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A Little Bit of Sawdust

Have you ever had someone make a rash judgment of your character based on only one situation where he or she observed you?  I think we have all had that happen to us, and I know that I have been guilty of doing that to other people on many occasions.  I have found that it is human nature to form conclusions.  It takes only a matter of seconds when first meeting someone that our hearts decide whether or not we want to pursue a friendship with someone.  I wonder how many times you and I have failed that initial test?

Recently I have been convicted of making judgments of people that come into my work on their cell phones.  I immediately come to the conclusion that these people are rude and inconsiderate.  Then there are others that come in and hardly respond at all when I ask them questions.  In my mind, I form the conclusion that they are not kind people.  Truth be told, I have never met these people, and I have no idea what is going on in their lives.  I was humbled the other day when a customer hung up her phone and apologized profusely for her distraction, explaining to me that her daughter was in the hospital and she was trying to figure out some details.  How many more people have I met with similar situations that have not taken the time to explain their particular story to me?  What does that say about my character that I judged her before I even knew her?

Lest I become all too high and mighty, the other day I was at the store and I had just survived a rough day at work and in my personal life.  As I was walking out to my car in the parking lot, it occurred to me that I had hardly acknowledged the person who checked me out.  With only a couple short words, I was on my way.  Here I had been criticizing customers that came into my work for treating me with apathy, yet I just pulled the same stunt on someone else.  I guess a little bit of sawdust here and there can cause a lot of problems.

Is there anyone in the world who truly understands us?  I would have to say that there are two people who know me well enough to explain the reasons behind my actions, and I think I am a lucky one to have two.  However, even these relationships have their limits.  At times, I wonder if I even understand myself, because I am often surprised at my reactions to certain situations.  Human beings are so complex, and so many factors go into the making of who we are.  Who really understands us except for God?

The longer I live, the more I realize that God should be the only one allowed to judge other people.  There have been so many moments recently that I have longed for someone to look at my situation and just give me the benefit of the doubt.  As infallible as I have imagined myself to be, I have fallen flat on my face in front of a crowd of onlookers.  How humiliating is it to have your baggage laid bare before someone and you can’t deny its contents?  Truth be told, there may be very good reasons behind every item, but hardly anyone ever takes the time to understand those reasons.  They form a conclusion and walk away.  How many thousands of times have I done that to someone else?

Luke 6:41-42 says:  “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

As a kid, even before I knew what the word hypocrite meant, I knew it was a bad word.  I don’t care what religion or lack there of someone believes in, no one wants to be a hypocrite.  There is not a person in the world who does not understand that actions speak louder than words.  A man can tell a woman he loves her all day long, but if he does not show it by his faithfulness over time, there is no way on earth that she will believe his words for long.  Along those same lines, I can say that I love and follow Christ, but if day in and day out I am criticizing others or am concerned with only my life and problems, who in their right mind is going to believe that I actually love and follow Christ?  I see the sawdust in the eyes of those around me, but I miss the slab of wood awkwardly stuck in my own. 

I know that at times I will succumb to what comes naturally and make a rash judgment about someone.  I pray that God will immediately make me sick to my stomach when that happens, that I might recognize when I am treating something precious like it is junk change.  Luke 6:38c says, “For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”  Likewise, I want to have compassion on others who make judgments about me, understanding that I have been guilty of doing the same thing so many times.  Laying my pride aside, I pray that I might use that instance as another chance to forgive and grow rather than seeing it as a time to defend and wallow.  How would I want others to treat me?  I will treat them the same way.  Besides the fact that it is Biblical, it just makes sense.

Everybody has a little bit of sawdust.  I have a big giant plank.  I pray that God might forgive me for the times that I have tried to look around that plank to remove someone else’s sawdust.  May He give me a heart that sees others as He does and gives mercy where perhaps it seems undeserved.  There may be no other place where mercy is more needed.
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The Blessing of God

How many Christian preachers have you heard speak about the blessing of God?  I have heard many who claim that God longs to give us every good thing in this life; for example a nice house, a good job, and a car that runs well.  Sermons like this make us feel good, because we want a God that is convenient and rewards us for our “faithfulness”.  For some reason, so many of us secretly believe that we deserve to be thanked or recognized by God because of all the service that we have given Him.

The problem with this philosophy is a Scripture passage like Luke 6:20-26 and many others like it.  Jesus seemed to blow their minds when He blessed those who were poor, hungry, distraught, and hated for His sake.  How could these things possibly be blessings?  On the contrary, Jesus shot down the things that they had believed to be God’s blessings:  riches, a full stomach, laughter, and a solid reputation.  Passages like this intrigue me, because it seems that we don’t talk about them very often, and when we do, we assume that Jesus is speaking metaphorically.

Let’s take a closer look at this disturbing piece of Scripture.  Verses 20-26:

“Looking at his disciples, he said:
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when men hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.

‘Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven.  For that is how their fathers treated the prophets.

‘But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all men speak well of you,
for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.’”

Here’s a question to think about:  in light of this passage, if God could give you a gift, what would it be?

I don’t know about you, but I get frustrated around people who have always gotten everything they have ever wanted.  It turns my stomach when I meet someone who feels they are entitled to a particular service or reward simply because of who they are.  I think we would all agree that we have met people like this in our lifetimes, and if we were honest, it makes us kind of jealous inside that they have had the luxury of feeling that way for so many years and being satisfied.

On the contrary, we tend to distance ourselves from those who have befallen opposite circumstances.  As we pass a homeless man on the road, we wonder what choices he made to arrive at such a sad and pathetic position.  We see children on TV so hungry that their bones are sticking out of their sides, so malnourished that their stomachs are infested with worms, and we say a prayer before moving on about our day.  Maybe we allow ourselves to hurt for them, but a fleeting moment later we thank God that He has blessed us by allowing us to be born in an established country or a family that was able to provide for our needs.

These attitudes are so natural for us that we can hardly imagine thinking any differently.  Maybe it is worth exploring the possibility that God’s eyes see life in a much different way.

If God could give you a blessing, what would He give you?

Looking back over my life, I could definitely say that God provided for my “needs”.  I have up to this point never gone hungry and have always had a place to live and a job that paid my bills.  People would look at my life, and I would agree that I have been “blessed”.

However, when I look at my life and evaluate the circumstances that have truly equipped me in ways of responsibility, I would have to point out the times that I have hit rock bottom in failure.  If I could describe the moments that have prepared me most for ministry, I would have to tell you stories of times I spent with those whose suffering was beyond my comprehension.  It seems so anti-anything that we believe to think that those who have failed or those who suffer could be blessed by God more than us.

If I could be honest, I would say that the greatest gift that God ever gave me was my illness.  Although I am sure it broke His heart to watch me cry myself to sleep night after night, I could not have asked for a better avenue to grow.  Through that time I learned what it meant to have faith, how to persevere through seemingly endless pain, and how to rely on a strength that was beyond my own.  My heart was softened toward others who suffer and my eyes were opened to the truth that often what is best for us in light of the Kingdom of God is that which seems the worst for us at the time.  Call it ironic or whatever you like, but I would not trade in those years for any “blessing” in the world.  Would I give up my illness for good health?  I’m sure that it would be nice, but at what cost?

Perhaps there are things in life that are more important than our comfort and our security.  Perhaps there are things—eternal things—that matter beyond the boundaries of our short lives on earth.  In times when it seems that we are cursed because our situations are not pleasant or easy, maybe God is really giving us eternal blessings.  In light of the death we deserve for all the sin that we have committed against a holy God, we should be falling down on our faces before Him in gratitude that He would see fit to work for our GOOD in every circumstance.  God longs to build a holy character in our lives, and many of those lessons can only be learned in the Refiner’s fire.  Does God want His children to suffer?  No, but He longs for us to have GOOD things that are more important than our state of comfort.

Am I saying that it is wrong to be rich?  Absolutely not.  However, if you are rich, you must guard your thoughts and attitude that much more.  Am I saying that it is desirable to be poor and destitute?  Perhaps, but not necessarily.  What is most important is a heart that understands what it is like to hunger and thirst for God.  If you are truly seeking after God, and most likely even if you are not, circumstances will come into your life that will make you question all that you once thought was good.  Turn to the Word of God for the answer to the age-old question, “Why?”  You just might be receiving the blessing of God.

Too Righteous To Be Holy

As I was reading Luke chapter four through the first part of chapter six this morning, some questions and thoughts came into my mind.  This is just a thought, but I wonder if maybe Jesus did many of the things that He did and said many of the things that He said in order to reach the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law.  At first glance through the Gospels, it would appear that He does things and says things just to tick them off.  However, I am starting to see a different perspective.

There is not a single person on the planet that has the ability to see things from a truly objective standpoint.  Everyone has a bias, a perspective, and a story through which they filter their experiences and evaluate the purpose of life.  This is what can often get in our way, especially when we are reading Scripture, because we read the Word of God and filter it through our own life experiences and purposes rather than seeking to understand the author’s experiences, or the experiences of the characters in the story.  Although we can only walk in someone else’s shoes to a certain point, the more we are able to do that in whatever situation, our understanding of the world and God’s purposes will be that much richer.

The Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law had spent generations perfecting the right way to live.  Even more than that, they had spent generations trying to figure out God.  Although there is nothing wrong with either of these aspirations in principle, things had progressed to a point that was far too radical and oppressive.  So many times in the past, I have dismissed the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law as proud men who loved power and had become hard-hearted.  However, when I began to see things from their perspective, I started to have compassion on the jerks who ultimately put Jesus to death.

Looking at the history of Israel, God had a plan from the beginning.  It started with one man (Abraham) and progressed into a nation in Egyptian captivity.  God rescued His people from the oppression, led them to the promised land, and established them as a new powerhouse in the land.  Throughout the years of wandering in the desert, God gave Moses several guidelines that the nation of Israel should follow, and these became the law of Moses.  These guidelines were meant to be followed to the letter, and addressed daily systems and issues.  At first glance, the law might seem overbearing.  However, it was given as a means to bring order to chaos and to sustain the people of God.

There came a time in Israel’s history when they little by little disregarded the law that God had given Moses until it reached the point that they treated God Himself with apathy and contempt.  This ultimately led to the defeat and exile of the entire people of God for 70 years.  Eventually, they turned back to God and He reestablished them as a nation.  The law was restored along with their freedom.

By the time that Jesus came, a whole different kind of oppression had befallen Israel:  the Roman Empire.  The nice thing about the Romans was that they allowed the Jewish people to maintain their culture and way of life as long as they did not disturb the peace.  The problem with Jesus was that He disturbed the peace.  In the eyes of the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law who understood that they had been given a trust to govern the people of Israel, Jesus rocked the Roman boat, and everyone knows that you don’t rock Roman boats.  They needed to protect their people, as was the purpose of their position, and Jesus was going to mess things up for all of them.

Understanding all of this helps me to understand why they were so hostile toward Jesus.  However, being a follower of Jesus, I understand why He responded the way He did toward them.  The Pharisees and Teachers of the Law had enforced the law to such a high standard that it was impossible for anyone to correctly follow.  In the midst of the details, they had lost sight of the big picture.  Lest we turn to point our finger in their direction, maybe we should examine our own hearts on this issue.

More than any of the frustration that Jesus might have felt toward them, I think that He had a deep compassion and burden for these men.  I have often wondered why He would heal people and command them not to tell anyone, but to go show themselves to the priest “as a testimony to them.”  Jesus knew He would be found out.  Why was He trying to hide his identity?  Maybe He wasn’t; maybe he was focusing His ministry.  He knew that the simple people would follow Him when He healed the sick and fed the hungry, but He also knew how difficult it would be to reach the hearts of the religious leaders.  In John chapter 9, Jesus tells them that if they were blind, they would not be guilty of sin, but it is because they claim to see that their guilt remains.  In other words, they were blind because they thought they could see.  Isn’t that a thought to ponder? 

I worry about the Western church.  I am afraid that we have become so arrogant in our idea that we are the powerhouse on matters relating to faith.  In our eyes, we are the enlightened ones; everyone else is a heathen.  We pat ourselves on the back whenever we feed the hungry or help the homeless.  We pray so that all the world can hear.  We write books with our faces on the front, longing to be the next poster child of Christianity.  When reading the things that Jesus said to the Pharisees throughout the Gospels, I can’t help but insert my name in that place.  I would hope and pray that God had compassion on them, because I hope and pray that He might have compassion on me.

Are we so blind that we miss the salvation that Christ is offering?  Has the fact that we claim we know the answers to life’s questions disqualified us from all that God longs to bring about through us?  We speak theology so eloquently and spend years studying its great mysteries, yet have we lost the simple truth that Jesus came and died to give?  It is a question that we must all ask ourselves, lest we become like the Pharisees and Teachers of the law, who focused so heavily on the details that they missed the big picture.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to miss out on being a part of the Kingdom of God because my pride stood in the way.  I don’t want to eliminate Jesus because He threatened all that I had found secure.

2 Corinthians 13:5 says, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves.  Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?”  Be careful in assuming that you are set, that you have reached a certain level with God.  Be cautious when you think you have arrived.  Pride will destroy faith more quickly than unbelief, and it does far greater damage.  Take some time to examine yourselves and test your faith.  Do not allow yourselves to get to the point where you are too righteous to be holy.  Dive into the Word of God with fresh eyes.  You may be surprised at what you find.

Burn the Chaff

This morning God asked me to wake up with Him to see the sunrise.  Even though the sun has not yet risen, we have had a good morning, the two of us.  I read Luke chapters 1-3 and some things came clear to me that I had perhaps never thought about quite like I did this morning.  John the Baptist’s preaching has always been interesting to me, and two analogies in particular have peaked my interest this morning:  the trees that do not produce good fruit and the chaff that will be burned up with unquenchable fire.

It caused me to evaluate my life, because these two things do not necessarily have anything to do with what we do, but rather with who we are.  By our own efforts, we cannot produce fruit in our lives.  Fruit, rather, is the evidence of a healthy tree, one that is receiving proper nourishment and is firmly connected to its life source.  John the Baptist does not say, “Produce fruit by obeying the law and everything God says to do.”  Rather, he says, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance (3:8).”

I had never noticed or thought about this before.  Repentance is the key to producing good fruit in our lives.  We can study Scripture all day long and follow every rule and teaching set forth in its pages, but if we neglect to spend time humbly in God’s presence every day, asking Him to reveal all that is unholy in our lives, then we will be like the tree that does not produce good fruit that will be cut down and thrown into the fire.  If we are in the center of His will, repentance will be at the center of our lives.  There is no room for pride in a heart that understands how undeserving it is of God’s grace.

The part that really struck me was the part of John’s speech about the chaff.  He says:  “’I baptize you with water.  But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire (3:16-17).’”  Dictionary.com defines chaff as “worthless matter, refuse.”  I then asked myself:  what in my life is chaff?  What is worthless?  What is trash?

Two things came to mind:  my laziness and irresponsibility.  Lately, I have noticed that the state of my apartment and how messy it is has really been a hindrance to my peace and a stealer of my joy.  Whenever I would come home, I would immediately be stressed out.  I could never find anything, and I often leave my apartment in the morning for work frustrated because it took me fifteen minutes to find my keys.  The past couple days I have spent significant time cleaning out and throwing away all the useless papers and trash lying around.  It had been quite a while since I had done inventory on how much stuff I had accumulated and it’s amazing to me how it happened without me even noticing.  Until my life had been overrun by useless trash, I was oblivious to its affect on my peace.

The same could be said spiritually.  How much useless stuff is lying around on the floor of our hearts?  There is so much chaff in my life, lying around and cluttering the place that I say I have dedicated as a holy place for God.  These things might include excuses:  not following through on goals and ideas given to me by God because of Excuse A, Excuse B, Excuse C, etc.  My life is overrun by these excuses, so much so that the dream is lost in the clutter.  God longs to come into my heart and gather the wheat (the things that are from Him) and burn the chaff (the things that are not from Him).  Harvest time has come in my life.  Am I ready to allow Him clearance to purify and cleanse me of all that is unholy about who it is I have become?

I want to be a tree that produces fruit, so therefore I must make repentance and humility the pursuit of my life.  I want to do God’s will with all that I am, so I must allow Him to make me holy.  I need to give Him access and free reign to enter the threshing floor of my heart and separate the wheat from the chaff.  I must be willing to let go of all that is worthless matter, that I might become the righteousness of God.  The grace of God is a gift that I do not deserve, but it is also a love that does not leave me where I am at.  The Holy Spirit is always changing us, growing us, and purifying us.  May it be so in my life today.

Even When I Fail You

This morning in Sunday School we talked about the story from Mark 14:27-31.  The passage reads as follows:

“’You will all fall away,’ Jesus told them, ‘for it is written:

“’’I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep will be scattered.’

But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.’
Peter declared, ‘Even if all fall away, I will not.’
‘I tell you the truth,’ Jesus answered, ‘today—yes, tonight—before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times.’
But Peter insisted emphatically, ‘Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.’  And all the others said the same.”

You probably know how the story goes:  that night Jesus is arrested and all the disciples flee into the night.  Peter follows at a distance and watches the trial as Jesus is accused of blasphemy and His fate is being decided.  One by one different onlookers recognize Peter as one of Jesus’ disciples, and out of fear, Peter swears that he was not associated with Jesus.  After the third denial and the rooster’s second crow, Peter leaves the scene weeping bitterly.  One account says that at that moment, Jesus turned and looked at Peter.  To deny the Messiah, God in the flesh:  what could be more humiliating?  Peter had failed Christ Himself.

Lately, I have been dealing with feelings of guilt about my own failures.  There are several little things that would seem like nothing to most people, but are really big deals to me:  my lack of organization, my struggle to take care of myself physically, etc.  However, there are even bigger issues that I deal with as well.  The biggest one perhaps to me is the knowledge that I have gifts and talents that I am not using to their potential, even when I know that God is calling me to use them in specific ways.  I have every excuse in the book, but none of them matter because I am being disobedient to God.  Knowing that I am choosing every day not to be obedient to God’s call in these particular areas is a heavy thing, and I have been feeling the weight of failure toward Him.

This morning in Sunday School, our teacher (who is also a high school teacher) mentioned that one of his chief frustrations with our educational system is that we are doing our best to not allow kids to fail.  The truth is that failure is a part of life, and when a child goes through his entire growing up years having never experienced failure, he is in for a rude awakening when he enters the real world and messes up.  What we should teach our kids, rather, is that they will fail, but they must learn to pick themselves back up again and grow stronger through the lessons learned.

That theory works well until we come face to face with spiritual failures.  Standing next to a holy and perfect God, one failure in and we are helpless.  There is not a thing that we can do to redeem ourselves in His eyes, and for the society that we have grown accustomed to, this is an incredibly difficult concept to grasp.  Some people spend their entire lives trying to make up for their mistakes, but the penalty for sin is death.  And we all deserve it.

However, praise God for His grace!  It is only because of His grace that we have hope in a world broken in sin.  We have denied Christ again and again in our attitude and our actions, in our selfish desires and our disobedience.  It is because of God’s incredible mercy that we can have the chance to experience true life beyond the guilt and shame.  This mercy is new every morning, giving us second, third, and fourth chances and beyond.

I know that personally, I do not always accept this grace and mercy.  When I fail God, it is my natural instinct to wallow in guilt and shame.  I could never stand in His presence, stained with all the dirt and mess that I have made with my life.  Instead of embracing this love, I choose to run away and hide.  I rush out of the temple area and weep bitterly in shame.  Why would God give this wretched soul another chance?

My friend brought up this morning the sad truth that so many of our churches focus heavily on the cross and rarely mention the resurrection.  Not to minimize the cross and everything that sacrifice stands for, but the cross was not the focus of Christ nor was it the focus of the early church.  In all actuality, the cross means nothing without the resurrection, when death and sin were not only atoned for, but CONQUERED.  We do not live defeated lives, simply dying to sin.  We are as Paul puts it in Romans 8:37 “more than conquerors through him who loved us.”  We need not remain in shame and guilt when we fail to live in obedience to Christ, because through Christ’s death AND resurrection, we are forgiven and are being made new.

Those same disciples that scattered the night that Jesus was arrested came to live completely different lives after the resurrection.  They were given a second chance to die for Him, and nearly all of them did.  Even Peter, who seemed to go from failure to failure, one day found the courage to claim Christ as his Lord though this acknowledgement claimed his life.  Through pride Peter claimed that he would never deny Christ, yet when put to the test his own strength proved useless.  However, through grace Peter humbly accepted Christ’s redemption and lived a life of victory.

We are each given that choice as well.  Failure is not only inevitable in our lives, but also a necessary difficulty that we must go through.  Until we have experienced failure, we can never fully understand and experience grace.  And until we have had a debt forgiven by Almighty God, we can never know what it is like to share in Christ’s victory.  Jesus quoted a passage from Zechariah chapter 13 when He predicted Peter’s denial.  When we read further into that chapter, it is written:  “This third I will bring into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold.  They will call on my name and I will answer them; I will say, ‘They are my people,’ and they will say, ‘The Lord is our God (v. 9).’”

Paul says in Philippians 3:10-11:  “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.”  I don’t know about you, but I am tired of hanging onto my past and present failures and regrets.  I long to let go of these things and claim the life of victory that Christ is offering to me.  In what ways have you struggled with failure in your own life?  This failure does not need to be the end game of your story; rather, allow it to be the beginning of God’s redemption story in your life.  Praise God for the cross, but press on in resurrection spirit!

The Winter Is Past

I just experienced the perfect moment.  I am sitting on a rock literally a foot away from a rushing river.  Every once in a while, the water jumps up and splashes me.  The thundering of the stream on the rocks is so loud, yet somehow comforting.  I was so ready to start back home, a little disappointed, but I decided to take one more drive.  I landed here.
 

Throughout the past few weeks I have been struggling with something that has never been an issue for me before:  the silence of God.  Throughout my entire life, His voice has been so clear to me.  I could feel myself losing perspective and rearranging priorities that I knew needed to stay the same.  This has been a difficult thing for me because feeling close to God and having clear direction have perhaps been things that were so easy that I have taken them for granted.  I decided rather spontaneously to get away this weekend and take a trip to the Appalachian Mountains to hopefully hear from God.

Yesterday, God brought a couple verses to my attention that have increasingly become the theme of this trip (Song of Songs 2:10-12):

“My lover spoke and said to me,
‘Arise, my darling,
my beautiful one, and come with me.
See!  The winter is past;
the rains are gone.
Flowers appear on the earth;
the season of singing has come.’”

This morning I had a very moving time with God.  I started praying through my past, about all that I am involved with now, the things that I struggle with, my fears, and the future.  I began to realize that the more I am in His presence, the smaller my problems become.  When I had said my peace, God had me make two lists:  one with the things from my past and present that are holding me back, and the other of my greatest desires and dreams.  I then gathered dead leaves and wrote each item on a leaf.  There were several things I wrote; some were the names of people from past relationships or friendships that went sour.  Others were my struggle with self-esteem and depression.  There were several leaves dedicated to my fear:  fear of failure, fear of not being good enough, and fear of being a disappointment.  I dedicated a leaf to my illness that I have battled for nearly a decade.  I began to realize that using dead leaves was fitting, because all that had been holding me back was truly dead as well.  There was nothing life-giving or beautiful about these things.  I had given them so much power over me as I allowed them a place in my life.

My dreams and desires were written on dead leaves as well, because without the Source of life, that is all they will be.  I needed to surrender those things, knowing that God may or may not give them back to me one day.  There were only three:  my desire to be married, my dream of writing, and my passion to work with orphans.  Through this experience, I determined that either way, I would praise my Creator and serve Him alone for the rest of my life.

I have imagined the Kingdom of God like a rushing river:  powerful and beautiful and pure.  I have come to find that following Christ is less about what we do for Him and more about jumping into the flow of His Spirit.  In this river we are washed clean and His grace carries us to the places that God desires us to be.  This water is life-giving, and all who taste will find life.  It is never about us, but all about the Giver of life.  I want to be what Psalm 1:3 describes as God’s righteous follower:  “He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.  Whatever he does prospers.”

I took my withered leaves and climbed down the bank to the water’s edge.  Standing on a rock in the rushing stream, I one by one dropped the leaves into the water and watched them be swept away by the current.  I cried and prayed through each leaf as I tossed them, “God, I give you my issues with my self-esteem…God, I give you my fear.”  I prayed that He would help me to no longer allow these things power in my life.  Lost in the flow of His grace and will, I one by one let go of the things that had been holding me back from following Him and believing the truth that He has spoken into my life.

I then took my three dreams and one by one tossed them into the river of His will.  I gave Him my writing ability and my dreams to do a great many things with that.  I gave Him my desire to care for orphans, knowing that if His will should call me that direction, the flow of His Spirit that I had entered would take me there.  Finally, I stood on the edge of the river holding the final leaf that represented my desire to be married.  I prayed that God would give me strength to place that in His will, that I would still praise Him if He were to take that from me.  I prayed for my future husband, as I have prayed for him every day for years, that God would bless him and protect his heart.  I prayed that if God were to allow me this honor of marriage, that I would be a blessing, an encouragement, and a fulfillment of His purpose in the life of the man that God might bring my way.  With those words, I placed the leaf in the river and watched it as it was carried away.

The verses from Song of Songs kept coming to mind throughout the day, and it was almost like I could feel God take my hand and whisper, “Arise my darling…and come with me.  See!  The winter is past.”  For so many years I have seemed to go from heartache to heartache, and I have often found myself asking God when this season of sorrow would end.  At last the time has come, as the trees are beginning to sprout new leaves and the forest is awakening with new life.  My God has spoken:  the winter is past!  I pulled my car alongside the rushing river as the song “Amazing Grace” came on by Chris Tomlin.

God has brought me through many dangers, toils, and snares.  His amazing grace has saved this hopeless one, once lost in despair but now found.  As the leaves were flowing farther and farther downstream, I smiled.  “My chains are gone!  I’ve been set free!  My God, my Savior has ransomed me!  And like a flood, His mercy rains unending love, amazing grace.”

I don’t think that I could ever get tired of watching the water rush past me, flowing over rocks and out of sight.  The thundering sound that it creates, yet loud it is so peaceful.  Where do I go from here?  Well, I am going to get in my car and drive back to Nashville, trusting that my God and my Love will honor these desires of my heart.  May He capture me and carry me in the flow of His Spirit as He leads me on in this great adventure of life.

You Lead
Jamie Grace
I’ve got waves that are tossin’ me,
Crashin’ all over my beliefs,
And in all sincerity, Lord,
I wanna be yours,
So pull me out of this mess I’m in,
Cause I know I’m wanderin’
Lead my soul back home again,
I’ve always been yours,

And this world may push, may pull,
But your love it never fails,

You lead, I’ll follow, Your hands hold my tomorrow,
Your grip, Your grace, You know the way,
You guide me tenderly,
When you lead, I’ll follow,
Just light the way and I’ll go,
Cause I know what you got for me is more than I can see,
So lead me on, on, on and on,
Just lead me on, on, on and on,

As a child I heard your voice,
But as a girl I made my choice,
There is no other way for me,
I’m devoted to you,
You’re my peace on the heavy days,
You’re the warmth of an autumn blaze,
Your love carries me away,
And it’s never too soon, no…

And this world may push, may pull,
But your mercy never fails,

You lead, I’ll follow, Your hands hold my tomorrow,
Your grip, Your grace, You know the way,
You guide me tenderly, yeah,
When you lead, I’ll follow,
Just light the way and I’ll go,
Cause I know what you got for me is more than I can see,
So lead me on, on, on and on,
Just lead me on, on, on and on,

Sometimes when I wake up, I don’t wanna rise up, Out of my bed, too many thoughts in my head,
Don’t wanna be who I used to be,
Gonna take the back seat and let you lead,
And I…
Need to stop, need to stop,
Cause I’m going too fast,
And I…
Know my God is still God, And you got my back,

You lead, I’ll follow, Your hands hold my tomorrow,
Your grip, Your grace, You know the way,
You guide me tenderly, yeah,
When you lead, I’ll follow,
Just light the way and I’ll go,
Cause I know what you got for me is more then I can see,
So lead me on…
Lead me on…

Ninjas, Pirates, and the Real World

One of my best friends Rachel owns a t-shirt that I have always wanted to have.  It says:  “My parents told me that I could be anything I wanted to be when I grew up…so I decided to be a ninja.”  If only that were a true profession!  Forget my day job; I would go and fight bad guys all day long.  As a kid I grew up on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and dreamed of being a hero, defying the odds and saving the world from imminent danger.  Why did I have to grow up?

And what about pirates?  Who hasn’t wanted to set sail for the great unknown, fighting fierce battles and searching for great treasure?  Granted, modern-day pirates show little respect for human life or dignity, but the stories that capture our imaginations and dreams are those told in movies and novels.  Pirates are brave, driven, and rough around the edges.  I know that I have fantasized about sword fights and cannon balls and longed to be a part of the action.  In fact, a non-negotiable question I ask guys that I am serious about dating is this:  if given the chance to be a pirate, would you do it?  Arrrrgh…of course I would!

Yet real life is so boring.  You get up in the morning, go to work, come home and eat dinner, and head for bed.  Each day it is the same old thing.  What is exciting about that?  Maybe those fantasies as a child were just make-believe stories with a dead end wish.  Who gets to be a hero in the real world?

What if it were possible for everyone to be a hero?  Ninja or not, there are enemies to fight and injustices to reconcile.  What about the foster care system that has eaten up hundreds upon thousands of children over the years?  How many little ones fall through the cracks, unnoticed until they make front page headlines as serial killers or the obituaries as one-lined suicides?  How many broken hearts have been forgotten in the crunching of numbers and the decisions made by officials who know nothing about their cases and who, quite frankly, don’t care?  What would a hero do when faced with this situation?  He wouldn’t bury his head in the sand, pretending that the heartache couldn’t touch him.  He would run toward the broken, fight the system, and defend the cause of the helpless.  And what about homelessness, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, human trafficking, mental illness, etc.?

Being a hero is not all about doing heroic things, however.  A true hero embodies justice and courage in every decision, big or small.  He models a life of integrity, knowing that his life is being observed by those around him.  He coaches his kids’ soccer team, he frames his children’s pictures and puts them on the wall, he loves his wife faithfully, and he does the best he can do at his job.  The world has seen its share of dictators and iron fisted leaders.  The world needs to see more men and women who take the world head-on for good, trust God with a fierce passion, and never back down from the battles they are faced with.  We would most likely be shocked to know how many lives we influence for good or bad every single day.

And like pirates, we are all instilled with an obsession for treasure.  The Bible speaks of a man finding a pearl of great price.  He buried the pearl in a field, sold everything he had, and bought the field.  What if we gave our lives seeking the Kingdom of God, the ultimate pearl of great worth?  What if we took the time to find that pearl in the lives and hearts of those we see every day, who are so near and dear in our lives?  Inside every heart is a treasure, and some treasure is buried deeper than others.  Will you take the time to really know those around you?  Will you sail the raging waters of their fear and doubt?  Will you pull them into the safety of your pirate ship?  Will you pillage the ranks of Satan for all who are held in bondage within his grasp?  What greater definition of a hero is there in this life?

As a society, we are slowly teaching our children that heroes do not exist.  It may be true that they will not grow up to be a ninja or a pirate, but the thirst of God’s grand adventure still remains.  It lies within all of our hearts, waiting to be awakened.  I am reminded of the scene in Prince Caspian when Aslan roars ferociously into the air and the trees awaken from their slumber.  Just as Aslan was not a tame lion, we serve a God that is in every way wild and unsafe.  Simply spend some time in nature and you will begin to understand that God’s Spirit draws us into the wilderness where his ferocity can capture and awaken our hearts.  We were never meant to settle down and shut down our imaginations.  God calls us to a life of adventure.  He calls us to be heroes.

Every single person is called to be a hero, a warrior in the great adventure of life.  What is it that has captured your imagination?  What injustice sets your heart to boil?  Stop asking yourself if you have the courage to step out and fight.  Instead, ask God for the strength to sustain you throughout the battle.  Movies may inspire us, but real life is more fantastic than a simple screenplay created by Hollywood writers and producers.  Real life is so much deeper and higher, longer and wider.  Don’t let fear hold you back from being the hero you were created to be.  Satan be warned:  the ninjas and pirates are coming!

Soul Tattoo

A while ago I went with one of my coworkers to a tattoo parlor to do some price comparison on a tattoo that she wanted to have done.  It had been an agonizing week searching for symbols, designs, and words that meant enough to her to have it branded on her body for the rest of her life.  Although I am fairly positive that she has placed the idea on the back burner in her life right now, the question came up about what tattoo I would get if I could get one.

I knew the answer immediately:  the North Star.  When asked about the reason I would choose that, I realized that this particular symbol has held such deep and lifelong significance to me that I couldn’t explain it adequately in a sentence or two.  So why the North Star?

I guess the story starts when I was around ten years old, and I was chosen for the envied role of Twinkle in the church dramatic musical production of Twinkle and the All Star Angel Band.  I actually have a recording of this production somewhere, and I recently went back and listened to it.  Even though it consisted of most of the children forgetting their lines and having to be reminded, that was the role of a lifetime for me.  That particular character defined how I felt about myself, and to many degrees still feel about myself today.

The musical was a drama within a drama where my character (Marvel Ann) was one of the angels in heaven, and I was the thorn in the side to Gabriel, the leader of all the angels.  I didn’t particularly like to follow the rules, and always tried to think of ways to do things “outside the conventional box”.  I entered wearing a baseball cap because I had been using my halo for home plate.  This unique personality made me the perfect candidate for the lead character in the first annual dramatic presentation of Christ’s birth in heaven. Gladys, the musical director, asked Gabriel to simply watch the presentation that she had prepared, and the host of little angels began their story.

All of us played various stars in the galaxy, and each one had their place.  There was Tex the Lone Star, Wanda the wandering star, Niagra the falling star, Celeste the rock star, and then me…Twinkle the North Star.  I was the outcast because I was the only star that couldn’t sing.  I had no talent whatsoever; everything I tried to do turned out to be an epic disaster.  Celeste tried to teach me how to play the harp, and I snapped the strings of her beautiful instrument.  I was no good at anything.  I sat on the sidelines as everyone else shared their great talents with all the other stars in the galaxy.

One day it was announced to the group that the day we had all been waiting for through the centuries had come:  the birth of God’s son on earth.  God had decided to choose one of the stars to be the one to shine in the night sky and point the way to baby Jesus.  Everyone was shocked when God chose the runt of the litter for the job:  Twinkle!  “Why on earth would God pick me?” I wondered.  However, the truth of the situation remained:  God had chosen me, and I would shine brightly to point the way to the Christ child.

Throughout my growing up years, this theme held true to my life.  I fit perfectly in both roles:  as Marvel Ann, who was unconventional and creative, and Twinkle, who was entirely inadequate yet chosen to shine God’s light in a darkened world, pointing all to the Christ child.  There have been many moments in my life when I have felt that I had nothing to give; I had no talent that I felt I needed to have to bring Him glory.  However, the truth has stuck with me:  God has chosen me for a very important purpose.  I must learn to do what I do best:  shine.

As I have grown older, stars have developed an even deeper significance in my life.  Their intense beauty shines in the ultimate void and how glorious it is to see a sky dotted with balls of fire, beautiful individually yet breathtaking as a number too infinite to count fill the night sky.  When I gaze into the heavens, I begin to see myself in my proper place as I realize how small I really am, and how great God must be to have created something so vast and big.  I could look for a hundred years for the words to describe this wonder, yet I would not even begin to find the words to say.

And what a great God He is that He would know each star intimately.  Psalm 147:4-5 says, “He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name.  Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit.”  As I gaze at the night sky, I have often wondered what the names are that He has given to the stars.  Why are they so important to Him?  In the moments that I have struggled to believe that my life matters in the vast universe all around me, Isaiah 40:26-31 has been a deep encouragement in my life:

“Lift your eyes and look to the heavens:

Who created all of these?

He who brings out the starry host one by one,

and calls them each by name.

Because of his great power and mighty strength,

NOT ONE OF THEM IS MISSING.

“Why do you say, O Jacob,

and complain, O Israel,

‘My way is hidden from the Lord;

my cause is disregarded by my God’?

Do you not know?

Have you not heard?

The Lord is the everlasting God,

the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He will not grow tired or weary,

and his understanding no one can fathom.

He gives strength to the weary

and increases the power of the weak.

Even youths grow tired and weary,

and young men stumble and fall;

but those who hope in the Lord

will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

they will run and not grow weary,

they will walk and not be faint.”

When I sit quietly and stare deeply into the night sky, I am reminded of God’s relentless love for me.  He is beautiful and romantic, sweeping me off my feet as I take the time to sit in His presence.  Sometimes I feel that He has set the stage for His wonders in this simple yet awe-inspiring creation.  It reminds me that I am small and He is so big; yet this God that I serve cares enough not only to name each star, but to notice and be involved in every detail of my small life.  How insignificant I must be, yet because of His great love He speaks significance into my meager existence.  How can I do anything but shine for Him?

I don’t know if I will ever get that tattoo, but if I do, there is no question what it will be.  My very purpose in life is to shine bright in the darkness, pointing the way to Christ and by my very existence inspiring praise to God.  It is not about what I do for Him; it is about what I am being for Him.  How great is His creation of the stars in the sky, yet how much greater of a creation are we?  We reflect His image, and though this image is broken and distorted, God saw that it was worth the life of His own Son to seek to restore that image and relationship.  You are not some insignificant life form, using oxygen until you leave this life.  You are a marvelous creation of God, made to shine His light for all to see.  Don’t miss the joy of simply being who God created you to be.  SHINE!
Wherever Is Trevor

{ he asks himself the same }

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