Litany of Humility
“O Jesus meek and humble of heart, Hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed,
From the desire of being loved,
From the desire of being extolled,
From the desire of being honored,
From the desire of being praised,
From the desire of being preferred to others,
From the desire of being consulted,
From the desire of being approved,

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being humiliated,
From the fear of being despised,
From the fear of suffering rebukes,
From the fear of being calumniated,
From the fear of being forgotten,
From the fear of being ridiculed,
From the fear of being wronged,
From the fear of being suspected,

Deliver me, Jesus.

– Cardinal Merry del Val

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“…Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily.

He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all. If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.”

C.S.Lewis

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Jesus knew that the Father had put him in complete charge of everything, that he came from God and was on his way back to God. So he got up from the supper table, set aside his robe, and put on an apron. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the feet of the disciples, drying them with his apron. John 13:3-6

Living Acts

February 3, 2016 — 1 Comment

As it just so ‘happened’, the day after I watched the video of the Iraqi Christians sharing their stories, I came to the book of Acts in my glacier crawl through the Bible.

I was reading The Message version, which has a brief introduction to each book written by Eugene Peterson. Here is what he says about the Acts of the Apostles:

“Because the story of Jesus is so impressive – God among us! God speaking a language we can understand! God acting in ways that heal and help and save us! – There is a danger that we will be impressed, but only be impressed. As the spectacular dimensions of the story slowly (or suddenly) dawn upon us, we could easily become enthusiastic spectators, and then let it go at that – become admirers of Jesus, generous with our oos and ahs, and in our better moments inspired to imitate him…

“The story of Jesus doesn’t end with Jesus. It continues in the lives of those who believe in him. The supernatural does not stop with Jesus. Luke makes it clear that these Christians he wrote about were no more spectators of Jesus than Jesus was a spectator of God – they are in on the action of God, God acting in them, God living in them. Which also means, of course, in us.”

In other words, Emmanuel.

As I read that, I was still deeply affected by hearing how some ordinary Christians in Iraq had gotten “in on the action of God”. (If you haven’t had a chance to watch the video yet, I recommend you do so now as it will be more profitable than anything I’m going to say here.)

And as I read the first half of Acts, I realized what I had heard on the video had the same freshness as the story that Luke tells, especially when I came to chapter 4:

They couldn’t take their eyes off them – Peter and John standing there so confident, so sure of themselves! Their fascination deepened when they realized these two were laymen with no training in scripture or formal education. They recognized them as companions Jesus…

Again, I thought of the people in the video I had watched. I thought that what was said of Peter and John could be said of many of these Iraqi believers who lived humble lives. They worked hard to put food, literally, on the table. No jet-setting plane trips. No exciting cross-cultural exchanges. No visits to corridors of power. I imagine they experienced a fair amount of subtle and not-so-subtle persecution from being a religious minority. Probably traditional rather than cutting edge. Perhaps not so theologically savvy. Guaranteed imperfect.

Our world values the opposite. Our role models tend to be sophisticated, clever, educated, wealthy people. [For a large part of history, you could add ‘warrior strength’ to that list.]

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As a consequence, it is all too easy [speaking here from personal experience], to care more about appearing sophisticated and clever than being faithful to the gospel of Jesus. This isn’t a new phenomenon: see Jesus’ parable about guests at a wedding banquet in Luke 14. But as I watched the video and then read Acts, I was reminded that these are people who haven’t achieved the world’s definition of success or brilliance or intelligence.

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And I remembered all the people I have worshipped with over the years here who have far less education than me [many, in fact, who are illiterate], who make a fraction or the US minimum wage, who don’t know the meaning of health insurance. Some come from countries where the average life expectancy is less than my current age, like Central African Republic where if you live to 50, you’ve beaten the odds.

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But none of these grave–and deplorable–negatives have hindered their ability to encounter the love of God in Jesus Christ. Their lives have been transformed by His embrace. They are living witnesses to His power and care.

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The kingdom of God belongs to fishermen who responded to the call.

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The kingdom of God belongs to those who receive it like a child [Luke 18:15-17].

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The kingdom of God belongs to the broken and the imperfect, to criminals and adulterers, to the simple and the unspectacular who have trusted the saving, amazing grace of Jesus.

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The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash—along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ. Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung.

I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ—God’s righteousness.I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself. If there was any way to get in on the resurrection from the dead, I wanted to do it

Philippians 3:7-11 The Message

[I will keep this short so you can take time to watch a contemporary version of the book of Acts.]

Why am I following Jesus?

In a peaceful place where I can live out my faith without being persecuted, it’s read the Acts of the Apostles as events that happened a long time ago. With smartphones, and airplanes, and human rights declarations, our world can seem very different–better–superior than the hostile world that Peter and Stephen, Paul, and the rest of the first Christians lived in:

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.
Acts 7:58-60

They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas and expelled them from their region… And the disciples were filled with joy and the with the Holy Spirit. Acts 13:50, 52

They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city thinking he was dead. Acts 14:19

The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten. After they had been severely flogged there were thrown into prison. Acts 16:23

This week, however, I watched a contemporary version of the book of Acts.* As I listened to the stories of Iraqi Christians who were persecuted by ISIS, I got a glimpse of a world of where people are kidnapped, killed, expelled from their homes, and beaten because of their religion.

These ordinary Christians challenge me to reflect on why I am following Jesus. Is it for comfort? Tradition? Culture? Because it makes me feel good?

They could have escaped if they had given up their faith in Jesus and converted to Islam, but they didn’t. Why did they stand firm?

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”
John 6:66-69

As I listened to these believers share what happened to them and how they responded, I found myself asking:
Would I too be willing to risk death for eternal life?
Would I too forgive those who caused me to lose my job, my house, my community?
Would I too pray for those who persecuted me?

These everyday saints encourage me to say yes.

 

[*It takes just a half hour to hear what it can mean to follow Jesus in our world today.]

“The birth of Christ in our souls is for a purpose beyond ourselves:
it is because His manifestation in the world must be through us.
Every Christian is, as it were, part of the dust-laden air
which shall radiate the glowing Epiphany of God, catch and reflect His golden Light.
You are the light of the world—
but only because you are enkindled,
made radiant by the One Light of the World.”
Evelyn Underhill

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“Blessed are you
who bear the light
in unbearable times,
who testify
to its endurance
amid the unendurable,
who bear witness
to its persistence
when everything seems
in shadow
and grief.”
Jan Richardson

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“Dear Jesus, help me to spread Your fragrance everywhere I go.
Flood my soul with Your spirit and love.
Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly
that all my life may only be a radiance of You.
Shine through me and be so in me that every soul I come in contact
with may feel Your presence in my soul.
Let them look up and see no longer me but only Jesus.
Stay with me, and then I shall begin to shine as You shine,
so to shine as to be a light to others.”
Mother Teresa

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You are the light of the world.
A city located on a hill cannot be hidden.
People do not light a lamp and put it under a basket but on a lampstand,
and it gives light to all in the house.
In the same way, let your light shine before people,
so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven.

Matthew 5:14-16

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Questions for reflection:
• How did I bring Your light into someone’s life today?
• What person needs light in their lives? How could I bring that to them?
• Who brought Your light into my life today?

“Grant us your light, O Lord, that the darkness in our hearts
being wholly passed away, we may come at last to the light
which is Christ.
For Christ is the morning star,
who when the night of this world has passed,
brings to us the promised light of life,
and opens to them eternal day. Amen.”
Saint Bede

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Today is the feast of Epiphany, the celebration of when God the Son was revealed as a human being in Jesus Christ [epiphany means manifestation.] Traditionally, this is the 12th day of Christmas, and marks the end of the festive season celebrating the incarnation.

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The Christmas lights and decorations are being put away. The delight we experienced 12 days earlier among our family and friends has begun to fade.And for those of us the northern hemisphere, we are living in winter light. The days are shorter. At night, the frigid air seems to sharpen the darkness. Spring seems a very, very long way off.

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Perhaps that is why Epiphany is one of my favorite days. I love yet another reminder that there is hope for the dark days ahead, a hope that is woven through Scripture.

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.
Isaiah 9:2

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But as for me, I watch in hope for the Lord,
I wait for God my Savior;
my God will hear me.
…Though I sit in darkness, the Lord will be my light.

Micah 7:7

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Because of our God’s tender mercy the dawn will break upon us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Luke 1:78-79

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I am the light of the world. Whoever follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.
John 8:12

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I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can understand the confident hope He has given to those He called—His holy people who are His rich and glorious inheritance.
Ephesians 1:18

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“Light, glorious light
I will go where You shine
Break the dawn, crack the skies
Make the way bright before me
In Your light I will find
All I need, all I need is You”
from the song “Oh How I Need You” by All Sons and Daughters

“I heard a teaching not long ago about the moment when Moses had the nerve to ask God what his name is.  God was gracious enough to answer, and the name he gave is recorded in the original Hebrew as YHWH.
Over time we’ve arbitrarily added an “a” and an “e” in there to get YaHWeH, presumably because we have a preference for vowels. But scholars have noted that the letters YHWH represent breathing sounds, aspirated consonants that in the Hebrew alphabet would be transliterated like this:
Yod, which we transliterate “Y”
He, which we transliterate “H”
Vav, which we transliterate “V” or “W”
He which we transliterate “H”
A wonderful question rises to excite the imagination: what if the name of God is the sound of breathing?”
Jason Gray

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All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.

Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.

Romans 8:22-28 The Message

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“Take a breath and breathe it out.  Do it again, slowly, and try to mean it.  Breathing – of all things maybe we take it most for granted. Do we ever wonder why we are built this way, this soft machine of ours always pumping oxygen in and out?
In sadness, we breathe heavy sighs. In joy, our lungs feel almost like they will burst. In fear we hold our breath and have to be told to breathe slowly to help us calm down. When we’re about to do something hard, we take a deep breath to find our courage.  When I think about it, breathing looks almost like a kind of praying.”
Jason gray

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The Sound of Our Breathing
“Everybody draws their very first breath with Your name upon their lips
Every one of us is born of dust but come alive with heaven’s kiss
The name of God is the sound of our breathing
Hallelujahs rise on the wings of our hearts beating
Breathe in, breathe out, speak it aloud”
Jason Gray, Doug McKelvey, Seth Mosely

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Great Are You Lord  by All Sons and Daughters
“You give life, You are love
You bring light to the darkness
You give hope, You restore
Every heart that is broken

Great are You, Lord

It’s Your breath in our lungs
So we pour out our praise
We pour out our praise
It’s Your breath in our lungs
So we pour out our praise
To You only”

 

Take a breath

December 23, 2015 — 1 Comment

I am a woman of words, mostly writing and reading them, but sometimes speaking them [when someone asks me about the advantages of OneNote for example]. When I spend time with God, it’s much the same: I read, journal and reflect with words.

But when my heart is heavy or sad, I find words are harder to come by. Yet silence can turn into a unsettling vacuum where the accuser can whisper taunts to me. My darker thoughts can lead me astray. I need to fix my eyes on Jesus, and my mind on Jesus. But I struggle to articulate the groanings of my soul.

This situation has led me recently to turn to an ancient Christian spiritual practice known as ‘breath prayer’. It has its roots in the Orthodox tradition, and the most famous is the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner”. As you breathe in, you pray “Lord Jesus Christ” and as you breathe out, you pray, “have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Rick Warren also encourages the practice in his book, “The Purpose Driven Life”, recommending that people find “a simple phrase that can be repeated to Jesus in one breath: “You are with me.” “I receive your grace.” “I’m depending on you.” “I want to know you.” “I belong to you.” “Help me trust you.” ”

The genesis though is found throughout the New Testament. Jesus advocated keeping prayer simple in Matthew 6: “Do you think you will be heard for all your words? Your heavenly father knows what you need.” Paul recommended, “Pray without ceasing” and in Romans, he talked about how the Holy Spirit intercedes with us when we can’t come up with words.

For me, one of the most important things I need to keep in mind is that breath prayer doesn’t depend on using the right technique; it’s not a magic formula. When I first heard about it I shied away because it seemed mechanical. But breath prayer has reminded me that talking to God doesn’t have to be complicated. It doesn’t require a big mental effort. I don’t need to use a lot of words in order for prayer to be meaningful.

When I stop for a moment and focus on God who created and sustains the universe, my soul settles down. I am finding that as I breathe in the first phrase and breathe out the second, my rhythm becomes like a rocking chair, back and forth, one step, then another. As I listen to the sound of my breathing in and out, I picture breathing in His grace, breathing out my trust in Him.

Eventually, the prayer becomes like a refrain or an echo. Later it may come to mind like a song that catches in my head and returns at odd moments during the day. In this season of busy preparation and celebration, this keeps me aware that God is present with me now. And it makes me wonder: what simple prayer might Mary may have said as she labored to give birth to Jesus?

Take a moment to stop.
Focus as you breathe in and breathe out,
saying the name of Jesus– in a spirit of thanks, or confession, or need, or desire, or adoration.

Later you may want to make a simple prayer from a request or a sentence from Scripture.
Breathe in the first phase and breathe out the second:

I come to You, I find rest for my soul. [Matthew 11:28-30]

I will be still, and know that You are God. [Psalm 46:10]

Jesus, You love me. I remain in Your love. [John 15:9]

I trust in Your unfailing love, my hope is in You. [Psalm 33:1]

Speaking of lament

December 16, 2015 — Leave a comment

My soul is weary with sorrow; strengthen me according to Your word.
Psalm 119:28

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” When we cry, it is a defining moment…. Tears uncover our life. Pretense is not possible. Masks fall off. Tears connect with the most primal part of our lives and tears connect us with others. Tears soften our hearts and open our minds.”
MaryKate Morse in “A Guidebook to Prayer”

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“…this is what I can ask for you:
That in the darkness
there be a blessing.
That in the shadows
there be a welcome.
That in the night
you be encompassed
by the Love that knows
your name.”
Jan Richardson

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“The ‘psalms of darkness’ may be judged by the world to be acts of unfaith and failure, but really they are acts of bold faith because they insist that the world be experienced as it really is and not in some pretended way.
There is nothing out of bounds, nothing inappropriate when talking with God. Everything belongs in this conversation of the heart. To withhold parts of life from that conversation is in fact to withhold part of life from the sovereignty of God.”
edited from Walter Brueggemann

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Question for reflection:
Where in my own pain, did I feel God’s love today?

In praise of lament

December 9, 2015 — Leave a comment

We once had a children’s bible one of our daughters dubbed The Happy Bible, because the word ‘blessed’ was translated as ‘happy’. “Happy are the…” read the beatitudes in Matthew. Even, “Happy are those who mourn.” Frankly, I think we all found that a bit jarring, because we knew better.

But truthfully, when I began to follow Jesus, I expected less sadness in my life. I read the verse in Revelations about the hope of heaven when all the tears will be wiped away, and I wanted that now. Many Christian speakers and authors have been happy to oblige me, offering a false faith that acts like a magic button: you press the button with faith and presto! No need to feel sad.

It is true that we have hope of joy in eternal life. It is true that,”The evil one is pleased with sadness and melancholy because he himself is sad and melancholy and will be so for all eternity. Hence, he desires that every one should be like himself.” [Frances de Sales]

The trouble is that “Jesus saves” quickly turns into “I shouldn’t feel sad because faith in Jesus means perpetual sunshine.” The evil one may be pleased with melancholy but he is also pleased with the lies of shallow happiness:
• Believe in God and you will be happy all the time.
• If you have enough faith, enough hope, and enough love, you won’t feel sad.
• If you are sad, don’t be, because God loves you and Jesus fixes everything.
• When you feel sad, just praise God instead.

Thanks to C.S. Lewis and “A Grief Observed”, we have come to believe we can grieve the loss of someone we love. But when a vague sadness moves in like a thick cloud cover, it’s easy for us to view it as a failure of faith.

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It’s not a failure though. When I feel sad, it indicates loss in my life–not only from the loss of a person but from other losses as well: failure, lost dreams, rejection, broken relationships. Given the state of our sin-infused world, there’s more than enough justification for us to feel a heart-wrenching melancholy.

In fact, you could argue that shallow happiness is a far greater danger in turning us away from God. First when the intoxication of happiness makes us believe we don’t need Him, and then when we feel a bitter anger because our happiness has been replaced by suffering .

I remember when a friend of mine, after years of trying to become pregnant and undergoing three in-vitro treatments without success, finally had to face the reality that she and her husband were not going to have a baby. She was exploring Buddhism at the time, a philosophy whose approach to sadness is detachment. Get rid of desire, and you get rid of sorrow. [I should add that the false ‘happy, happy’ approach some Christians promote sounds just as hollow as ‘give up your heart’s desire’.]
But the view of detachment wasn’t working for her. My friend felt the depths of sorrow over her unfulfilled desire and I mourned with her.

God knows and understands this. Reading through the psalms that deal with lament [over a third of the psalms fall into this category], it is clear that God values truth in our inmost parts. These psalms are filled with the heartfelt cries that the world is not the way it is meant to be.

O Lord have mercy on me in my anguish. My eyes are red from weeping; my health is broken from sorrow.Psalms 31:9

The holy reaction to feeling sad is not to ignore it or bury it. Pushing the sadness down and pretending it isn’t there is not a healthy spiritual response either. There isn’t an easy ‘fix’ for sadness. But a start is to let the feelings surface and share them with my loving, heavenly Father. I find a deep comfort knowing that I can pour out my heart to God. What He desires most of all is that I am authentic, not respectable, with Him. He knows the fissures of sadness that seep in the dark places of my heart, even before I tell him.

One day He will wipe every tear away from my eyes. But until then He will listen to me as I cry. He is present with me in my sadness and comforts me. He mourns with me.

“Jesus wept” is the shortest verse in the entire Bible and also one of the most profound. God incarnate was moved to tears. Later, he looked over Jerusalem and cried. And on the cross, I imagine, he cried as well. This is what “Emmanuel, God with us” really means. He came to the darkness we walk in, and experienced, as we do, all the sadness of this world.

This is who I share my sadness with–“a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, the One who understands.

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Where is there sadness in your life?
How is God present with you in it?

“And if I weep may it be as a man who is longing for his home.”
Rich Mullins

My favorite mealtime grace these days [sung to the theme from Superman]:
Thank you Lord, for giving us food
(actions: raise right arm overhead as Superman flying)
Thank you Lord, for giving us food
(actions: raise left arm flying)
For the food that we eat
(actions: standing with both arms over head, to the left)
For the friends that we meet
(actions: standing with both arms over head, to the right)
Thank you Lord, for giving us food!
(actions: move both hands in fists to hips and stand strong like Superman)

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“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who in His goodness, grace, lovingkindness, and mercy nourishes the whole world.
He gives food to all flesh, for His loving-kindness is everlasting.
In His great goodness, we have never lack for food; may we never lack for good, for the sake of His great Name.
For He nourishes and sustains all, He does good to all, and prepares food for all His creatures that He created. Blessed are You, Lord, who provides food for all.”

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“Peel an orange. Do it lovingly–in perfect quarters like little boats, or in staggered exfoliations like a flat map of the round world, or in one long spiral, as my grandfather used to do. Nothing is more likely to become garbage than orange rind; but for as long as anyone looks at it in delight, it stands a million triumphant miles from the trash heap.”
Robert Farrar Capon

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The hungry orphans in the movie adaptation of Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” sing one of the best songs about the glories of food:
“Food glorious food
What is there more handsome
Gulped swallowed or chewed
Still worth a kings ransom
What is it we dream about?
What brings on a sigh?
Piled peaches and cream about six feet high”
[complete lyrics here]
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Tomorrow is the American celebration of Thanksgiving. Like many holidays, we’ve come very far from the original intent of the pilgrim feast. It’s now a time to travel to one’s family, or to invite friends together to share an extravagant meal. For Christians, it is often seen as a time to give thanks to God for what He has done in the past year, a time to stop and consider the blessings that have come from His hand.

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But there is a more basic aspect of the holiday that is often forgotten: the simple focus on God’s provision of a good harvest. The British refugees had arrived to a new land in late November, and suffered a harsh winter [half of those who had arrived on the Mayflower had died by spring]. As the pilgrims settled in, Native Americans shared seeds and fishing knowledge. As the first anniversary of their arrival approached, the pilgrims set aside a time to feast and give thanks for the crops and other food.

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Now we live in an age of what I call ‘industrial food’. Storage and transportation and agribusiness separate us from the simple but profound miracle of God’s creation of fruits and vegetables and grains and meat. Bananas magically appear in our supermarkets regardless of what latitude we live on. A bad rice harvest in one part of the world is made up by a good harvest in another. Apples are sold in May as well as October, bred for long term storage. Still, food remains one of God’s greatest gifts to us–why else do we feel the urge to take pictures of special meals and post them on social media? Or watch hours of cooking shows?

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This Thanksgiving I want to pause and take some time to thank God for His amazing provision of food that has sustained me throughout this past year. As I do this, I have to resist the temptation to think it’s trivial to be thankful for strawberries and cheese. I need to remind myself that food is one of God’s great delights, and a precious sign of His eternal faithfulness to us. Instead of taking these gifts for granted, I want to become, as Jesus counseled, like a child, and shout, “Thank You, Lord, for giving us food!

I will thank Him, as my friend Edwina did one meal, for the beautiful colors on my plate. I will thank Him for mangoes and salmon, for ginger and pears, for hamburgers and pulled pork, for breakfast waffles and chocolate tarte, for milk and cream and butter, for eggs scrambled or fried or boiled, for barley and wheat germ, for blueberries and bacon, for corn and fresh-squeezed orange juice that tastes like sunshine. I will thank Him for the energy and nourishment these give to my body, for their delightful scents and aromas, for the pleasure of all the delicious tastes I savor, and for the incredible variety He gives us to enjoy. How wonderful are the edible works of our creative, good, and loving heavenly Father!

What foods are your favorites?

He waters the mountains from His upper chambers;
the land is satisfied by the fruit of His work.

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He makes grass grow for the cattle,

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and plants for people to cultivate—

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bringing forth food from the earth:

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wine that gladdens human hearts,

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oil to make their faces shine,

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and bread that sustains their hearts.

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Psalm 104:13-15

Speaking of hope

November 18, 2015 — Leave a comment

“Think of yourself as a seed patiently wintering in the earth; waiting to come up a flower in the Gardener’s good time, up into the real world, the real waking.”
C.S.Lewis

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“Without hope the heart would break.”
Anonymous

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We who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.
Hebrews 6:18-19

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May He come down like rain upon the mown grass,
Like showers that water the earth.

Psalm 72:6

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Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. Hebrews 10:23

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They waited for Me as for the rain,
And opened their mouth as for the spring rain.

Job 29:23

Buried seeds

November 11, 2015 — Leave a comment

Until 15 years ago, I lived in a four-season climate. Every month there was precipitation of one kind or another: winter snow, spring showers, summer thunderstorms, autumn rain. Now I live in a Mediterranean climate with a very different pattern of seasons. For six months, from May to October, there is what I call ‘sumter’–summer and winter melted together. It’s hot like summer but without any New England green. Because once the rain stops in April, the land turns brown, just like a cold winter.

I find sumter the hardest in September and October, especially if I’ve travelled to green in the summer. I leave this:
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And come back to see this:
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It’s discouraging to go to the local park for my morning walk. The path is dry and dusty. The forest floor is barren and dull. Under the eucalyptus trees there is nothing but 50 shades of brown. I know that sumter won’t last forever, but it feels like it will never end.

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And then the miracle happens. The rain returns. It pours for a few hours one day, and then another. Within a week, the park begins its transformation. Overnight, little blades of grass sprout in the triangles of dirt in front of the trees on the path. Shoots appear among the brown.
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After two weeks, the change is complete. The interior has suddenly become a lush carpet of green.
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All it took to transform the landscape of death was life-giving water.
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The contrast is so stunning, it’s hard to believe that only seven days separate these two realities.
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But perhaps the most amazing part of the change is that the potential was there all along. Nothing new was planted; the seeds were waiting patiently in the dry dirt the whole time. For six months, they were dead in the soil. Then the rain came and the water soaked down and softened the seed casings. That is all it took. They sprouted up, just like that.

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It strikes me that there can be a similar cycle in our spiritual lives. Often we live in a spiritual drought, and seeds of hope and faith lay dormant in our heart. We live with a despair, or simply a deep discouragement over the way things are. The months and even years go on, and the landscape of our spirit looks the same as ever. It seems impossible that our lives will ever be different. The seeds buried in our hearts seem to have disappeared for good.

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And then something happens. A soft spiritual rain begins to fall. The tiny seed of faith–no bigger than a mustard seed–is touched by living water. The hard protective shell becomes soft and then falls away. The seed sends down a shoot into the now-moist soil. A sprout of hope pokes up through our doubt and disbelief. Before long, death has been transformed into life. An old wound is healed. A relationship is reconciled. A debt is cancelled.

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I need this vision of hope before me. I need to remember that drought, dryness, barrenness, even death are not permanent conditions. I need to remind myself that the rain will come, and when it does, the long-dormant seeds in my soil, seeds so long dry they look more like dust than containers of life, will spring up green, as if singing , “yes, this is what I was meant for.”
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I need to cling to this hope no matter what. Because once the rain comes and the green grows and life returns, all my angst feels almost silly. Of course the rain will come again. Of course there is hope that God will work. But what if I had given up? What if I had thrown the seeds away? What if I had stopped listening to God? What if I had turned away?

  • Where are the areas of drought or deadness in your soul these days?
  • What seeds of hope do you need to hold on to?
  • As you wait, what encouragement can you draw from how has God been faithful to you in the past?
  • Where are new shoots coming in your heart?

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For God alone my soul waits in silence;
from God comes my salvation.

Psalm 62:1

A few months ago, I read a memoir of sorts, “Washed and Waiting” by Wesley Hill. I’ve called it the struggles of a saint, not because Hill is extraordinarily holy, but because saint means ‘one who is made holy’, and we, the beloved of God, made holy by Jesus, are called to be saints [Romans 1:7].

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“The fresh start of the gospel is God’s Groundhog Day. Only everyone around us has a memory as well. And yet each day God gives me another chance. Each time each moment I come to God and ask forgiveness I am washed. There is never, ever, a refusal on his part.”

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“Jenna described that dark time and told me something that has remained with me ever since: “I just wanted to be whole again, Wes, and I thought that by pretending it wasn’t there, the depression would just go away. But ignoring is not the path to redeeming. If I wanted this depression to be redeemed, I had to face it head-on.” I tried to swallow the lump in my throat, realizing those words were for me. Ignoring is not the path to redeeming.”

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“Once Tara described an experience she had had while studying in England for a semester. She had been striving to understand and be what she thought she should understand and be. Finally one night, in a service at Coventry Cathedral, she relaxed and submitted to God’s wound-mending embrace. She felt that God loved her just as she was. I read Tara’s description of that night at Coventry several times, and I realized, with a cold, smarting sense of mingled sadness and helplessness, that I knew very little, firsthand, of what she was describing. My first thought as I got out of bed every morning was not, I am the beloved of God. I had not mastered the discipline, as N. T. Wright calls it, of looking to the cross of Christ and seeing evidence there that I am loved extravagantly and inexorably by the self-giving triune God.
…It has taken years for me to learn, bit by bit, this spiritual practice of meditating on the love of God and to understand that it is central to my struggle… I consciously began the daily effort to view myself as God’s beloved, redeemed by the self-gift of Christ.”

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“When I cannot feel God’s love for me in my struggle, to have a friend grab my shoulder and say, “I love you, and I’m in this with you for the long haul” is, in some ways, an incarnation of God’s love that I would otherwise have trouble resting in.
…No longer was I simply struggling; I was learning to struggle well, with others, in the presence of God.”

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“I’d suggest that living with unfulfilled desires is not the exception of the human experience but the rule. Even most of those who are married are, as Thoreau once said, “living lives of quiet regret.” Maybe they married the wrong person or have the pain of suffering within marriage or feel trapped in their situations and are unable to fulfill a higher sense of calling. The list of unfulfilled desires goes on and on.”

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A friend said to Hill:
“Imagine yourself standing in the presence of God, looking down from heaven on the earthly life you’re about to be born into, and God says to you, ‘Wes, I’m going to send you into the world for sixty or seventy or eighty years. It will be hard. In fact, it will be more painful and confusing and distressing than you can now imagine. You will have a thorn in your flesh…that is the result of your entering a world that sin and death have broken, and you may wrestle with it all your life. But I will be with you. I will be watching every step you take, guiding you by My Spirit, supplying you with grace sufficient for each day.
And at the end of your journey, you will see My face again, and the joy we share then will be born out of the agonies you faithfully endured by the power I gave you. And no one will take that joy— that solid resurrection joy, which, if you experienced it right now, would crush you.’
God is the author of your story. He is watching, supplying you with his Spirit moment by moment.”

“…perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
G.K. Chesterton

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“Real relationship takes place in reality, and the reality is that sometimes we will experience disconnection, silence, and confusion… We struggle with this notion because we have already adopted false presuppositions about how relationships should feel. We think that if we are not carried along by the euphoria of romantic love, then something is broken.

This belief, specifically about our relationship with God, is a kind of “prosperity gospel.” Prosperity gospels are not simply about receiving money (if you have faith then you will be wealthy), but can be prosperity gospels of excitement, experience, and “meaningful communication.” We expect God to give us the feeling we want in prayer, and if he doesn’t, we go searching for a way to resolve the problem. We demand an experience, and when God doesn’t play by our rules, we either blame him, question his presence, or we turn inward for ways to atone for our own sin (and therefore “buy back” excitement from God).”
Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel in “Beloved Dust”

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“The tendency is to look for the marvelous in our experience; we mistake the sense of the heroic for being heroes. It is one thing to go through a crisis grandly, but another thing to go through every day glorifying God when there is no witness, no limelight, no one paying the remotest attention to us.”
Oswald Chambers

Ordinary time

October 21, 2015 — Leave a comment

Ordinary. It’s a word that for me comes with connotations of boring, even mediocre. Nothing special. Ho-hum.

In the liturgical calendar, that’s where we are now, smack in the middle of the long stretch between Pentecost and Advent. In our earthly life, vacations happens, the school year starts, and harvest-time arrives with brilliant colors [at least in the northeast of the United States]

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But life with Jesus can feel quieter and less spectacular during these days. We have no holidays, no celebrations or feasts. The weeks roll on, one after another. Routines which started off soft and malleable have turned into dry, uncomfortable ruts. We’re ready for a little excitement. Fireworks would be nice.

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Or a party. Music and dancing–that’s what we need. Anything but the same-old, same-old. We’re not even to the anticipation of Advent, that period of hopeful waiting that we trust will bring release. We feel stuck in the middle period, numb perhaps, not even suffering doubt or uncertainty.

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an ordinary traffic jam

When we read the gospels, life seems anything but ordinary. Healings and powerful preaching. Lives turned upside down and God’s kingdom come. The stories in the rest of the Bible aren’t that much different. We read of God’s spectacular work, His rescue and saving. There are stories of great failures too [try David for starters], usually followed by great grace.

What we don’t read about are the days of ordinary time. The tedium of habits, the long obedience. But they are there, hidden in the cracks of the story. “Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and all the people.” [Luke 2:52] One sentence covers 18 silent years in Jesus’ life. The incarnate God who was born to angelic song and received visitors from afar went quiet, growing up in a small village of 50 houses, off the beaten track.

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An anonymous, unheralded life. Obscure and apparently unspectacular. Days lived in silent faithfulness.
Days of winter dryness without grass or beautiful wildflowers. Days without drama. Days without novelty. These are the days that Jesus knew. These are the days that the Father sees.

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At this point, it’s hard to resist the urge to finish on a sparkly, spectacular note.

But another word comes to mind which describes this period of ordinary time:

Abiding

A tree rooted in the soil–you can’t see it grow. Months, even years will go by and it seems like nothing is happening. But the tree is drawing its life from the soil, and responding to the warmth of the sunlight. It is alive: abiding, remaining.

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God is working behind the scenes for us. He is involved in our lives even if we are not aware of it. Our heavenly Father is always with us whether we feel His presence or not, because His love, deep and true, is not tied to how we feel about Him. In the midst of regular days and unremarkable hours, He is here, working His purposes.

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As the Father has loved me so I have loved you. Abide in my love.
John 15:7, 9

Ordinary days, rooted in love. Amen.

What God is doing

October 14, 2015 — Leave a comment

Along with reading the stories in scripture of how God has worked, I also find it encouraging to hear the stories of people who are living now. Reading memoirs is a wonderful way to see God being present with people in their struggles.

“Memoirs and autobiographies [give a] valuable kind of learning…not a definition of grace to be memorized, but the experience of grace as perceived through the window of another person’s life…”       Richard Lischer

Nothing-Is-Impossible
Rose Marie [the mother of Paul Miller] grew up with a schizophrenic mother and began following Jesus as a teenager. But for many years, her life of faith was one of trying to control her circumstances and avoid painful memories as she describes in Nothing is Impossible:

“I kept God at a distance, building walls of self-protection and self-reliance. I said I was a Christian but my life said, “I can manage without God.” When crises came, the walls went higher. But there came a day when building walls did not work and I was left with, “I don’t believe God exists, or if He does exist, He is a dark cloud over my life— a cloud of fear, guilt, condemnation, and loneliness.” Into this dark cloud God spoke, not with an audible voice, but with life-giving words. God, for whom nothing really is impossible— not even changing a self-righteous, independent, desperately-trying-to-keep-it-all-together pastor’s wife— gave me Himself.”

Rose Marie is honest enough not to end her story there, in what sounds like a triumphant final victory. She continued to struggle, make mistakes, and fall back on using God:

“… when the youngest of the four rebelled and left home angry and bitter, eventually living with drug dealers, I realized that much of what I had done was motivated by wanting a perfect family that did not embarrass me. Her younger sister, our fifth child, was influenced by her and also went her own way. It was a very sad and humbling time. I had missed the fact that only God changes the heart. I was expecting all my work to do what only God can do.”

She continues her story to the present day, now in her 80s, working with women in London, and still discovering her never-ending need for God’s grace.

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Joni and Ken tells the story of Joni Eareckson Tada and her husband Ken, and how once they were married it wasn’t quite ‘and they lived happily ever after.’ As the years went on, Ken became overwhelmed by caring constantly for Joni. As she lived in extreme, chronic pain, he sank into depression and emotionally they drifted away from each other. Eventually they found their way back to God and to each other.

“When I wake up an hour or two from now — and I know I will — please let me see You, feel You. I need You, Jesus! Let me know that You’re there and that You’re with me. You have said You will never fail me or forsake me. Please, Lord … may I sense that tonight at some point?”
Later that same night, when [Joni] woke up again, pain seemed to fill the whole room. The atmosphere was thick with it, like a heavy fog off Chesapeake Bay, with dark spirits darting in and out of the mist, taunting, jeering, whispering nonsense. More frighteningly, she could feel her lungs filling up.
She called Ken, and he came to her, stepping into the dim illumination of the bedside lamp. It was the third time that night she needed him, but there he was once again, so patient, so kind, so ready to help, deep love and concern written across every line of his face. He turned her body to another position, pushed on her abdomen, helped her blow her nose. Spoke words of quiet encouragement. Stroked her hair. Chased away the demons with words of prayer as he worked.
Suddenly, Joni turned her head and looked up at him, eyes wide with wonder. It took him by surprise. Was she hallucinating? What was she seeing? “You’re Him!” she said. “I … I don’t understand, Joni.” “Ken … you’re Him! You’re Jesus!” Fresh tears began to flow, and he dabbed them from her face with a tissue. “I’m not kidding. I can feel His touch when you touch me. I can see Him in your smile. I can hear Him in the tone of your voice . Right now! I mean it,” she said with a sob. “This is what I prayed for. You are Jesus!”

“Jesus had never said, “I am the power cord; you are the iPhone.” He said, “I am the vine; you are the branches.” If [Joni] wanted that life — and she did — there couldn’t be any disconnect. Abiding was what desperate people did who realized they had no life, no power, no resource within themselves.”

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Life Lessons from the Hiding Place might be better titled, “Life Lessons after the Hiding Place” because it is the story of Corrie Ten Boom’s life after she was released from the concentration camp. She faced a life without much hope: she was a single 52-year-old woman, who had suffered the loss of her father and sister, and who now faced the challenge of making a new life in war-ravaged Europe while sensing a call to continue what she had been doing before the war: sharing the love of Jesus, and telling how He had ministered to her in the concentration camp.

“As Corrie recounted [her experience], one of the neighbors said, “I am sure it was your faith that carried you through.”
“My faith? I don’t know about that,” replied Corrie. “My faith was so weak, so unstable. It was hard to have faith. When a person is in a safe environment, having faith is easier. But in that camp when I saw my own sister and thousands of others starve to death, where I was surrounded by men and women who had training in cruelty, then I do not think it was my faith that helped me through. No, it was Jesus! He who said, ‘I am with you until the end of the world.’ It was His eternal arms that carried me through. He was my certainty.
“If I tell you that it was my faith, you might say if you have to go through suffering, ‘I don’t have Corrie ten Boom’s faith.’ But if I tell you it was Jesus, then you can trust that He who helped me through will do the same for you. I have always believed it, but now I know from my own experience that His light is stronger than the deepest darkness.”

Other memoirs I’ve posted about in the past:
Rich Mullins: Like an Arrow Pointing to Heaven

Little Black Sheep by Ashley Cleveland

Isobel Kuhn Omnibus

What memoirs would you recommend?

“I am struck by the reason given for Israel’s frequent slides into idolatry. We are told that, over and over, they forgot what God had done for them, and began to worship other gods.
Doesn’t it seem strange that turning away from God is blamed on a failure of memory? What about, “The children of Israel found the worship of a fertility goddess more interesting”? Or, “The children of Israel got tired of traveling all the way to Shiloh to worship the Lord, and longed for the convenience of an Ashera pole”?
But no, the Bible tells us they strayed because they forgot. Without the bright truth of Yahweh’s covenant before them, the prevailing beliefs of their time must have seemed reasonable, even practical.
I believe God knew this would be a struggle for His people, and that’s why so many of Israel’s faith traditions – the feasts, the fasts, the tassels, and tefillin – are devoted to remembering. It is why we were given Holy Communion, and the reason behind many of our Christian holidays.”
James Witmer

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“Memory is one of the highest powers in our nature. By it day is linked to day, the unity of life through all our years is kept up, and we know that we are still ourselves. In the spiritual life, recollection is of infinite value.”
Andrew Murray

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Joshua called together the twelve men he had appointed from the Israelites, one from each tribe, and said to them, “Go over before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan. Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.”
Joshua 4:4-7

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“Like the Israelites, we could collect stones–small ones, that is–for each item of thanks that we listed in our prayer journal. We could put them in a glass jar that could be left out in plain view. Every day we would see it and remember what God had done for us. So I bought a set of jars, and we started filling them.” from Our stone jar

Post it: God at work

September 30, 2015 — 2 Comments

The humble post-it played a supporting role in a movie I recently saw, “Still Alice”, about a college professor who develops early-onset Alzheimer’s. To help jog her memory, Alice begins to post reminders to herself around the house, particularly in the kitchen and the bedroom where she will be sure to see them. Those reminders are themselves a poignant reminder–they show how important our memory is in the daily routine of our lives.

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A few weeks later, I visited a church that had just finished a week of VBS for kids [does everyone know that acronym for Vacation Bible School?]. On both sides of the church, long sheets of white paper were hung up, covered in colorful post-its.

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The youth pastor explained that the post-its were God-sightings from the week. Any time someone saw or experienced God at work, they made a note on a post-it and put it on the roll of paper. Now on Sunday the entire congregation was able to see the evidence of God’s presence and care.

I don’t know how long the church will leave up these sheets plastered with bits of testimonies, but I hope it’s longer than a week. With the start of school, and the pace of life returning to a faster hum, it’s a challenge to stop and take the time to consider the grace and faithfulness of God that is at work in our daily lives.

We run the risk of developing what Pope Francis calls “spiritual Alzheimer’s”, ‘a progressive decline of spiritual faculties where people forget their personal history with the Lord and lose their memory of the ‘first love’ of their encounter with Him.’

In the daily press of activity, it may not seem so crucial to remember what God has done. But when trouble comes, being able to remember His care and how He has worked in the past becomes vital. It encourages us to know that He is continuing to work, even if we aren’t aware of it yet.

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That’s what the psalmist did during a time of great distress when he felt abandoned and his soul would not be comforted.
My heart meditated and my spirit asked:
…Has His unfailing love vanished forever?
Has His promise failed for all time?
Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has He in anger withheld His compassion?”
Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:
the years when the Most High stretched out His right hand.
I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
yes, I will remember Your miracles of long ago.
I will consider all Your works
and meditate on all Your mighty deeds.”

Psalm 77:6-12

I think it’s significant that the deeds of the Lord which the Psalmist remember were not limited to events he experienced personally. Since we belong to a world-wide and historical communion of faith, learning about what God has done and is doing in the lives of others is just as important as what He is doing in our individual lives. That’s why it was a blessing for me to see the wall of God-sightings at the church. I was encouraged to witness all the different people who had been touched by His grace in a single week.

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Not all the notes were about spectacular sightings. Sometimes, God works in a big way, doing a miracle like parting the Red Sea. Other times, we see a sign of His gentle faithfulness, like a hand on someone’s shoulder, or the simple beauty of a wildflower. IMG_5598
“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
Matthew 6:28-30

A few God-sightings from my life recently include:
*Driving up a big hill just as a family from church was walking, so I could give them a ride

*Reading about how You have worked in a woman’s life here

*Listening to a friend share about how to draw closer to You

*Hearing gospel music playing at the vegetable stand
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Where have you seen God at work in your world this week?
How do you want to make note of them?

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Whether it is watching the news or walking through our neighborhood, we see the plight of hurting and needy people. This prayer expresses the heart-cry that wells up in us, and reminds us that God sees and God knows.
“Ever-watching Father:
we pray for the suffering children whom we do not see.
We know that your eyes see their tears,
that your heart knows their sorrow,
that your hands can reach them now.
We remember that Jesus was once a child,
that poverty stole his bread,
that tyrants sought his life,
that his mother tasted tears.

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We ask you to send friends for the lonely,
food for the hungry,
medicine for the sick,
saviors for the enslaved,
rescue for the perishing.

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Give us the wisdom to do our part,
share our possessions,
leave our comforts,
lend them our voice,
send them our food,
love them with more than prayers.
We call on you in the name of your child Jesus.
Amen.”
Tony Kummer