Posted in Faith

Embrace This Four-Letter Word

hope

God keeps His promises. In the early sixth century, after a forced march of some 900 miles, the Israelites sat huddled in captivity in far away Babylon knowing the truth of that statement. Having denied God’s sovereignty by worshiping other gods, ignoring His commandments, and otherwise living up to their reputation as a “stiff-necked” people, the nation of Israel finally faced the fruition of God’s promise to take away His gift of the promised land if they did not change their ways.

But even in their exile, God, who never changes, remembered His love for them. Jeremiah the prophet tells the remnant of Israelites who remained in their homeland:

“For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the LORD, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (29:11)

God’s gift of hope threads its way throughout His Word, and every time, what begins in hope ends in the fulfillment of God’s promises. Sara laughed because she thought herself too old to have a child, and yet Abraham is the patriarch of a nation. David, a humble shepherd, was hunted down and nearly killed by Saul and yet his son, Solomon, eventually ruled over a kingdom whose riches we can only imagine. A virgin gave birth to a child whose death on the Cross fulfilled the Law and saved the world.

Sometimes, when we get caught up in the hectic, busy business of living day-to-day, we forget God’s promise of hope counts for much more than our everlasting life. His hope means that in this life of trouble and woe and uncertainty, we have the promise that God, who sees all, has the endgame in sight. He wants us to have peace. He longs for us to be at rest in our trust of Him.

Jesus reminds us,

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. . . . I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take courage; I have overcome the world!” (John 14:27 & 16:33)

Leaning into the hope that is the promise of a world overcome by our Savior takes practice and patience. We have to learn to listen to our self-talk, correct a mind that wants to embrace gloom and doom instead of the love of God, and know the truths and promises that we believe so easily during times of joy so that we do not forsake them in times of trouble.

Hope offers peace when we wonder at the machinations of even the greatest government in the world, as we wait for test results in a crowded doctor’s office or worry over the bills we cannot pay. It is that feeling, deep down inside of us, that we will find comfort and rest, no matter how dim our present seems. It is the smile of a stranger on a bad day, the unexpected refund just when we need it most, the tiny victory of a good report from the doctor even when your condition is fatal.

Hope is for the courageous, but God gives courage. The world is always ready to mock those who claim a faith in God’s goodness and love. But those who believe have in their hearts a higher goal than the worries of this world can hold. They know the victory that comes with believing in the hope of heaven and embracing the evidences of our hope on earth.

 

 

Posted in Christian Living, Love

For Those Whom We Remember

PhotoFunia-especially love

The people who make a difference are not the ones with the credentials, but the ones with the concern.  –Max Lucado, And The Angels Were Silent

In a world where a YouTube video can make a dancing toddler or wacky kitten “famous,” it doesn’t hurt to step back every once in a while to gain some much-needed perspective.  Max Lucado gives this perspective with just a few questions:

  • Can you name the last five Nobel Peace Prize Winners?
  • How about the Pulitzer Prize Winner from last year?
  • Name five people who had a profound impact on your life.
  • How about ten people you have a great memory about?

Like me, I’m sure you had a difficult, or impossible, time with the first two questions, but a much quicker response to the final two questions.  Lucado explains that the difference in your ability to answer these questions comes from the value of the second set of people in your life.

Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners may be the best in their area of expertise, but knowing how to write a profound play, ultimately, doesn’t mean as much to me as experiencing the helping hand I really need from a person who knows me and cares enough to do something for me.

Isn’t the difference between credentials and concern summed up in Hosea, in the verse that Christ repeats during one of his encounters with the Pharisees?:

If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent (Matthew 12:7).

The truth of Christ’s sacrifice for us is that God’s main desire is not the continued spilling of blood (Christ gave the ultimate sacrifice for us once and for all on the cross), but our earnest striving to be kind, to love, to show concern.

How do you measure your success?  Do you spend too much time, like I often fall into the trap of doing, measuring yourself against the kinds of jobs other people have, or what’s in your bank account, or what kind of clothes you wear?  Even when you think you are trying to measure yourself according to God’s standards, do you fall into the trap of thinking bigger is better?  In other words, if you aren’t building a church or working on a mission trip, do you consider yourself a failure?

Luckily for us, God has a different measuring stick.  If we can be that concerned person for even one other, then we have made strides in His kingdom we may never totally fathom.  Do you want to think according to God’s measurement of success or man’s?

I always answer God’s to that question, and I always find myself slipping back into a laundry list of credentials instead of concern!  So, I propose thinking about success from a concern perspective.  How will that look?  Where do I begin?

It seems one of the best places to begin is by thinking hard about the people, outside of my family, who have shown the most concern for me in my life.  What impact did they have, exactly?  What did they do to make me feel appreciated, worthy, loved?

I might begin with Miss Patty, who taught me the Bible every Sunday during a particularly trying time in my life.  She was the one who walked me through the path to salvation as it is explained in the book of Romans.  She pointed out the verse in Ephesians that assured me I had been “sealed in that holy spirit of promise” when I had my first doubts.  She checked up on me long after I was in her Sunday school class.

Then there were the “mighty four,” a group of women a generation older than I who befriended me as I entered full adulthood.  We worked together at a community college, shared meals and miseries, my first real gang of friends.  When they teamed up to surprise me for one of my birthdays, I felt like one of the most important people in the world.  They probably won’t even know that until they read this paragraph. These are the women whose love will be in me for the rest of my life.

Some of those who show concern are in my life for but a moment.  Every time a gentleman opens a door for me, I feel respected and thankful.  When I walk into a place I haven’t been in a while and yet someone remembers me, I feel “important.”  Even when more than one person seems genuinely interested in seeing me on a Sunday morning, I think, wow, maybe I’m not such a pain. Like Sally Field, my inner self thinks, “They like me; they really like me.”

And no, I am not always a pathetic dweeb whose self talk is negative.  I often have to humble myself or be humbled.  But, my point is that because others have focused on concern and not credentials, I have been drug out of many a down moment.  And don’t we all have down moments that could use a little concern now and again?

I think that’s the kind of love God uses to measure us by, the treasures in heaven that Jesus admonishes us to strive for.  So, the next time I try to berate myself for not doing enough, I think I’ll make sure my measuring stick is marked with concern and not credentials, with kindness and love instead of silver and gold.

In Christ,
Ramona

Posted in Living

Boxes

grandma collage

The personal, life events of the last eight days have brought to mind a song I wrote many years ago when a dear friend of mine was having to say goodbye to the last member of her immediate family.  Last Wednesday, I lost my last grandparent.  She was almost 92.  I look forward to seeing her again in that amazing place where there are many rooms.

For now, I wanted to share the lyrics that reflect a little bit of what we all have to go through at some point or another:

Boxes

It was just a pile of boxes,
labelled by a shaky hand.
And I knew this day was coming,
but it’s not the way I planned.
50 years of family living,
all packed up and put away.
And it’s not the way I planned it,
but the boxes go today.

There’s the box of Mama’s trophies,
15 years of county fairs,
quilts crafted through hard winters,
with a hint of country air.
There’s my daddy’s favorite novels,
all Jack London ever wrote.
He’d read to us on Sundays,
his voice ringing with pure notes.
There’s the photo of my sister,
chasing butterflies in Spring.
She’s the girl that I remember,
but her memory’s all I bring.

What I wouldn’t give
to hear my daddy’s voice again,
see my sister’s curly hair,
smell my mama’s smooth, clean skin.
50 years of family living,
all wrapped up and put away.
And it’s not the way I planned it,
but the boxes go today.

And I place the generations,
in piles to give away.
And a part of me goes with it,
but I can’t afford to stay,
wrapped in memories while my own kids
wait at home for my return.
Closing down the family homestead
feels just like a bridge that’s burned.

~~~

 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.  (John 14:27)

Posted in Christian Living, Faith

His Faithful Love Endures

Challenges like the dust bowl of another generation are just one of many things we humans endure.
Challenges like the dust bowl of another generation are just one of many things we humans endure.

As a person with anxiety issues, I avoid the news as much as possible.  Being a fan of history, I realize the potential fallacy of this head-in-the-sand attitude.  But, since most days I have to overcome the challenge of worrying about what my logical mind knows are silly things–like the pine needles on my roof or whether the sugar ants I thought I had conquered in my kitchen will return again–I feel validated in my choice to remain mostly oblivious.

But, I do occasionally watch the news.  My first memory of seeing a newscast is standing in the kitchen of our 75-year-old house as the 13-inch black and white television flashed images of Russian soldiers with weapons moving through the woods as if they might burst through the back pantry door any moment.  The newscaster said that Russia had developed some kind of weapon that was superior to what our soldiers had in this time of relative peace known as the cold war.

In my fifth grade classroom, first my teacher told us about being a girl our age and hearing about Pearl Harbor.  She was a passionate storyteller who painted a vivid picture of her own, innocent world collapsing in around her.  Suddenly, the blue sky over the front lawn where she played on the tire swing or rode her bike was an ominous void where planes might bomb her into oblivion at any moment.

That same year, I stood in the library as a television blared reports that our President had been shot.  One of my classmates cheered.  There were rumors that the teacher standing next to me in the library had snuck out to her vehicle and cried.

I once told a friend of another generation that mine felt like one of the first generations in many to not really be challenged.  She, after all, had lost her fiancé in Vietnam.  I conveniently forgot that one of my own high school classmates had died serving our country in a war we are for all intents and purposes still fighting.

So, there is nothing new under the sun, it seems.  Each generation faces its own share of challenges, whether they be wars against brothers-turned-enemies, economic hardships, or the truly unrelenting power of nature.  Each generation must forge its own path to the perseverance that builds character.  And every day we choose to take one more step forward, we prove our own heroic spirit.

But the most heroic spirit of all is the humble one that realizes all things good come from the ONE who breathed everything into existence.

I was reminded of this truth as I read through the Psalms this week.  In these prayers to God, we learn what it is like to be created and yet in relationship with our Creator.  The various authors of the Psalms praise God, plead with God, bargain with God, and even get angry with Him!  But, they always, always, submit to God’s superior role in the petitioner’s life.

In Psalms 107 and 118, for example, we see the heights and the depths of the human experience:

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good!  His faithful love endures forever. . . . Let them praise the LORD for his great love and for the wonderful things he has done for them. (Psalm 107:1, 8)

In both these Psalms, besides telling the story of all the good things God has done, the Psalmists also acknowledge their own failings, especially in the face of a perfect God.  They know they do not deserve help.  They know that they have been punished and may still continue to be punished.  But, they also believe in God’s faithfulness.  Even though we created things repeatedly reject Him, God never forgets us.

Believing that God is ever faithful, the Psalmist makes a declaration of belief, asking for success even though the Psalmist knows God may not immediately or ever grant it.  Still, in the end, the Psalmist knows that God will always love:

This is the day the LORD has made.  We will rejoice and be glad in it.  (Psalm 118:24)

Like Job who refused to curse God, even when it seemed like God had taken everything from him, for those who remain constant in the belief that God is faithful, the crazy things that happen in our fallen, cursed world can be placed in the always open hands of a loving Creator.  Somehow, knowing that makes facing a fallen world possible.

I commend those who endure so much, but I also acknowledge that any life is a certain act of endurance.  Since I have problems with anxiety, your mole hill is probably my mountain, but we both still endure.  In the end, the act of being human is not a contest of who had the greatest challenges.  It seems to me that the act of being human is all about enduring through our faith in a faithful God.

In a world full of headlines, I think I’ll stick with the banner that hasn’t changed in centuries:  HIS faithful love endures forever.

I hope we all walk in stronger faith in the coming days.  And if we stumble, then let us turn to the words of others who have gone before us along this same journey.  Open His Word to the Psalms and be ready to find a familiar friend who also loves God.

The LORD who shepherds David shepherds all of us.  I choose to fear no evil when I choose God.

Posted in Christianity, Faith

This Cup of Wrath: Part 3 of 3

wrath

We all get angry, some more than others.  Think about the last time you got really, really angry, the kind of angry that makes your whole body shake as you clench your teeth.  Chances are the person who made you so angry is someone related to you or someone you otherwise know quite well.  Why is that the case?  Perhaps because we feel safe to be angry at that person.  They can’t make themselves unrelated to us, can they?  Perhaps it is because we share a past that is so similar that we do not understand how the person who made us angry could have made decisions so different from what we might have done.

But none of these examples of anger are comparable to the wrath of God.  He who made all things is the only One who has the right and full knowledge to be angry.  Pride, jealousy, hatred–the human emotions connected to anger have nothing to do with the wrath of God.  His wrath is reserved for those who refuse to follow His edicts, no matter how patient He is in explaining them to us.  The great essayist Annie Dillard explains it this way:

A high school stage play is more polished than this service we have been rehearsing since the year one. In two thousand years, we have not worked out the kinks. We positively glorify them. Week after week we witness the same miracle: that God is so mighty he can stifle his own laughter. Week after week, we witness the same miracle: that God, for reasons unfathomable, refrains from blowing our dancing bear act to smithereens.

Who can believe it?

The greatest wonder of all is that the same God whose wrath can and has wiped out the entire human race (don’t forget Noah), is tempered by an even greater love.  Because of God’s love for us, He sent His one and only Son, who took on the wrath of God unto Himself, the wrath that you and I deserve, so that we would be saved from it.

In his series on the book of Revelations, preacher Rick Atchley spends some time discussing the cup of wrath that is mentioned throughout the book.  Rick makes a clear connection between the full, judgmental wrath of God that will be poured out on all who do not repent at the end of times with the cup that Jesus prays to God about in the garden of Gethsemane before He was sacrificed on the cross:

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”  Luke 22:42

In dying on the cross for my sin, Christ drank the cup of God’s wrath for me.  None of us is perfect.  None of us can say we are without blame, without reason for God to be angry or disappointed with us.  But because Christ drank from the cup of wrath, we are free to face God and feel the full force of His love for us. 

As you take your next Lord’s Supper, think about the cup you drink not only as a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice, but also as a symbol of the wrath of God you so deserve but from which you have been so lovingly spared.  You may, as I, find it hard to actually swallow.

There is no greater knowledge than this: that God’s love for us is such that He gives us what we need and not what we deserve. The cup of wrath is real, but not a thing to fear for those who believe in Christ.  Instead, we Christians should use the cup of wrath as a reminder to be more patient, more loving with others, just as Christ is patient and loving with us.  We have been saved from God’s wrath.  Shouldn’t we long to help Him in His quest to see that all are saved?

Because of Christ, God’s wrath is like words scrawled on the sandy shore, where the waves can wash them out to sea over and over again, holding nothing against us.

Posted in Christian Living, Christianity

Living, happily, in doubt

Benefit of the doubt

As I have mentioned on a few occasions, I’ve been reading Randy Harris’ Living Jesus, a guide to the Sermon on the Mount, which is practical, insightful and challenging.  Of course, I have just described the Sermon on the Mount itself, but Harris’ commentary places Jesus’ timeless words into modern terms that graciously calls each of us to the hard truths of Christ’s most famous lesson.

One of the principles that Harris puts into modern focus is discussing the Golden Rule in terms he dubs the “benefit of the doubt principle.”  In almost any given situation, you can see what is happening or what has been said by assuming the best about someone or the worst.

Most of the time, we go around assuming the worst possible scenario.  It’s the beam in our eye that Jesus was warning us about.  The clerk at the store who is curt to us is a rude person who needs to learn customer service skills. We don’t consider instead the possibility that the clerk may have distractions like a sick child at home or bills he is having trouble paying that are making it hard for him to concentrate on the task at hand.

If we respond to the clerk without the benefit of the doubt, we are probably just as curt back, not smiling, and may even complain to the manager. But, if we give the clerk the benefit of the doubt, we might smile ourselves, give the clerk a compliment, or admit that it seems like the clerk is having a rough day as we empathize with the feeling.

Try this the next time you encounter a “difficult” person, and note the amazing turnaround that is possible.

But, the change in attitude that comes with treating people with the benefit of the doubt isn’t just for the people to which you offer it. This principle affects you perhaps most of all. You might, in fact, call this the happy principle, because when you start giving people the benefit of the doubt, it is almost impossible to stay in a negative state of mind.

Thoughts such as he hates me or she thinks I’m stupid or no one appreciates what I do, etc. all fall under a different lens when the benefit of the doubt is applied.  Instead of jumping to the worst possible conclusion, if we consider the problems others might be facing as well, if we realize that the world doesn’t revolve around us, then we are more likely to be happier people.

Sometimes, a different perspective can come as easily as deciding to assume that another person’s “bad” attitude has nothing to do with you, isn’t actually directed at you, and shouldn’t be taken personally.  What if you respond to a “bad” attitude with concern for the other person or just with a friendly response that refuses to be “baited?”

Living according to the moral system Christ calls us to live in the Sermon on the Mount really requires us to stay in touch with the workings of the Holy Spirit in us.  That Holy Spirit guidance gives us the ability to offer the benefit of the doubt to others, to see past the beam in our own eye before we even notice the speck in somebody else’s.  And when we put our ego aside enough to actually do that, we’ll find that we’re happier, calmer people.

When we walk according to the benefit of the doubt, we’ll find that we feel the love of Christ in us and toward others more often.  Just as Jesus was able to point out how no one had the right to judge the condemned woman but was still able to call her to “go and sin no more,” when we lead with love, staying on the narrow path is an easier pill for everyone to swallow (see John 8).

But this benefit of the doubt principle is easier said than done, for the ego is a strong thing, constantly pulling us from the guidance of God.  Part of us wants to feel hurt, put upon, wounded.  And that part wants somebody else to blame.  If we have to embrace the concept that it is our choice how we react to the information that bombards us daily, we have to master putting God’s way first and our ego second.  Mastering the ego is mastering the concept of the benefit of the doubt.

Of course, there are times when the benefit of the doubt might not be possible.  If someone is heading toward you with a drawn knife, you’d best take evasive action.  But, most of the time, choosing to see others in the best possible light is exactly what we have the opportunity and obligation to do if we are really trying to walk with Christ:

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”   (Matthew 7:3-5)

We are so quick to give ourselves a break.  No one can be more creative than we are when we start making excuses for our own failings.  We don’t want to be too hard on ourselves, after all.  So, next time you are tempted to be harder on somebody else than you would be on yourself, get creative.  Give the other person a blessing to you both–the benefit of the doubt that leads to peaceful, and happy, living.

Posted in Christianity, Love

Gratitude with a Capital G

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Joy to the world, the LORD has come. Let earth receive its King. Let every heart prepare Him room, and Heaven and Nature sing.

Christmas is the time when we celebrate the greatest miracle ever–the willingness of an all-powerful God to become like one of us in order to save us.

He has shown the depth of His patience and His wrath throughout the history of His interactions with us. In Old Testament times, He called His chosen people “stiff-necked” and punished them with as much passion as He subsequently forgave them. Through chance after chance, the Israelites moved toward and away from Him in an ebb and flow that lasted thousands of years.

When a baby was born to a virgin in a manger, God’s people were marking off almost 400 years of silence from Him. Further, if a Messiah had come, they expected Him to be a champion who blazed against their enemies and allowed the Israelites to rule the world, overthrowing their Roman oppressors and making sure they never again were slaves.

Intead, what they got was a man who instructed them to “turn the other cheek.” The Kingdom Jesus came to establish had absolutely nothing to do with earthly rule as the Israelites understood it.

More than 2000 years later, some have still not heard His word, and some might argue that we of His Kingdom are at a stage where we are also “stiff-necked,” turning away from Him in a time when we most need what He has to offer.

For those who have accepted the salvation Christ offers, a gratitude based on the humble realization of just how little we deserve God’s love and sacrifice should be the first thought we have upon rising each morning and before we lay down to sleep each night. It should also be a gratitude that colors the way we treat everyone around us.

No one’s love is greater than God’s love for us. And the best news of all time is that His love is available to all of us, no matter who we are or what we have done, as long as we are willing to reach out with both hands and grab it–gratefully.