Things I Can See

Originally published November 9, 2016.

Whenever we talk about balancing faith and sight, somehow it all gets back to recognizing the fence-lines around my Yard of responsibility. Because here in the Everyday, in the realm of my words, my choices, my actions… I reap what I sow. I know this as a fact of life. But I also recognize that outside the fence there is a whole world of things that I cannot control: other people’s feelings and perspectives, even their behavior…and it doesn’t matter how much I love them or how badly I want to help (fix?) them. I could sow all the best things in their lives, with no guarantee of reaping. Their lives are their own, and it is harmful to everyone involved if I go rooting around in their yards. Boundary lines help keep relationships healthy, and keep us humble, realizing the limits to our own power. So I balance living my best, inside my circle of influence, with holding onto hopes for happy endings for the people and the situations I care about.

And I can have hope, because out there in the unseen world– in God’s wide reality– nothing is impossible, and He “is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think.” (Ephesians 3:20) His Wind blows everywhere and no fence-lines can stop it.  No wish-dreams we hold onto so tightly can get in the way. He plans from beginning to end for the good of all His creation, and His loving-kindness never fails…it falls like rain on every Yard, because it is all His. The Song-Writer David could not find a single place on this planet where God was not at work: “If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” (Psalm 139:9-10) So when we talk about living by faith, we really mean acknowledging how small is our Yard and how big is creation, and Who is its rightful King.

I find that in the balance of understanding my Yard better, there is a different kind of Hope, something more than wishing hard. God’s overarching plans are for sure and certain, like the sun coming up in the morning and the way Winter always melts into Spring, whether or not we can see how it works. We can build our lives on Hope like that. And it is prayer that bridges the gap between the two worlds. “The eyes of the Lord watch over those who do right, and His ears are open to their prayers.” (1 Peter 3:12) Big-brother James goes so far as to say that “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” (James 5:16) I have no delusions of power– the older I get, the more clearly I see all the things in this world that are outside my control– but I understand that prayer allows me to participate in the work of an almighty God, to reach beyond the fence-lines of my small Yard. This kind of Hope motivates me to turn fears and concerns into prayers, balances how helpless I feel at times, because the King’s plans are real and good and indestructable. Faith says that all I have to do is take care of my own Yard, and for everything I cannot do, there is Grace and all the Father’s good gifts.

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And far be it from me to not believe
Even when my eyes can’t see
And this mountain that’s in front of me
Will be thrown into the midst of the sea
And through it all, through it all
My eyes are on You
And through it all, through it all
It is well….
So let go my soul and trust in Him
The waves and wind still know His name

It Is Well, Kristene Dimarco

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So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and He will give you everything you need.

Matthew 6:31-33
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The Power of The Cross

Originally published on June 20, 2015.

On days when the weight of the past is crushing your spirit (and you wonder if you’ll ever grow beyond this ugliness, ever learn to be someone different), the first place to go is back to the Cross. Seems strange to revisit death when all you really want is a new life. But that’s the thing about resurrection power, that it can’t burst out of the grave until something dies. We should know this by now, because God has built it right into the framework of our natural world, the Creator showing Himself in everything He has made: dried up seeds are buried and sprout with new life, every day the sun sets us into night and then rises again so we can begin again, Winter keeps turning into Spring. In the same way, the pain of the cross leads to the resurrection: no shortcuts, no easier route to glory. “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25)  It’s my self-preoccupation that needs to die a little more every day, so that the Holy Spirit can re-make me. Jesus’ haunting question persists: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26)

So there is no use wasting time trying to figure out how to fix yourself, or hiding the gaping holes so that maybe no one will notice…or worse yet, wallowing in regret till it drags you under. Welcome the discomfort as a necessary step of growth and keep following it straight to the Cross, the only real solution in heaven and earth. There are some things you just aren’t strong enough to deal with on your own, and your own messiness is one of them. Better to admit that, sooner rather than later– better to leave the pride behind, so your hands are free to reach for the Grace that flows down from the Beloved’s sacrifice for us.

Because Heaven already planned a solution for human brokenness; there is a Savior, who came to earth because “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness. (Hebrews 9:22) He knows the grip of fear. He understands the way people can wound, and how difficult it is to trust. He knows the shame of failure, and the darkness we carry around inside, and how it presses the hope from a person’s lungs.  He knows because He already picked it all up and carried it for us, wept for how it holds us captive. He fastened the entire hideous mess to the Cross with the spikes that pierced His own flesh, wrestled it the whole way into the tomb and left it there so it couldn’t bind us any longer. The prophet Isaiah heralded the coming of a Savior “…He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by His wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)

So take courage, dear heart, on the days when you see clearly how far short you fall. Let humility rush you again to the foot of the Cross and beg forgiveness. Allow Mercy and Grace to heal your battle wounds, wash away your brokenness, and speak peace to your spirit. “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe.” (Ephesians 1:18-19)

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What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all—how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. (Romans 8:31-34)

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All this pain…
I wonder if I’ll ever find my way;
I wonder if my life could really change, at all.
All this earth…
Could all that is lost ever be found?
Could a garden come out from this ground, at all?
You make beautiful things…
You make beautiful things out of the dust.

Beautiful Things, Gungor
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Hidden Treasures in Hard Times

It is remarkable to me that the man in the Bible with the most healthy perspective on suffering also speaks the most about joy. It’s like Paul had some secret reservoir of joy that carried him through the hardship of being a pioneer messenger of the Cross. Or maybe he discovered joy along the way, because he had learned how to speak truth to himself in suffering. He would probably answer Yes to both ideas. When you read his letters to the early believers, and see how instruction gives way seamlessly to worship and thanks-giving, you catch a glimpse of the inner streams of joy that energized him. And is it any wonder that the bulk of what we call the New Testament comes from this man? It’s like God laid out Paul, his life and experiences and all that wisdom for us, and said “watch and learn, people.”

Lately I have been pondering the way we avoid hardship and pain at all costs. We chase happiness as persistently as our neighbors, even while nodding our heads that this world doesn’t satisfy, and all we really need is Jesus. Wouldn’t you think that people who follow the One called “man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isaiah 53:3) would be a little more comfortable with it themselves? Paul seemed to take hardship as a matter of course– and sure the ancient world was a difficult place to survive, but maybe we rationalize his perspective away too easily as a function of his surroundings, and assume that if he grew up in America he would have more modern expectations for his life. Have we lost some valuable perspectives along the way, in our all-out pursuit of happiness and prosperity?

I know well that the gap between what our heads believe and what our hearts want can spread impossibly wide, and it isn’t until the hard times come that you have to choose which direction to leap. And I have found myself holding on for dear life to the words of Scripture, not so much out of certainty in what I believed, as in the knowledge that if I let go of this faith there was nowhere else to turn…nothing else that rings this true. The father looking for his child’s healing was in the same white-knuckled place when he cried out, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) Here is stripped-bare honesty, a man pushed to his limits, and though he does not have the eloquence to say it in theological terms, he is hanging onto the same truth the famous Church-Planter learned. Paul wrote it out this way: “for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Clearly he had learned some valuable secret in his life-struggles, and although it sounds like an absolutely terrible marketing slogan for a new belief-system, it does ring out with the authority of experience. Here is a man who has learned that when you hang onto the Savior, you have everything you need.

And it is strange but true– when you run out of your own ability and throw yourself upon the mercy of God, suddenly what felt like giving up becomes a solid place to stand. Not the kind of thing you learn while lining up your ducks in neat rows. I wonder, if our lives were all comfortable safety, would we ever even realize the fatal gap between the theology we believe with our heads and the theology we live out in the everyday? And isn’t that discovery, and the opportunity to grow up into what we believe, totally worth it, in the long run? No wonder Paul could write “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord…” (Philippians 3:7-8) Considering that the only thing that will last in this world is our life in Christ, that kind of Ah-ha moment can turn suffering into priceless gain.

I remember the exact day I realized that Paul wasn’t just saying all the right things, setting up ideals and principles for people to follow. It was a grasping-onto-straws kind of day, and one of those moments when you read a familiar passage of Scripture and suddenly the light turns on. Paul wrote “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation….I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:12-13) Somehow it stepped right out of the flat impersonal page and into the mess of everyday life. I do know what it is to cry out for help, to need wisdom, need patience. I also know what it is to have a happy day when everything is running smoothly. The one constant in both situations is the presence of Jesus’ Spirit and His power at work in me. This I know because I have lived it. Paul’s secret to getting through any situation was to live through both good times and terrible times, experience them fully, and find God standing there with him in the middle of it all. And when you can say honestly, because it is tried-and-true, “The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need” (Psalm 23:1), there is joy.

See, Paul understood that when you are desperate and at the end of yourself, you are in exactly the right place to experience the riches of the Kingdom of God. The same inexorable grace that washes the rags of beggars clean drives nails into the hands of God, and the same persistent mercy that heals the outcast lepers trims away our self-indulgence so that we can fall headlong into the Everlasting Arms. I am slowly, slowly learning how big is the over-arching power of God and how consistent is His attention to detail. How good are His intentions toward me, how seriously He takes them, and how little I understand what He is doing. But what I need to know best is His heart, and that He has already given me, laid bare at the Cross. That I can trust.

A wise man once told me that trust and fear cannot live in the same place. If I want to know the secret of joy in suffering that Paul talked about, then all I need is to release my death-grip on the life I think I need, and accept the childlike life of trust that Jesus died to give me. Let my hands simply open.

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Because I AM is unbelievably with us, we can say even now: I am unbelievably safe.

Ann VosKamp

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Anyone who intends to come with Me has to let Me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow Me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, My way, to finding yourself, your true self. What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself? What could you ever trade your soul for?

Matthew 16:25 (The Message)
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The Season of Our (Holy) Discontent

Originally published on May 19, 2017.

You have to know why something isn’t working before you can fix it. And I know for myself at least, that it can take a little while of muddling around in unpleasant circumstances before I realize I need help. When I am hungry, I have no difficulty recognizing the symptoms and finding something to munch. When I get sleepy, and it’s hard to focus at my desk, there is always coffee, and a resolution to go to bed earlier tonight.  Why am I often so clueless then, when it comes to matters of heart and spirit?

Part of the problem is that inner disquiet is cultivated on countless screens and glossy pages, multiplying to the senses that first smooth line of the Enemy. Didn’t Eve fall for the same lie, that what the Creator gave was not enough?…That she was not enough?… And maybe the beautiful things she saw out there offered a better answer? Our discontent serves the Enemy well.

I have found that too many images of beautiful homes and gardens and perfectly put-together outfits can wreak havoc in my spirit. And there are so many experts out there about what a happy family looks like (or acts like, or does together, or eats for dinner)– it can make me wonder how come mine always seems to fall just a bit short. All those voices out there telling us women what will make life more meaningful, more healthy, more successful….just plain More. And before I realize, I am chasing the wind like Wise King Solomon: trying harder for something that will fill this restless longing.

But (as Eve found out a long time ago) trying harder to be Enough on my own never quite adds up. Like Solomon said, “All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.” (Ecclesiastes 1:8) And at some point, I wake up to recognize that the turmoil in my life comes from looking in all the wrong places for what ails my soul. It usually takes time for my brain to connect the dots of cause and effect– of choices and consequences– and how one turn led to another until I found myself on a path I never intended, crying out for rescue. Even the most well-intentioned hearts can find themselves in a season of restlessness and confusion. Actually, it’s not the worst place to be.

Ezekiel’s valley full of dry bones were waiting for Spirit-breathed  words to live again, but first the people needed to get to the end of their resources. When they cried out “Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely cut off.” (Ezekiel 37:11) then they were​ ready for God’s miracle of new life. Uncomfortable as it is, dissatisfaction with the way things are can be the catalyst for change. Whatever your longings, there is only One who is large enough, lasting enough, satisfying enough to fill them. Whoever you wish you were, the woman God had in mind when He created you is just the right person to do what He has planned for you. His grace fills up the measure of “not enough” in all of us, so that He calls us “chosen people, holy and dearly loved” (Colossians 3:12)

Jesus told the woman coming to draw from the well, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst.” (John 4:13-14) But both she and Solomon had to walk down the dusty paths of their own trying, until they realized for themselves that what they were pursuing wasn’t working. The Wise King certainly found good in his discontentment, when he wrote, “Frustration is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning….” (Ecclesiastes 7:3-4) I suspect that each of us has to taste dissatisfaction with this world until we are sick of it, like a hunger pushing us to find the eternal food that truly satisfies. Each of us has to come to the realization that discontentment with this world points us toward the satisfying reality of Eternity to come. And I do find that as I grow and experience this truth over and over again, it is easier to recognize soul hunger for what it is and come running to Jesus,“the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (John 6:33)

Whether we long to be loved, or to be understood…whether we are looking for purpose, or security, or joy…whether we yearn to overcome evil, or to find justice…whether we ache to be made whole, or to be freed from shame and guilt…the answer is the same. May all our longings drive us into Your arms, O Lord, and may we find our soul’s satisfaction in You.

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“The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man to bear the yoke while he is young.” (Lamentations 3:25-27)

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“I’ve tasted the world, seen more than enough–
Its promises fleeting.
Of water and wine I emptied the cup,
And found myself wanting.
But there is a well that never runs dry;
The water of life, the blood of the vine…
‘Cause all I know is
Everything I have means nothing,
Jesus, if You’re not my one thing;
Everything I need right now.
All I need is You right now.”
(One Thing, Hillsong)

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In Everything

Originally published May 26, 2013.

“That’s why He tells us to give thanks in everything,” she said. I knew her story, and it was on her face too, just then, as she thought it through. “Because He takes things away and it seems all wrong, but maybe you don’t really know….He gives things too, and you wouldn’t even have the one if it weren’t for the other.” She knew the secret of giving thanks in all things, and she was so right, that it wasn’t about what you could see in front of you, but Who was present with you. Not about what was happening now but what He was planning. Except that it is hard to keep in mind when the earth drops away and we can say with Job “What I always feared has happened to me. What I dreaded has come true.” (Job 3:25)

Maybe that’s why God gave us these promises of His good intentions, His own word to us “For I know the plans I have for you….”They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11) Spell it out for us, so we wouldn’t wonder what He was up to, remind us that “God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose for them.” (Romans 8:28) Truth to anchor into and hang all our weight on, when we just might fall over the edge completely. He says I can get through whatever comes, just because He is there with me. Paul knew it by firsthand experience in the jail cells and hiding places, the hunger and cold and scars on his back: “For I can do everything through Christ who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13)

In all the dark winding paths, as I walk toward the light, this thing I have learned is most necessary, to give thanks. Because when you acknowledge that All is Gift, you acknowledge your surrender to the Giver. And when you give thanks, you acknowledge that He is good and worth trusting. It’s the words themselves that matter, regardless of whether the heart is spilling out joy and the thanks are overflowing– or whether they are sheer act of will through teeth clenched with pain. Pick something and give thanks for it, willfully and intentionally, no matter how small, because everything around you is Gift and Grace. And then find another good gift, and another, as many as you can think of, until your heart lightens and hope sparks again.

The long-ago saints would have called it a discipline of the Christian life, perhaps. I only know it is necessary for survival, to keep heart and mind whole. Constant connection with the Light-giver. Constant dependence on the Maker. Constant recognition that He is good, regardless of the circumstances. He wants us to give thanks in everything because in everything He is there, and in everything He is working for our good, and in everything He is accomplishing His purposes. I can trust this and be thankful.

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“When you are a believer — and you stop counting blessings? It’s like blindfolding yourself and wondering why everything’s black.” (Ann VosKamp)

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“I may be weak
but Your spirit’s strong in me;
My flesh may fail
My God you never will.” (Give Me Faith, Elevation Worship)

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We Belong to Each Other

You would think that the easiest place to walk as a child of light is with other light-dwellers. Yes. In a place where minds are encouraged by Christ’s love, and spirits are alive by the same Spirit of God, and hearts are tender and compassionate because of His work within…yes, in this situation the Church-planter Paul affirms that our joyful response should be “…agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose.” (Philippians 2:2) From his perspective, the Family of God should be an everyday illustration of God’s love and grace, reaching out to the people of the world– a living temple for God’s presence. It sounds like the ideal family, doesn’t it?

And yet Paul takes the time to instruct the early church at length in how to make that happen, over the course of many different letters, and even scolding those who are behaving poorly with one another. Clearly relationships within the Family of God are a good bit more work than we might expect. In Peter’s letter we find him echoing the same thoughts, and this time it is in the middle of all his examples of living an everyday life of excellence: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” (1 Peter 4:7-10) Both Paul and Peter aren’t afraid to get into the practical nuts and bolts of how to live as children of the light, nor do they hide the fact that it is liable to be difficult at times. Whether we are talking about work relationships, marriage, respecting government, or getting along with fellow believers, our behavior should be above reproach so that we will bring glory to the God who called us into His kingdom. At the same time, we will be shining God’s light into the darkness the way Jesus did when He walked here Himself.

Peter describes a community of genuine friendship, brotherly love for one another. The kind of friends who truly care when you are going through difficulties, and come alongside to help. People of compassion and humility– not looking out for their own interests, but looking to serve others. An adopted family of peacemakers, focusing on the eternal bond we share in Christ instead of on the earthly differences that can pull us apart. He fully expects the early believers to voluntarily hold the same values, not because they are culturally homogeneous, but because they have all turned away from earthly perspectives and are devoted to the same cause of building the Kingdom of Light.

Paul affirms that this is expected and normal for Christ-followers who share life together: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.” (Colossians 3:15) After all, in God’s eyes every one of us is a sinner saved by His own gracious consent into the Kingdom of Light, regardless of where we have come from, or our situation in life. All the earthly distinctions that we pride ourselves on are as temporary as this world– the person we are becoming on the inside is what we get to take into eternity. Beloved author Madeleine L’Engle rightly observed that “We draw people to Christ…by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.

And we can see this theme of beautiful light running through Peter’s letter, and the Christ-followers shining into the darkness to draw others to God. Day by day they look more and more like Jesus.

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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning…. In Him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

John 1:1-2, 4-5

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What I share with other believers is not just a mutual interest, as if we were all members of a global fan club. We are members of His global family, with the same Father, the same Spirit, the same hope. Blood might be thicker than water, but Jesus’s blood is thicker still.

Bronwyn Lea
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When You Need an Eye Exam

Originally published December 8, 2017.

This lined page lays on my desk looking back at me, and I ought to be writing on it every day, enumerating the things I am thankful for. Our small group returns to that discipline of heart and mind periodically, to remind ourselves Whose we are, and where everything comes from. It’s like re-orienting a compass, aligning our hearts to the fixed poles of truth that can guide our steps, our thoughts, our behavior. No question about it– we live better as thankful people.

The list is filling up slowly right now, but not because of fewer gifts. My head knows that All is Gift– that is the very definition of the grace that we wear, like a label on our being, both nametag and crown for someone who walks in the footsteps of Christ. No, the gifts are many.

But seeing people you care about go through impossibly hard situations strains the eyesight…it’s just hard to see the right things, and recognize God’s handiwork. Beautiful strong women battle addiction and disease, and weary young mamas clutch onto the ends of ropes, and marriages fade and wither in the harsh winds of neglect, and families struggle to take care of the sick, and young believers struggle to stay the course….and you can look at enough loneliness and heartache and pain and injustice until it’s all you can see at the end of the day. It’s my eyesight that is weak, focusing on the things closest to me and losing sight of the bigger picture. Apparently it is a common malady, because even Paul wrote to encourage his friends: “…our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:18) It’s like God’s truth is corrective lenses for the eyes of the soul. Because life here may be eye-catching and attention-grabbing, but it is also passing away, and focusing on my feet as I walk can make me impossibly myopic, in every sense of the word.

When your eyesight is failing, that’s where giving thanks becomes more an exercise of the will, just because He says so. Paul reminds us, “…give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18) He balances it carefully on top of that tall stack of high ideals, as if the first two weren’t quite enough: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances….” That’s what God wants from us who follow His Son, and I know there are people who scoff at the seeming-impossible, but the Spirit who makes all things possible is alive and well in me, and He says this is what real life looks like. It seems clear that when I fix my eyes on Him and what He is doing, both joy and thankfulness will abound in His company.

So I reach out my mind to choose what He says over what I see; I reach out my words to tell Him what hurts and that I trust Him to take care of it in the best way; I reach out my heart to say Thank You, Thank You for all the undeserved blessings of this day. And this is the slowly unfolding miracle, that gratitude rises anew.

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I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which He has called you, the riches of His glorious inheritance in His holy people, and His incomparably great power for us who believe.

Ephesians 1:18-19

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What you think you can’t handle — might actually be God handing you a gift.  And I think of everything I have chafed against and railed about and howled to the heavens and who am I to know what is best or not — but when you bow and surrender to the sovereignty of God then you are in the posture to receive all as a gift.

Ann VosKamp
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When It’s Hard to Give Thanks

Originally published on April 7, 2014.

Joy is the particular province of the broken-hearted. It sounds contradictory, but it is one more paradox of the Kingdom of God, in which He turns everything we are accustomed to upside-down…or maybe it is Right-side-up, after all.

Jesus said it to the crowds gathered on the hillsides: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.” (Matthew 5:3-4, The Message) This is a joy that comes in the face of loss, when you go looking for Something More than this world, and find God’s presence. It is completely counter-intuitive (and utterly true) that those who suffer the most can find the deepest joy, because their very loss is an unexpected opportunity to discover the riches of God’s provision.

Joy shines brightest in people who are struggling to survive in one way or another, who face silence and uncertainty and grief, and realize that there is still Someone close who whispers words of comfort to the soul and does not sleep, and He is Enough, after all. It is the secret the itinerant Church-planter Paul learned, amid the dangers of traveling over ten thousand miles through the ancient civilized world in the course of his adult life — often bone-weary, in constant danger, harried and pursued, driven out of town and stoned and threatened. “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:12-13) When all my supply runs out and I am entirely dependent on God’s, then I am coming to the heart of what it means to have a relationship with The Almighty. “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand  and satisfy the desires of every living thing.” (Psalm 145:15-16) 

It is easy to celebrate and give thanks when things are going well for us, and of course God delights in hearing our enjoyment of His blessings. But if we wait until we feel happy to count our blessings then aren’t we only putting a label on our response to the circumstances? Anyone can look at the sun and say it is a good thing it is shining; may as well look at a cloudy day and observe that we don’t like the rain. When the needy and the grieving look at their world and choose hard to praise God, to give thanks for His grace and kindness to them regardless of painful circumstances, they are bowing to His rule, giving a sacrifice that costs something. God holds that gift precious, and joy kindles and endures in the offering. This is beyond response to circumstances; this is the obedience and surrender and trust of a genuine Christ-follower.

In the face of any grief there is always a new morning, and the world all around, shelter and food and friends, and the small kindnesses of others– unaccountable blessings un-looked for, and unceasing. “I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the LORD sustains me.” (Psalm 3:5) Accepting those small things with the simplicity of a child, choosing to give thanks (because even they are grace undeserved) gives Him our undivided attention– opens the door to God’s loving presence in all the seasons of life. The Giver is always worthy of our praise, and we can keep on counting all the evidence of His love.

God doesn’t avoid or ignore pain. He sings a louder song over it. And He invites His hurting people to sing with Him.

Aubrey Sampson, THe Louder Song

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“Therefore, let us offer through Jesus a continual sacrifice of praise to God, proclaiming our allegiance to His name. And don’t forget to do good and to share with those in need. These are the sacrifices that please God.” (Hebrews 13:15-16)

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New Every Day

Somehow, counting out these blessings each day has a vulnerable feel to it. How many good things does the heart need, to be able to call it a happy day? Who am I depending on for my good, really? What do I actually believe about a sovereign God? And how easily a harsh word or a deep hurt or a lingering anxiety overwhelms any number of blessings. Even this sobering freedom that I get to choose how my heart is growing– I can respond to any situation with a thankful heart, or not, and it is sad how often my first instinctive reaction is something other than gratitude. No question about it, when we consciously place ourselves in the radiance of God’s presence, we can see more clearly the gap between what we believe and what we live.

Bending my will to this spiritual discipline of gratitude keeps peeling away the layers of self-sufficiency and wish-to-control, and as one day’s list gives way to the blank page of the next, it’s remarkable how much giving thanks feels like trust. My heart can still stutter hard, knowing that provision for today does not guarantee the same for tomorrow. The unknown can loom large in the night, and problems take on nightmare quality under the lens of What If. It is here that I have to choose again…. Can I trust the Grace that was enough for today to be big enough for tomorrow’s uncertainties? And it’s like I can hear Jesus saying, “…do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34) I get that there’s an assurance of troubles, and it makes good sense not to spend your worry before it’s due, but this is hardly encouraging news for wannabe-thankfuls. I have to back up and read over and again the most important part of Jesus’ sentence: “…seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow…” (Matthew 6:33) My focus on living as a Christ-follower keeps me living in the present under His care. My thankfulness for the great gift of salvation and trust in the Father’s goodness gives my heart peace.

So it is both what I desire and what God provides that is guarding today and tomorrow. And I can see how when I want His presence more than anything else, these daily blessings are like manna, everyday evidence that He is here with me. I pick up each one and give thanks, believing that it will be enough for whatever I am facing today. And tomorrow will have its own simple graces, along with whatever troubles may come. I can trust Him in this. Each day Jesus promises to me again, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

The prophet Jeremiah saw it clearly: “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23) God’s gifted goodness is fresh and fully abundant each morning as I rise. And His faithfulness ensures enough for all the days to come. So I choose yet again to trust, and I walk through another day with eyes wide open, looking forall the ways my Father loves me.

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The Lord upholds all who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to You, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open Your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing. The Lord is righteous in all His ways and faithful in all He does.

Psalm 145:14-17

We have no idea what it is that God is saving us from every single day we wake up with breath.

Shelly Miller
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Polite Lepers and the Power of Choosing Happiness

Originally published November 15, 2017.

One of my favorite Bible stories in Sunday School when I was a child was the ten lepers who call out to Jesus to have mercy on them; He tells them to go to the Temple to show the priests they were healed and off they run, eager to make the proper sacrifices so that they could rejoin their families and get their lives back. But one of them turns around and runs back to Jesus to say thank you. I can still remember that line of men strung out across the flannelgraph board, their colorful robes flapping around their legs, and that one figure kneeling at the feet of Jesus, his hands and face turned upwards in worship. The story definitely has a strong visual appeal, and it probably resonates with children everywhere who are being taught polite manners: even Jesus thinks it is important that people say thank you!

Now that I am older, other aspects of the story intrigue me though, like the fact that all were healed, regardless of whether they said thanks or not. God’s mercy was lavish and free…no strings attached. And the fact that the man who came back was a foreigner is striking, because it is probably the real reason for his gratitude. The Jews were used to being God’s special people, and it made sense to them, both that God would heal them and that the Temple priest was the one who would declare them clean. The Samaritan though, was fully aware of his own unworthiness to be touched by God, and knew that he was not welcome to offer his gifts of thankfulness in the Temple. He saw clearly that the healing was at Jesus’ command, and returned to give thanks where it was due; it was his faith that Jesus was commending. All ten were healed of their skin condition, but one came back to kneel at Jesus’ feet, and had his heart healed as well. Obviously, the lesson for us is much larger than having nice manners.

I used to have this crazy poster on my fridge that I printed out, mostly because I needed to think about the words every day, in order to wrap my brain around them: “Everyone gets to decide how happy they want to be…because everyone gets to decide how grateful they are willing to be.” (Ann VosKamp)”

Everyone gets to decide how happy they want to be? Even the lepers and the lonely?…. all the ones that get stuck in situations beyond their control? And what if there is no family to run home to, and the healing doesn’t come? That’s the hard ceiling on free will, finding out that in so many ways you are not actually free, and have no choices in the matter. And who in this life gets to decide on a quantity of happiness, as if they were window shopping in a mall? Isn’t everyone allotted some random measure of happiness in this life, and some people are just more blessed than others? There is an inequity of circumstances that we all have learned to put up with, ever since we were toddlers and discovered the painful truth that we can’t always have what someone else has. And right about that same time we laid the responsibility of our happiness on the shoulders of circumstance, let it roll on the unpredictable winds of fortune. I see how we often live on that thin knife-edge, balanced between hope that things will go our way, and fear that everything will crash down around our ears– can see how we lean toward worry or toward control, trying to manage it all. And some of us just give up on the trying, and do whatever we can to pretend everything is going to work out fine. The world we live in makes no sense of the first part of that sentence.

But the truth of the second part skewers through the uncertainty of that first bit, anchoring it firmly. “Everyone gets to decide how happy they want to be… because everyone gets to decide how grateful they are willing to be.” (Ann VosKamp) And I know this spiritual sister is speaking truth, even though my heart still struggles at times to put it into practice. Because gratitude is precisely what we are free to choose– or not– in response to the circumstances we are given, and the way we respond shows what is in our hearts toward the Giver.

In his letters to the early churches, Paul writes it over and over again, rings out the insistent call: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4) He hands out this command boldly, as the standard for believers, regardless of their circumstances. And given the circumstances of his own life, we can surmise that Paul was no rosy idealist about life; he had no illusions about how hard it could be to hold onto hope or contentment or joy. His answer to the hurting, to the lonely, to the failing and the fallen is the same: Rejoice in the One who loves you and will never leave you.

Just before the story of the lepers, Jesus’ followers ask Him how to increase their faith. I wonder if the story of the thankful man surprised them at all. The connection between faith and thanksgiving is probably not one that we would make on our own, yet it runs over and over through the Scriptures: thankfulness is an act of obedience and faith, the humble offering of a heart that recognizes its Maker and Healer. And it is thankfulness that enables us to persevere in faith through whatever comes. This Savior who answers our cries for mercy is the answer to all the hurts of this world, and because of His presence we can always rejoice, can always give thanks, no matter how hard our faith is tested.

But it’s a choice and we have to be willing to submit to what He has given this day, open our hands for what He supplies and be content there. Paul’s words stand firm: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9) The only certainty in this world is suffering; all else is Grace, and undeserved.

So maybe happiness is really up to me and I do get to decide, because while the circumstances are not in my control, my response to them is, and gratitude is always the best option. Choose to see Grace? Be willing to acknowledge the Giver’s goodness and provision in the midst of circumstances, and find happiness in His presence? I get to decide.

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Whatever happens to me each day is my daily bread, provided I do not refuse to take it from Thy hand and to feed upon it.

Francois de la Mothe Fenelon

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Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is….be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Ephesians 5:15-17, 19-20
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