Encouragement

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!

Signs

Judges 6: 39-40

“Then Gideon said to God, ‘Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request.
Allow me one more test with the fleece, but this time make the fleece dry and let the ground be covered with dew.’ That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about Gideon this week. If you spent any time at all in Sunday school as a kid, you’re probably familiar with his story. You may recall how God once commanded him to deliver the Israelites from the oppression of the Midianites. What’s more, this deliverance came after God had whittled Gideon’s army from 32,000 men to a mere 300. It was a pretty impressive victory, by all accounts.

But I, for one, have never given Gideon all that much credit. While he was technically a man of faith, consistency wasn’t exactly his strong suit. Besides that, he always seemed to need an inordinate amount of hand holding from God in order to follow through with His commands. I mean, after all, before the call to deliver Israel from the Midianites, God commanded Gideon to destroy Israel’s altars to false gods. At that time, Gideon had asked for a sign—and God had obliged—before obeying. God had also instructed Gideon, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you? …. I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites, leaving none alive.” And yet, when the Spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon, making him believe that it was time to deliver the Israelites, he asked for another sign: “If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised—look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said” (Judges 6: 37). Again, God honored his request. When Gideon arose the next morning, verse 38 tells us, “he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew—a bowlful of water.”

Time to round up the troops, right? Wrong. Instead, Gideon said to God, “Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece, but this time make the fleece dry and let the ground be covered with dew.” If we ever needed more proof that His mercies are new every morning, it comes to us in verse 40: “That night God did so.” Finally, Gideon believed and trusted and set out to conquer Midian. He obeyed, seemingly without question, as God reduced his fighting force from 32,000 to 10,000, and then from 10,000 to 300. But in God’s faithfulness, He offered even more assurance: “During that night the Lord said to Gideon, “Get up, go down against the camp, because I am going to give it into your hands. If you are afraid to attack, go down to the camp with your servant Purah and listen to what they are saying. Afterward, you will be encouraged to attack the camp” (Judges 7:9-11). And so they did, and so they were. And God delivered Israel, as promised.

But I’ve never thought of Gideon as the hero in this story. Instead, he seems like the vessel that God had to drag kicking and screaming onto the pages of history. He was the epitome of one who had greatness thrust upon him. As such, I have never been surprised at the lack of popularity with which people have bestowed this name ever since 1880 when the Social Security Administration began keeping these kinds of records. My apologies to the 928 of you who chose that name for your sons in 2014 alone. But maybe you realized a few things that I only just considered this last week:

  • Gideon only thought that he was hearing from God. He truly wasn’t sure. It isn’t as though God actually showed up in a burning bush. There were a few signs, to be sure, but how definitive were they really?
  • Gideon probably knew about the unreliability of dew. They probably didn’t understand dew points back then, and beyond that, there are a lot of other variables that play into the phenomenon that is the morning dew. How else would you explain why the presence or absence of dew on any given morning is just as likely to depend on the type of surface or the side of the house on which an object is placed?
  • Gideon was charged with the wellbeing of 32,000 troops as well as the rest of the Israeli population. That is a huge responsibility and a matter of stewardship that Gideon obviously didn’t take lightly. And finally,
  • Gideon, like all of us, was flesh and blood and dust. He was a finite human, without the eternal perspective that God had (and still has) to see the ultimate big picture.

Just as this story tells us a little bit about a man named Gideon, I think it’s a good reflection of us. Not many of us hear from prophets or angels, and even fewer hear the audible voice of God. So when we’re faced with big and important decisions, our natural tendency is to ask for signs, for confirmation. We don’t want to proceed without assurance that God will go with us.

Thankfully, this story also tells us a lot about God. He understands us, He sees our hearts, He knows our weaknesses. And in spite of all of that, He remains faithful, just as He did to Gideon. And so, when we wish we could just step out in faith, but when God’s voice is so difficult to discern from the voices of others and even our own desires, we have this assurance: God is willing and able to do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20), even if that sometimes means sending a supernatural, undeniable sign from heaven.

Prepositions

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There’s a song that I love, by All Sons and Daughters, that contains these lyrics:

“I will sing, sing, sing,
To my God, my King,
For all else fades away…”

But often, as I sing along, I will unconsciously replace the word “for” with “‘til.” Of course, that changes the meaning. “For” essentially means “because,” which is nothing like “until.” But somehow, it fits. And really, I’ve realized that there are several prepositions that could work with those lyrics:

For: Everything else will fade away, so why sing our praises—or follow after—anything else?

‘Til: Trials, suffering, challenges—they won’t last forever. If you hold onto God, and keep your eyes on him, he will carry you through.

When: Loss and disappointment are a part of life—not always, and not only, but they can never be completely avoided. And sometimes, those experiences are so intense that you’ll feel as if everything else has faded away. And that’s when we need to cling to God even more.

Luke 21:33 assures us that all else WILL pass away. So why would we want to hold onto anything else, or anyone else? When this world crumbles, I want to be holding onto the eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God, the Creator of all else. So I will sing, sing, sing, to my God, my King…

I’ll Take It

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Early this spring, I remember driving around Waco. I noticed that it was 75 degrees outside, but a little cloudy. Still I said to myself, thinking about the cold and snow my family was experiencing up north, “I’ll take it.”

It’s easy to say that when it means embracing a few clouds in the sky on an otherwise gorgeous day. But I quickly realized that this should be my response to whatever God brings my way—not just in terms of weather, but also in terms of opportunities, experiences, and challenges. Whatever God allows is something He certainly plans on using to his glory.

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, lacking in nothing.”

1 Thessalonians 5:18

“Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s well for you in Christ Jesus.”

Of course, that’s every bit as hard as it sounds. And I don’t know the half of it. I haven’t been through the kinds of things that many of you have. I haven’t suffered the same losses or tragedies. But I know someone who has—God. He suffers with you. He hurts with you. He grieves with you. He weeps with you. What’s more, He watched as his own and only son suffered and died on our behalf. He grieved as Jesus looked at the world and at our sin and as he considered his great love for us and the sacrifice required to save us, and as he declared with resolve, “I wish it didn’t have to be this way, but for them, I’ll take it.”

So let’s follow his lead, shall we?

Of Sandals and Seeds

Luke 4:24, 28-30

“‘Truly I tell you,’ he continued, ‘no prophet is accepted in his hometown’…. All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.”

Matthew 10:14

“If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.”

Do you ever feel like God has given you something worthwhile to say, but the only people who really hear it are total strangers? Or maybe you feel like no one hears you at all. Well, take heart, this phenomenon is nothing new. In fact, Jesus himself faced the same thing. He made the claim in Luke 4:24 that “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” He then gave a couple of prominent examples before the town folk of Nazareth drove him out of town under the threat of death. And do you know what Jesus did? He “walked right through the crowd and went on his way” (Luke 4:30).

Now, you and I won’t likely ever be prophets, per se, but we would still be wise to follow our Lord’s example. He advised as much when he sent his disciples out on mission, saying, “If anyone will not welcome you, or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet” (Matthew 10:14). It sounds harsh, I know. But any time the disciples were forced to leave in this manner, they were leaving something behind—the seeds of the Gospel, the seeds of faith.

And those seeds are invasive. Do you remember when Jesus talked about faith the size of a mustard seed? (Matthew 17:20; Luke 17:6) Why did he choose that illustration? Was it because a mustard seed is so small? Or could it have been because mustard was an invasive species—a WEED? Have you ever had to water a weed? Provide it with nutrients? Of course not. And while we always want to plant seeds of the Gospel in good soil, the seeds of faith tend to have a mind and trajectory of their own.

Need evidence? Look no further than the book of James. This James was, contrary to what some believe, NOT James, the disciple of Jesus. Rather, it was his BROTHER! The story told in Luke 4 would lead us to believe that this James remained in Nazareth when Jesus left. He may even have joined the rest of the town folk in scorning Jesus—although I like to believe he stopped shy of the death threats.

But we can safely assume that James was not a “follower” of his brother’s early on. Nonetheless, we see that he later came to his senses and came to his savior. And he went on to write one of the most poignant books in the Bible. So it would appear that, as Jesus “went on his way” that day, he left something behind in the dirt he brushed from his sandals—SEEDS, seeds of faith and seeds of the Gospel.

Believer, don’t give up. You are a sower of seeds. You won’t always see or know the eternal outcomes of the work you are doing now. And even when you need to walk away for a time, you can rest in the hope that you may one day return to witness a harvest that you could not have dreamed or imagined. So keep sowing good seeds, and whenever you dust off your sandals, be sure you leave some of those seeds behind.

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Seasons of Lent

Lenten Blossoms
The word Lent actually means springtime—a time when all things are being reborn and made new. And yet, you’ve probably observed how many believers have traditionally equated this season with sacrifice, and sometimes even pious asceticism. If you know me well (or at all), you know that I don’t share this view. Of course, “to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). But the idea that those times and seasons must follow a liturgical calendar seems to put God in a box—and one that is frankly MUCH too small.

In all seasons, I try to embrace the freedom that I have in Christ, but God-ordained circumstances have at times interfered with that goal. Two seasons in particular come to mind. The first came when our son was about two months old. We discovered that he had a severe sensitivity to both dairy and soy products and learned that for me to continue feeding him, I had to eliminate both from my diet. Finding foods that met those requirements was extremely difficult. However, for me, making the commitment to do so was not difficult at all. And so, for the better part of a year—well, let’s just say I ate really healthfully.

That season of sacrifice ended just in time for another round of morning sickness to begin. And during pregnancy, you expect to spend a period of time eating nothing but SpaghettiOs and breakfast cereal, so I was okay with that. But when our daughter was born, she also suffered from digestive issues. This time, though, the identification process was less straightforward. There were long nights, eating experiments, and specialist visits, but no answers. At one point, we decided that her difficulties must be related to some allergy, the question was which one. So I spent about a month on an elimination diet—think “Whole 30” on steroids. I eliminated not just dairy and soy, but also eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, fish, shellfish, caffeine, and artificial colors and flavors. By now you’re asking, “What’s left?” And the answer is, “Not much.”

But you know what? God used those two seasons powerfully in my life. He showed me the depth of love that an imperfect parent can have for a child, and the depth of sacrifice that such a parent would willingly (and joyfully) endure for that beloved child. And that gave me a new lens to peer through as I read Matthew 7:11:

“If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask Him!”

How much more, indeed.

During these seasons of sacrifice, something inside of me was reborn and made new—something I wouldn’t trade for the world. So I guess, technically, you could call them seasons of Lent. And whether yours comes now or at some unexpected moment in the future, I pray that you will embrace all of the good gifts that your Heavenly Father longs to give you during that time.

Favorite Promises of God

Thirty-six. That’s how old I am today. Although, the sweet young waitress at the restaurant last night announced to all the patrons that I was there celebrating my 21st birthday. A girl after my own heart, for sure. And, while my birthday celebrations over the last couple of days have been wonderful, I personally find birthdays to be somewhat bittersweet. I can say with the Apostle Paul that in many ways, I “would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). But of course, to live is also Christ (Philippians 1:21). So where do I turn for comfort in the waiting? To the many promises of God.

A couple of weeks ago, I participated in a women’s conference where the presenters posed this question for small-group discussion: “What is your favorite promise of God?” Promise. Singular! What?! One of the speakers commented that there are some 135 promises from God in the Bible—and I’m inclined to believe there MUST be more. So how in the world could I possibly narrow them down to one favorite? Instead, I started jotting down every promise that came to mind.

Now, the ladies with me concurred that, obviously, the promise of eternal life was paramount. And of course, that’s true. But let’s for a moment take that one as a given and think about some other potential favorites. These aren’t in any particular order, and they aren’t fleshed out at all. That’s something I’ll likely do in the future. But for today, I just want to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of the good things that God has promised me (and you, by the way).

  1. God works all things together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28)
  2. God orders our steps (Proverbs 16:9; 20:24; 37:23)
  3. He has set eternity in the hearts of men (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
  4. Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
  5. God will remain faithful, He cannot deny Himself (2 Timothy 2:13)
  6. Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart (Psalm 37:4)
  7. He who goes before you will fight for you (Exodus 14:14; Deuteronomy 1:30; 3:22; 20:4)
  8. He will never leave us or forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:6-8; Hebrews 13:5)
  9. God is sovereign (Deuteronomy 10:14 and 65 other verses)
  10. God is relational (Matthew 1:23)
  11. God offers grace, forgiveness, mercy, and unconditional love (Ephesians 2:8; 1 John 1:9; Lamentations 3:22-23)
  12. He is good, loving, kind, and fair (Psalm 136:1; John 3:16; Luke 6:35; Deuteronomy 32:4)
  13. I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13)
  14. He throws open the floodgates of blessing for those who are faithful (Malachi 3:10)
  15. He who began a good work in me will be faithful to complete it (Philippians 1:6)
  16. Nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37)
  17. He is willing and able to do far more than we could ever ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20)

As you can probably deduce, this list is BY NO MEANS exhaustive. And there are probably some that you think I’ve errantly left out. So I invite you to leave a comment sharing YOUR favorite promise—or promises—of God.

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Into Egypt

Genesis 46:2-4a

“God spoke to Israel in visions of the night and said, ‘Jacob, Jacob.’ And he said,
‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you a great nation there. I will go down with you to Egypt…’”

Surely I’ve read this passage before, but I guess I never read it closely enough to see the irony of it. God tells Jacob not to be afraid to go down to Egypt, because that is where God will make him a great nation. He also promises to go with Jacob.

Now, this instruction comes during the famine and the time of Joseph’s power directly under Pharaoh. But you may also know that Egypt is where the Israelites are later made slaves. It is from there that Moses is called to “deliver” God’s people from the Egyptians and their tyranny. And yet, knowing that all of that is to come, God tells Jacob not to be afraid, for God himself would go with him.

Do you see what this means? It means that, if we are obeying God’s call and direction in our lives, then we don’t need to be afraid of the outcome, even if it is unfavorable in some ways. It is still God’s will and plan, working all things together for good for those who love him.

Here’s a kind of off-the-wall illustration, but I think it will make this scripture stick. I’ve wanted for some time to donate one of my kidneys. You’re asking why, and honestly, that is a topic for another post. What is important now is a concern that a friend brought up, namely, “what if you donate a kidney now and then someone close to you needs one someday?”

My answer was and is that God knows whether or not someone close to me will need a kidney transplant someday. He also knows whether or not another one will be available at that time. Even if the answers are yes and no, respectively, if God calls me to donate a kidney to someone who needs it NOW, then I don’t need to fear the scenarios that may play out in the future. God is with me now, and He’ll be with me then. And He will fulfill his promises, for He is faithful. Our job is to discern God’s will and obey (easier said than done, I know). It is His job to accompany us into our Egypt, and to supply all of our needs once we get there, according to His riches and glory.

May you, and may we, go where He sends us without fear.

Through Eyes of Compassion: Leah

The story of Jacob’s family represents the epitome of dysfunction. You almost have to read it for yourself (Genesis 29:31 – 30:24), but the gist of it is that Jacob’s wives—Leah and Rachel—along with the servants of each woman, are for years engaged in a fertility contest of sorts. They try to one up each other by any means possible or necessary. Why?

Well it all goes back to the fact that Leah was Jacob’s first wife, but not his first choice. And while Leah was fertile, she was not loved by her husband. She spent years trying to earn his favor and his love by bearing him one son after another—six sons in all. We might, at first glance, be tempted to judge Leah for attempting to manipulate Jacob into loving her. We might condemn her for foolishly attempting to secure Jacob’s affections through childbearing. But recently, God gave me fresh eyes to see this woman.

Interestingly, Leah means tired, or weary. What a fitting name for someone who has tried so hard and so long to be enough for her husband—to be good enough, beautiful enough, fruitful enough. Leah would never earn Jacob’s love. But truly, one must consider whether love that is “earned” is really love at all. Isn’t that what makes God’s love so profound, after all—that we could never earn it ourselves?

So now, when I see Leah, I see her heart—a heart that, very simply, is ever longing for love. Sadly, she kept looking for it in the wrong place. And I wondered, if I had been Leah’s friend, how would I have prayed for her? Seeing her in this new light, I think I would have prayed something like this:

Lord God,

Only you know the depth of your love for Leah.
Only you know how priceless she is to you—
so priceless that you would sacrifice your beloved son to ransom and redeem her soul.
She’s been looking for love in all the wrong places,
looking for significance outside of your will,
and trying so hard to be enough apart from you.
Help her to see that you are enough for her…and that, in you, she is enough.
No matter what the world tells her, she is loved by you.
Bring her peace and contentment in the knowledge of this
profound and inexplicable love.

In Christ’s name and for His sake,

Amen.

 If you recognize Leah in someone you know, feel free to pray these words over her (or him, as the case may be). If you recognize her in yourself, please accept them as my prayer for you. And be blessed.

Higher Aspirations

There was a popular song that got a lot of attention last year. I heard it for the first, second, and third times on various morning shows on which the band (The Wanted) was performing. And it was catchy. It was. I bought it, I listen to it, and often I sing along. But if I really listen to the lyrics, I find myself challenged. They read:

 “When my time is over, lying in my grave
Written on my tombstone, I want it to say,
‘This man was a legend, a legend of his time.
When he was at a party, the party never died.’”

Really? You want that to be your legacy? That you were the life of the party? I feel like we can do better. We can hope for more. We can aspire to more. If I could choose what I would be remembered for, the list would look something like this:

 

  • Loving God
  • Loving my family
  • Serving others
  • Inspiring others
  • Caring for and giving to those in need
  • Forgiving those who have wronged me
  • Making a difference in people’s lives

 

I could go on, but it would take a long time for me to get far enough on the list that I would add “being the life of the party” to it. I guess what I’m trying to say is that we all have a purpose on this earth. And I think that for each of us, that purpose is big and meaningful. It will look different for you than it will for me. And sometimes, each of us may feel unsure about what that purpose is. But I think that, if we are going to find that purpose, we need to have higher aspirations than the world has for us. We must refuse to settle for anything less than our life’s calling. With New Year’s upon us, now is a great time to reflect on what having higher aspirations might look like for YOU. And then make your resolutions accordingly. I know I will.

Happy New Year, everyone!