Perfectly imperfect

After feeling I’d conquered the step aerobics on my basic Wii Fit system, I decided to add the balance board riser attachment to get a better workout. 

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I hadn’t taken into account that the Wii Fit program is calibrated to work with the balance board alone and the riser’s extra height would change my timing. I, also, hadn’t realized just how much I was relying on the feedback from the game system. When my timing is just right, I am rewarded with PERFECT flashing on the screen and a higher score for each step. If I’m slightly off, I get a disappointing OK. If my rhythm is completely off, I get nothing.

After adding the higher step to my routine, I struggled to achieve all those perfect marks and it frustrated me.  I was discouraged until it dawned on me that I was getting the same aerobic exercise whether I got any score, at all. I laughed to think of all the pressure I had been putting on myself just to see the word perfect. My goal was to get exercise for my health and I was achieving that, whether I was perfect or not. I had gotten caught up in the need to be perfect and lost sight of my goal. I needed to remember that perfection is not a realistic standard.

Every one of the millions of people on earth is unique, each one is a miracle, and not one is perfect.

When we set unreasonable demands on ourselves, they tend to carry over onto our demands of others. It makes us less compassionate, less forgiving, less loving.

We should all strive to make the most of our gifts, talents, and opportunities; to do the best we can without the fear of failing to reach perfection.  When we abandon the quest for perfect, we become free to find joy in our best efforts.

Perfection exits only in God’s love, freely given.   Let go of perfect in your own life and trust in God’s perfect love. 

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

1 John 4:18

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Be a deer

As the deer pants for streams of water,

    so my soul pants for you, my God.

Psalm 42:1 (NIV)

This familiar verse has been the inspiration for some of my favorite hymns and praise songs, but only recently did I pause to think about how desperately a deer needs to find those streams. The Holy Land is largely arid, rather like California in many respects. Finding flowing water can be difficult, especially after a long, dry summer.

I picture the deer, frantic for a drink, its sides heaving as in pants in the heat of the day, and its relief at finding a bubbling brook to slake its thirst.

Most of us have never known this kind of thirst. When we want a drink, our biggest challenge is deciding whether to settle for tap water or opt for a more refreshing beverage. We don’t pant for water.

Near my home in Northern California fruit and nut trees are in many neighborhood yards. It is common to see over-ripe apples, citrus fruits, and even pomegranates clinging to the branches or rotting beneath the trees. Sidewalks beneath overhanging limbs are sometimes covered with the shells and meats of ripe walnuts, pecans, or almonds which have been crushed underfoot.

The same people who pay high prices for these fruits and nuts in the grocery stores cannot be bothered to gather them. We take our bounty for granted.

It occurs to me that while I’m totally dependent upon the grace of God and yearn for a closer relationship with Him, I can’t honestly claim that “my soul pants for…my God,” not in the way the deer gasps for life-giving water.

How odd, when I consider that the deer is merely concerned with daily survival while my relationship with God determines my eternity.

I’m afraid I’ve been taking God’s abundant love and grace for granted, expecting it to be on tap whenever I need Him.

In my childhood when my grandmother wanted a favor she would preface her request with, “Be a dear.” As in, “Jonna, be a dear and bring me my sweater.”

I always tried to please her, of course, but now I think it may be time for me to be a deer, instead, as I recognize how desperately I need God’s presence every day.

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Time out!

Along with the promise of eternal paradise after we die, Christians enjoy rich blessings in this life.

As is so often the case, there is a catch; these blessings come with responsibilities. God’s people are expected to make a difference while on this earth. In order to do that, we must be aware of what is going on around us.

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

Matthew 5:13 (NIV)

This awareness comes with a price, however. It is all too easy to be pulled so deeply into the cares of our world that we grow distant from God. We can lose touch with His spiritual perspective. Anxiety and fear are sure warning signs that we are moving in that direction.

When this happens, we need to call a time out.

It isn’t enough to simply tune out the news and social media, or drop out of our worldly activities and retreat to the wilderness. We must use our Time Out to renew and restore our focus on God.

We must make a purposeful plan of action and replace the time we’ve been spending in keeping up with the latest cultural events with time spent in God’s Word. The Bible has many examples of God’s people withdrawing in order to prepare to be used of God.

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Romans 12:2 (NIV)

You can use the Internet to find one of the many excellent Bible study guides available. Some are completely free. Or open that Study Bible collecting dust on your bookshelf. Sound Christian resources abound for little or no cost. You might ask your pastor to suggest one.

I recommend spending 30 minutes a day in the Book of Romans.

Whatever you choose, set aside a definite time each day, begin by praying for the Lord to open your mind and heart, then read the passage, pray for understanding, read it again, and then consider how it applies to your life.

After a few days, weeks, or even months, you will be refreshed, recharged, and ready to let your life shine.

You are the light of the world.

Matthew 5:14 (NIV)

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Why should we be surprised?

Facing the unexpected is almost always a challenge. Even happy surprises can sometimes throw us off balance, so it is no wonder the past year has us feeling shaken and insecure. No one expected a virus to knock the world cockeyed for an entire year, or for many people to respond by trying to take advantage of the situation.

HOWEVER, should we have been surprised? Really? Weren’t we warned?

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible [people], who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth.

2 Timothy 3:1-7 (NIV)

When people behave badly, we often cry, “How could they do that?” We are dismayed when those we have trusted fail to behave as we’d hoped. It is easy to become discouraged and hopeless.

The Apostle Paul’s dire warning to Timothy is only part of the message to God’s people. We can take heart in the terrible times when people behave as Paul describes, because we have Christ’s own words to reassure us.

 “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 16:32-33 (NIV)

Brothers and sisters, if we are to persevere, it is important to become grounded in the full Scriptures. God provided His Word for just such a time as this.

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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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