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“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

I’m not sure who said it originally, but most people have heard that admonition to take action on things we have only planned to do, to get ready for the final home we hope to have in Heaven. It is indeed a worthy thought because only actions will pull us from a world of sin and ready us for everlasting life where no sin can enter.

In the last 24 hours I’ve had an experience I would like to share, as it contrasts with the picture of how the road to hell is paved. After all, there is another road…

A friend asked me last night about a church in another city where she recently moved. A minister who once preached across the country as an evangelist, and whose preaching I greatly enjoyed, now pastors in that area. In answer to the request of my friend, I looked up the church’s website shared the link.  The site had an option for listening to sermons, and after sending the link I clicked that to explore for myself.  Listening required an app that I didn’t yet have, so I started the download process after settling into bed, and soon fell asleep.

As I tend to do, I woke up very early this morning and was lying in bed, thinking and praying, when I remembered the website and sermon. Clicking on it, I began to listen and enjoy.  As it was not yet daylight, and I was lying cozily in a warm bed, I soon dozed back off with the sermon playing in my ear. At some point I began to dream.

I pictured, in the fist scene, a room full of people in chairs, who seemed to be new converts to the Gospel, being instructed by their pastor in how to use the Word of God, through reading it for themselves and hearing it preached (the message was on the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God…,” from Ephesians 6:17). I won’t share all the aspects of what I pictured, and I remind you that I am simply relating an experience and how it affected me.

The scene transitioned after a bit, and I was seeing a line of some sort stretched up through the sky toward Heaven. Its path wasn’t totally straight but had some highs and lows in it.  Suspended beneath the line were what I would describe as individual cells or frames, one after another, side by side, up the course of the line.  Inside each of the frames was a man, dressed in a way that most would associate with attending church.

I saw the same man, moving as it were from frame to frame.  As I looked closer, I noticed each of the frames had words stamped on them, and as I focused more, I realized the words were titles. I became aware that the titles were titles of messages — sermons — that were being preached to the man, moving him along the line (road) toward Heaven.

In one of the frames, I saw the man picked up and shaken violently, as though by some circumstance he had encountered. After a moment he dropped back into his place, standing inside the frame. Hearing the message preached, he settled down again and recovered his composure.

The scene changed again, so that after having observed this occurrence from the side view, I found myself inside it.  I remember crying out to God, “I want to make it to Heaven! Help me to make it all the way in!” I continued to move from frame to frame, and from message to message, along with the others.

Soon we saw a man falling from above (remember, we were suspended in the air), going down past us. We reached out to grab him and pull him in, for we knew somehow that he was falling toward hell.  Though we tried repeatedly to grasp his hand, we were unable to hold him, for he did not grasp back as we reached. Sadly we had to watch him continue to fall.

I share this only because it so vividly depicts the fact that when God filled me with the Holy Ghost (in obedience to Acts 2:38) He placed me within a plan that will get me to Heaven if I continue in it.  That plan is that God in His wisdom has provided the preached Word of God from the ministry — primarily my own pastor — to direct and sustain me all the way to the gates of Heaven, the place He has gone to prepare for those who love and obey Him. It is my choice whether or not to continue to avail myself of that plan.

October is Pastor Appreciation Month, and I must say, I am thankful for the gift of the ministry, in particular my own pastor, Pastor John Bowen, Jr.  God has used this gift to help me avoid pitfalls, go through trials, and recover from losses, and I know this is the most precious thing God could have done for me.  I can read God’s Word, and I can hear God impress things on my heart in prayer, but I will never be honest enough within myself to hear everything I need to hear to keep my feet from wandering out of the path of righteousness that leads to salvation.  God set up His Kingdom to be maintained by a watchman on the wall (Ezekiel 3:17), who will hear from God and warn His people.

It is my desire to hear Jesus say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant…,” (Matthew 25:21). I must be honest with myself and know that if I have not been faithful, I will only hear, “Depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity…,” (Luke 13:27). There is a literal Heaven, but there is also a literal hell, “where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched,” (Mark 9:44). My actions, both in becoming part of the church and in staying faithful to it, will determine my destination.

“Ponder the path of thy feet, and let all thy ways be established,” (Proverbs 4:26).

Some reading this will be reminded to keep on the path they already have chosen, in obedience to the Gospel.  Others may relate more to the man who was falling, and have to choose whether or not to grasp a hand that is extended to them.

I hope we all respond favorably, because the road to Heaven is paved with messages preached by those who have obeyed, and are anointed by God to preach, the original Apostles’ doctrine:

37 Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do? 38 Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. 39 For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call. 40 And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation.

41 Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. 42 And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers,” (Acts 2:37-40).

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“Elephants belong only in the wild…”

“They let that child run wild…”

“I am just wild about Cajun cuisine…”

Wild cherry trees dot the edge of our wood line…”

“Wild” brings images to mind of roaming free and being master of one’s own destiny,  being uncontrolled and undisciplined, being enthusiastic past the point of ordinary constraints, or simply being sheltered from the effects of human hands. It certainly has its good and bad connotations. Here are some to ponder.

Flowering beauties

Our family loves roses.  I recall the running variety in the edge of our yard when I was a child. They seemed to bloom just in time for Mother’s Day year after year, providing this little girl the means of presenting Mom a bouquet of her favorite flowers.  Those faithful plants forged a special place in my heart.  Years passed, we moved, others had that home. Eventually, though, I moved back to an adjoining piece of land and built a home of my own.

On my place lies a spot where another home once stood — one that was torn down and gone before my living memory.  Nothing was really there to show for it except a couple of large pecan trees that rarely brought forth usable pecans any more. As the first seasons rolled by on our land recently reclaimed from hedges and brambles, I began to see evidence of that long-gone family’s preference for flowers:  multitudinous shoots of crepe myrtle,  enthusiastic daffodils and narcissus, and wild running roses.  Each Spring I get another glimpse of what is left of their well-tended garden, as a few rose and crepe myrtle blooms peek through the wild hedges that threaten to crowd out everything but their own bland greenery.

Those plants have persisted possibly a hundred years, getting such soil-nutrients, water, and sunlight as are available to glean.  They grow, they put on leaves, they bloom, they shed, they winter, they start over.  Nature allows them to do that.

A couple of years after I moved here, my mother settled on land she owned next door. Her home now sits just across the drive from that old home place. A couple of Mother’s Days ago, my nephew’s family gave her a two rose bushes and carefully planted them by the front steps. They exploded with red roses this year and brought her much joy as she admired them from her easy chair through the glass storm door. She was able to savor their beauty well into what should have been Fall around here.

This past weekend, I noticed the floppy appearance of the bushes.  I’m no gardener, but my nephew was there while I assessed what was needed, and gave me some tips for bringing out their beauty again. I put a pair of clippers to them and began to drop stems and leaves in a somewhat orderly pattern.  When I was done, there were lots of snips on the ground, and less of the plants to be seen.

The process

Pruning is a common practice for people with a green thumb (which I do not claim to have).  But thinking of its parallels in our own lives, imagine with me for a moment if they were literally conscious and able to communicate as we doWhat would those plants have said if they could have talked? Would they express their preference be left to themselves as their cousins in the woods nearby? If they were capable of getting away would they have stood still for this pruning process? In a few weeks, the result of that bit of tending, paired with some fertilizer and weed-pulling,  will hopefully be evident, barring some damaging event. A balanced, controlled beauty is expected to emerge.

There are those who believe their highest end in life, even in living for God, is to be their own person, to do their own thing, to follow the path they believe is good, not to have someone telling them what to do differently.  Sure, they realize they should go to church (in some cases), and that having someone expound on the way to do better is worth some of their time. But to see themselves with a need to have one with the authority vested by God speak into their lives goes deeply against their grain. Submitting themselves to one who would possibly advise against the direction  they are headed would seem particularly grievous, especially if they believe they are serving God in what they are doing. The value of hearing one whose God-given responsibility it is to tell them of actions that will bring undesired results if not altered is simply not a path they value.  Perhaps such people view that option as only for the weak, for those unable to find their own way without help. If the truth be known, that tendency runs inside any of us who are truly human. It’s all in what we do with it, though, that matters.

The Word of God warns us repeatedly that this is a tendency to be fought, rather than to be hailed as the mark of true greatness.  No more than the plants in our gardens can reach their full potential without a gardener to tend them can a man or woman be what God intended for them to be in the Kingdom without one to tend their souls. And my friend, that can’t all be about enhancing the soil for nourishment and watering in just the right amount, though we surely enjoy those times.  We must realize our need to have some things addressed in our hearts — to receive the pruning that only can be administered by the preached Word of God being delivered to us under the anointing of the very God who gave that Word to men He chose to have write it under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost.

It isn’t for the faint of heart to watch what may have been your favorite “branch” — thought, idea, or plan — fall useless and discredited onto the ground beside you as the Word goes forth and challenges what you felt so good about in your own heart and mind.  It helps to keep in mind that “There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the ends thereof are the ways of death.” (Proverbs 16:25)  “Every way of man is right in his own eyes: but the Lord pondereth the hearts.” (Proverbs 21:2)  “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) What we most need to hear, we will not tell ourselves.  What we most need to receive, we will not see by simply looking into the Word on our own — we’re simply not capable of being that honest with ourselves. We require a gardener, a God-given pastor, to watch and care for our souls.  How can we trust someone to do that? It is clear that not everyone who claims the title of “preacher” or “pastor” has our soul’s best interest at heart. What are we to do? How do we discern who is looking out for our interests not just their own?

How it works

Please understand that the anointing that produces the true “surgery” our souls crave cannot be produced outside the context of fully submitting to the gospel that was once delivered to the saints through the preaching of the Apostles.  That is the foundation from which we must begin to build. I emphasize this point, because I want it to be clear as to what type of preaching I am referring. If a man who is called a preacher of the gospel will not first find and obey the original gospel (Acts 2:38), he has no right to address my need for being shaped and formed into the godly person I was intended to be.  (Paul said, “I marvel that you are so soon removed from the grace of Christ unto another gospel: Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ.” Galatians 1:6-7). This may be a new concept for you,  one you’ve previously considered and rejected, or one you’re curious to know more about.

It starts with doctrine, though often we are geared to think that shouldn’t be brought into the discussion among people comparing their religious experiences.  But notice how changes in the doctrine officially recognized by the Church paralleled other changes that were not for the better. Most people would agree that things are not the same as they were in the early church.  A few who have studied the record of that time, as contained in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles,  notice that early baptisms were done in the name of Jesus, not in the titles Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  Few realize that the departure from this was not approved, allowed, or even intended by Jesus or the Apostles, who all prophesied and warned that after their departure many would come preaching another doctrine. Paul goes on to say in Galatians, “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.  As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:8-9)

Doesn’t it follow that we should be absolutely sure that what Paul, Peter, and the others preached, we would stand for and cling to?  If Jesus gave Peter the keys to the kingdom for his revelation received that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God”, shouldn’t his words and direction about salvation be the absolute standard we measure our doctrine by? Acts chapters 2, 8, 10, and 19 contain accounts of actual baptisms that were all done, directed and commanded to be done, in the name of Jesus.  Paul re-baptized believers in Ephesus who had not yet received the Holy Ghost, though they had been baptized unto John’s baptism. He insisted that baptism was necessary for the completion of their salvation, and that it be done in Jesus’ name, and when they obeyed this they were filled with the Holy Ghost.  Does your pastor insist on that? How does Galatians 1:8-9 indicate that departure from this teaching is viewed?

Who’s cutting?

“For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit,  of the joints and marrow,  and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (Hebrews 11:12) If we are to sit under the authority of someone with the task of wielding the sword of the Word in our lives, do we really want that sword in the hands of one who won’t receive that most basic of revelations about what God has designed for His church? It is not my intention to offend, but neither is it my intention to be vague about where one should find their direction for living for God.

I was not raised in this type of church. My earliest faith memories are of a denominational church with teachings I’ve referred to above that were from offshoots of the original apostles doctrine. Did I have a sense that walking with God is what I needed to do? Yes, but how to do that was the question.  God worked to bring me to a time of seeing that the way of the Apostles — as expressed in Peter’s sermon the day the Church was born — was where He wanted me to be planted, bloom, and bear fruit.  It would be easy to dismiss that as being nice for me, but…or just intended for those want something “higher” or more serious, or have some “gift” for living holy and separated from the world. Listen to what Peter said to the crowd of thousands on the day the church was born:

“Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of your sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.  For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to them that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.” (Acts 2:38-39)

Did the part where he said the promise is “unto you…your children…them that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our god shall call” leave anyone out?  I submit to you that it did not.  I further challenge you to consider that it is for you, and that He is calling you to come into His garden, where He can put you into the care of a gardener He called according to this gospel, so that He himself can receive of the fruit you bring forth. There are many references in the Word of God to His having a garden or a vineyard or a plant of some description that He has planted, and how He interacted with that and what He expected. You see, we are the “plants” that choose whether to run wild or become part of the vineyard, the garden God will look for fruit in.

What now?

So where are you with this? Are you content to grow and wild in your vague ideas that somehow you are serving God, even though the thought of submitting to a true man of God rubs your spirit the wrong way?  Or are you willing to present yourself week after week, service after service, with a heart set to truly hear and receive what you need — whether or not it is what you want to receive? You will never be truly fruitful in the work of God until that is what you will do. Your choice: enjoy your nondescript existence among hundreds or thousands of other wild shoots that continue to multiply year after year, or allow God to set you in a special place under the eye of a watchful caretaker whose job it is in the Kingdom to see that you bloom and and bring forth fruit.

I suppose I am one of the original “free spirit” types.  “I must be who I was meant to be, without following the plans of others” was my mantra as a young person.  Give me a little credit: I grew up in the 60’s when the world beyond our door was changing radically, and freedom of thought was the highest order of mankind according to the philosophers (or the hippies) of that day.  But my desire to be “free” was in itself a type of wildness that led me to some interesting places.  I cannot point to any of them now as examples of my finest hour or highest achievements.  Paul said it well: “What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? for the end of those things is death.” (Romans 6:21) Running wild just isn’t all it’s rated to be in the eternal scheme of things. Many realize too late that their independence cost them the best fruit life could offer.  Will you?

I urge you to consider these things.  Pray over them.   Then take a step in your consideration of them to place yourself where the taming of your soul could happen, by being present where the Word of God is preached by a man of God who holds to the Apostles’ doctrine — one who will bring what God has for you to hear, without fear or favor.  Your soul desires that, whether you’re brave enough to fight your flesh and seek it or not.

I submit that those wild plants I mentioned earlier would trade places with the tended ones so nearby if they had a consciousness of their situation and the will to choose, even if it meant trading off some of their freedom for pruning that might not be pleasant at the time, for the beauty that only comes from submission to a skilled and caring hand.

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I know, it probably should be “Christmas and me”. Or is it “Christmas and I”?

You decide, as I talk about this unique phenomenon we call “Christmas” as seen through the lens of my heart.

There are questions within the community of sincere believers as to whether this event warrants nearly the focus it gets, especially when compared to the world-changing end result: our Savior’s blood being shed for our cleansing and to make a way for us to be saved, His rising from the dead and opening a door for us to have new life.  The joy that accompanies the recognition of Him pouring out His Spirit upon all flesh is the celebration of the Promise of the Father which was shed forth as prophesied, first in Acts chapter 2, then throughout the time of the Apostles, down through human history, and then in my heart.

It is, I understand, impossible to make a case for the way Christmas is observed being in the Word. But is there a place for it, or could it be seen as serving some purpose?  I know we are not commanded to observe it, nor do I personally find a place where it is clearly forbidden (I know that line of thought opens a whole other set of questions). I realize there are people who feel very strongly about this issue and would be well prepared to enlighten all on the dangers of the celebration as it now stands.  I believe sincerely-held convictions should be kept, and anyone has the right to explain and defend them as they see fit.

It is just not my intention here to enter that debate, and I respectfully ask that it not be carried out in response to this little presentation of my perspective.

Christmas?

It surprises some who are out of the mainstream of Christian thought that there would be any question about whether Christians would celebrate Christmas. Please note, again, that I am not using this platform to offend anyone who has sincere convictions against any aspect of this celebration. I get that there are people who go into debt to impress people who care nothing about them, just because the season “calls” for gifts to be given. I get that people get deeper into their shame and ungodliness because tradition “calls” for a bigger party this time of year. I get that retailers make huge profits off the mania that entices parents to buy the latest and greatest and biggest and best for kids and grand-kids.

I even get that “Christmas” is not in the Bible, as “Easter” is.  There is no recorded instance of its being observed, as the Apostle Paul spoke of traveling to Jerusalem in time for Easter. And I get that the “-mas” part of the word was referring to the Catholic mass, which is far away from my idea of “church”.  At the time it became a celebration, though, “mass” was the only recorded type of service being held, as the officially recognized church body (and the one that created the narrative of history in that time period) was the Roman Catholic church.

When the prophesied Gift was first given, it was, in fact, only recognized by a host of angels in the heavens who chose to reveal it to a few shepherds, and later by wise men from the East who followed a star. So why would someone whose faith draws the lines between herself and the world a lot further back than most people even consider dipping a toe in the pool of Christmas celebrations as they are today?

Why indeed?

Because HE CAME.

The God of Heaven, Who created all things by His Word, chose to robe Himself in flesh and come to the world: the frail, foil-able humans He made, who couldn’t seem to get it right no matter how hard they tried.  That was the moment that all of the world — all of history  — changed.  Forever.

The fact that He chose to keep the advent of His power-robed-in-flesh almost a secret in the beginning makes it all the more powerful. It would be easy here to review so many prophecies that were fulfilled by the way He came: the place, the time, the kings (wise men) coming to the “brightness of His rising”– the magi who followed the star — the wrath of Herod seeking to destroy Him and bereaving Rachel of her children in the process…

The balance of this post could cover those.  As I’m referring to my perspective, let me just say that studying how those things fell perfectly into place, whether or not it was understood that way at the moment by those involved, brings welling-up joy to my spirit.

Listing my favorite scriptures along this line would be a worth-while use of my time and yours. I’ll suffice it, though, with my very favorite, Isaiah 9:6:  For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” Did you hear that? The Mighty God. The Everlasting Father.

I have elaborated elsewhere on where this scripture fits in our understanding of Who it was that came.

But my goal in the time I have your attention as a reader (if that hasn’t already run out) is to shed light on another aspect: what happens to the world at this time of year.  Yes, I said, the world.

It’s different at Christmas

We have the sense that special things happen this time of year.  To what degree that perspective is influenced by sweet stories thought up by writers like me is difficult to determine> But still, I believe special things do happen around Christmas.  If people are going to think of their families, make an effort to be with them by any means possible, and in some cases reconcile long-held differences, this is more likely to happen during this season.  In all fairness, if families are going to split over whose house the grand-kids go to first, or how much to put on the credit card, this is also more likely to happen.

Still, there is a moment in the year when some stop to think, even on a shallow level, of something, and Someone, they would not otherwise think of. I believe the divide between man and Heaven grows thinner for a few days at this season, and that hearts can be enticed to consider something they otherwise are not wont to think of.  I submit that even the inappropriate addressing of this season by some still serves to point to the fact that it exists, for better or for worse.

I submit that the most amazing thing about Christmas is that it happens, year after year.  Somewhere around Thanksgiving we begin to turn our hearts from the mundane of what our schedule requires to consider a wonder beginning to take place.  In the book that launches the Pevensie children into Narnia — The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe — a sad state of affairs where evil’s grip has imposed a cold so pervasive that it is “always winter but never Christmas” begins to subtly change as Aslan, the figure whose presence represents a redeemer, begins to make his influence known in that land.  Ice begins to thaw, snow turns to slush, and soon sunshine, green grass, and flowers appear.  That phenomenon parallels what I begin to feel as the season draws near, and I ponder the wonder of what happened when He came, and what occurs every year at the remembrance of it.

Is this okay?

So what about the weird, wild, or crazy things that people are doing in the name of Christmas? Is that okay? I somewhat believe people keep – or don’t keep – Christmas according to what’s already in their hearts.  Those who have chosen debauchery as a lifestyle, choose that at Christmas-time as well.  Those who are choosing to seek the Holy One the rest of the year are seeking how to honor Him best during this time.  And those who aren’t sure how to please Him, but sincerely want to know, are those who most are needing His touch. I submit that touch is best made transferred through the hands and hearts of those of us who know Him.  Whatever our choices are at this season, let them be made with a love and adoration that is a real and true reflection of the truth of God that will work in any month of the year.

I was blessed to get a degree in psychology and sociology for my undergraduate studies.  That didn’t qualify me to do a whole lot, but to observe how we tend to think and behave, both individually and in groups.  One of the most convincing aspects of there being a reality to Christmas is how we change at this “most wonderful time of the year”. You can’t deny people start to look at things differently; there’s some joy here and there, some kindness, and some caring.  Please know that I’m not such a Pollyanna that I only see the good.  I realize that losses and sadness and loneliness are much more keenly felt as well, but only (I believe) because there is so much joy that surrounds this season until the lack of expected joy seems so cruel to those who don’t have it.

Even efforts to stamp out the phrase “Merry Christmas” from the lips of employees calls attention to the fact that there is a “Christmas” to be celebrated at all.  It really doesn’t matter to me if they say Merry Christmas or “Happy Holidays”, as this most special one falls within a trio that runs from Thanksgiving to New Year’s.  Collectively it’s easier to wish someone joy for all than for each one separately.  Let each person say what fits their conscience.  They’re not going to damage Christmas, in my opinion.

The joy

There is much more that could be said, but it’s Christmas, and we don’t all have our presents wrapped yet.  Just think on this: in the midst of the self-imposed craziness — because we try in good faith to do more than we possibly have time to do — turn your heart upward for a moment, and say, “Thank you, God, that You came. Teach me to joy in your presence and to honor You with my observance of that awesome moment in history.”   I believe the God Who instituted seven separate times of feasting for His chosen people in the Old Testament will not necessarily take offense that we have a celebration over His coming to earth to redeem us from our sins.

I truly wish you and yours a most blessed and joyous holiday season, and especially a glorious remembrance that He came.

 

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Thank God for thanks-giving!

Thanks-giving is a choice.  We often believe we are appropriately thankful, but when we take time to evaluate our choices in the not-so-pleasant situations, we come face to face with our true state of gratefulness.

A little heart-check: are you more likely to utter “Thank you, God,  for my job” or gripe about your boss?  I’m retired now and work for our church’s Christian school, so that’s an easy one for me.  Let’s try this one: “Thank you for what you’ve provided for me, God; You’ve always made a way!” versus “Boy, the cost of everything keeps going up, doesn’t it???”

I think you get the picture.  Thankfulness is an antidote to numerous negative thoughts and emotions: anger, loneliness, depression, jealousy, selfishness, and other ills as well.  It’s cheaper than therapy, and in fact may be used by therapists at times (I think they call it “re-framing”).  The kicker is, you’ve got to do it.  It’s not automatic. You have to hit the brakes on the negative thoughts and reign your mind in to start thinking of what’s positive in your life.  Not simple or always easy — and it goes beyond just the “power of positive thinking”– but virtually anyone can do it.

Lifestyle of looking up, leaning in

Our pastor preached a message a  little while back on the “attitude of gratitude”.  Isn’t it amazing how those words already rhyme so we’ll remember them?  It can sound almost trite to repeat, but the phonetics help keep the concept handy in a sort of survival kit for our spirits.  Like the list of wrongs you can right with apple cider vinegar, the things you’re unable to keep in your heart when an attitude of gratitude is cultivated continues to grow the more you think about it.

Consider these:

  •  list three things you’re thankful for about your wife (don’t leave out seemingly mundane things like finding clean socks in your drawer and knowing there will be toothpaste in the cabinet when you need it). Now, hold those thoughts and picture yourself yelling at her for burning the toast.  Feels kind of icky, doesn’t it?
  • as your eyes water at the sight of a fellow church member’s new ride, start thinking of all the times your just-about-to-be-qualified-as-a-classic has been there for you when you needed a way to go, and tell God “thank you” for allowing you to have what you have and tell him “thank you” for blessing your brother. I promise your eyes will clear up and there will be more peace in your heart.  And you may even have the urge to shine up that old car!
  • as a single mom, you find yourself drifting dangerously into the realm  of  “how can I raise these kids alone with that so-called husband out of the picture and supporting us to the negative degrees of 10 (as in not any) — I’ve got to find somebody.”  Start to list things that God has done for you since you’ve had those kids — times he’s sent a neighbor by to offer help, or that rebate check from an over-payment on a doctor bill that came unexpectedly, but just in time, or when a trusted adult at church took up time with your son to show him how young men were supposed to conduct themselves.  Feel like you can hold on a little longer, until God brings who He has in mind, if that’s His plan?  I thought so.  Works every time.

Not just for “churchy” folks

In my years of working in the mental health field I’ve observed the efficiency of teaching someone, even with intellectual disabilities, a positive behavior to replace a negative one, and then reinforcing the positive one more often, so the negative one would eventually go away.  The trick was selecting a behavior that simply couldn’t be done while the negative one was in progress. It is an “incompatible behavior” — for example, you can’t be late and on time at the same time, or use your hands for manipulating a puzzle while using them for some behavior that has unwanted social or even health consequences.

Put simply, being thankful is an incompatible behavior with most negative thoughts.

Where’s that in the Bible?

Yep, it’s in there.  In fact, it’s the attitude God commands for our approaching Him: “Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise, be thankful unto him, and bless his name.” (Psalm 100:4). This is one of many places where thanksgiving is not only encouraged, but commanded.

Think of how you feel when you hand your kid a gift you worked hard to provide, and have them either trash it or heedlessly turn around and ask for something else.  We’re made in God’s image, so amplify our feelings exponentially and the God “in whose hand thy breath is” (Daniel 5:23) feels much more the same way. And above all, this kind of thankfulness does much more than just make you feel better.  Drawing near to God, who made us and everything there is, is the answer for weathering, and calming, the storm.

What all can’t you do while being thankful?

It’s hard to complain about the rain while being thankful a farmer somewhere was able to grow the wheat that made that wonderful sandwich you’re savoring. It’s even hard to complain about what you had to pay the doctor, and the surgery clinic, and the pharmacy,  while being thankful it was just the tonsils you’re having to contend with (if you need a dose of thankfulness there, research a specialty children’s hospital, and read the stories of children they treat).

As our pastor mentioned once, a certain POW in a Vietnam prison camp found it difficult to complain about the pain he suffered from the inhumanity being practiced against him, when he realized that his feeling pain meant he was still alive and able to fight back within his spirit: he had not given up as he’d seen others do.  Corrie ten Boom’s sister challenged her to thank God for the fleas in their concentration camp barracks, as recorded by Corrie in The Hiding Place.  Though Corrie resisted the idea, she forced herself to say, Thank you for the fleas,” only to realize days later that their clandestine Bible studies had not been disturbed by guards in this barracks as in others.  Why?  You guessed it:  the fleas! The guards wouldn’t even come near them because the fleas were so bad.

The bottom line?

No one thing is going to answer everyone’s problem, and many are the folks who suffer worse things than I can imagine.  But though none is free to choose their circumstances, all are free to choose their response.  In so doing, we may be also securing the insight and response of Almighty God, who resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.

What about you? Have you found an “attitude of gratitude” to be a source of strength in your life? Are you otherwise good at doing two things at one time? I’d love to hear your story.  Please leave a comment, if you’d like to share.

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“Read it again, Mommy.”

I really don’t remember the number of times, but I know they were many. I picture where they all took place.  As we snuggled in for bedtime reading after family prayer, my young daughter would ask for the story about the three Hebrew children of Daniel chapter 3.  For several weeks it was the only story she wanted to hear.

We began to feel we were marching in with Nebuchadnezzar’s guests: the princes, the governors, and captains, the judges, the treasurers, the counsellors, the sheriffs, and all the rulers of the provinces. The melodic names of instruments danced off our tongues: the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of music.  You remember the story, right? The beautiful tones signaled the throng to bow themselves and worship the Babylonian king’s enormous golden image.

The most memorable part, of course, was the choice of the three young men, dubbed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednigo — captives, exiles, cut off from their opportunity to worship God as they knew to do, but elevated to the king’s ministry by their distinction above his other ministers. These worshipers of the One True Living God stood up to Nebuchadnezzar and declared that they would not bow, that their God was able to deliver them, and this: “But if not, be it known unto you, O king, that we will not bow.” They would be delivered, or else they would die, but they would not surrender.

In May, 1940, 350,000 British and Allied troops faced certain destruction when they became trapped at the port city of Dunkirk, France. The Nazi Blitzkrieg had just raced across that country and outmaneuvered what were thought to be impenetrable defenses. It appeared the entire British Expeditionary Force — practically all of Britain’s army — was about to be annihilated, along with thousands of others standing in defense of Europe against Hitler’s maniacal aggression.

The story is told of a British commander who telegraphed this simple message to his homeland: “But if not”.  The intent was instantly recognized.  The troops desired, of course, to be rescued; they wanted to avoid the destruction heading their way. But whether it came or it didn’t come, they would not bow, they would never surrender.

In this case, as in the original story, help did come.  Their choice of response to certain death galvanized a rescue effort that came to be known as “The Miracle of Dunkirk”. The inadequate number of military vessels in the harbor were joined by private fishing boats, yachts, lifeboats, rowboats, and any other craft that could be floated, ferrying 338,000 men to safety. An equally brave force stayed behind to engage the enemy and delay its advance.

As of this writing, we in the U.S. who worship the One True Living God remain comfortably isolated from the choice faced by those three Hebrew boys.  “Turn from your faith or die” doesn’t often come up on this shore. Believers in other parts of the world face it daily.  Do you realize that there will come a day when no one is spared? Whether that comes in our lifetime or not, we must not see this persecution as to whether it effects “us” or “them”.  True followers of our Master know that the Body of Christ has no geographic boundaries, and that when one member suffers, all suffer. At the minimum, we must pray for those in persecution’s grip today, advocate for them where we can, and assist in any way that is opened to us.  But for Biblical prophecy to come to pass, as it seems to be rapidly doing, we must wake ourselves from slumber and recognize that the current state of things will not always be.

We must be ready to die.

How does that make you feel? Have you thought lately that the way the world is shaping up, where hackers can access your bank account at any time they set their sights on it, where the most closely-guarded servers have to repel attacks continuously, where illegal drugs, guns, and terrorists’ weapons of choice are traded daily beneath the radar of law enforcement, there is coming a day when “the solution” will be introduced?  I posted on Facebook after the bombings in Paris that terrorized people become willing to accept greater controls over their liberty than those who feel they securely occupy their land.

This is not a exegesis on the book of Revelation, but the most elementary student of the Bible knows that a time is coming when no one can buy nor sell without something that is imposed upon them, stamped into their flesh, which allows them to continue to participate in commerce as they did before.  I could go on for awhile about how much more immediately relevant those prophecies seem today than when I first believed 30 years ago (for example, the idea that those who refuse the mark will be beheaded sounded symbolic for execution in general back then, as I wasn’t aware of much beheading being done since the French Revolution of the 18th century; it is a gruesome daily event in many areas today.)

Being inflammatory is a great way to get people to read and respond to what you are saying.  I try to avoid that cheap trick at all costs.  You either read someone’s blog because it speaks to you, or else you move on to something that does. But if God has given me a platform to have others consider anything He wants them to be thinking on, then there are times when the only option is to stand and say, “This is what the Word says, and we must hear and consider its implications for our own lives.”

I say again, “We must be ready to die.” That is the only way to face the “mark of the beast”. Many are prepping for a breakdown of the things we know.  But stores of things will not only run out, they will also make the owners targets.  After they run out, then what? Have we gained that much by extending our security just a little? Many who experienced the devastating floods in Louisiana weren’t “preppers” as the term has become popular, but had enough to spare and to share. In 24 hours time, they had nothing but the help of others to rely on.  I say that not in any way to be critical, for we should do the best we can with what we’re given, but it amazed me how quickly even the fruits of wise living evaporated before our eyes; as even as lives were forever changed.

In the days to come, we would be the most thankful that we were spending these days not prepping by storing up things, but by getting our hearts ready. Ready to live without our mobile devices and technology, because the God who sent Philip to find the Ethiopian eunuch in his chariot without a GPS can bring to us the information we need when we walk in His Spirit.  Ready to not know where the next meal is coming from, because the God Who sent the ravens to feed his prophet knows where we live. Ready to face uncertainty about our family members, because we were already told that when we truly follow our Master, we are taking up a Cross — something He gave up His life on — and putting Him ahead of father, mother, sister, brother, and child.  Again, this isn’t a “somewhere in the bye and bye” for many who profess Christianity today.  Crucifixions are regularly carried out by ISIS, as but one of their gruesome execution methods.

If we are ready to leave this world if deliverance doesn’t come, and if we are full of His Spirit when the final choices come, then when we refuse the mark of the Beast, we must understand that we will live as long as He wants us to — sustained by a raven if that’s what He chooses, or martyred for His glory. You see, the story of the Gospel is that sometimes the “bad guys win”, but only for a night.  Joy — eternal joy — comes in the morning, but only if the corn of wheat falls to the earth and dies.  I know I could have written about many more enjoyable things today, and God willing, I will do so again.  But it is most needful that we look at the reality of the scriptures, and the world around us.  Pastor Bowen has talked of being stirred much in the past few months to pray that God will help us be ready for what is coming on the church.  God doesn’t waste that kind of stirring.  Be uncomfortable.  Stir yourself to seek God.  Make up your mind that now will be the time you will begin to dig more deeply and if necessary, to forsake all and follow Him.  You will never – now or in eternity – be sorry you did so.

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“Don’t move that Bible for me! I don’t get that many chances with God!”

We were headed to lunch when I scooped up my Bible from the passenger seat to clear a spot for the social work intern to sit. Her protests would have amused me, except she seemed in dead earnest. In the ensuing discussion she described her upbringing in a strict Catholic tradition. Her earliest faith memories had stuck, as a perspective of “As long as I don’t mess up and offend God too badly, maybe He will let me into Heaven.” Those early experiences were her only concept of God. (more…)

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“Never stop dating!”

That advice is given to those who want to know how to keep their relationship strong, perhaps from those who have realized just in time that their love had cooled and had to be rekindled.

We often struggle in various types of relationships to hold on to the sweet, close times. Life so strongly comes along and wedges its way between people who were once perfectly attuned to one another. How can we keep this from happening? What can be done?

Never stop dating. 

Be intentional about finding what brings a smile to that person’s face, and go out of your way to make it happen. 

The couple who graciously agreed to let me use this picture from a few years back has certainly been a shining example of this advice. Through cancer, strokes, unspeakable family losses, and health declines that most would find hard to comprehend, the light of love still shines so brightly between them. As this picture captured, they are beautifully intentional in showing their love and fierce devotion for each other. When God referred to the marriage relationship as demonstrating His commitment to us, I’m sure this is what He pictured.

As I was preparing breakfast the other morning, something caught my attention: I recognized a “little thing” as being something my Jesus had provided for me. In that moment I thought about what had happened over the past 30 years. The beginning of this beautiful walk with God was often marked by moments of becoming keenly aware of some small thing, and acknowledging how sweet it was that Jesus noticed that and addressed it; of how touching it was to feel His presence in the otherwise mundane occurrences of life; of how different that awareness and closeness were from what I thought was an equivalent walk with God in my denominational upbringing and the years before the Holy Ghost came.

I was still amazed for years at the depth of His presence I had been allowed to know, when in the past, I had only read about and imagined such a true closeness. I knew this change had come because of the Gospel of the Apostles (Acts 2:38) which I was allowed to see as being still  relevant today, and which would bring this power when literally obeyed. I knew that my doing so, by His grace and mercy, had brought all the difference.

When one person in a relationship who reaches out for a close, even intimate, moment is rebuffed or ignored, they often withdraw and become unreachable to the other party. We are formed in the image of God — not only our physical being, but our emotional make-up as well. God penned, through the hand of Solomon, the story of the maiden’s Beloved knocking at her door at a time she found it inconvenient to answer. By the time she decided to arise and open the door, her Beloved had withdrawn himself and gone. 

I remember wet tears rolling down my face once to read that story, and to understand the implications for the treasured walk with God I had been given: if the Spirit of God moved on me for prayer, for closeness, and my heart was “busy” and uninterested at the time, He could very easily move away and be unavailable when I found a “convenient season”. (Felix, who trembled at the preaching of Paul in Acts 24, and chose not to yield to what God was doing until a “convenient season”, never was recorded to have had God deal with him again.)

When God described, through the prophet Amos, Israel’s disdain for the feasts and solemn days He had commanded them to observe — times He had ordained for them to draw closer to Him — He said in that context that he would send a famine unto them, not for meat and drink, but for the hearing of the Word of the Lord. Please know that we don’t come to God when we decide to: we come when He draws us (John 6:44), or not at all.

Over time what changed for me was the recognizing what sweet things were being done, and the remembering that it hadn’t always been that way in my life. Taking the ones we love for granted is something we struggle with in every type relationship. We can even begin to believe we are the reason for our own success in situations where we would look pretty silly propped up by ourselves to make our own way in the world.

Remember. Recognize. Acknowledge. Look for God’s hand in the little things, and take time to thank Him. Talk sweet praises and loving phrases to the God who came to make everything new, and who walks in things both good and bad — for you. If you’ve never seen the truth of Acts 2:38 as it applies to your life, then seek to know God that way — don’t shy away because it represents something different than what you have known. For me, that seeking represented the beginning of something more beautiful than even I could have pictured at the start.

“Nevertheless, I have somewhat against thee, for thou has left thy first love.” (Rev. 2:4) 

It need not be that way: Start dating again. . . 

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