For God So Loved the World

globe-hands“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” ~ John 3:16 (NIV)

This verse is familiar to almost everyone–from people who have learned it as children and can recite it by memory, to people who may not know what it means but have seen it printed on posters used for protests and end zones alike. It’s a reminder of God’s amazing gift to us in Jesus—the proof of his love for all of us in the flesh-and-blood person of his Son. John 3:16 is a verse of hope.

But claiming that hope for ourselves and offering it freely to others can often present us with challenging circumstances. Jesus understood that and offered us an example of how we should deal with those times when sharing God’s love in the real world may cause us difficulty.

In Luke 10, Jesus tells his followers a story about a Jewish man who was beaten, robbed, and left to die beside the road. In this story, the man in need was not helped by his countrymen. The two who saw him—both religious leaders—left him there without pause. The man who stopped to help was a Samaritan—a member of society who was perceived by the Jews of Jesus’ time to be inferior and disreputable. But this Samaritan not only stopped to help the beaten man, he transported him to a nearby inn, tended his wounds, and paid for his ongoing care. He went out of his way, sacrificing his own time and money, to help a stranger in need. Jesus finishes the story with this simple instruction: “Go and do likewise.”

What does that mean for us today? In a time when rhetoric and outrage over immigration and political asylum dominate the headlines, how are Christians supposed to respond? What is our responsibility—really—for issues concerning the well-being of those (within and outside our borders) deemed undesirable or untrustworthy?

While the legal intricacies of immigration and asylum are complex and cumbersome—and often necessary—Jesus’ command is simple. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That command is where Jesus’ story started. When we read the entire passage of “The Good Samaritan,” we see that the question asked of Jesus was this: Who is my neighbor? Jesus responded with a story about a man helping a person whom his people considered an enemy.

Jesus’ message is clear. For people who claim the name and cause of Christ, the response to strangers in need is to show compassion and address their need. We should not get so distracted by political posturing that we forget who we are in Christ and what we’ve been given by his grace. And we dare not neglect offering that grace to others.

In Matthew 25, Jesus shares another story that relays the importance he places on the response his followers have toward those in need. When the people in the story question the king, “When did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” The king responds, “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

As citizens of America, we have the right to vote for, support, and champion any cause we choose, regardless of what anyone else may think. As members together of the body of Christ—the church—we have a responsibility to represent His cause above all, and we cannot genuinely proclaim to others the hope that God so loves the world unless we are willing to truly do so ourselves.

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In God We Trust

coin“The Lord is my fortress! Don’t say to me, ‘Escape like a bird to the mountains!’  You tell me, ‘Watch out! Those evil people have put their arrows on their bows, and they are standing in the shadows, aiming at good people.  What can an honest person do when everything crumbles?’” ~ Psalm 11:1-3 (CEV)

This lament sounds familiar, doesn’t it? I heard and read statements like it throughout the recent Presidential campaign—not only from the candidates, but from the people around me. I’ll admit that those thoughts crossed my mind more than once as well.

Presidential elections have a way of bringing out the worry in people, turning normally level-headed individuals into would-be “chicken-littles,” warning everyone how terrible the world will be if that “other” candidate wins.

But Psalm 11 offers us a different perspective. Look again at the opening line. David, the writer of this passage, places the most important detail up front, which, simply put, is this: In God I trust.

He starts with the unshakeable confidence that he can count on God’s faithfulness regardless of what’s going on around him. In speaking this truth first, David proves he doesn’t just believe in God, he trusts him.

Can we say the same?

Do we wring our hands over our decisions, worrying what will become of us after the inauguration? Or do we rejoice like David, knowing that our God sees all and works for our good? Do we truly trust God to shape our future, or do we depend on our government for that?

I acknowledge that our leaders influence the material aspects of our lives and culture, but I also know that politics will never offer lasting peace. Only God can do that.

Want proof?  Consider these facts, reported in a May 2015 Washington Post article.

  • Today, the Christian community in Latin America and Africa, alone, account for
    1 billion people.
  • One out of four Christians in the world presently is an Africa[n], and the Pew Research Center estimates that will grow [over the next decade].
  • Demographers estimate that more Christian believers are found worshipping in China on any given Sunday than in the United States.
  • In the last century, Christianity grew at twice the rate of population in [Asia].

Many of these believers live in an environment that is overwhelmingly hostile to their faith and under regimes that do not allow the free expression of religion, yet their numbers are growing exponentially. Why? Perhaps it’s because they have learned to place their trust in God above any loyalty to nation, creed, or cause.

Their hope does not rest on a political party, but on an eternal promise. They know, as we should, that “there’s far more to life for us. We’re citizens of high heaven! We’re waiting the arrival of the Savior, the Master, Jesus Christ….He’ll make us beautiful and whole with the same powerful skill by which he is putting everything as it should be, under and around him” (Philippians 3:20-21, MSG).

As we watch the inauguration of a new President, we need to remember that our peace is found in God’s presence and our hope is found in his promise. And as we move forward, may the words “In God We Trust” be inscribed not only on our currency but also in our character.

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Joy Revealed

holiday-joy“With all my heart I praise the Lord, and I am glad because of God my Savior. He cares for me, his humble servant.” ~ Luke 1:46-48 (CEV)

As this Christmas season comes to a close, I can’t help thinking of all I have to be thankful for. After sharing in my last post about the sadness that darkened so many of my days, I cannot fail to share the joy that now lightens my heart.

It wasn’t that there was no joy before. I still had an innate understanding that my life was good, a heartfelt thankfulness that my family was whole, and relief that, in spite of it all, I was still standing. But beyond the cognitive recognition that I was surviving the storm, the clouds still hovered and I longed for the sunlight.

In his book The Myth of Happiness, Rich Wagner explains that joy is the “constant presence of God inside [us] sprinkled with moments of genuine delight.” His definition speaks to my experience. Though I never doubted God’s presence, I missed those moments of delight.

Today, delight bubbles up inside, reminding me that God does indeed care for me, his humble servant. He didn’t forget me, and he didn’t leave me where I was. He was with me the whole time and brought me through to the other side.

He spoke to me through countless sermons and songs, provided constant support through my family, and refreshed me with the companionship of a dear friend. He kept his promise to stay “close to the brokenhearted and [to] save those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).

He did this for me. He will also do it for you.

Just as the sun continues to shine behind low-lying clouds, joy can be found within every trying circumstance. Just trust that “the Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you,” and never stop looking for that break in the clouds.

 

 

 

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Out of the Darkness

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

These are familiar words to me. I’ve heard them read and recited all of my life, and I’ve always associated them with Christmas—for good reason. These words prophesy the birth of Christ.

The passage goes on to say, “For unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given.” It’s a promise of hope for a people looking for deliverance.  On an intellectual level, a historical level, I understand this and appreciate its message.

But this verse has become much more personal to me of late because I’m the one who’s been living in the shadows.  I have not experienced physical captivity like the Israelites, nor do I suffer from a lack of spiritual hope.  My darkness is one of immense grief—the kind and volume of which seems to block out the sun, eclipsing joy.

The past 18 months have brought significant loss—the death of my dad, the heartache of watching a loved one struggle with depression,  the loss of a dream, the separation from a community of faith, and the transition to an empty nest.

For these many months, I’ve felt the constant weight of sadness and distress. Though I’ve never doubted God’s presence, I have felt the absence of his peace.

It’s as if I held only a flickering candle when what I yearned for was the steady pulse of a beacon.

I’ve often recalled the passage in Ecclesiastes 3: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens … a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance….”  To my Type A personality, those words always sounded like a tidy little process—a calendar of events that I could pencil in, as if I could control when each occurred and how long each would last.

But that isn’t the case.

Waiting for hope to return—in the quiet, in the dark—is hard.

The good news is, the light does shine again. I have seen it already and see it more fully every day. Finally, it’s starting to break through. My smiles are brighter, my laughter more frequent, and my joy more full.

So this Christmas, I celebrate Isaiah’s long-ago prophecy of hope because it has become real for me in the here and now.

If you are currently in the shadows, don’t give up. The hope of that prophecy isn’t a one-shot deal. It’s eternal—new with every sunrise.  Simply be patient and take comfort in the Psalmist’s words:

“Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.”

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Reasons to Rejoice

The weeks following Easter always lift my spirit. Not only do I get to enjoy the beauty of the season with its blooming flowers and budding trees, I also get to bask in the joy of remembering all God has done for me in Christ. His death and resurrection literally redefine life for those who believe.  No event in all of human history has impacted the world more than the divine sacrifice that bridged the gap between God and man.

Gratefulness and wonder overwhelm me when I consider the enormity of the gifts offered to us through the Lord’s passion. So when I read Psalm 103 this past week, I couldn’t resist sharing. This psalm offers us a vivid reminder of the blessings, the character, and the love of God.

dandelionseedsThrough his Son, God fulfills his promise not only to forgive us, but to fling our sins away like dandelion seeds on the wind. “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us” (vss. 11-12).

In addition to his incredible mercy, God also promises to heal us, to renew and refresh us, and to satisfy us with good things (vss. 3-5).  Blessing upon blessing is available to us by God’s grace through his Son.

The psalmist continues his exaltation by reminding us that “the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (vs. 8). His patience and love envelop us and extend far beyond what we can imagine. Verse 17 tells us that his love never ends, and I Peter 3:9 reminds us that “the Lord isn’t slow about keeping his promises, as some people think he is. In fact, God is patient, because he wants everyone to turn from sin and no one to be lost” (CEV).

No wonder the psalmist bookends the passage with the words “Bless the Lord, O my soul.” When we realize the height and breadth and depth of God’s love for us, how can we not find reasons to rejoice?

But perhaps, even with these reassuring words, you find it difficult to rejoice right now. Maybe your circumstances don’t naturally lend themselves to blessing the Lord. You seek mercy, you continue to wait for healing, or you long for true satisfaction, and they seem slow in coming.sunrise

You can still cling to this promise:  “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him” (vs. 13). Don’t lose hope. Just like the women outside Jesus’ tomb, though your “weeping may linger for the night, joy comes with the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)

*You can read Psalm 103 in its entirety here.

 

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Lift Up Your Face

look-up“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26).

What a glorious promise! Jesus, who himself rose from the dead, offers the same possibility for all who believe in him. The apostle Paul reminds us this way:  “I want you to know about the great and mighty power that God has for us followers. It is the same wonderful power he used when he raised Christ from death and let him sit at his right side in heaven” (Ephesians 1:19-20 CEV).

The Bible leaves no doubt. We have full access to God’s amazing power of resurrection. While we readily accept what that means for life after death, we sometimes forget what it means for our everyday life here on earth.

Mary Magdalene experienced that power on the first Easter morning. John’s gospel tells us that when she went to the tomb, she immediately realized something was different. The stone had been rolled away and Jesus’ body was no longer there. Though his burial shroud lay to the side and two angels appeared and spoke to her directly, Mary still grieved. She was so overwhelmed by heartache, she could see nothing but the loss.

Jesus came to her and asked, “Woman, why are you weeping” (John 20:15). But even then, Mary failed to recognize the hope that stood right in front of her. Not until Jesus spoke her name did she finally look up and see the wonderful truth.empty_tomb11

Perhaps you understand how Mary felt. You know what it’s like to be so devastated by loss, so pressed down by life, or so bereft of hope that you cannot see the promise that awaits you. Take heart. Jesus stands before you now, as he did with Mary Magdalene. He’s calling your name, waiting for you to lift up your face and rejoice in the power of new life he offers.

May this Easter bring you the new life and hope you so desperately seek, and may you be comforted knowing that “the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you” (I Peter 5:10).

*The rest of Mary’s Easter experience is found in John 20:1-18.

 

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The Reason for Our Hope

hopeisrealI Peter 3:15 instructs us to “always be ready to give an answer when someone asks you about your hope.” Sometimes that’s easier said than done. What reason do we have to hope in the midst of difficult circumstances? Does our hope have substance, or is it nothing more than wishful thinking that helps us get through the day?

Merriam Webster says that to hope is “to expect with confidence,” but it stops short of specifying where that confidence is placed. When it comes to matters of hope, the where makes all the difference.

As Christ-followers, our hope lies in Jesus himself, and our confidence lies in his character. The Bible tells us that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8), which means we can trust him to be consistent regardless of our circumstances. We know that he loves us (I John 4:10); we know that his love never ends (Psalm 117:2), and we know that he is always working for our good (Romans 8:28).

Since we can count on these truths, we can find hope in every situation we face. That’s why the Psalmist boldly writes:

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. (Psalm 46:1-3)

Notice that his confidence is not shaken even though his world is literally crumbling around him. Why? Because he knows that “the Lord of hosts is with us” (Psalm 46:11). His hope is in the One whose way is perfect and who knows what we need before we ask.

We can experience hope by doing the same. Even if our world should shift from a traumatic loss or we are shaken by a financial crisis, even when the storms of life buffet us and we tremble at the path that lies ahead, we can find hope when we look to Jesus.grace-rock-blue1-300x206

Is your world shaken today? Take comfort in knowing that our hope is real. Regardless of what you’re facing, Jesus’ love surrounds you (Psalm 31:16), his strength sustains you (Colossians 1:11-12), and his grace is sufficient to meet every need (2 Cor. 12:9).

*Read Psalm 46 in its entirety here.

 

 

 

 

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The God Who Sees

“I am an invisible man….I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” ~ Ralph Ellison

imagesT22KH9F2Have you ever felt that way? Do you sometimes wonder if anyone sees what you’re going through or cares how you feel? Life runs at such a frantic pace that we often feel we get lost in the shuffle, seemingly forgotten by the people closest to us.

I imagine that’s how the woman in Mark 5 must have felt. Scripture tells us that she “had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse” (vss.25-26).

I’ve been there—not with that specific physical ailment, but with a sense of trying everything in my power to change my situation without success. I’ve been exhausted with the effort, demoralized by the result, and desperate to find anyone who would care enough to help.hem-garment1

This woman finds Jesus. She pushes through a crowd of people, strains forward, stretching her arm as far as it will reach, and brushes her fingertips ever so lightly against his cloak. And “immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease” (vs.  9). I can imagine her, awash with relief, slowing her pace, narrowing her shoulders so the crowd could flow unchecked around her, and once again standing alone in the middle of the street.

The Bible never indicates this woman was looking for anything else. Perhaps she understood the urgency of the moment. Jesus was surrounded by people, all of whom had their own needs. He was on his way to save the dying daughter of a very influential man. Time was limited and demand for his attention was great, so she slipped in and out unobtrusively—willing to allow others the gift of his presence.

But Jesus had other plans. The passage indicates that he was immediately aware of what had happened and stopped to look for the person who touched him. In spite of all the people crowded around him, Jesus made time to interact personally with this quiet, ordinary, unnamed woman.

What glorious hope!the_god_who_sees_me - Copy

We are not invisible. Jesus himself explains that God notices every little sparrow, “but even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Luke 12:7). In spite of how neglected you may feel in your life right now, rest assured that God knows exactly where you are, and he is ready to meet your need.

*You can read Mark 5:21-43 in its entirety here.

 

 

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Dark Times and Dry Places

Picture Credit: Josh LeClair

Picture Credit: Josh LeClair

Life is full of good things. From the beauty of a golden sunset to the joy of a child’s sweet embrace, life offers a plethora of wonderful experiences and people. No day passes without a blessing of some kind because God is just that good.

But sometimes the good seems far away. There are days when the darkness rolls in, and I find myself plagued by sadness and despair. I am no stranger to these shadowy visitations. I would like to think I’ve grown more adept at handling them as I’ve grown older, but I cannot say they have left me entirely, and I find myself wondering why they trouble me so.

The Bible indicates there are many reasons why we face dark times and dry places. The prophet Elijah sat despondent in a cave because he was afraid. (I Kings 19) Jonah spent three days in the belly of a fish because he was disobedient. (Jonah 1) Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness because God’s Spirit led him there. (Matthew 4:1-11) In each instance, there was a lesson to be learned, an opportunity to grow.

There is comfort in knowing I am not the only one to travel through the shadow lands. I am not the first to cry out like the Psalmist, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?” (Psalm 42:5) I am not alone when I experience occasions when “my soul thirsts for God” and “my tears [are] my food day and night” (Psalm 42:2,3), but I find myself struggling to find hope just the same.

Psalm 42 offers sustenance for the parched soul and light for the darkened path. In verse 8, the Psalmist reminds us that “by day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me.” God’s work in us never ends. Even in our most dire straits, his Spirit “prays for us in ways that cannot be put into words” (Romans 8:26 CEV), and therein lies our hope.sunshine

God is with us in the darkness, using that time to strengthen us, teach us, and transform us. So do not fear the dark. Rest in God’s promises, trust in his work, and anticipate the day when the sun will shine again.

*You can read Psalm 42 in its entirety here.

 

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Part of the Plan

untitled (11)What can I do? Have you ever asked yourself that question? When looking at the needs of the world or your neighborhood or your family, do you ever feel absolutely helpless? Sometimes I do. When I hear about people who suffer under oppression halfway around the globe, when I hear about a friend who struggles with making ends meet, when a family member wrestles with a difficult decision, these are the times I wish I had the solutions they need, but so often I feel inadequate to offer even the basic comfort.

Sometimes I look at the needs of the people around me and feel it’s impossible to help, but that’s not the reality. Luke 1:37 reminds us that “nothing will be impossible with God.”

The disciples learned that in spectacular fashion. As they traveled with Jesus, crowds often followed them. In John 6, Jesus looked upon a crowd of about 5,000 people and recognized their need. He then suggested to his disciples that they find a way to feed them. Philip, incredulous, said what they were all probably thinking: “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little” (John 6:7).

That same sentiment often echoes in our minds today. You’ve undoubtedly been there—when you feel like even your best doesn’t even scratch the surface.

The good news is Jesus has a plan. John reveals to us in his recounting of this miracle that Jesus asked Philip to help “to test him, for he himself [Jesus] knew what he was going to do” (John 6:6). Jesus didn’t expect the disciples to fix the problem by themselves; his intention was to give them the opportunity to be part of his plan.

He gives us that same opportunity. The needs of those around us are great, and while we may not be able to provide all they require, we can find hope in the fact that we can offer them what we have.

In the disciples’ case, that was five loaves and two fish; in our case it may be consistent prayer, a listening ear, or an encouraging word. We should never worry that our offering is too small, but consider it a vital part in God’s bigger plan.five-loaves-and-two-fishes

Has God presented you with a need to address? You can find the courage to help meet that need by remembering to trust that when God calls you to act, he will provide the resources needed to make the miracle happen.

*This story is found in John 6:1-14.

 

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