Beautiful and Beloved

She was beautiful.

Actually, I’m not sure she was a “she.” She was technically an embryo and it was too early for a gender reveal. But “it” feels dehumanizing for a creature as lovely as she. And she was definitely human.

I met her on an ultrasound screen. In my position as a Client Advocate at our local pregnancy center I’ve been privileged to witness hundreds of ultrasounds. But this one was special.

Her body reminded me of a warm cocoon, cradling her beating heart as it flickered like an emerging butterfly. Her yolk sac floated above her head, a translucent, heart-shaped balloon. The dark gestational sac provided contrast to her bright form.

The nurse and I hushed in her holy presence. We beheld her beauty. Imago Dei.

Sadly, she is no longer with us, her life cut short by a mother who viewed her but did not value her. Blind to her beautiful brilliance, deaf to her unborn child’s voice.

I grieved the loss of this brief life. Her ultrasound image, etched into my memory and her essence, impressed into my heart. She was a living being, skillfully created. And now she’s gone.

In the midst of my sorrow I stumbled upon something which helped me understand my emotional response to her passing. It was a definition of agape, one of the many Greek words for “love:”

Agape occurs when an individual sees, recognizes, understands, or appreciates the value of an object or a person, causing the viewer to behold this object or person in great esteem, awe, admiration, wonder, and sincere appreciation. Such great respect is awakened in the heart of the observer for the person or object he is beholding that he is compelled to love it...Agape is the highest form of love–a self-sacrificial type of love that moves the lover to action for the sake of the beloved.” (Rick Renner)*

I realized I was grieving because I had loved. As I marveled at the Master’s workmanship I had been moved to love, just as He loves. The presence of grief proves there was love.

My coworkers and I loved this little one. We admired her beauty. We mourn her loss.

Even when her own mother could not. The sacrifices love required of her were simply too great for her to bear. So we bear them.

God loves this young woman too. Beautiful, she also reflects Divine Image. He weeps over the choices she has made. He waits patiently for her to turn and receive His merciful touch. He will lovingly embrace her, just as He welcomed her little butterfly when she winged her way heavenward.

For He is the Lover of our Souls. He fastened His gaze upon us, the undeserving objects of His love, and decided we were worth the sacrifice. His love compelled, then propelled Him all the way to the cross, where He laid down His life so we might live–and love.

“Then Jesus wept. The people who were standing nearby said, “See how much he loved him!” (John 11:35-36, NLT)

*From “Sparkling Gems from the Greek,” Volume II by Rick Renner.

An Important Note: If you or someone you love has experienced the pain of abortion, please know there is forgiveness and healing to be found. Most pregnancy centers offer post-abortion support in a caring, confidential and non-judgmental atmosphere. You will be loved.

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Let There Be Love!

Growing up, all of our girls participated in the “AWANA” program at our church. If you’re not familiar with AWANA, it could be described as a “Christian” version of the Boy and Girl Scouts. “AWANA” is an acronym that stands for “Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed,” from 2 Timothy 2:15. The children are encouraged to memorize Scripture in a fun environment.

I can still picture Laurel as an adorable preschooler in her royal blue “Cubbie Bear” vest. We were proud AWANA parents when she memorized John 3:16, her very first Bible verse. That is until she decided her ONE verse was good enough. She was done! No amount of honey could entice this stubborn bear to memorize another verse.

Most of us, Cubbies or not, can recite John 3:16 from memory, right?

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. (NASB)

(I guess if you’re only going to learn one verse, John 3:16 is a pretty good choice!)

Last week, as I prepared to teach my weekly Bible study, I came across a lesser known, but equally memory-worthy verse. I dubbed it “John 3:16 on steroids!” Here it is:

Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ… (Ephesians 1:4a, NLT)

Let that sink in. Yes, as John 3:16 states, God loved the world. But even before He made the world, He loved us! Before time ticked. Before creation commenced.

Before God said, ‘Let there be light!”, He said “Let there be love!”

Scott Olipint puts it like this: “Most Christians recognize that, apart from Christ, there is no salvation. But far fewer recognize that our salvation had its beginning before time began. It was there that the triune God determined to love you for eternity.”

Wow! I knew from Scripture that God saw us before we were born (Psalm 139:15-16) and that He knew us before we were formed! (Jeremiah 1:5) But to love us before the earth existed? That kind of love is earthshattering!

Let’s look at one more AWANA verse worth memorizing:

But God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us! (Romans 5:8, HCSB)

Billy Graham paraphrased Romans 5:8 like this: “God proved His love on the Cross. When Christ hung, and bled, and died, it was God saying to the world, ‘I love you.’”

The God who purposed to love you before creation, proved His love for you on the cross!

If you ever question God’s love, you need look no further than that cross, driven into the ground like a blood-stained stake. There, as His Son endured an agonizing death, the Father declared His undying love…for you!

To fully experience this love, you need only…

  • BELIEVE that you are loved!  (John 3:16, Ephesians 1:4, Romans 5:8)
  • RECEIVE His love for you!  (John 1:12)
  • TRUST that He will never stop loving you!  (1 John 4:16, Jeremiah 31:3)

God determined to love us and then He declared His love for us!

Maybe our little Cubbie Bear was right…

What more do we really need to know?

For God so loved…that He gave…

 

Spend a few minutes meditating on God’s overwhelming, never-ending love!

 

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Streaks

My Snapchat streak passed away quietly sometime in the night. I didn’t mean to kill it. It died of neglect.

RIP, Streak.

For you non-Snapchatters, a “streak” is created when you and a friend exchange photos (called “snaps”) at least once a day for three consecutive days. In the image above the little flame icon indicates a streak, and the preceding number is its age in days. I’m not sure what the ultimate goal is exactly, but it is VERY important to keep your streak going. My teenage daughter somehow talked me into starting a streak with her.

It lasted 58 days.

In my defense, I worked hard at that streak. I don’t like taking selfies, so I had to be creative in finding other subjects to snap. Coffee mugs featured prominently in my chats. Exciting stuff there.

I enjoyed staying in touch with my daughter throughout the day. I looked forward to learning, for example, which shoes she was sporting in the morning, or who she was goofing off with in class. But I did not like the pressure I felt to respond in kind. My shoes just aren’t that cute. And selfies–and goofing off–at work are generally frowned upon.

I recently noticed my Bible app is doing streaks. It now keeps track of how many consecutive days I’ve read my online Bible. I didn’t sign up for this. Today I was greeted with:

Good Morning, Shelley

You’ve connected with God’s Word for 14 days in a row!

Cue the confetti. Yay me!

Don’t get me wrong. It’s good to have goals. And it’s great to form daily habits that reflect and reinforce the priorities in our lives. But the stress of supporting a streak is just too much for me.

I want to connect with the ones I love simply because I love them. And if I “miss” a day, to know it’s ok to pick back up right where we left off. Without having to start the count all over again.

It reminds me of my teen years, when I used to practice the piano. I’d be playing along just fine, and then I’d make a dreaded mistake. Back to the beginning I’d go, in search of a flawless performance. The result? I usually knew the first few lines of my pieces really well!

But what if, instead of starting completely over when we messed up, we just kept moving forward? I think that’s what God is really after in our walks with Him. Not perfection; but affection. Not obligation; but devotion.

I don’t think He has a giant heavenly Snapchat scoreboard where He tracks our performance. I don’t believe He expects perfect and unbroken “streaks” with His children. When we skip a day in His Word, we don’t undo everything we’ve experienced with Him up to that point. When we make a mistake, we can acknowledge our shortcomings and sin. And then simply resume walking in love and fellowship with Him.

That’s it. The pressure’s off.

So strike the streak. Life with Jesus is not a series of snaps, but a lifetime stroll with a loving, and forgiving, Savior.

 

For you have rescued me from death; you have kept my feet from slipping. So now I can walk in your presence, O God, in your life-giving light. (Psalm 56:13, NLT)

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Parallel Purple Lines

My hand trembled to the rhythm of my pounding heart as I stared at the parallel purple lines on the home pregnancy test.

It was definitely positive.

NO. This was all wrong! I had been praying for my best friend Sue to get pregnant, NOT me!

I wasn’t unhappy to be expecting our third child; I was secretly thrilled. But I dreaded telling Sue, not wanting to add more pain to her and her husband’s long struggle to conceive.

I turned to the Scriptures for help and landed in Luke 1. Back in the days before pregnancy tests, two unlikely mothers–the elderly Elizabeth and her teenaged cousin Mary–found themselves unexpectedly expecting. Each was a tender and timely encouragement to the other as they prepared to welcome their famous firstborn sons. I noticed that their pregnancies overlapped for a trimester.

As I read their intertwined pregnancy stories, a new prayer rose up within me: that Sue and I would be pregnant together!

Hand still shaking, but with newfound courage and hope, I picked up the phone. Sue listened quietly as I shared the news of my surprise pregnancy, along with my simple prayer request. We tearfully agreed to trust the Lord together to grant it.

“For nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37, NAS)

A few weeks later, high on faith (and pregnancy hormones), I impulsively shared my prayer request with my ladies’ Bible study group. And instantly regretted it. The request was so specific and measurable. I felt like I had climbed out on a limb, vulnerable and exposed. 

What if God didn’t come through? Now everyone would know!

Despite my fears, I continued to pray. Four months passed. Sue and I celebrated our 40th birthdays with two mutual close friends who were also 40–and pregnant! Sue was so gracious through it all, but I longed for her to join our ranks now more than ever.

My due date approached. Still no answer to our prayers. Even on the way to the hospital the misty morning of my scheduled C-section, I held onto the hope that Sue would conceive while I was still pregnant.

And you know what?

She didn’t.

I nursed my disappointment and confusion as I cared for my newborn daughter, Laurel. Sue and I had believed God. We had agreed together in prayer. But for some unknown reason, God had chosen not to grant our request.

Several months later, Sue and her husband felt led to pursue an international adoption. They chose Korea, because their orphaned infants were cared for in loving foster homes. After successfully completing their home study, my friends waited expectantly to be matched with a child. By this time Laurel was over a year old.

The call finally came. They had been selected to adopt a precious little boy! His name would be Luke. We rejoiced in God’s goodness together!

When they received more details about their son, however, they were surprised to discover that he was several months older than most babies who were adopted from Korea. They learned his birth date. We did the math.

I’ll never forget the moment we realized it. Luke was conceived two months BEFORE I gave birth to Laurel! Our babies were only seven months apart! God HAD answered our prayer, just not in the way we had expected! We were in awe of His faithfulness!

In my mind’s eye I could see her now. Somewhere in Korea, another unexpectedly expecting young mother, holding a positive pregnancy test in her trembling hand.

Two parallel purple lines, leading to one brave choice.

A sovereign God, orchestrating an incredible answer to prayer.

Fearful faith, becoming glorious sight.

 

Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways! (Romans 11:33, NLT)

 

Note: This post was shared with Sue’s blessing! Thank you, Sue, for letting me tell the story of our divinely intertwined pregnancies!

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Anchored

It’s been a stormy summer.

And I don’t just mean the weather, although we’ve had our share of those storms too. One early summer storm was so severe it spawned tornados and spewed hail the size of baseballs, leaving shattered windshields and shredded roofs in its wake! We’re still repairing the damage.

We’ve also endured medical storms. A late-night ER visit. MRIs. Shoulder surgery. Physical therapy. A root canal. We’ve weathered emotional storms–challenging situations both personally and professionally. (And did I mention the water well line leak that bubbled up in our backyard and required a backhoe to fix?)

None of these were more than tiny blips on the radar when the summer began. We charted our course, expecting smooth sailing. But storm clouds gathered and our plans scattered.

So what do you do when you find yourself tossed by waves in the middle of an unforeseen gale?

You anchor up.

I know this from watching “Deadliest Catch.” If you’re not familiar with this reality TV show, it chronicles the dangerous work of crab fishermen on the Bering Sea. In a recent episode, the fleet was warned of an approaching hurricane. Most of the captains quickly sought shelter in the nearest harbor, where they anchored to safely ride out the storm.

During our recent storms, I took refuge in the word of God. One verse in particular helped to steady me:

We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. (Hebrews 6:19a, NIV)

An anchor’s function is pretty obvious. But for those of us non-nautical types, here’s a basic definition just in case:

An anchor is a device, normally made of metal, used to connect a vessel to the bed of a body of water to prevent the craft from drifting due to wind or current. The word derives…from the Greek ankura.” (Wikipedia)

In Hebrews 6:19 the anchor is a metaphor “…for that which supports or keeps one steadfast in the time of trial or of doubt. It is an emblem of hope.” (Easton’s Bible Dictionary) W.E. Vine writes that “what an anchor is to a vessel in its tossings, so the hope is to us in our times of trial, difficulty and stress.”

I was fascinated to learn that the most common early Christian symbol was, in fact, not the cross (or the fish), but the anchor. Inscriptions on first century believers’ tombs often depicted anchors along with messages of hope.* In Roman catacombs, the ancient hiding places for persecuted Christians, one symbol appeared more often than any other: the anchor.** Some scholars believe the anchor was a word play in the Greek, noting the similarity between ankura and en kurio, or “in the Lord.”*

I found comfort in the two adjectives found in Hebrews 6:19. The Greek word for “firm” is asphales, which literally means “that which cannot be thrown down, tripped up, tottered or overthrown.” Bebaios is the Greek word for “secure,” and “speaks of something that does not break down under the weight of something that steps on it.***

I liked this summary from the Hebrews Commentary:

This hope which the believing soul has in the Lord Jesus is an anchor of the soul which cannot be made to totter nor break down when put under stress and strain.”

This anchor holds. It will not slip or snap under pressure. It can support the heaviest weight and withstand the strongest current.

And indelibly etched on this trustworthy anchor is a name: Hope. An unshakeable hope. Firmly embedded in a secure salvation.

The certain hope of our future salvation is an anchor to steady our souls while we wait on God in present storms.” (Stephen J. Cole)

We can hang on because Heaven is coming! On the other side of this storm called Life is a glorious future. One so amazing the Bible says we can’t begin to imagine it (1 Corinthians 2:9) and our present sufferings are not worthy to be compared with it! (Romans 8:18)

But God not only promises a future salvation, but also a present help. He’s with us in the storms! We never face them alone.

No matter how turbulent the seas get, He won’t let go. No matter how fiercely the winds blow, He will hold onto us. We won’t drift into the rocks. We will not be destroyed.

Yes, it’s been a rough ride this summer. Wave after wave have rocked our little boat. But He’s sustained us through them all.

We’re still afloat. We’re anchored by Hope.

 

When the storms of life come, the wicked are whirled away, but the godly have a lasting foundation. (Proverbs 10:25, NLT)

 

This song has become an anthem for me in the storms. Let Hope be your anchor!

Notes:

*From an article in Christianity Today.

**Jon Courson’s Application Commentary.

***Wuest’s Word Studies from the Greek New Testament.

–The above painting is called “Ships in a Gale” by Dutch painter Willem van de Velde.

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Passionate about Purity

I was out shopping one afternoon when I was approached by a large, muscular, young man. He was holding a single, white, long-stemmed rose.

“What does the color white mean?” he asked me, gesturing at the rose.

I assumed he was selecting a rose for his girlfriend and wanted to make sure the color matched the sentiment he hoped to convey.

“It means Purity,” I responded without hesitation.

He looked at me, puzzled.

“What’s THAT?” he muttered, as he turned away.

He chose a yellow rose instead!

Though this brief exchange took place years ago, I’ve never forgotten it and have often pondered how I would answer the question that went unanswered:  What IS purity?

Is it just an old-fashioned and outdated concept? Is it even possible in this day and age? The Bible has plenty to say about it…

Purity is puzzling.

Purity doesn’t make sense apart from a knowledge of God. God is Pure. The dictionary defines pure as: “free from moral fault or guilt.” Because God is pure, He calls His followers to live in purity:

And all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure. (1 John 3:3, NLT)

Sexual purity is a foreign concept in a society that promotes passion with little restraint. Yet children of God are not to conform to the world’s ways. We are to be set apart, holy:

For it is God’s will that you should be holy: You must abstain from sexual immorality… (1 Thessalonians 4:3, BSB)

A Holy God has determined the boundaries for our sexual conduct. A biblical definition of purity could be simply this: abstinence before marriage and faithfulness after marriage. But purity is more than just seeing how close we can get to the boundary lines without crossing them:

But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. (Ephesians 5:3, NIV)

Not even a hint. Not even a second look or a lustful thought. Because even the tiniest speck of contamination renders a substance impure.

Sounds completely unattainable, doesn’t it? Yet…

Purity is possible.

Whenever God issues a command, inherent within it is the power to obey it. Believers in Christ have His Holy Spirit within them, and ready access to His strength. I personally know dozens of Christian couples who remained sexually pure until marriage, and many more who are staying faithful after marriage. For with God, nothing is impossible.

But this doesn’t happen without some serious intentionality. We must get practical about purity. These biblical principles can help:

1–Trust your Father’s heart. He’s not trying to deceive or deprive you, but to protect and provide His very best for you, His beloved child.

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 3:17, NIV)

2–Let His Word be your guide. God’s timeless instructions must be the basis of your moral convictions, not the changing opinions of the world.

How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. (Psalm 119:9, ESV)

3–Avoid whatever might encourage sexual compromise. This would include websites, movies, music, etc. Seek out others who share your desire to live a holy life.

So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. (2 Timothy 2:22, ESV)

4–Ask God for help when you are tempted. Look for His way out–and then take it!

The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure. (1 Corinthians 10:13, NLT)

5–Take sexual sin seriously. God does. He knows the heartache it can bring, and He cares about your well-being.

Run from sexual sin! No other sin so clearly affects the body as this one does. For sexual immorality is a sin against your own body. (1 Corinthians 6:18, NLT)

Purity isn’t perfection.

But what if you’ve already blown it? We all stumble in many ways. Only Jesus led a life of perfect purity. His perfection purchased our pardon.

One of the most wonderful verses in the Bible is 1 John 1:9:

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (NIV)

Did you notice the word “purify?” If you’ve stumbled sexually in the past, your purity can be restored! Go to God, sincerely confess your sins and gratefully accept His forgiveness.

You can begin again, clean and pure in His eyes.

I recently counseled a young, single college student who was very relieved when her pregnancy test came back negative. After this scare, she was ready to make some changes. She eagerly accepted the invitation to pray and recommit herself to a lifestyle of sexual purity. She even planned to buy herself a purity ring as a reminder of her cleansing and commitment!

“Come now, let’s settle this,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, I will make them as white as snow. Though they are red like crimson, I will make them as white as wool.” (Isaiah 1:18, NLT)

God can make a red rose white again.

Friend, may I encourage you to become passionate about purity? It’s never too late to begin doing what is right! Your commitment may not be applauded or understood. You may not do it perfectly. But purity IS possible, with God’s help!

A life of purity is like a rare and fragrant flower, beautiful in His sight.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. (Matthew 5:8, NIV) 

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The Boy in the Blue Shirt

This past week I chaperoned my sixth “Desperation” youth conference in Colorado. Some may call me a glutton for punishment. But they’d be mistaken. I am a privileged witness.

Every summer, several thousand teens gather in the shadow of the majestic Rocky Mountains to lift their eyes to the One who created those mountains. To cry out to the One who can move their mountains.

It just never gets old, seeing this generation rise up to take their place, with selfless faith. I never tire of watching them stand to worship the Living God, arms high and hearts abandoned.

The image I have each year as I survey the crowded auditorium is that of a vast field of wheat, swaying in the sunlight to the gentle rhythm of the wind. It’s an incredible sight to see.

This year, one particular stalk stood out in the sea of wheat: an unassuming, slim, teen boy wearing a t-shirt the color of a Colorado sky. This dude pulsated to his own internal beat, blissfully out of sync with the others. He was worshiping the Lord with extraordinary passion, completely unconcerned with his surroundings. A modern-day David, dancing before the Lord with all his might.

I was captivated by this beautiful example of consumed worship. That is, until he unknowingly backed up into a couple of steps in the aisle and fell, disappearing from view. I held my breath as several bystanders rushed to his aid and helped him to a nearby seat several rows in front of me. He appeared to be injured by his unexpected fall. For a moment he seemed to be shaken.

And then I watched, astounded, as he lifted his hands in his seat and simply continued worshiping. He wasn’t about to let a little stumble trip him up. No pain would prevent his praise.

Once again he reminded me of David, the psalmist, who frequently poured out his heartache and troubles to the Lord, but refused to allow them to silence his praise. David would cry out to God in the anguish of his soul, and in the next breath praise Him for His goodness and faithfulness. Nothing would keep him from worshiping his God.

I want to be more like that. Less distracted by my difficulties. More consumed by the character of the One who is Ever Worthy of my praise. Even in, especially in, my pain.

So thank you, boy in the blue shirt. For not caring what your peers think about you. For being willing to throw yourself fully into worshiping your King. For not letting anything stop you from lifting your hands in praise to the Most High God.

Thank you for leading me in worship.

But as for me, I will hope continually, And will praise You yet more and more. (Psalm 71:14, NAS)

 


 *This song really seems to capture the determination to praise God, even when it hurts.

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A Photograph and a Poem

I was weary and discouraged. A couple of very difficult appointments with clients at the pregnancy center where I work had left me questioning my abilities and doubting my adequacy. I felt like a failure. I wanted to quit.

But I had a Bible study to prepare for that evening. Flipping through the pages of my workbook, I spotted the photograph. Thoughtful Geraldine had excitedly given it to me before the start of our study the previous week. It was a picture of a sunset over the Sea of Galilee in Israel, with a short poem printed below. She knew I had traveled to the Holy Land and thought of me when she saw it. I didn’t have time to look closely at it just then, so I tucked it between the pages of my workbook and promptly forgot about it.

Until now.

I picked up the photograph and slipped on my reading glasses to examine it more carefully. The sun, setting behind the Galilean hills, was in the shape of a Star of David.

This was the text of the simple poem that followed:

Star of David on Galilee
Jesus walked on this very sea
He called to Peter, step out and believe
Our eyes on Him and we receive.
He calls us now through Holy Spirit
For those with hearts and ears to hear it.
God Almighty, Creator of all
No prayer too big, no prayer too small.
So step out of your boat, you're not alone
Your miracle awaits, sent from the throne.*

Geraldine didn’t know that the story of Peter walking on the water with Jesus was special to me. But God knew. He had used this very story to lead me to accept the very position I had taken at work. Geraldine had no idea that a week later I would need confirmation that the Lord was still with me in the midst of a storm. But God knew.

It was as if He had sent this photograph into the future for me to find at the exact moment I needed it.

He knew I would recognize His voice speaking through this little poem, reminding me that HE was the One who called me out upon the water, that great unknown where feet may fail. (He had also used these very lyrics, from the song “Oceans,” to confirm His call when I took the job.) He knew I would see Him in this beautiful photograph of the very waters upon which Peter walked, and the shores upon which I had stood.

The truth is, I had actually begun to enjoy being out on the water with Jesus, preferring my exhilarating adventures with Him to the safe confines of the boat. Until like Peter, I took my eyes off of Him and placed them on myself–my inabilities, my inadequacies–and on the cresting waves around me. Next thing you know I’m panicking, thrashing, and coughing up sea water.

He came for me that morning in a poem and a photograph, and pulled me close, dripping and sputtering. He gently informed me that it was never about me. He pointed out that the storm didn’t actually stop until He and Peter returned to the boat.** And He patiently instructed me that He alone will determine when our walk on the water is over and it’s time to step back into the boat.

Who is this, that even the winds and waves obey Him? Who exists outside of time, sees our future needs and makes preparation for them? Who defies the laws of nature, walks on water and invites us to do the same? Who comes to our merciful rescue when we forget that apart from Him we can do nothing?

Jesus.

Amazing Jesus.


For Reflection: Where are you in your journey with Jesus? In the boat? Out on the water? Going under? Wherever you find yourself today, He is there too. He knows exactly what you need. Just “step out and believe.”

Watch this video of “Oceans,” filmed on the Sea of Galilee, and be encouraged!

*Photo and poem by Anthony R. Torres, Hand of God Photography.

**See Matthew 14:22-33 for the account of Peter walking on the water.

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Cleaning House

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And He found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables; and to those who were selling the doves He said, “Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a place of business.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for Your house will consume me.” (John 2:13-17, NAS)

Jesus was at home in the temple, teaching, healing, worshiping. A Son, in His Father’s house, going about His Father’s business.

But on this day? It was time for a little housecleaning.

The outer court of the temple was more like a bustling marketplace than a peaceful sanctuary. Tables had been set up for the convenience of visitors who needed to exchange money or purchase a sacrificial animal before proceeding to the inner courts of the temple. Upon entering the courtyard, one’s senses would have been assaulted with the sights, sounds, and smells of this carnival-like atmosphere. Regular temple worshipers had probably become somewhat desensitized, accepting the scene as normal.

Not Jesus. He had had enough of this bizarre bazaar. Fashioning a whip, he drove the sellers and money changers out in a rare display of angry passion.

Zeal for His Father’s house, we’re later told by His disciples, had simply overcome Him.

That temple is long gone, reduced to Roman rubble in 70 A.D. But now there is a new temple. One erected in every heart where Jesus dwells.

Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? (1 Corinthians 3:16, NAS)

And just like the days of old, “money changers” come and set up their tables in the temple courtyards of our hearts. Some have occupied space there for years. The Bible calls them “strongholds.”

The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:4-5, NIV) 

A stronghold can take many forms. It could be a persistent sin, struggle, or addiction. It’s something that “sets itself up” in our lives to keep us from intimacy with God. It is anything that consistently robs us of what is rightfully ours.

Strongholds were never meant to be tolerated. Yet we grow accustomed to their presence and accepting of their chaos. We even start to “own” them, personalizing them…my anxiety, my insecurity, my anger. Strongholds are thieves masquerading as friends.

I allowed a long-standing stronghold of Fear to set up camp in my heart. It was a familiar presence, one I had learned to put up with and had begun to call my own. But according to 2 Corinthians 10:4, strongholds are meant to be demolished. Destroyed.

Thankfully, Jesus is on the scene. And He is still passionate about His Father’s house. He possesses the power to clear the temple courts with a whip and a word.

That word is our weapon.

“Is not my word like fire,” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29, NIV)

For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword… (Hebrews 4:12a, NLT)

His word is the gleaming sword that pierces, the swinging hammer that crushes, and the raging fire that can consume all of our strongholds.

Regarding “my” stronghold of fear, He placed this particular weapon from His word in my trembling hand:

Perfect love drives out fear. (1 John 4:18, NIV)

His word IS alive. And amazing. I doubt it’s coincidence that the Greek word for “drives out” in 1 John 4:18 is the same root used in John 2:15, when Jesus “drove out” the money changers.

I decided that Fear had littered my temple ground long enough. Perfect Love swept in and swept it away.

Does this mean I’ll never battle with fears again? No. But when I do, I’ll take them captive, rather than the other way around. (See 2 Corinthians 10:5.)

What strongholds have staked a claim in your life? Are you tired of paying their exorbitant fees? Do you long for peace in the sacred spaces of your heart?

Jesus is here. He is ready to clean house, overturn some tables, and drive the money changers out.

Just say the word. Then take Him at His word.

He is zealous for you, lovely temple of His Holy Spirit.

“My house shall be called a house of prayer…” Jesus (From Matthew 21:13) 

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How Sweet It Is

You may eat freely from every tree in the garden…but one.”

Over the years, I’ve learned to recognize God’s voice when He speaks. It is usually profound, concise, and startling in its clarity. He most often takes a Scripture and applies it to a current situation in my life.

So when I kept hearing this verse repeating in my mind one mid-October morning, I recognized the Messenger. I just didn’t like the message. 

I knew that God had given Adam and Eve these instructions when He placed the pair in the garden. They were free to eat from any tree but the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” We all know how well THAT went. (See Genesis 2.)

But now those words were directed at MeMy garden. My tree.

I even knew the name of the tree He was referring to.

“Sugar.”

No, I didn’t like this message at all.

In my work at our local pregnancy center I’ve encountered alcoholics and drug addicts. Some are in recovery; others are in denial. One pregnant client admitted that she was a heroin addict, but was reluctant to pursue treatment, even though she knew her baby would be born addicted. When I hear the word “addict,” stories like these come to mind.

But there are many kinds of addictions. Some are perfectly legal and socially acceptable. Like my own.

I’ve always said I have a “sweet tooth,” and have often joked about being a “chocoholic.” I’m a “Life’s uncertain. Eat dessert first.” kind of gal. Did you know that most alcoholics can remember exactly when they took their first sip? Well, I can recall the taste of my first chocolate Easter egg.

I’ve fasted from chocolate a few times in the past. But give up Sugar? You’ve got to be kidding!

I googled “sugar addiction.” At the top of the results page, in bold, was this:

Scientists have found that sugar is addictive and stimulates the same pleasure centers of the brain as cocaine or heroin.”*

In fact, studies showed rats preferred sugar over cocaine**.

Whoa. This was no joking matter! Sugar was my drug of choice. Could I be addicted?

The Holy Spirit was clearly convicting me. But He was also pointing the way to freedom. It was drastic, but it was beginning to make sense.

“If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you…” (Jesus, in Matthew 18:8, NAS)

Ouch. This is a difficult teaching. But when dealing with an addiction, there is no middle ground. When hearing from God, there is no place for compromise.

So I did something I never thought I’d do. I cut down the cane tree, and cut processed sugar out of my life.

Next week will mark five months “sober.”

Going sugar-free has had its bitter moments. Five weeks into my journey, my family went on a Thanksgiving cruise, and I had to navigate around the ever-present desserts. Then came the sweets-laden Christmas season. But I learned that I could enjoy baking–without partaking! With every “chocolate holiday” on the calendar, I’ve bid a fond farewell to each of my holiday favorites. (So long, Hershey’s Candy Coated Milk Chocolate Eggs.)

But you know what? It’s actually been much easier than I thought it would be! After I heard so clearly from God, it became a simple issue of obedience. There is sacrifice, but also great joy in surrender. I’ve experienced a freedom I’ve never known before. Once I accepted that this particular tree was off limits for me (at least for this season), I felt at peace.

I doubt I’m the only one who struggles with this addiction. Perhaps the Lord is using my story to put His finger on this–or some other–area in your life. If so, here’s what I would say to you, my friend:

When God speaks, listen! Even if you don’t like what He’s saying. Even if He asks you to give up the one thing you think you can’t live without.

You can do it! He will help you.

On the other side of a hard obedience is an amazing freedom.

Oh, how sweet it is!

It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1, NAS)

 

*From an article titled “Are You Addicted to Sugar? Here’s How to Break the Cycle” by Sarah Elizabeth Richards at www.dailyburn.com.

**From a NCBI–National Institutes of Health report: “Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward” by M. Lenoir, 2007.

 

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