en COURAGE ment

33 “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

John 16:33 (NIV)

Although the Bible reminds us that we shall all live through troubles in this world, many Christians feel that we should be immune to frightening and painful experiences. In our heads we accept that bad things happen to good people; in our hearts we feel exempt until we come face to face with terror or heartache.

Times such as these test our faith and call for courage.

While we may think of courage as fearlessness or daring, more fitting synonyms might be determination and endurance.

In the quote above Jesus urges his followers to “take heart.” When I looked up this phrase in a thesaurus, one of the optional phrases was, “Look up!”

How appropriate!

When discouraged by circumstances, we can look up to our God and Savior and have peace despite our troubles.

Perhaps the Amplified Bible says it best:

For God did not give us a spirit of timidity or cowardice or fear, but [He has given us a spirit] of power and of love and of sound judgment and personal discipline [abilities that result in a calm, well-balanced mind and self-control].

2 Timothy 1:7 (Amplified Bible)

As the family of God we must cling to His Word.

19 Encourage each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your hearts to the Lord. 20 Always give thanks to God the Father for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Ephesians 5:19-20 (ERV)

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Details, details!

Throughout history when God’s people have had to endure injustice and hardships, we have clung to the promise that whatever happens is part of God’s plan for our good and His glory. The Bible reminds us that God, who has an eternal perspective, is refining us for His purpose.

However, when we are in the midst of disappointment and confusion, how can we trust that what is happening is really part of God’s plan, and not the result of random events? The big picture result may be God’s will, but what if He isn’t paying much attention to the nitty gritty details of my life?

The Bible is pretty clear about how much our Creator cares about the minutia in the lives of His creations.

29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Matthew 10:29-31 (ESV)

It seems that God isn’t the sort of creative artist who is content to splash color on a canvas in hopes of a pleasing result. He’s more like the engineer who selects and combines his materials with great care for a specific purpose.

12-13 Friends, when life gets really difficult, don’t jump to the conclusion that God isn’t on the job. Instead, be glad that you are in the very thick of what Christ experienced. This is a spiritual refining process, with glory just around the corner.

1 Peter 4:11-13 (MSG)

Accepting that the ordeals of the moment are part of His refining process, I must ask myself what I am being honed and prepared for. How am I going to be used?

The possibilities fill me with a combination of hope and trepidation.

It’s hard to believe that our great Creator wants to use an ordinary person like me. However, if He cares about the very hairs on my head, strands which are constantly shed and renewed, and about the humblest of His creatures, then He might have plans for me, too.

Looked at from this perspective, our troubling times don’t seem quite so overwhelming. I can stop resisting and complaining and try to perceive how I’m being shaped and refined.

The grinding process of being honed may be unpleasant, but how exciting to contemplate becoming sharper and more useful to God.

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Trusting when it makes no sense

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,

    and do not lean on your own understanding.

Proverbs 3:5

“What’s going on?”

“Why isn’t God answering my prayers?”

“How can a loving God let this happen?”

Even mature Christians, those with strong faith, ask those questions from time to time. We may believe with all our hearts that God has a loving plan for each of His children, but when deceit, destruction, and death come into our lives, we can’t see how they fit into such a pattern.

How can we accept that painful experiences are merely the dark threads in a beautiful tapestry woven for our benefit?

We can try to make sense of it by comparing ourselves to little children who are incapable of understanding why loving parents would make them take evil-tasting medicine or endure painful medical treatments.

They are usually reassured that their fathers and mothers are acting for their good and that they will understand and thank them, one day.

We hope and pray that understanding and thanksgiving will be true for us, as well. And the sooner, the better.

In some situations we may be more like beloved pets who fight against necessary visits to the vet. Even those who require life-saving treatments will sometimes struggle to bite the doctor’s healing hands. The pet may be restored to health and never have the slightest inkling of why it went through painful procedures.

We may never understand the chaos of this past year, not until we see our Savior face to face and hear His words of love and life.

It isn’t necessary for a suffering child or a wounded pet to understand the science behind their treatments, or how the healing process works. However, to get the best results from the process, it is necessary for them to stop resisting and trust.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
    and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
    and he will make straight your paths.
Be not wise in your own eyes;
    fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.
It will be healing to your flesh
    and refreshment to your bones.

Proverbs 3:5-8

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A Hopeful New Year

With all the turmoil, how many took notice that 2020 was a leap year?

In less eventful times, leap years are usually more frequently commented upon. As this particularly painful leap year comes to a close, most of us are ready to leap off of it and into the New Year, shaking off the dust of this past 366 days as quickly as possible.

Although many fear the unknown future, just about everyone hopes that 2021 will be better.

If we have hope, we can face uncertainties. Without hope we fall into despair.

Today as we step into our new year, we must cling to the promises of God.

 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.

Hebrews 10:23 (KJV)

Putting our faith, our trust, in people or institutions, or even in our own abilities, is a recipe for disappointment.

For every Christian, this year’s resolution should be to strengthen our trust God, through prayer, fellowship with other believers, and by studying His Word.

Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.

Romans 12:12 (ESV)

Best wishes for a Happy, Hopeful New Year!

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Merry Christmas!

I hope you are having a blessed Christmas Day despite the restrictions and divisions this year has brought.

I was looking back on previous Christmases and came across the following post from 2014:

Does your Christmas honor Christ, or is the focus nostalgia for your own childhood?

charlie brown

I heard of a church where the worship service on the third Sunday of Advent was a performance of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” based upon that classic television  special. The sanctuary was full of the family and friends of the cast members and everyone had a rollicking good time.

I suppose the Linus character’s scripture reading of the Christmas narrative was what made the pastor and worship committee of this congregation feel this was appropriate for the worship service, rather than presenting it as an entertainment at a separate time. I don’t know what prompted this particular church to substitute an exercise in nostalgia for a time spent worshiping the Savior, but it fits with the current trends in our culture.

We’ve all bemoaned the commercialization of the Christmas observance, but beyond that there is a growing trivialization of this Holy Day, even among believers. Too often the focus of the Yuletide celebration is romantic sentimentality or a nostalgic yearning for the “magical” feelings from childhood. Both of these responses are a form of self-worship.

The Christian church has two supreme holy days set apart for us to recognize God’s sacrificial gift when He stepped into the confines of our human experience and  took on the sins of us all by dying an excruciating death for our salvation; two days dedicated to giving thanks for His great mercy and His amazing grace.

Always on the lookout to find the blessings in even the most uncomfortable situations, I wonder if being kept from our usual celebrations of the season this year might possibly cause us to focus on the One whom we are celebrating.

My prayer is for each of us to find a deeper joy in this Christmas and that we may carry it forward into a spirit-filled New Year.

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Let us gather together

Most everyone agrees that this has been an unusual and difficult year. For those of us who are active church members, the shut-downs and social distancing have been especially hard to take. We miss the fellowship of corporate worship, being active in local ministries, and perhaps especially the small group gatherings. In times of testing, we need one another to keep our faith strong.

If you have been suffering because you can’t meet with your regular Bible study group, I would like to invite you to drop in on the weekly study hosted by my fictional creation, octogenarian Matilda Thistlethwaite.

Step into her parlor, plop yourself down on an overstuffed chair, and see if you recognize any of these women as they study God’s word together.

Welcome to Mrs. Thistlethwaite’s cozy cottage. This evening Tillie is hosting a home Bible study for a group of ladies from her church. You can curl up on the cushioned window seat beside Edgar, Tillie’s pet tortoise, and listen in:

“Keep silent! Cover your head! Don’t tell men what to do! That Paul was such a male chauvinist!” Jesslyn Anderson said. “That’s the sort of garbage that gives Christianity a bad name.”

Jesslyn, a single social worker in her late twenties, was a newcomer to the women’s Bible study and a new Christian.

Tillie just smiled, giving the other women an opportunity to offer their own opinions, before addressing Jesslyn’s comments.

When Tillie invited the young woman to join this group, she’d hoped Jesslyn’s outspoken nature would add some spice to the discussions and she wasn’t disappointed.

Carol Boles, married to the pastor of Tillie’s church, put her coffee cup on the table, pulled the hem of her skirt over her knees, and prepared to defend the Apostle.

“The words of Scripture are not garbage. As it says in Second Timothy 3:16, everything in the Scriptures is useful for teaching and showing us how to live. Saint Paul was inspired by God, so we must do as he says,” Carol said.

“Well, I’m not wearing a hat, a scarf… or a burqa to church!” Jesslyn insisted. “These verses sound more Muslim than Christian.”

Edith Boles, Carol’s ninety-seven-year-old mother-in-law, who had been dozing in a cozy chair with Tillie’s cat, Agatha, on her lap, jerked awake. “Moslems? Where?”

“It’s alright, Mother Boles,” Carol soothed, leaning over and patting her arm.

“And another thing,” Jesslyn said, turning pages in her Bible. “Here in First Corinthians he says, ‘If there is something they want to know, women can ask their husbands when they get home. It is disgraceful for women to speak in church.’ What’s that, if not misogyny?”

Tillie got up to pass the basket of cranberry scones around. Standing in the middle of the room, she gently took control of the conversation.

“Many theologians agree that the instructions for the churches in Ephesus and Corinth reflect guidance specific to the culture of the early church. When studying the Bible, it is important to remember context, including who is being addressed, the circumstances, and most importantly, the spiritual meaning.

“Whenever I think about some of the controversial passages, like these we’ve been discussing, I look for the spiritual lesson. After everything that is cultural, or material, falls away, I usually find the controversy or apparent contradiction disappears, too. Now, what do we think is the spiritual lesson Paul is trying to give the leaders of the early church here?”

“He says in other verses that in Christ there is neither male nor female, doesn’t he?” Edina Horvath, a rumpled middle-aged woman in stained and mismatched clothing, asked, lifting an old, brown fedora and scratching her frowzy head.

Edina and Tillie had met when Tillie was helping to serve one of the community meals for the needy. Edina had responded to Tillie’s genuine friendliness and respect and they’d become friends. Tillie overlooked Edina’s rough, sometimes smelly, exterior and discovered a surprisingly insightful woman.

“So, does the important part of this message have to do with mutual respect?” Beverly Washington, the church’s long-time secretary asked. In her late forties, slim and dark-skinned, Beverly was unmarried and devoted to her church family.

“It seems like mutual respect is a big theme in Paul’s writing,” Cathy Hong said. Cathy had retired from teaching the same year as Tillie. They were long-time friends and contemporaries, although Cathy, a Chinese-American, had come to Christ later in life.

“But, what about all that business about the husband being the head of the family and how wives must obey them?” Jesslyn asked. “That doesn’t seem too respectful of the wife.”

“Those verses are always being quoted out of context,” Linda Watson, a late-middle-aged accountant and the church treasurer, said. “You only get the whole picture when you read the rest, where the husband is told to love his wife as Christ loved the church. Christ died, painfully, for the church, remember. That puts a huge burden on a husband to sacrifice for his wife.”

“I agree,” said Ruth Fitzgerald, Linda’s best friend, another long-time church member. “Although Ephesians 5:24 tells wives to always put their husband first, as the church puts Christ first, the husband is to act toward his wife as Christ did towards the church. It’s a two-way street.”

“And Colossians 3:19 says a husband must love his wife and not abuse her,” Carol added.

There was a knock at the door and Tillie went out to see who was there.

“Hi, come on in, Opal,” she said, taking the bag of small jars of honey her friend carried. “You are just in time to weigh in on the place of women in the church and home.”

“A woman’s place is wherever she wants it to be, in my opinion,” Opal said, striding into the parlor, as though illustrating her statement.

“Ladies, I’d like you to meet my good friend, Opal Pyle. She’s stopped by to deliver delicious, golden honey from her very own hives,” Tillie said, holding up a sparkling jar.

“Let’s gather around the table and I’ll open a jar or two and you can all taste the honey. I think we’ve still got enough scones to go around,” Tillie said, leading the group into the dining room.

Although still holding differing opinions on Paul’s teachings, the ladies were soon in full agreement about the place of honey on scones.

Tillamook Tillie series of Christian fiction by J.B. Hawker

I hope you enjoyed this brief holiday break from the realities of 2020 and that it reminded you of the importance of gathering, even virtually, with our fellow believers.

And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.

Hebrews 10:25 (NLT)

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“Che sera sera” Christians

See no evil, hear no evil…

In these chaotic times it is tempting to simply tune out the injustice and outrage all around us. We hope that if we simply keep our heads down and mind our own business this will all blow over. After all, God is in control, so why should we get involved, right?

In the mid-fifties there was a hit song by Doris Day called “Che Sera Sera” which is Italian for “whatever will be, will be.” It was a lovely tune whose fatalistic lyrics said that we can’t know the future, so just let it be. Should those of us who believe that God is in control take it as our theme song?

Even a quick skim of the Bible shows how wrong that would be. Throughout Scripture we are given examples of God using individuals to bring about His perfect will. He chose the most unlikely individuals to carry out His plans. If any of these had refused to be used, God’s plan would still have been fulfilled, it’s true. However, those who refused would have been denied His blessings.

Every Christian should be on the lookout for ways to be used of God, especially in turbulent times. In order to be available, we must be aware and informed.

You may not feel like a potential hero of the faith, but it appears to be God’s pleasure to use the most unlikely tools. He has all the power and all we need to bring to the table is our willingness to be used by Him.

“What will be, will be,” is absolutely true, but what joy to be part of the process!

For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Luke 1:37

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Who do you trust?

11 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.
3 What can an honest person do
    when everything crumbles?”

The Lord is sitting
in his sacred temple
    on his throne in heaven.
He knows everything we do
    because he sees us all.
5 The Lord tests honest people,
but despises those
    who are cruel
    and love violence.

He will send fiery coals
and flaming sulfur
    down on the wicked,
and they will drink nothing
    but a scorching wind.

The Lord always does right
    and wants justice done.
    Everyone who does right
    will see his face.

Psalm 11 (CEV)

The book of Psalms can be a comfort and an encouragement in difficult times, especially those Psalms written by King David to inspire his people. His words were especially effective because the people were aware of his past struggles and his relationship with God.

We tend to trust words when we see them lived out. When a person’s words are in conflict with their actions, we meet them with skepticism. Hence the adage, “Actions speak louder than words.”

Other than our own personal witness, the next best proof of character may be found in the testimony of others who have proven themselves to be trustworthy.

With widespread distrust of the modern media and of many political figures, who can we trust in these turbulent times? When even the witness of our own eyes can be so easily manipulated, this question becomes even more important.

I believe the answer can be found in Scripture.

Men who sacrificed everything to record God’s message have been proven trustworthy over the centuries, with scientists and archeologists uncovering more physical evidence supporting even the most incredible claims of the Old and New Testaments. These are people whose actions matched their words.

When we are confused and frightened by circumstances, we can turn to the promises of God and never be dismayed, if we remember this:

The Lord always does right
    and wants justice done.
    Everyone who does right
    will see his face.

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There is always a choice

Like many of you, I experienced a very different Thanksgiving this week. Rather than family members crowded around the dinner table, we were huddling over video screens as we made the most of technology to share the day.

I suppose these video chat services should be high on our list of blessings for which we give thanks but it is hard not to compare a virtual visit with the real thing. In fact, every time we compare our own circumstances with those we might prefer, we make an active choice for dissatisfaction.

Everything about this year lends itself all too easily to comparisons to previous years, as well as to worries about just how we will get through whatever lies ahead.

As always, the Scriptures have encouraging words for such a time as this.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 … and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Matthew 6:25,27, 31-34 (NRSV)

As we move into the Christmas season, let’s make a decision to celebrate Christ’s birth in a new way, with no comparisons to years gone by. Let’s choose to find the joy in this season; joy and gratitude for God’s great gift of love that does not depend upon traditions or circumstances.

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Thanksgiving in the year 2020

When Thanksgiving rolls around, we often hear these words from 1 Thessalonians, “in everything give thanks.” While seasonally appropriate, these words present a challenge.

How do we give thanks in the midst of turmoil, chaos, or heartache?

For many years I held to the view that these words of the Apostle Paul meant that we should be thankful during difficulties because God will help us get through them. While that is true, the Scripture goes far beyond that to get to the heart of the nature of God.

We’ve all heard the skeptics say that if God is all-powerful, He can’t also be all-loving and righteous while still allowing bad things to happen to good people. So, either He isn’t able to prevent our problems or He must not care about us.

Many modern Christians subscribe to the idea that God is all about love, but after He set the world in motion, He has a sort of hands-off policy. When the bad times happen, He sympathizes with us and comforts us with the knowledge that things will be better in Heaven.

I’ve found that a thoughtful reading of Paul’s full text presents a different perspective (emphasis mine):

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

1 Thessalonians 5:18 (NRSV)

The will of God is for us to rejoice always, pray without ceasing and give thanks, yes. But perhaps all circumstances are also His will for us.

God is all-powerful. That should go without saying as an absolute requirement to be God. This means that everything we encounter in this life, good and bad, has been allowed by Him. He could have stopped the difficult and the painful, but He chose not to. Not because He doesn’t love us, but because He does.

28 We know that all things work together for good[a] for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Romans 8:28 (NRSV)

Struggles, hardships, and discipline are seldom enjoyable, but they are undeniably character building. A loving parent may wish to spare their child from these experiences, but doing so can result in a weak, selfish, and immature adult. A wise loving parent must make difficult decisions when choosing when to protect their child.

When making your list of blessings for your Thanksgiving prayer next week, remember God’s promises, and you may be able to be thankful even for this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year of 2020.

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