Encouragement

Hard Pressed

2 Corinthians 4: 8-9

“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 
persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

I’ll never forget when I first learned how to use color crayons. I was in junior high—7th grade, I believe. I know what you’re thinking, that this should be a kindergarten-level skill. And you would be correct, if I were referring to the neat and tidy, gentle, inside-the-lines kind of coloring that we tend to value so much. But in 7th grade art class, I learned how crayons were “meant” to be used. Our teacher knew that she would have an uphill battle trying to change the beliefs and behaviors that had been ingrained in us for some 12 years by that point. But she also knew from experience that there was good to come from all of this re-learning.

She taught us that we needed to press HARD on the crayons. What?! Wasn’t that wasting them? I mean, they would wear out so much faster. That is, if they didn’t break in half from the weight of the pressure. And why?! My coloring up until that point had already earned me high praise throughout my childhood. But I trusted my teacher, and I learned a technique that yielded absolutely beautiful results—vibrant, bold, attention-grabbing.

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I know that Paul wasn’t referring to crayons in his letter to the Corinthians. His analogy above relates more to an active-duty soldier, presumably in battle. Nevertheless, I believe this present analogy holds. The point is that what seems harsh and painful now may yield some great benefit later. Paul continues,

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away,
yet our inner self is being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary affliction is producing for us an eternal glory that is far beyond comparison.
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.
For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

2 Corinthians 4: 16-18

Will we do this also? When we face challenges, hardships, and heartache. When we experience loss, grief, and sadness. Will we trust that our God will not allow us to be crushed or destroyed, that He will not forsake us, even during the most difficult or painful of times? I hope so—for the reward is great.

Dear Lord,

Please comfort those who are mourning, strengthen those who are weak, and work all things together in an intricate and vibrant work of art that declares, “His glory, my good.”

Amen.

 

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His Glory Revealed

I don’t cry very often, thanks to some well-dosed antidepressants, but every now and then I still have my moments. What landed me in that place the other night might surprise you. I had been waiting for some medical test results, and I received them earlier in the day. “Nothing out of the ordinary,” is what the nurse said. This might be a relief to many patients, but to me it represented one more failed attempt at an answer—and with no answers looming on the horizon that I could see.

Chronic pain and illness—some treatable, some not; some diagnosable, some not—has been my plight for years, and it’s one I try to endure with some semblance of grace. But sometimes one more symptom to add to the bray just feels like more than I can handle. You know?

Well, I’ve allowed the Spirit to comfort me in the past through verses like these.

James 1:2-4:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

2 Corinthians 12:7b-10:

“…I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Romans 8:18:

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”

But the other night, the passage that came and kept coming to my mind was John 9:1-3:

“As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’

‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.’”

I guess the reason I’ve never connected this story with my own is that Jesus chose to heal this blind man. And if we look at God’s glory as healing, strictly speaking, then I guess it might never apply to me. But even when our paths and journeys differ, God’s glory can still be seen, can it not? Regardless of what we face, God can use our circumstances to reveal His heart.

  • It may look like renewed compassion and empathy for others who suffer.
  • It may look like the encouragement you share with and receive from others.
  • It may look like a strengthened faith in God’s sufficient grace.
  • It may look like God walking alongside you—carrying you when the road becomes too long.
  • It may look like you walking alongside a fellow sojourner—helping them to bear a burden that is too heavy for them to carry on their own.
  • It may look like peace that passes understanding, in spite of swirling turmoil.

I could go on, I’m sure, but I hope you get my point. Chronic pain and illness are my cross to bear (and that of many others), but your struggles (or your friend’s, or your neighbor’s, or your colleague’s, or your sister’s) may be very different. They may include losses, addictions, hurts, sins, you name it. But they are no less usable by God, for the display of His glory—if we will allow Him to use them.

Look for God in your circumstances—chances are, you’ll find Him.

Lenten Blossoms

The Choicest of Wines

John 2: 7-10

“Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.
Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”
They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine.
He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said,

“Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine
after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”

Don’t you just love how you can read a Bible story over and over, and still get something new out of it every time? I think we’ve all read John’s account of Christ’s first miracle at the wedding in Cana. But recently, I read it again, and it meant something new to me. You see, the master of the banquet was right. The guests would have been perfectly content with a cheap wine. Jesus could have brought out the Franzia or the Boon’s Farm and it would have been fine.

But Jesus doesn’t do that, does he? He doesn’t give cheap gifts—ever. He doesn’t perform half-hearted miracles—ever. He gives only the best, because that’s what God does. Every. Single. Time. He outdoes himself, and never ceases to amaze his beloved children.

And even when things aren’t going the way we planned, even when we’ve run out of wine at the wedding, we can be confident that Jesus will step in and meet our needs in a way that only he can—in a way that will amaze us and everyone around us. Our job is to ask, and to ask believing that he will respond, and trusting that he will always respond with the very choicest of wines. Selah.

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Known

John 4:28-29

“Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people,
‘Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?’”

You know something that doesn’t change about Jesus throughout the scriptures? The way He knows everyone He meets—inside and out. He knows the depths of their souls, the depths of their sin, and the depths of their needs. Each has a different story, but Jesus knows every detail. What I’ve found does change is the response of the known to the Knower, and to the being known. For some, it’s a source of comfort—for others, a source of shame.

Consider the woman at the well. After Jesus exposed her sins of adultery and promiscuity, she dropped everything and ran back to town to tell everyone. She was no longer ashamed of her sin. Instead, she was hopeful in the face of Christ’s forgiveness and was eager to share that Living Water with everyone she knew. She allowed her failures to become her testimony.

Similarly, recall the woman who in John 8 was brought before Jesus upon being caught in the act of adultery. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees had wanted to stone her, but had to retreat at Jesus’s command that he who was without sin must throw the first stone. When she looked up and saw that none of the religious leaders had condemned her, and when Jesus himself offered her mercy and forgiveness, there seemed to be a sense of gratitude and relief as Jesus told her to “go and sin no more.”

In contrast, though, reflect on Christ’s conversation with the rich young ruler, which is chronicled in all three synoptic gospels. In Mark 10:17-27, we see that, as Jesus

“was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, ‘Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments, “Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.” And he said to Him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.’ Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, ‘One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’ But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.”

It seems as though this young man was counting on Jesus NOT knowing him, not being able to see deep into his heart to identify his sin. So when he realized that the Messiah did know him, inside and out, it brought sadness, as opposed to comfort. And ultimately, rather than repent of his sins and accept Christ’s love and forgiveness, this young man walked away.

The Bible is full of people just like him, unwilling to give up their earthly treasures in exchange for eternal ones. But the Bible is also full of people who embraced Jesus and His intimate knowledge of their sin. And in so doing, they were able to accept with confidence the grace, mercy, and forgiveness He offered them. Our world today is full of both kinds of people, too. The question that you and I need to answer is, “Which kind of person will I be?”

Chosen

Ephesians 1:4 (NLT)

“Even before he made the world,
God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes.”

I hope you all will forgive me for digressing from my “Who I am” series for this week. But God spoke to me this week in an illustration that I want to share with you. You see, as I was walking home from dropping the kids off at school on Wednesday, I came across a random Chihuahua. He was in a yard that I didn’t recall him belonging to, and he started barking at me, and then he followed me briefly (and forgive me, the picture is a bit blurry–he wouldn’t stand still). He finally decided to stay where he was, but as often happens when I encounter a stray dog, I began to daydream. What if he followed me home? What if he refused to leave? What if he chose us to adopt him?

Now, you have to understand—and I mean no disrespect—but we are NOT Chihuahua people. We like BIG dogs: Bernese Mountain Dogs, Great Pyrenees, Newfoundlands, those sorts of dogs. But there’s something about the idea of a pet choosing you, isn’t there? About them adopting you, if you will. At least there is for me. So, I thought to myself that, if this dog indeed were to choose us, we might find ourselves inviting him into our lives and our home and becoming his forever family. We might.

There’s just something about being chosen. It’s like destiny, do you know what I mean? That’s one thing (among many) that I love SO much about God. He has chosen ME. He has chosen YOU. Psalm 11:3 says, “Know that the Lord, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” There is such comfort in knowing this. The old hymn states, “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!” But I dare say, “Blessed assurance, I am HIS!” Know this assurance today, and rest in the peace that comes from being His chosen.

Who I Am–Part II

Philippians 2:15b
“…Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky…”

My second tattoo is a Chinese symbol for the word “shine.” It was inspired by Philippians 2:15 and was intended as a reminder to me that I should shine God’s love and character in the world around me. But truth be told, its location in the center of my upper back makes it something I seldom see. I wonder if that has anything to do with how frequently I seem to fail at this task. I so often feel dim when I observe my words, tone, thoughts, actions, and even feelings.

I have to confess that for these couple of days, I’ve felt overwhelmed with and defeated by my own shortcomings. My self-efficacy is practically non-existent at the moment. I feel as though everything I set out to do results in failure. In truth, it isn’t literally everything. But certainly, there are a lot of things that have revealed my weaknesses. Weaknesses, you say?

Well, thankfully, the Bible has a few things to say about weaknesses—a few encouraging things, for these moments when I feel discouraged.

  • “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God” (1 Corinthians 27-29).
  • “Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
  • “He gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might He increases power. Though youths grow weary and tired, and vigorous young men stumble badly, yet those who wait for the LORD will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary” (Isaiah 50:4).

I don’t know about you, but even after a fairly tumultuous couple of days, I feel like I can sleep better tonight, resting in His strength. I hope you can, too!

Not for Naught

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If you know me very well, you know that I blame a lot of things on “the fall,” as in the fall of mankind in the Garden of Eden. That’s because, quite frankly, the fall has had a LOT of consequences for our lives, our society, and our world. And sometimes we face things that just plain don’t have any other explanation. Pain and suffering often seem to fall into that category. I’m not sure that it’s pain and suffering themselves that we dread so much. Instead, I think that one of our biggest fears is that our pain will somehow be wasted. The apostle Paul knew that better than anyone. In his second letter to the Corinthians, he wrote:

“Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9)

Like Paul, I think that we long to identify a reason for the suffering we experience. We want to see it produce a testimony in our lives that others can see. We want it to display God’s glory. Some painful experiences seem to lend themselves better to these ends than others. But among those that don’t are chronic pain and illness. Incidentally, I learned just yesterday that September is Chronic Pain Awareness month. I’ll bet you didn’t know that either. It isn’t something that gets a lot of press. Why? Maybe it’s because many people who suffer from chronic pain and illness do so in relative silence and obscurity. Maybe it’s because these conditions often aren’t visible to the naked eye, and as such are in many ways forgettable.

Over the years, this has prompted me to wonder how God could possibly be glorified in this, how it could produce a testimony. Then I naturally conclude that my pain is pointless. But during a recent bout of self-pity, God interrupted me. Over several days, he brought to mind a number of friends and family members who are afflicted by chronic pain and illness. And I realized that, because of my own pain, I am in a unique (if unenviable) position to NOT forget those who might otherwise feel forgotten. Perhaps not the most exciting testimony, but likely a quite fulfilling ministry. After all, some 100,000 Americans experience chronic pain at any given time. It’s a fact of life in a fallen world. I’ve personally found that there is a good deal of peace in knowing that some good could come from my suffering, that it won’t be for naught. I hope that you will also find peace in that today. Whatever you may be going through, God has no intention of wasting your pain any more than he does mine.

So Much Fight

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Laredo HATES bedtime. She will say or do just about anything to avoid going to bed. Sure, she’s sucking her thumb, clinging to her lovie, and laying prostrate on the floor. No matter. She’s not tired, she says. So the other night, we left her sitting on the floor outside our room, where she sat wanting to cry, but too exhausted to remove her thumb from her mouth. Twenty minutes later, we looked over to find her fast asleep on the floor.

“So much fight,” is all her daddy could say, as he gathered her up in his arms and carried her off to bed. His comment made me wonder what must lie ahead for her. After all, what if this fighting spirit—placed inside of her as God knit her together, contemplated long before she came to be—was His way of preparing her for some future and very significant fight? I can’t help but believe the answer is yes. I don’t know what that fight will look like. Will it be spiritual, physical, emotional, financial, political? I don’t know. But I know the verses I will share with her when that day comes:

Deuteronomy 31:6: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified…for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”

1 Chronicles 28:20: “Then David said to his son Solomon, “Be strong and courageous, and act; do not fear nor be dismayed, for the LORD God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you nor forsake you until all the work for the service of the house of the LORD is finished.”

Psalm 27:1: “The LORD is my light and my salvation– whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life– of whom shall I be afraid?”

Psalm 27:14: “Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD.”

Psalm 28:7: “The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and he helps me. My heart leaps for joy, and with my song I praise him.”

Psalm 46:1b: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.”

Psalm 56:3-4: “When I am afraid, I will put my trust in You. In God, whose word I praise, In God I have put my trust; I shall not be afraid. What can mere man do to me?”

Psalm 112:7: “They will have no fear of bad news; their hearts are steadfast, trusting in the LORD.”

Psalm 118:14: “The LORD is my strength and my song; he has given me victory.”

Isaiah 41:10: “‘Do not fear, for I am with you; do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.’”

2 Corinthians 4:8-9: “…we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…”

Ephesians 3:16: “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being…”

Ephesians 6:10: “…be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.”

Philippians 4:13: “I have strength for all things in the One strengthening me.”

2 Timothy 1:7: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.”

These words of encouragement are not just for one little girl. They are not only for some future fight. I’ve recorded them here for YOU as well, for the fight that you are facing even today. I don’t know if you were born strong, if you’ve since achieved strength, or if you’ve simply had strength thrust upon you. Regardless, God desires to strengthen and sustain you. And He who goes before you will fight for you—if you’ll let Him. And that is my prayer for you today. After all, perhaps God has placed you right where you are, and for just such a time as this.

Resilient

In this life, there will be pain. Many of you know that all too well, because in this life there has been pain. Or in this life, there is pain at this very moment. We collectively and personally experience pain of all kinds. We witness natural and manmade disasters; physical, emotional, and spiritual battles; financial hardship; and other tragedies. Other than to fault a fallen world, we often have no explanation for the pain we experience. But do you know what I’ve discovered over and over again in the midst of great pain? Resilience.

There’s a song that I love by Gungor that says:

“You make beautiful things, you make beautiful things out of the dust;
You make beautiful things, you make beautiful things out of us.”

And I see this in those around me who have suffered, yet carried on. I can picture your smiles, your experiences, your relationships, and all of the amazing opportunities you’ve had as a result of that pain. I find encouragement from watching others suffer well, even though I know we would all prefer a pain-free existence—at least we think we would until we realize the ripple effect (often positive) that our reaction to this pain can cause.

I also find encouragement in a number of scripture passages that give strength in times of trial and hardship, and that help me know that—when I too face hard times—God will sustain me.

  • “I can endure allthese things through the power of the one who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13 CEB). I love the versions of this verse that highlight its true meaning. Many translations claim that we can “do all things” through Christ’s strength in us. But this not-so-subtle distinction takes us from a place of control, initiative, and confidence to one of dependence, vulnerability, and weakness. Thankfully, it is in that weakness that God’s power is made perfect and is displayed for all to see.
  • No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us (Romans 8:37). More than conquerors. We are not simply survivors, we are not even simply victors. We are MORE than conquerors through him. We will win and we will prevail—no matter what shape that victory takes in the end.
  • Love … always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (1 Corinthians 13:7). Many times our pain and loss result from our willingness to love sacrificially, in a way that protects, trusts, hopes, and perseveres—in a way that, frankly, calls us to risk everything. Understanding this risk, we may be tempted to avoid love altogether. But love perseveres, and when we have love, we too will persevere.
  • And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:13). Love remains, no matter what. No matter what our circumstances, no matter what our hardships, we are in a position to love. First and foremost, we must love God. When we do that, we will love others by extension. And when we love others, we aren’t called to love selectively. We are called to love those who curse, persecute, judge, hurt, and betray us. We are also called to love those who grieve, those who are persecuted, and those who suffer loss.

Resilience. Perseverance. Strength. Victory. Love. If you’ve lived these out in front of me, I thank you for the inspiration you’ve been. I pray that God will continue to sustain you, for his glory and your good.

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Jesus and Orange Jell-O

Jeremiah 29:11
“‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD,
‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”

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I stood in line today to get lunch, and secretly prayed that there would still be a Rice Krispie treat left on the dessert tray by the time I got to the front of the line. After waiting for one of the servers to check a first and then a second kitchen. She brought back what I presumed were the last two. So I took it, and sat outside in the breeze, eating it gratefully.

My mind drifted back to my time in the Air Force, and a similar appreciation that I felt for a different dessert: orange Jell-O. Don’t ask why, I couldn’t tell you. But now and then, the cafeteria would offer orange Jell-O for dessert. While it seems small and insignificant, it meant everything to me.

You see, that was one of the darkest times in my life, and I couldn’t shake my feelings of depression, hopelessness, and despair. At times, I would sit on the floor, in the dark in my room, sobbing and praying and literally holding a paring knife—poised to end it all. But then I would wait. I would wait because, when all else seemed lost, there was the hope that tomorrow, there might be orange Jell-O for dessert. And whenever there was, I would breathe a sigh of relief, however brief, and would be reminded that there WAS hope, that this too would pass. And one day at a time, I made it through—thanks to Jesus and orange Jell-O.

Dessert today was much different. It wasn’t the one bright spot in a dark vacuum. Instead, it was just another little blessing, accompanied by so many more that I experience each day. Today, I can celebrate healing, redemption, purpose, passion, and vision…and on and on.

I couldn’t have imagined way back when where I would be today, back when the only thing I could find to be thankful for was a processed gelatinous mass of sugar. But God could—He knew all along the plans He had for me, plans to prosper and not to harm me, plans to give me a future and a hope—and a future full of hope.

All that is to say, if you’re feeling hopeless, hang in there. This too shall pass. And meanwhile, treat yourself to some orange Jell-O!