begins to rage on the open waters. The sailors of the vessel, terrified, are surprised to find Jonah fast asleep as the storm rages.

Even though Jesus was not running from God, you might recall He, too, was found fast asleep during a stormy voyage on the open water. When His disciples wake Him, He calmly abates the storm. Jonah’s path to bringing about calm waters is clumsy by comparison.

The sailors cast lots to figure out who is responsible and then start questioning Jonah. He admits it is his fault that the storm has come and offers to sacrifice himself for their safety by being thrown overboard into the sea. (Jonah doesn’t know that God will save him, so he really is offering to die to save the men in the boat.) The sailors, reluctant to kill a man, even though he has brought this calamity on them in the first place, attempt to ride out the storm. Eventually, even they have to admit defeat and throw Jonah overboard.

Jonah stays inside the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights (another parallel to Christ, who was three days and three nights in the tomb before rising again). While sitting in the gooey, smelly darkness, Jonah prays, and what he prays about is grace and the salvation that comes because of it:

Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the LORD.

God uses the vine to teach Jonah grace

If Jonah’s story isn’t already weird enough, it takes another strange twist once he has successfully fulfilled his mission. For, having prophesied doom so that the Assyrians actually repent of their evil ways, Jonah gets angry that God chooses to show compassion instead of reigning destruction on the great city:

That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish, Jonah complains. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.

Showing how challenging the concept of grace can be for humans to grasp, Jonah accepts God’s compassion on an intellectual level but is so irritated that his prophesying was unnecessary since God did not condemn Nineveh that Jonah proclaims he is angry enough to die.

Jonah finds a place east of the city (won’t Christ come from the east upon His return?) and plops down to do just that. But, God isn’t finished teaching him lessons, or us, just yet. God makes a vine grow over Jonah that protects him from the elements. The next day, God allows the vine to be gnawed away by a worm, exposing Jonah to a scorching wind and blazing sun.

Now Jonah is really angry, but God gives Jonah a more merciful perspective to consider, one that takes into account the true meaning of the vine that Jesus later proclaims:

But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”

Our God loves us. Even when we are most despicable, He longs for us to turn towards Him. He forgives yesterday, today and forever. He saves yesterday, today and forever.

During this Memorial Day holiday, as we pay honor to those who have given their lives in fighting for our country, we should begin by honoring the One whose sacrifice gave tangible proof of God’s saving grace. Because of Jesus, we creations of the mighty God know every moment of every day through all circumstances that God’s grace never fails.

Only God could tell us so much from the story of a reluctant prophet in the belly of a whale.