Joy Out of Despair

A while back I had the joy of leading my Bible study group since our leader was out of town. The lesson was from 1 Samuel 1. Many of us who were brought up in church are quite familiar with the story of Hannah. She was barren, prayed for a son, and God answered. Many times in our study we spend most of the time focusing on the main character of the story. Usually this would be Hannah. In reality, however, the primary character is God. In my study, I focused on the character of God and how he responds to someone in great distress and need.

This story takes place in a time when polygamy was the norm. This was not God’s perfect plan, but the culture embraced it. And, it always made life messy for everyone. Hannah’s husband had two wives. The other wife, Peninnah, had children, Hannah had none. It appears that Peninnah’s main goal in life was to make life miserable, even unbearable for Hannah. She wanted to crush her.

The Message, I Samuel 1:6, reveals the true environment for Hannah, “But her rival wife taunted her cruelly, rubbing it in and never letting her forget that God had not given her children. This went on year after year.” All of this finally took its toll on Hannah. She stopped eating. She was despondent. She wept. She was crushed. At least she felt crushed. But, she wasn’t.

She went to the sanctuary of the Lord and she cried out to God in prayer. “In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the Lord.” (v 10, NIV) I read this verse in 13 translations and this is what I found about her emotional and physical condition:

  • She was in deep anguish
  • She was in bitterness of soul
  • She was deeply hurt
  • She was crushed in soul
  • She was in great distress
  • She was resentful
  • She was sad
  • She cried bitterly
  • She was brokenhearted
  • She was bold enough to ask for something big.

This was severe hurting and she did severe crying! She was in excruciating emotional pain. She came as she was. She was even vulnerable enough for Eli, the priest to see her in this condition. She was desperate. She was broken. What did God do? He heard, He comforted, He restored, He understood, He answered. He blessed. He restored her physically and emotionally. Verse 18, 19 says, “She went on her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast. Early the next morning they arose and worshiped before the Lord.”

Four weeks ago I found myself in the midst of all the emotions that Hannah experienced. My despair was different from hers, but every bit as intense. My sister died. She lost her battle with cancer. Kimberly was 6 years younger than me and what joy came to my life when she was born! We loved each other deeply. We valued this special relationship and honored each other in ways that allowed us to nurture one another in the good times of life and in the bad times of life. We mothered each other, we were best friends, we were blood sisters, but more than that, we were soul sisters. We understood each other. We could be real with each other. We accepted each other even though we were very different.

SO many gifts received through this amazing woman! My loss is deep. My hurt is deep. My grief is deep.

I am greatly blessed to have family and friends who understand this deep agony. None of them have the attitude of, “Get over it.” They let me talk. They let me feel. They let me cry. They check on me. They pray for me. Oh, how this helps! God is using so many to help me walk this journey.

Even though these precious ones are helping me walk this journey, I know that no one can comfort me in those deepest places where the deepest pain resides in my soul like Jesus. He knows every little thing about me. He knows what each pain is connected to. He has perfect understanding of all the inward workings of my heart and soul. He knows how to give me the comfort, restoration and healing that needs to ultimately come. He is present. I must be aware of that Holy Presence and spend lots of time resting in that place.

What are the results of going to God in our brokenness, pain, and desperation? What happens when we come to him with sobs of grief and hurt and pure honesty? It takes us to a deeper place of knowing God. It takes us to a deeper place of trusting God. It takes us to a place of humility. It takes us to a deeper place of surrender. It takes us to a deeper place of worship. It takes us to a place of hope and healing.

We are always welcomed into God’s presence just as we are. These words penned by David Crowder in the song “Come As You Are” express this place so well.

Come out of sadness from wherever you’ve been
Come broken-hearted, let rescue begin
Come find your mercy, oh sinner come kneel
Earth has no sorrow that heaven can’t heal.

There’s joy for the morning
Oh sinner be still Earth has no sorrow
That heaven can’t heal.

My sister found Heaven’s perfect joy and healing when she took her final breath here on Earth and went safely Home to live forever with her Beloved Jesus. For us still here, we can be assured that mourning doesn’t last forever. It is for a season. There is an ebb and flow to this time of suffering. The time of tears will be further and further apart. I have faith and hope because of the Words of Life that I find in the promises of scripture and because of the One I’ve put my trust in.

“You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever!” David’s words in Psalm 30:11-12. These are words for me . . . and perhaps for you today!

The Two Most Important Colors of Christmas

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Two years ago we bought a new Christmas tree. Our new house needed a slim-line tree since our living area is smaller. We found the perfect one for the space we have. Since it was a new tree, I decided to get new ornaments. The colors I went with were white and red. For my decorating taste, there is something elegant about the white and red balls among the white lights. I am an early riser which means I get to sit in my comfy chair, turn on the gas logs, and enjoy the beauty of this lighted Christmas tree.

I decorated with white and red because it is what I like. It comes from a preference. I didn’t choose those colors because of anything spiritual. However, God can use all kinds of things to get our gaze closer upon Him. If there’s anytime our gaze needs to be more on Him, and less on ourselves, it’s Christmas. The colors white and red can’t help but draw me more into an emotional, joy-filled place of praise because of what these colors represent spiritually. These two colors symbolize what Christmas is all about. They remind me of who Jesus is and what He did for me and all peoples of the world.

The color white expresses the purity, perfection, and holiness of God. Jesus is the exact representation of His Father. The prophet John tells us in John 1 that Jesus is full of grace, truth, and light. This grace, truth, and light was born so we could experience life as we’ve never known it before.

But, red had to happen in order for us to have life as God intends. Red in the Bible symbolizes blood. Before Jesus’ birth, a perfect lamb without blemish had to be sacrificed in order to approach God. Now, that is no longer necessary because Jesus – the perfect Lamb of God – was born. He shed blood that led to death. It’s why He was born. Jesus was born to die. The good News is – that wasn’t the end of the story – Jesus rose from the dead. He conquered death so that man can really live here on earth and eternally in heaven.

Trusting Jesus as a Christ-follower doesn’t mean we don’t have problems, but it means He is with us guiding us, directing us, strengthening us, loving us, embracing us, providing for us, transforming us, preparing us to one day see Him face to face.

Let us not miss seeing Jesus during this special time of the year when we celebrate the most amazing and spectacular birth that ever took place. He shows up in all kinds of fascinating ways. May we take time today to ponder what He’s doing in our lives that draw our gaze more directly upon Him, the perfect lover of our souls.

How do you celebrate the birth of the Lamb of God? What will you give Him this Christmas?

 

What can I give Him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;

If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;

Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

(From In the Bleak Midwinter by Christina Rossetti)

Developing a Heart that Sings When Thanksgiving is Hard

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Reflecting on the time spent celebrating the holiday we call Thanksgiving fills my heart to overflowing. There’s nothing sweeter than hearing the laughter and playful spirit of four children, ages 21 months to eight years old. There’s nothing dearer to a mother’s heart than having her children and their families gathered around the table for a meal where love and unity is evident. What totally amazes me is that even though I get to see three of these grandchildren at least once a week, I still couldn’t wait for their grand entrance to Mimi’s house on Thanksgiving Day, 2016. These children bring contagious joy.

That day thanks came easy. However, there are many days that giving thanks is not easy. Many who celebrated Thanksgiving were not able to utter words of gratefulness because their hearts were breaking due to painful, difficult circumstances. I don’t have to look far to see those who are in desperate places in their own health or the health of family members, in marriages, in struggles with children, in the lack of basic necessities of life. There are emotional needs that can cause intense pain: depression, fear, anxiety, uncertainty. I know at any time one or many of those things can knock unexpectedly at my door. I know because I’ve been there before. I know because we live in a broken and fallen world where we never know what tomorrow brings.

Can we ever prepare for the unexpected knocks of hardship and difficulty – even the tragic ones? I doubt totally. I believe, however, there are things we can all store up that will help us be more prepared when life takes a hard turn.

We begin with what we know about God: His goodness, His love, His redemption through Jesus Christ, His faithfulness, His provision (little or plenty). The best and perfect tool we have to know Him is the written word. It tells of His works. It tells of His character which is what we must hold onto when we are knocked down.

As I think of the power of the Word I can’t help but think of the movie we watched a few weeks ago: “The Insanity of God.” It tells the stories of many who live in places in the world where people are persecuted for their faith. Many do not have access to a Bible. Those who do know their lives may be in danger simply because of this. One man in Russia, before the fall of communism, owned a Bible, read it for himself, then read it to his children, then others gathered to hear these precious words until the house church reached 150.

News of the house church reached local officials. He was imprisoned 17 years with 1500 hardened criminals for His faith. He was 1000 miles from his family. Dimitri, however, had established habits early on in his life that would carry him through days of horrendous suffering. The Word became embedded in Him because He spent time reading it over and over. He read it out loud to others. He preached it to others. The reading of it put a song in his heart. It made him strong. It gave him a supernatural courage. It built spiritual muscle. The two habits he had learned from a believing father and a believing grandfather, carried him and sustained him. The habits were a steadfast reading and breathing in of the Word of God and singing to Him.

Those two habits didn’t stop during those 17 years of horrible imprisonment. Whenever Dimitri found any type of writing material – a scrap of paper, something with which to write – he would write down scriptures he remembered. Then, he would stick that paper high up on one of the four tall concrete pillars in his cell, which were always moist. Guards would see them, read them, tear them to pieces, and then beat him. The other habit he’d learned from his disciplers (father, grandfather) was singing to Jesus every morning. Upon wakening, he’d look to the east, raise his hands in worship and sing out to God. He did this singing every morning like clock work. The prisoners laughed and did everything in their power to drown out his singing.

The guards came up with a plan to break him. They paraded a woman prisoner, dressed like his wife past his cell. Of course, he believed it was his wife. They told him she was his wife. He heard her cries for three long days. Finally, he said, “This is too much. I can’t stand it. You win. I’ll sign whatever document you bring.” But, the next morning when the document was brought before him to sign, where he would be renouncing his faith and give in, he boldly said he would not do it. God let him know during the night that his wife and children were safe at home. Two weeks later, after writing and posting another scripture, the guards beat him, and promised he would be facing death in just moments. When being drug out, all prisoners lifted their hands toward the east and began singing the songs to God that they’d heard him sing all those years. Dimitri was released.

Even when times are hard and life is dark and gray, we can stand strong, we can kneel strong, we can be on our face strong, we can sing strong, we can give a strong word of thanks because of the love that God sings over us everyday in spite of our circumstances. Let us do whatever it takes to be steadfast in the daily taking in of the Word of God. There is a reward: It develops a heart that sings.

 

 

 

 

Wonder – Taking the Step from Ordinary to Extraordinary

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A couple of weeks ago we had workers in our backyard putting in a patio. It just so happened that I kept our four year old granddaughter the day the construction began. The workers were where Lyla could watch from our bay window. I had no idea she would be so captivated by the work in progress. First she came running and told me she’d waved at one of the workers and that he waved back. She was delighted. Her eyes were glued to their every move. Finally, she asked if she could go outside and watch from the deck. She said they were now “mowing the dirt”. That’s how she described the leveling process. She said it was the second step. I’m not sure how she understood all of that, but it was evident she was taking it all in and she was enchanted with the work they were doing. Living in wonder seems to be natural for children.

Watching her, I realized she was in total amazement and wonder of what these skilled workers were accomplishing. This was a picture of what natural child like wonder really looks like. She looked from different angles; she found a comfortable place and position to do her gazing. She smiled at them first. Then she moved closer as she went outside. She even struck up a conversation with them. She was in a place of total awareness.

I can’t help but think how often I miss out on experiencing the joy of today because I am not living in a place of wonder, which is really a place of joyful expectancy. As adults we are bombarded with bad news. We are bombarded with too much to worry over. We are bombarded with things that can feed our selfish indulgences. It’s like we open up our mouths and let things that breed negativity flow into every part of our soul. It takes over until there is no room left for joyful wonder.

As I watched Lyla that morning I realized living in wonder really can become a part of our daily living. The wonders of God are all around us! David tells us this in Psalm 40 verse 5: “Many, O Lord my God, are the wonders you have done….were I to speak and tell of them, they would be too many to declare!” It’s really not all that hard to start practicing living in that place. I even became aware I’m already doing many things that foster having many daily “wonder moments”. What are those things?

  • Writing down at least three things I’m grateful for each day. I actually do this in the morning which means I write down things from the previous day. I started this habit in 2001 after I read “One Thousand Gifts” by Ann Voskamp. All I know is I’m on number 5,232. I don’t know what number I’d be on if I did it everyday since I started. There are days I miss. I’m too lazy to do the math right now.
  • Taking every opportunity possible to enjoy the beauty of a sunrise or a sunset. We have the widest and biggest screen that’s available to mankind at our fingertips and it’s free! Take the opportunity to let “Heaven and nature sing!”
  • Getting outside and enjoying the freshness of a morning through taking deep and slow breaths.
  • Connecting with others and listening to their special God stories. Those always fill me with wonder.
  • Being still for at least 5 minutes a day doing nothing but thinking about the love of God and His other qualities and actions that I admire the most about Him. His love is personable and intimate. The words of an old hymn by Frederick Lehman describe this Love so well: It’s rich, it’s pure, it’s measureless, it’s strong, it endures forever. Thinking about this love always puts me in a place of reverent wonder!

 

There are many other ways to embrace the joy of wonder. These are some simple ways I’ve found that help me find extraordinary beauty in an ordinary day. I’d love to hear from you! What are ways you practice living in wonder?

Your Hardest Task

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A couple of weeks ago I went by our local used bookstore and came across a book I heard about from a group of women who had read it in their book club. I’m always on the lookout for a good deal, so grabbed it. Three dollars is not bad for a like new hard-back book! In The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith, I again am reminded of a gift we can give ourselves everyday of our life. It’s the gift of silence. It’s something our soul desperately needs in order to find a place of rest and peace in our soul, if only for a few moments. It’s a gift we can give ourselves everyday and it is restorative medicine for our soul.

However, there are just too many reasons we find to not do it. There are too many electronic devices calling our names to pick up. There are little ones calling our name. There may be a spouse calling our name. There are voices in our head vying for attention. There are errands to run, jobs to get to, appointments to make, etc. The list of what someone called the tyranny of the urgent is endless!

Here’s an idea – what if we made sure to find in our day only 5 minutes to practice being still with God without any distraction. It might surprise us what that gift of silence will do.

It will help us get “centered”. What does “centered” really mean? I love this definition: having the specified subject as the focal element. We’re not to just empty our mind of everything. We’re to put the most important One at the center. Out of the right “centering” our day will find more peace and order, even when surrounded by chaos.

In this book the author has some practical tips on ways to find those 5-10 minute quiet moments during the day and what to do with them when found:

  • Look for little free spaces in your day, such as a break between activities.
  • Get up a little earlier.
  • Leave for you next appointment a little sooner so that when you arrive you will have extra time to find a quiet place and “just be.”
  • If struggling with thoughts running to and fro during this time of silence, have a notepad nearby to jot things down that may come to your mind. Examples are: a phone call you need to make, laundry that needs to be done. Writing down these things can help quiet your mind.
  • Reading the Bible for a minute or two can help us usher in this time of quiet.

What’s the real purpose of this quietness? It’s a place where I can hear from God. I desperately need to hear. The distractions of life will not allow me to hear from Him. My life will spin out of control if I don’t hear from Him. I will not love others well if I don’t hear from Him. I will not enjoy this life to the fullest if I do not hear from Him. As James Bryan says, “The God who is good can only reach us when we are quiet.” Let’s do whatever it takes to find that place of quiet today, tomorrow, and every day ahead. It’s a treasured gift I can give myself today, tomorrow, and all my days. The cost is pretty small when you think about it. But the dividends are unbelievable.

“Your hardest task—do you even know what it looks like? It’s being still. Still does not have movement, still does not have sound, still does not have a committee meeting in your head, still is peaceful, still is quiet, still is open and ready, still is at ease, still is waiting peacefully, still is available to receive.” Allie Frankfurt

Lord, help me to find space in my day to unplug from noisy distractions. It’s here  I become more and more aware of your goodness and love that nourish my soul.

Something Missing, Something Found

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I will never forget her radiant smile. Her laughter was contagious. Joy overflowed from her heart. I will never forget her jokes. I will never forget how much she loved Jesus. I will never forget that she prayed about everything. I will never forget how much I wanted what she wanted. God gave me the opportunity to watch her very closely since we rented a house together our last two years of college. She was the real deal!

I was a believer in Jesus, but as I entered my second year in college I realized my love for Jesus had waned. Something was missing. It wasn’t really clear to me that it was waning until I met Kim.

Kim radiated joy and that joy came from Jesus. Some of our theology was a little different, but that didn’t matter. I saw her living out her Christianity in front of my eyes and it made me thirst for what she had. I thirsted for that same Jesus intimacy she had. I thirsted. I found. The best word I can think of to explain what needed to happen in my life is the word surrender. Some might view that word a little negatively, since it entails the sense of giving up. But, it’s not negative!

Surrender is a wonderful way to live because we are giving up something that isn’t good for us in order to receive the very best. It’s giving up trying to run my own life to the One who knows best how to order it. And, it’s good. Because I witnessed a transformed life modeled through the life of my friend, I decided to hand over the reins of my life to Jesus. My life has never been the same! I still mess up terribly, but He’s always there to pick me back up and get me back on the right track.

Because of Kim, I became a part of a strong faith community, thus I learned how to grow deeper in a way that brings transformation. I distinctly remember discovering what I needed to do, how I needed to grow, in order keep that intimacy alive. There are things that ensure spiritual growth, but always required is a daily, even a moment by moment surrender. Again, it’s a handing over the reins of my life to Jesus the many things that, in reality, I want to be in charge of. Including:

  • My schedule.
  • My words.
  • My attitude.
  • My actions.
  • My thoughts.
  • My money.
  • My service.
  • My relationships.

I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt Who Kim was following. The question I need to ask daily, and often frequently during the day is: Who am I following? Me or Jesus? Would you be willing to ask the same question? Our homes and our world will change when it is Him and not ourselves.

Remembering the Last Morning with my Mother

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On my walk this morning I couldn’t help but reflect back on the morning of October 23, 2014, the last time I’d have with my mother. I’d been with my parents in Texas for 2 ½ weeks walking through the shadows of death that were accompanying the last days of Mother’s life.

I woke up that particular morning about 6:00 and thought, “Why not do my morning devotional with Mother?” So, I pulled my chair up beside her bed, a bit unsure of what I was going to read that morning. For some reason, I landed in Psalm 119. I’m not certain why I chose that particular Psalm, but as I began to read, it was evident God led me there.

I chose to read this Psalm aloud. Mother was in a semi-conscience state. In the physical realm it seemed there was no awareness, but I know in the spiritual realm, there was a deep awareness. God wanted us to pray together through this Psalm for all the Loves in our lives. At least twice, I thought, “Well, I’ve read enough, and prayed enough.” But, something or Someone urged me to keep reading. It’s 176 verses!

This probably was one of the sweetest and most powerful moments I’ve ever spent in the presence of the Lord. I read a few verses and then audibly prayed words from them for our mutual Loves, our spouses, children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. We even prayed for those unborn babes that would come into the world through Mother’s grandchildren. And, isn’t it awesome that one of those babes was born just three days ago! Here are things we prayed taken from this powerful Psalm:

  • That our Loves would keep their way pure as they live according to God’s Word.
  • That they would seek God with all of their hearts.
  • That they would hide God’s Word in their hearts.
  • That they would be kept from deceitful ways.
  • That they would turn their eyes away from worthless things.
  • That they would know and understand the unfailing love of God.
  • That they would walk in obedience to God.
  • That God would give them knowledge and good judgment.
  • That they would meditate on God’s Word.
  • That they would have lips that overflow with praise.

Today I made the commitment to read and pray through this Psalm once again on the anniversary date of Mother’s sweet and gentle passing into the arms of the One who made her and loves her so.

          Heavenly Father, May this be the way I will celebrate You and my mother’s life on this

          Earth on all the future October 23rds You give me. Amen.

Thirsting For God

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Photo courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/carsten_tb/2885878882

This morning as I was reading Psalm 42 I remembered hearing a great sermon 10 years ago while attending a conference in the beautiful mountains of New Mexico. I was at a spiritually dry time in my life. I can’t remember the reasons, but I knew something was missing in my love and passion for Christ. I knew something was lacking when I worshipped. I could see passionate worship in others, but it wasn’t in me. It was through the words of this servant of God and this particular Psalm that God spoke to me. The Psalmist wrote: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” I was thirsty and I was desperate and I wanted to be filled.

In that sermon, the pastor told a powerful story of a young man who was going into the ministry. Like most young ministers, he wanted to know the key to a powerful ministry. He knew of a godly older minister whose ministry had been amazingly powerful and fruitful. He sought him out to seek his wisdom. He had to find out the secret! The older minister asked, “Are you sure you want to know?” “Yes, I do,” the young man proclaimed! The older man then took the younger one to a horse tank full of murky slimy water. Without warning, he grabbed and plunged  the young man’s head down into the murky water. He held it there even though the young man struggled mightily. He finally released his vice-grip hold and raised him out of the water. The young man took in a huge gasp of air. It was a wonderful, deep freeing breath. The older man said, “When you’re as desperate for God as you were for that next breath, you will have the power of God.”

That night we sang a song that will always be one of my favorites that is taken from Psalm 42.

As the deer panteth for the water

So my soul longeth after thee

You alone are my heart’s desire

And I long to worship thee

You alone are my strength, my shield

To you alone may my spirit yield

You alone are my heart’s desire

And I long to worship thee.

I want you more than gold or silver,

Only You can satisfy.

You alone are the real joygiver

And the apple of my eye.

I know joy in worship returned for me that night. I was grieved that my love and worship for God had become lukewarm. I asked God to forgive me and I know He did. I expressed to Him how much I loved Him and that I wanted joy restored more than I wanted anything else. He knew my heart. He heard my cry. He responded. That’s the kind of God I know, I’ve experienced, and want to live for. Restore to me the joy of your salvation. And give me a willing spirit to obey you. Psalm 51:12