Plant Killer

“Hi, my name is Lindsey, and I’m a plant killer.”

{mumbled group response}: “Hi, Lindsey.”

So, is “black thumb” a thing? If it is, I have it. Maybe it’s not “black thumb.” Maybe it’s “dead thumb”? “Shriveled-to-actual-dust thumb”? Anyway, whatever the thumb that I have, it’s apparently not going anywhere. Roses left in my care? Dead. Plants given to me with the promise that I can’t kill them? Ha! Give me seven to ten days and watch the magic. And don’t get me started on my venture into fall-inspired mum-dom. That mum was full and beautiful and yellow, and I killed it. I don’t get it because I did exactly what the less-than-specific tag said!  I watered it. (Did I over-water it? Likely. Did I water it too little? Also possible.) I even nurturingly pruned it ON THE REGULAR, taking time to carefully snap off the dead blooms so that new, healthy ones could grow up in their places. Did it help? Did my mum grow big and beautiful and glorious like my neighbor’s from across the street? Negative, Ghost Rider. See what I mean. You know, I’m thinking “dead thumb” might be most accurate.

Given my pruning skills–or lack thereof, for the ten-thousandth time I’m reminded of how fortunate we all are that I’m not God (can I get an AMEN?!). That promise of “beauty for ashes” would’ve clearly been DOA. As it turns out, the Bible confirms for us that God is, in fact, a VERY “green thumb.” Check out Jesus’s words from John 15: 1-2. “I am the True Vine, and My Father is the Vinedresser. Any branch in Me that does not bear fruit He cuts away (trims off, takes away); and He cleanses and repeatedly prunes every branch that continues to bear fruit, to make it bear more and richer and more excellent fruit” (AMP). Look at all that life and pruning and growth–no dead mums anywhere!

A few short years ago, I knew absolutely zero about process mentioned in the verse above that God puts us through during the growth and development in our walk with Him. I didn’t know it existed; I didn’t know its name (sanctification). I recognized that God was working on me. I noticed that every time I experienced issues within my life, instructions for how to overcome those exact struggles suddenly appeared within my readings of the Word and/or my devotionals. It was too often and too dead-on not to be God at work on and within me, but I didn’t know it had a name. I had never heard the term sanctification. I had never heard a sermon on it, never read a book about it, never discussed it in small groups or Sunday school classes. But you know how once you hear a word you’ve never heard before it’s suddenly everywhere and being used by everyone? This is how the concept of sanctification was for me. That term showed up in Bible verse after Bible verse, scripture lesson after scripture lesson.

In an effort to shed brighter light on this process in which God plucks off our non-fruit-bearing parts in order for growth and healthier fruit to bloom, let’s turn (yet again) to my dear friend Joyce Meyer (some might even call us BFF’s). In her book How to Succeed at Being Yourself, Ms. Joyce explains sanctification as, “the state of perfect holiness, reached by degrees through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives” (pg. 254).

There are a couple of very important take-aways from her definition that, to me, help make this unfamiliar term a little more understandable. 1) Our end-goal is holiness.  2)We will never reach holiness all at once. It requires lots and lots of tiny steps (by degrees) in the right direction. 3) Most importantly, we cannot be sanctified of our own doing. The pruning of our destructive areas, our dead areas, MUST be done by God via His Holy Spirit.

Just to show you how important and essential to our spiritual maturity this process is, I want to provide for you several pieces of scripture where God speaks to us about it. I’m sorry to be list-y (ten points to Lindsey for excellent word creation!), but I truly believe that seeing and reading these verses will help God speak to you about this process so that you can better identify it and allow it fully into your own walk with Him.

Let’s begin with Leviticus 19:2, because, in my opinion, it truly explains WHY we need to go through this sometimes-uncomfortable process. “Be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” Surely this is clear enough. Our job as a child of God is to become more and more and more like Him, to strip off those things that encumber us, those sins that entangle us, that hinder us from preaching His message to those unsaved and unfamiliar with Jesus (Hebrews 12:1). If we keep all of our human faults, all of our “dead blooms” then this becomes impossible. As we learned from the Joyce Meyer definition earlier, our end-goal is holiness. Thus sayeth the Lord.

But of course God doesn’t just mention sanctification one time and hope we understand its necessity and importance. In 2 Thessalonians 2:13 it states, “…God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in truth.” Back up a little to 1 Thessalonians 5:23 and you’ll find this: “And may the God of peace Himself sanctify you through and through [separate you from profane things, make you pure and wholly consecrated to God].” Again and again, our Heavenly Father reminds us that sanctification is something we all must go through, that it’s something only He can initiate and complete within us, that we must allow this process to occur so we might become more like Him. “Sanctify them by the Truth; Your Word is Truth. As You have sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. I sanctify Myself for them, so that they also may be sanctified by the Truth” (John 17: 17-19).

The final scripture I want us to look at is Joshua 7:12-13, where God speaks to Joshua about the necessity of personal sanctification and the very real distance and danger we let into our lives when we aren’t constantly working WITH GOD toward great holiness. “I will cease to be with you, unless you destroy the accursed things among you. Up, sanctify (set apart for a holy purpose) the people, and say, Sanctify yourselves for tomorrow; for those says the Lord, the God of Israel: There are accursed things in the midst of you…You cannot stand before your enemies until you take away from among you the things devoted [to destruction].” Okay, so maybe you and I aren’t standing before golden idols as were those who this scripture references. However, you and I have PLENTY of strongholds: destructive habits that lead to our demise and keep us separated from God. And careful reading of this portion of Joshua 7 makes it very clear that not only do strongholds make us vulnerable to Satan and his attacks, but they make it impossible for God to draw near to us. I don’t know about y’all, but that is the OPPOSITE of how I want my life and my relationship with God to go! I want ZERO to do with Satan and his lies. I want EVERYTHING to do with Jesus. If that’s my true desire, there’s only one way to make that happen: sanctification via the Holy Spirit.

Chances are good that at least one of you reading this has had or is about to have a thought like this: well I don’t really think there’s any area that I need to work on right now because God’s not really pointed one out. To that I can only reply: GET BEHIND ME, SATAN! With all due respect, that’s the enemy talking to you and through you, friend. How do I know? Because you’re not holy. Relax, I’m not saying I am or others are either. None of us are…hence the need for personal sanctification in our lives. Prayerfully consider these areas in your life where God might be urging you to loosen some strongholds:

*Pride                       *Unforgiveness             *Hate/Prejudice/Racism

*Anger                      *Judgment                     *Worry/Fear

*Bitterness               *Selfishness                   *Doubt

*Worldliness           *Addiction (of all kinds)

And, y’all, this is just a very general list. It’s not person specific. God, however, is very individual. When He addresses issues with you that need work, He’s not going to give you a broad category. He’s going to be very, very specific to your behaviors, your beliefs, your strongholds.

Friends, our goal is progress; it is not perfection. Yes, holiness is what we’re straining toward, but we know we can’t reach that while here on this earth. But. We can get better. We can improve. We can work hard on ourselves, letting the Holy Spirit minister to us by pruning off those dead blooms. We can’t do it alone, and honestly, we don’t want to. We like comfort, and boy, sanctification is NOT comfortable. It does, however, bring us closer to Jesus, the same Jesus who promises to uphold us and walk hand-in-hand with us. The same Jesus, also, who restores to us, in degrees, everything that Satan steals from us.

It’s understandable to ask ‘why bother working so hard to rid my life of this stronghold or that stronghold when I know I have 12 more to address once it’s better controlled?’ but as with everything else, the answer is simply JESUS. Think about it like this: each stronghold is a wall, an opaque barrier between you and Jesus and all the good God has in store for your life. With each conquered stronghold (Romans 8:37), your mind gets stronger, your heart gets stronger, your earthly relationships get stronger, and most importantly, your relationship with Jesus and your testimony as a Christian gets stronger. While studying this subject, I came to understand something crucial: when we tear down in the name of Jesus the walls put up by our strongholds that stand between us and Jesus, it creates the opportunity for Jesus to re-erect those walls, instead, between us and Satan, protecting us further from the lies and schemes of the enemy.

Maybe you don’t feel like you’re currently working on yourself in any way in response to God’s process of sanctification. Maybe you feel like God hasn’t spoken to you so you’re good. Again, I don’t mean this like it probably sounds (although, I kind of do) but you are absolutely wrong. God is right there. He doesn’t teach us time and time again in His Word about the need for Holy-Spirit-led sanctification in our lives only to sit back and wait for us to do it ourselves. As He patiently reminds us, it requires the Holy Spirit, and more often than not, the Holy Spirit doesn’t yell. Being the wonderful, loving, provisional God that He is, tucked in Psalms is a portion of scripture that directly addresses what we’re talking about. If you know you need God’s sanctification in your life but you’re not sure how to even begin that process, adopt this scripture as your prayer (I’ve gotten you started below). God is waiting. God’s blessings are waiting. And Satan is REALLY hoping you won’t be brave enough to begin.

Holy Father, thank You so very much for loving me too much to leave me as I am. Thank You that I can grow and mature in my walk with You, that I don’t have to stay bound to these strongholds any longer. Father, I know that there are areas in my life where I desperately need the guidance of the Holy Spirit so that I might untangle myself from the enemy’s lies and strengthen my relationship with You. Just like it says in Your Word, Lord, search me and know my heart. Point out anything in me that offends You, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. Help me not to hear those lies of the enemy, the ones that tell me I’m fine like I am and the fault lies with others. I want to take responsibility for eradicating unfruitful areas of my life, Jesus, and I know I need You to help me make that happen. I thank You for hearing my prayer. Be with me, sanctify me, and help me become what You have designed me to be. It’s in Your holy name that I pray, Jesus. Amen.

 

Don’t Be Fooled By The Stink

I feel like I have started off multiple blog posts by saying something like, “let’s try a little experiment,” and yet, here I am doing it again. (I am obviously incredibly spontaneous and creative.) Over the last few weeks, I have been mentally wrestling with the Bible story I’ve felt God leading me to address and the specific points within it that I hoped to make. I had too much I felt I needed to discuss; a good problem to have, but with a story that spans more than 45 verses, it was clear I had to figure out a more reader-friendly approach. CALM DOWN. I came up with a solution. I mean, who has time to read 45 Bible verses when all those unseen Facebook posts await, am I right?! (insert good-natured eye-roll emoji here)

In this post, I’d love for us to spend some time going over the story of Jesus resurrecting his good friend Lazarus, which can be found in John 11. So in order for us to dig deeper into the goodness of these scriptures, we’ll consider today a “Part 1” if you will, with “Part 2” to follow soon. Sound okay? As I told you…I’m super creative.

At the risk of repeating a story many of you already know, let me take a quick second and summarize our main characters and the situation taking place as we enter the 11th chapter of John.

We are back with our friends Mary (of feet-washing-with-her-hair fame) and Martha (of griping-about-her-sister-not-helping-in-the-kitchen fame), and they are urgently reaching out to their dear friend Jesus, asking for his healing help for their dying brother Lazarus. Because Lazarus is literally on his deathbed and because Jesus is the Messiah and because they are all three very dear to Jesus’s heart, they contact him for his help, fully expecting his immediate arrival and subsequent answering of prayer.

Verse four tells us, “When Jesus received the message, He said, ‘This sickness is not to end in death; but [on the contrary] it is to honor God and to promote His glory, that the Son of God may be glorified through (by) it.'” (Side note: Have a seriously sick friend? Are you dealing with a scary, challenging illness? This is a FABULOUS scripture to pray over it!) Now to me, this sounds exactly what I would expect Jesus to say. I mean, after all, his dear friends have reached out to him, asking for his healing, which he can easily give, and it’s all in an effort to save someone very special to him. I read a reply like that and think yep, Jesus has got this. But wait! In verse 6, it clearly says that although Jesus was aware this was a dire situation, he still remained TWO DAYS longer in the place where he was. Do what?! WHY???? Maybe Jesus knows something we don’t? (Um, yes, always true.) Maybe ole Laz isn’t quite as sick as his over-reactive sisters made it seem? Sadly, no. In fact, it was serious. It was VERY serious. “So then Jesus told them [the disciples] plainly, Lazarus is dead” (vs. 14).

Unfortunately, I know exactly how Mary and Martha must feel. They had been faithfully praying and praying for God to hear them, for Jesus to show up and heal, to prevent the death that was getting more and more eminent. And yet nothing. No arrival of Jesus. No healing of Lazarus. Only death, with its dark cloak and sharp scythe appeared at the door of their dusty home.

I’m guessing I’m not the only one who knows what this feels like…to watch things within our lives that once were so full of life, so healthy, wither and practically die. Let me tenderly ask you today, because man does this subject often hurt, what in your life has that look of death, that feeling of hopelessness? Let me guess…

*your health?                *your marriage?               *your ambition?

*your career?                *a particular relationship or friendship?

*your self-worth?         *your will power/self-control?

*your relationship with God?               *God’s favor over you/your life?

*your future?                *a particular dream you’d held onto for years?

*your will to live?

Friends, Lazarus was IN THE GRAVE dead when Jesus finally arrived. In fact, he was so very dead (four days dead…with ZERO embalming fluid, might I add) that when Jesus approached Lazarus’s grave, which was basically a cave with boulder against the entrance, and demanded that the stone be rolled aside, the Bible says “Martha…exclaimed But Lord, by this time he [is decaying and] throws off an offensive odor…” (vs. 39). In all her grief and upset, Martha is so aware of the finality of her brother’s condition that she warns Jesus: What are you thinking, Lord? He’s gonna stink so bad! Amen, girl! This sounds like some common sense I can get behind.

What is your marriage, your career, your self-worth smelling like these days? Are you convinced that Jesus didn’t get there in time to save whatever it is you’ve been begging him to heal for so long? Mary and Martha felt just as you do, as I have. You’re too late, Jesus. I cried out to you, and you delayed getting here and now look! I’m too sick. The love between my husband and I is too far gone. My current circumstances have completely killed my dreams and plans. You’re too late, Jesus. It’s dead.

Y’all there is NEVER an absence of hope, of possibility, when it’s Jesus who’s in charge. You and I? We are Mary and Martha. We can pray all day and beg and plead, but ultimately, we have no power within ourselves. We can’t heal, and for those circumstances having already crossed over into the grave, we certainly have no ability to resurrect. But let me hook you up with someone who does. When you and I allow Jesus to handle our dying parts in His way, with His power, He fixes things that we swore could NEVER be fixed.

“Jesus said to her, I am [Myself] the Resurrection and the Life…” (vs 25). What in your life desperately needs The Resurrection HIMSELF? You see, for us, things look dead. For us, things even smell dead. But for Jesus, death is no big deal. He’s already overcome it. How can Jesus, who mastered death and for whom death holds no power, be limited by it? He. Isn’t. He. Cannot. Be. Don’t stop praying and expecting! Don’t stop taking to Him your marriage or your career or your zest for life simply because in your human weakness you have decided it’s past the point of help. Lazarus was dead for four solid days. He was buried and starting to literally stink. His skin would have been beginning to decay. But then Jesus arrived. Mighty, mighty Jesus. And he simply spoke, “He shouted with a loud voice, Lazarus, come out!” and out walked Lazarus (vs 43-44). Whatever you think is dead and buried, friends, it is not. There is nothing too far gone for The Resurrection Himself to breathe life back into.

And for those of you going through something like this, I’m sure you’re feeling hurt and frustrated and confused about why God is even allowing something like this to happen to you, to your family, to your body in the first place. Mary and Martha certainly were. When my marriage was all but dead despite our praying and our counseling and our trying (see previous post), I felt so abandoned. I felt like God had turned His head and His ear; I felt like, instead of coming to help in response to my urgent requests, He was staying those extra couple of days where He was, just letting death win. But He wasn’t. He just wasn’t on my schedule, and Satan used that to whisper doubt into my heart and my head. The same was true for Mary and Martha, and the same is true for you.

You probably feel like screaming WHY WOULD HE LET THIS HAPPEN?!, and I get it. I’ve been there. Chances are, I’ll be there again someday. But God knew we’d feel this way. In fact, if you read this Bible story carefully, He even explains Himself to us.

If you look back at verse 15, before Jesus ever leaves to go to Mary and Martha’s, after telling his disciples that Lazarus is already dead, he says to them (and he says to us, too), “And for your sake I am glad that I was not there; it will help you to believe (to trust and rely on Me).” My friends, God is most interested in our relationship with Him. If when we have a problem, we pray, He snaps His fingers and all is set right, we don’t develop much character and we don’t develop a very deep relationship with Him, do we? It would make us happier and it would make our lives easier, or so we think. But you know what? Sometimes God isn’t interested in only affecting you and your family through your challenges.

The Bible tells us that others’ lives were changed when they witnessed Lazarus’s miracle. Mary was changed, no doubt. Martha was changed, for sure. And there’s zero debate that Lazarus was completely changed. But a number of other lives were affected for God as well. “Upon seeing what Jesus had done, many of the Jews who had come with Mary believed in Him” (vs 45). Whether you realize it or not, people are watching you. They’re watching your decisions and your life and your faith. Because you are Jesus’s friend, because you are a joint-heir to the throne of God with Jesus Christ Himself, you are a testimony to His power and His love. Yes, Lazarus was dead. Yes, it appeared Jesus was too late. But God is never late. He’s never without the ability, and He’s always able to use any situation, any circumstance, no matter how stinky it might be, for His glorification. Will you let Him use you? Will you stop declaring a time of death and prepping for a funeral and instead let Him breathe the breath of life back into your life? Keep your faith, friends. Don’t be fooled by the stink.

Dear Lord, thank you so much that I can ALWAYS count on You, that I never have to believe that it’s too late for Your power to work. Father, I bring to You today those parts of my life that I’ve mistakenly declared dead. I ask that You do what only You have the power to do: resurrect them, please. Help me to keep my faith, to trust that You’re at work even when it’s impossible to detect. Use me, Lord, use my life and my situations so that others may witness You and Your goodness and grace. Father, help me to remain patient, to stand firm when challenges and trials don’t get resolved as I’d like. Heal my dead parts, Lord. May all I go through in my life ultimately bring You glory and honor. I love you, God. Thank you for hearing my prayer. It’s in Jesus’s mighty name that it’s offered. Amen. 

 

Help.

Okay, everybody, who’s ready for an experiment?? {pretends all the hands are raised}

Keeping with my promise to always be upfront and honest, I’d like to say I have no idea how this blog post is going to go over. I’ve never done one like this before, but the concept it (hopefully) discusses is so very valid and useful; therefore, we’re going to just go forward with this, trusting God to help me clearly communicate and you to clearly understand. Off we go!

In the past couple of weeks, two of my dear friends have been dealing with very different but equally overwhelming struggles within their families. Talking with and praying for these friends has me thinking about those times in life when we are so entrenched in struggle, so eyebrows-deep in worry and darkness that we don’t even know what words to form to bring our requests to God. While talking it all over with one of those friends I mentioned, she expressed even feeling scared to pray because of the fear that with an already bad situation, things were going to get worse before they got better. And she wasn’t sure she could handle that.

We have ALL been there. Not one of us has escaped those treacherous times in our walk with God where we feel so overwhelmed and He seems so far away that we don’t even know the way back to closeness. When we feel so alone and so separated from God’s intervention and guidance that we’re not sure He’d hear us even if we did find the words somehow. And you know what I’ve noticed, too? Often times it doesn’t have to be dire circumstances that make us feel that way. Sure, it’s a lot harder to stand boldly before the throne of God when your back is so very heavily weighted down with the crosses you’re bearing, but it’s also complicated and challenging to face God in prayer when we’re at a crossroads… when we’re so struggling to detect God and His lordship that we don’t know what to do or where to go or even exactly what to pray for.

But there’s good news! Romans 8:26 brings us, during times like these, encouragement and hope. When you’re too upset, hurting too much, or your head is too full of noise to be able to focus enough to pray, you have help. “And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words.” Take a deep breath, my friends, because the Holy Spirit is speaking to God on your behalf, and He knows EXACTLY what to say!! Please tell me you’re listening to this major benefit that accompanies the gift of the Holy Spirit, given to us upon Jesus’s ascension into heaven. YOU DON’T HAVE TO KNOW THE WORDS! People, you could literally bow your head in reverence and whisper “Help.” You could simply say, “Jesus.” Or if you really want to get crazy and choose a lengthy prayer you could put those two together: “Help, Jesus.” Simplicity is okay. Admissions of feeling unsure of what to say is okay. Just do whatever you can, no matter how much, and let the Holy Spirit do what He does best: intercede on your behalf.


Another thing that is so valuable and useful in developing knowledge of the scriptures and strengthening your prayer life (especially during these darker days) is to pray scripture. Using the already-formed words of the biblical greats when you can’t find your own words is incredibly effective. Often times, I will pray scripture, not because I’m upset or worried or bothered, but simply because, while reading my Bible, I come across a particular section that really speaks to my soul. In an effort to internalize that Truth and use it to bring myself closer to God, I will use that scripture as my own prayer, borrowing those sacred words as my own.

So, here we are at the experimental part I mentioned before. I want to simply show you how I pray scripture and what I mean by that term. All those years growing up in church, Sunday school, and youth group, I never once heard about the concept of praying scripture. It wasn’t until I did the Bible study by Beth Moore called Living Free: Learning to Pray God’s Word that I began to understand exactly how scripture-praying worked and how useful it is for my own spiritual growth. So for our purposes (our experiment), the scripture that pressed upon my heart and which I am going to pray is Psalm 34. Because I am not going to use that chapter in a word-for-word way, I highly recommend that either before or after you read my written scripture prayer (or both?!), you take the time to read Psalm 34. It’s not very long, but, especially for those of you going through challenging circumstances, it’s so very worth it. Your soul will feel rehydrated, your hope restored. Reading the scripture in conjunction with my prayer is really the only way to fully understand. These aren’t really my words; they are, but they’re not. These are David’s words, personalized for me. Trust me, I think if you just take the time to read Psalm 34 AND the prayer below, you’ll get what I mean. So, with no further ado, please share my prayer with me…

Dear Lord, I will praise you at all times, constantly throughout all circumstances, and I will boast only in YOU, not in myself. Father, I will exalt your name so that whether it is I who feels helpless or someone else, I will effectively correct those unreliable feelings with talks of your greatness and might.

Thank you, Father, that when I pray to you, you answer me. Every time. Even when that answer is different than what I want or understand.

Thank you, Father, for freeing me from my fears, for taking my shame and replacing it with your perfect joy, unreliant on situation or mood.

Thank you, Father, that when I am troubled and desperate, I can pray to you, you will listen, and you will save me from my troubles.

Thank you, also, Lord, for the angels you send to guard and protect me, for their surrounding comfort and defense.

I desire to taste and see that you are truly good, Lord, to be joyful in my refuge in you. Thank you that as long as I respect you and uphold my relationship with you, I will FOREVER have all I need, lacking in no good or beneficial thing. Thank you for this promise, Lord!

I desire, Father, to have a long and prosperous life, and I pray for your help in keeping my tongue in check, from speaking evil and/or telling lies (of all sizes). Father, aid me in turning from evil and help me settle solidly in doing good.

I praise you, God, for your peace! I cry out to you with a sincere desire for your perfect peace in all areas of my life, as well as in my heart, mind, body and soul. God, I recognize that peace requires constant, intentional effort, so please help me to desire it, to search for it, and to work to maintain it–especially when my human, knee-jerk reaction is far from peaceful/peace-keeping.

Thank you, Lord, for keeping your eyes on your children–on me!–and for keeping your ears attuned to my cries for you.

Thank you that when I am broken-hearted and crushed in spirit, you are always right near me. Always.

Father, please continue to rescue me from my troubles…every. single. time. Thank you for your refuge, your freely-given salvation, your redemption, and your constant love and protection.

I love you, Father, and I thank you for the scriptures which help me draw nearer to you. It’s in the matchless name of Your Son Jesus that I pray. Amen.

 

 

Shadrach, Meshach, and a Billy Goat

I began writing this blog post a couple of weeks ago, pretty much immediately after posting the most recent one about secrets. However, about the time I got ready to sit down and actually type it out and upload it, my sweet 92-year-old grandmother passed away. As weird as it sounds, her passing actually made this post even more special, and I can feel God’s hand on it after seeing how these events aligned. I’m about to tell you a story that begins with an old country church. It just so happens that this very church is the one where we laid her to rest–right beside my grandfather–last week. Because of her death, I was able to visit the exact spot where my story took place all those years ago. Isn’t it amazing how God uses regular life events to confirm His presence and activity to us?

So back to this super cute, very quaint country church. It was in this church that my dad, as a boy, attended both Sunday school and church services, although it wasn’t really Sunday school like many of us think of it. This church, Beaton United Methodist Church, was only one building: the sanctuary. That meant that Sunday school was conducted right there where they’d later hear the sermon and sing their hymns. All of the Sunday school classes. Right there together. The adults gathered up at the front near the pulpit; the older kids gathered in one back corner, with the young children in the other. Needless to say, that level of focus and attention has dissipated with our generation.

Well, it was during Sunday school one Sunday that my six-year-old dad overhead some of the adult class’s lesson. He explained to me that while he was “listening” to his teacher, his attention was caught by the adult teacher (which was likely my grandfather) discussing some very strange names from the Bible. He said he heard Shadrach. Then, he heard Meshach. But it was this next one that had him really tuning in, because after naming these two guys, my dad heard, “and a billy goat.” He then continued to listen closely to figure out what a billy goat had to do with anything, but obviously the Bible never addressed that within the story. So time passed, and young Ricky went on wondering about these two oddly named men from the Bible and their billy goat.

As the years passed and this story was told in Sunday school and church from time to time, my dad carried that mental image around in his now teenaged head of this strange group: two men and a billy goat. He said he always listened to hear that explanation of why these guys lugged this goat around everywhere with them, but he just never did catch it. Then, during one sermon in which he was following along with his Bible, the truth was illuminated (in my head this involves bright lights and singing): there was no billy goat! It wasn’t Shadrach, Meshach, and a billy goat. It was Shadrach, Meshach, and ABEDNEGO…a third strangely-named guy! Pretty incredible what you can sort out by opening that Bible, huh? 🙂

As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, I want to spend some time with you today talking about these three guys (no billy goats included!) and the story from Daniel that shows what mighty men of faith they were. All of today’s discussion is coming from Daniel 3, and if you’ve not read this chapter for yourself (no excuses–it’s pretty short), I highly encourage you to do so. But before we start in on the circumstances facing these men and the decisions they made, as much as I hate to spend your time simply summarizing the Bible for you, I think that’s best so we have a clear picture of what’s taking place when these men enter the picture.

Daniel 3 begins with King Nebuchadnezzar instructing the creation of a golden idol. And not just a small gold statue for people to bow before. It was enormous: 90 feet tall and 9 feet wide. And with this idol, King Neb (no way am I typing that name multiple times) created this rule: when those within his kingdom heard any of a variety of musical instruments being played, they were to immediately “fall down and worship the golden image” (vs. 5). And being a narcissistic king, there was, of course, a consequence for anyone who refused to do as he commanded: “And whoever does not fall down and worship shall that very hour be cast into the midst of a burning fiery furnace” (vs. 6). Okay, so clear enough. Music plays, you drop what you’re doing and bow to the golden statue. If not, you burn. No questions asked, no excuses accepted, no exemptions made.

Enter our three main characters. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were brought before King Nebs because it was brought it his attention that they refused to bow to his idol, and it infuriated him. Once they’re before him, he questions their refusal, reminding them again that a fiery death awaited anyone who met his command with disobedience. To me, I picture the king with his puffed up chest, convinced of his own power and ability to scare these men into doing exactly as he desires. However, these three aren’t having it. They serve ONE God, and ole Nebby’s idol is NOT it. I love their response to the king’s threats. It says that they answered him saying, “…it is not necessary for us to answer you on this point. If our God Whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image you have set up!” (vs. 16-18) I love that first sentence: it is not necessary for us to answer you on this point. In other words, King, this is not up for discussion. Ha! We don’t care what you threaten us with, we don’t care what you demand, we aren’t even considering doing what you’re asking us to do because we serve God and that’s that.

How often do you and I get this part wrong? How often do we find ourselves selling out and worshiping those “golden images” of wealth, status, popularity, self, convenience, fear, worry, etc.? How often do we bow our heads and bend our knees in front of those things while pushing God aside? Thank you, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego for lesson number one: if we expect God to save us from pain and anguish and even certain death, we must bow to Him and Him alone. He must have first priority in our hearts and our lives, no matter what it appears to cost us.

In those verses above, I was also struck by another indicator of their attitudes in the midst of difficulty. You’ll notice that they have full confidence in God’s ability to deliver them from the fire they’re facing. HOWEVER, they’re also convinced that it’s fine no matter what God chooses to do. “But if not…” I don’t know about you, but I need to adopt this mindset much more often. When I’m facing something unknown, something uncertain and upsetting, I need to set my mind on the mighty God I serve and His ability to deliver me, but at the same time, I need to remember that if God chooses not to remove this fire from before me, I will still believe in His goodness and His love. I will still trust His plan and His promise to do good for me. Pssst…that was lesson number two.

Okay, so surely by this point you know enough about King Neb’s personality to know that an outright refusal by these three guys to do as he commanded wasn’t met with happiness. He was furious, and in an effort to punish them even more for their disobedience (because apparently burning to death isn’t tough enough), he demands that the furnace be heated seven times hotter than normal. Just to give you an idea of how hot this was, the king’s men who were tasked with throwing Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into the furnace were killed immediately by the radiating heat. And then the miraculous happens…

Starting in verse 24, King Nebuchadnezzar is astounded, in total disbelief because, despite being clothed and bound, these three men are still alive! But that’s not even the most shocking part! Looking into the furnace, the king declares, “Behold, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt! And the form of the fourth is like a son of the gods!” (vs. 25) Hmmmm, wonder who that fourth man is in that fiery furnace with our three friends? Hint: IT’S JESUS! And just like that, we have lesson number three. Friends, no matter what “fire” you’re facing or even right smack in middle of walking through, you are not alone. The God that these men served, the God who literally protected them from the fire under their feet is the exact same God you serve. He is the same today as He was yesterday. There’s NOTHING that He can’t save you from, and if He allows you to face that fire, it’s because He has a plan and because He knows you can do it with His walking right beside you.

Because of Jesus’s protection, “the fire had no power upon their bodies, nor was the hair of their head singed; neither were their garments scorched or changed, nor had even the smell of smoke clung to them” (vs. 27). Look at what your God can do for you! With His help and His presence and your trust in Him, He can not only get you through that fire, He can do so without any harm coming to you. You can emerge victorious on the other side of that furnace without a single injury, even without the smell of smoke clinging to your skin. Because our three friends clung to God’s power and refused to turn their eyes from God no matter how dire their circumstances looked going in, their faith allowed God’s power to be recognized and glorified. After witnessing this miracle, the king declares, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, Who has sent His angel and delivered His servants who believed in, trusted in, and relied on Him!” (vs. 28)

Lesson number four, my friends. Can you imagine what God is doing through whatever affliction you’re facing right now? Can you imagine the pride and thankfulness you’ll experience if you hold steady to your Jesus, to your faith in Him, through your “fire” so that He can be glorified through YOU?! Can you imagine the life-changing lessons your circumstances and your decision to trust God can teach your children? Your coworkers? Your spouse? Your friends? God is working. God is for us! Some of us might get to avoid that fire altogether…this time. But for most of us, God’s simply going to walk right through it side-by-side with us, holding our hand if need be, so that when we come out on the other side, we’re greeted by His abundant blessings. Not only will we be alive when it’s all said and done, but like these three guys with funny names, we’ll be unbound from anything holding us back, anything meant for our harm; we’ll be unharmed by those around us and those circumstances that seem to be lapping at our ankles; we’ll have been so protected through it all that there’s not even a leftover hint of that trouble that threatened to do us in. There will be no baggage for us to carry, no smoky smell to wash from our clothes. And most importantly, others will know Him because of what they’ve witnessed through us. Praise the Lord!

Dear Lord, thank you so much for loving me so much that You’ll never abandon me. I ask, Father, for Your deliverance from the fire I’m currently facing, but God, mostly I simply ask that, no matter what, You help me to feel and recognize Your constant presence. Help me not to question You and Your plan but to trust that at all times and in all situations You’re working for my good and protecting me when the going gets tough. I love you, Lord, and I ask that You use my life to witness to others, no matter what that might cost me. Help me to stay strong in my faith so that I don’t ever give in to the temptation to bow my knee at worldly idols. I declare today, Father, that You are my number one, and I ask that You guide me through Your Word to be strong enough to make that choice despite the furnace in front of me. Thank you for the faith of these three men and the lessons I can learn from them. Thank you for hearing my prayer. It’s in Jesus’s name that I pray. Amen.

(No billy goats were harmed in the writing of this blog post.)

Secret Secrets

“Shhhhh…it’s a secret!”

How many times we’ve whispered these words to conceal something wonderful and exciting until just the right moment when the secret can finally be revealed. Brand new baby bumps, impending proposals, and perfect birthday gifts are only a few in a list of milestone moments that begin frequently as happy secrets. But this phrase, as we all know too well, can turn very sinister when the secret it conceals is a dark one.

These days it’s almost impossible to open up social media sites or turn on the news without seeing the brave, secret-blasting movement known as #MeToo. It’s certainly no secret (pun [lamely] intended) that we’re seeing secrets brought to light at a staggering pace. But we, as Christians, shouldn’t be surprised by this. Why? Because Luke 8:17 tells us exactly how God handles dangerous secret-keeping: “For all that is secret will eventually be brought into the open, and everything that is concealed will be brought to light and made known to all.”

Fun, harmless, short-term secrets we most often bring to light ourselves;  we tell our friends and family of our pregnancy, we ask that special someone to marry us (and hopefully, subsequently announce it after she says yes), and we give that meaningful gift so it can be opened and enjoyed. But it’s the secret secrets, those that we keep–sometimes even from ourselves–those we push deep down with an intentional effort to hide, it’s those secrets that God brings to light for us. He does this out of love, friends. He does this for us because these secrets fester and create wounds, they erode our character and our integrity, and they weaken (even kill!) our relationship with Jesus.

Before we go on, however, I think it’s crucial that we clarify something incredibly important. These secrets that the Bible mentions God bringing to light are unequivocally not those of past confessed and repented sins. Our God is NOT in the business of airing your dirty laundry. He is NOT interested in gossip, and He certainly does not create fodder for the greedy gossip mill. If you have something secret from your past that you did but have fully addressed before God, asking for His forgiveness and changing your life to remove that sin from it, the Bible tells us clearly that “as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our [sins] from us” (Psalm 103:12). We are reassured again in 1 John 1:9 that “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” So, no, that one thing you did years ago but confessed to God, asking for and receiving His forgiveness over is NOT the type of secret we’re talking about today. It’s SOOO important that you understand this, I’m going to say it one more time. If you’ve confessed and repented and renewed your walk and your ways, you’re good. It is those secrets we’re still keeping, those we’re still actively participating in, that He brings to light for us. Especially those we think we’re hiding from God Himself.

Play along for a second, and please read the following statements about secrets that I found during my prep for this topic. I’m pretty sure that you don’t have to have lived much life to find that these contain truth.

  • Little secrets grow up to be big lies.
  • There are no secrets that time does not reveal. –Jean Rancine
  • If you have to sneak to do it, lie to cover it up, or delete it to avoid it being seen, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it.
  • Nothing makes us as lonely as our secrets.
  • Secrecy is the enemy of intimacy.
  • What you do behind someone’s back you also do in front of God’s eyes.

As is typical of the loving Father we have, He fully understands how dangerous secrets can be in our lives. He fully recognizes the loneliness they create, the depression, the shame. He loves us far, far too much to allow us to be eaten away by the internal disease that these secrets become. He’s not only concerned about those of us with big secrets. He’s just as worried about those of us who keep seemingly small secrets. Yes, sure, it’s only one cigarette, and you don’t even smoke it around your kids…but does your spouse know? What if your internet search history was read out loud by God? Do you find yourself worrying instead of praying and just hoping God doesn’t find out that you don’t really trust Him? Who cares if you have vicious road rage and flip people off and yell and scream? I mean, you keep it together when your family is with you. And what about that food you keep hidden away–or eat secretly before you ever get home? How many drinks are you hoping God missed seeing you drink last Tuesday night?

Maybe you see these types of secrets as harmless. If so, I encourage you to re-read that first bulleted statement above. Intentional, conspiratorial secrets are lies, my friends. The Bible makes this distinction for us. After Ananias and Sapphira attempted to keep a secret, deciding instead to lie, they were asked, “Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit?” (Acts 5:3). Conspiracy is not a God quality. It is, however, very much a slithering serpent quality. Big or small, important or seemingly unimportant, hidden deeds corrupt our witness, leaving God no choice but to save us by bringing them forward into the light so that from them, we can be set free. In Max Lucado’s Ten Women of the Bible he states our frequent approach to lying this way:

“The truth, we learn early, is not fun. So we avoid it. We want our bosses to like us, so we flatter. We call it polishing the apple. God calls it a lie. We want people to admire us, so we exaggerate. We call it stretching the truth. God calls it a lie. We want people to respect us, so we live in houses we can’t afford and charge bills we can’t pay. We call it the American Way. God calls it living a lie.”

It’s is so very crucial that we, as Christians, pay attention to what we allow ourselves to ignore. How very accepting of our own faults we’ve become while holding others to an impossibly high standard. Buried so deeply in our own secrets and lies and sins, but drowning while steadily pointing the finger elsewhere.

BUT WAIT! I have good news! If you’d rather not wait to have your secrets brought to light for public consumption, you can set yourself free from the bondage created by withholding the truth from the Holy Spirit. I hope that you, like me, are asking HOW?! How do I rid my life of anything I’ve not been honest with God about? The Bible says that it’s very simple: “You will know the truth, and the Truth will set you free.” Friends, it’s not possible to feel better about ourselves, to see ourselves as worthy of God’s love, until we know His Truth. We must read His Word (regularly and with a prayerful spirit and open mind) so that His Truth can set us free. So…

  1. Know the Truth. KNOW God’s word, and plant it deep in your heart so that you can use it against the enemy when he aims to keep you buried under your secrets. Truth annihilates lies. Know the Truth.

2. Accept God’s love and grace. Don’t assume it is for everyone but you. Don’t assume    that because your earthly parents weren’t loving, your Heavenly Father’s not either. Don’t assume that the rejections you’ve suffered have been His rejections. Don’t believe that your secrets are too dark and deep for Him to cover. Accept what He so lovingly offers: love, with enough grace and mercy to cover our every screw up.

3. Confess your specific secrets and sins to God. Don’t sugarcoat it. Don’t make excuses. Fess up. Admit your mistakes–CALL THEM BY NAME– and be truthful and forthcoming.

4. Ask for God’s forgiveness. Again, don’t justify your behavior. Don’t excuse it. Just ask for forgiveness.

5. Accept God’s forgiveness. Use that Truth that you’ve stored away in your heart so that when Satan comes back at you, attempting to convince you that God didn’t really forgive you, that you have to pay for your sins one way or another, you can remind him of the Word of God that says otherwise. “I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart” (Ezekiel 36:26).

Your Father loves you. He’s not threatening your exposure because He’s trying to ruin you. He’s trying to save you.

Dear Lord, thank you so much for loving me enough not to allow me to continue keeping secrets, especially those that I pretend to be keeping from you. Father, I ask that you please help me to be transparent in my life, both in my secular life and my spiritual life. I want to keep NOTHING secret from You, God, because I know it will only bring destruction. Thank you that I can come to You, ask for forgiveness, and receive it. Help me to be sincere and so full of character that I can confidently ask you to search my heart and reward me based on my conduct (Jeremiah 17:10). I love you, Lord, and I am so grateful for the parent You are. Thank You for looking out for me in all ways, and please help me to find the strength and courage to end the secrets in my life. Thank You for taking every step with me. In Jesus’s name I pray. Amen. 

 

 

Feel the Burn

Today, I want to tell you a story. This story is about two men, mired in frustration and confusion, even the complicated and painful feelings of betrayal. They are shocked and disappointed. They feel a little uncertain about where to land in the midst of all these emotions. They’re trying out a little logic, a little anger, a little reasoning, and a little hope.

These two men, these two disciples, and their multitude of emotions can be found in the book of Luke, specifically chapter 24: 13-53. This story picks up immediately after the death of Christ and the discovery of His empty tomb. It’s a story that many of us have heard again and again: two disciples are walking the road to Emmaus from Jerusalem. They’re discussing all of the events that have taken place over the last few days, and they’re so engrossed in their discussion that when Jesus appears to them, they fail to even recognize that it’s Him! I’d be willing to bet that upon hearing this story, many of us have thought “How crazy!” and continued right on doodling through the sermon or reading to the next chapter in our Bibles. But to do so is to truly miss out on an enormous lesson, one so very applicable to our own lives and stories.

Let’s take a moment to consider what it would be like to be in the dusty sandals of these two disciples. First of all, they’d just lost their leader, their friend, their beloved teacher in a brutal, astonishing crucifixion. They feel sad and hurt, traumatized perhaps, and even betrayed because it all ended so gorily and in such anti-climactic fashion (given they can’t really see the “big picture” yet). They feel lost without the leadership of Jesus, and on top of everything else, they’ve just been alerted to the fact that Jesus’s tomb is now empty! So many questions. So much confusion. And all of it like salt in the wound of the hurt they’re still feeling over His very recent and dramatic death.

Like you and me, these two men are so caught up in their emotions, so very caught up in their external circumstances and trying to understand everything and make sense of everything that they become blinded to what’s right in front of their faces: Jesus! The Bible states that, “And while they were conversing and discussing together, Jesus Himself caught up with them and was already accompanying them…[but] they did not recognize Him” (vs. 15-16). Y’all, this right here is me!! I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been so caught up in my problem or my situation, so focused on myself and my own attempt at reason/logic that if Jesus stood directly in front of my face, I’d likely miss Him. How many times He must have moved on my behalf only for me to miss it because I wasn’t looking for Him, I was looking for an explanation.

Jesus, waving His hand in front of my face: “Um, hello. Right here with you.”

Me, all caught up in my problem: “Oh, where are you Jesus? Where have you gone when I needed you?”

Yep. Been there. And it’s not like He just shows up when I need Him and stands around. Instead, when I need him,  Jesus is with me, speaking to me, questioning me so that I can see the answers and sense His presence for myself, but I’m so busy talking and fretting, my head so full of my own noise that I don’t recognize Him, His voice. Our disciple friends did exactly that same thing. In fact, when Jesus begins questioning them regarding what events had taken place to get them so upset, they get frustrated with Him and His ignorance. The disciple named Cleopas even goes so far as to basically say, “Are you seriously the only stranger in this whole area who doesn’t know what’s just happened around here?” (verse 18) In other words, you and your ignorance are inexcusable. (YIKES!!) The disciples go on to answer Jesus’s question about what’s happened by listing ALL THE WRONGS that happened. All the negatives. (Let’s take a quick moment right here to recognize that because they didn’t know what God knew and because what they expected to happen was based on their own limited understanding of God and how He worked, they’re even more upset, confused and worked up than if they’d just remember who Jesus was and put their trust in the same Father He trusted. Preaching to myself. Okay, back to our story.) So after listening to Cleopas and his fellow disciple-friend detail all the things that had gone wrong and upset them, Jesus had something to say…something He’s probably said to me a thousand times: “And [Jesus] said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” Did you catch that exclamation point? I hope so. Jesus’s statement paraphrased: “Are you braindead? I told you what was going to happen, it happened, and now you’re confused? Have some faith, my friends!” Isn’t that what you and I should be doing in the midst of our upset too? Shouldn’t we be purposefully reminding ourselves of God’s promises in His Word, taking a couple of deep breaths, and intentionally choosing to believe that God will do what He says He’ll do?

But of course our story doesn’t end there. Fast forward through their journey. The two disciples arrive at their exit and implore Jesus to stay with them instead of continuing on. He agrees, even staying to have dinner with them. It was during this meal, when Jesus took the bread (remember, they have a kinship with this man they can’t quite understand but they still think he’s merely a friendly stranger), broke it and prayed over it that the Bible tells us “…their eyes were instantly opened and they [clearly] recognized Him, and He vanished (departed invisibly)” (vs. 31). CAN. YOU. IMAGINE? My head would be absolutely spinning! I’d be so shocked that Jesus was right there with me (wait, what?! Isn’t he DEAD?!), and then after He just vanished, I’d be left trying to remember all the crazy mess I’d said in front of Him when I thought He was just a random stranger. Surely Cleopas thought, “Oh no, I got snarky with Jesus!”

Like what you and I would most likely do, these two friends had to verbally rehash all that had happened since this stranger came into their presence. I love verse 32 because it really shows us the humanity of these men, trying to explain a greatness that they can’t really put into words. Putting ourselves in their shoes we can see how they were both calmed by this “stranger” and even desired His presence without even realizing it. This is such an important moment of awakening for these hurting, confused men that I want to separate it out. Verse 32 is below.

“And they said to one another, Weren’t our hearts burning within us while He was talking with us on the road and explaining the Scriptures to us?”

Look at this. Jesus’s message to them was so anointed and so impactful that these two men, despite being overcome with so many different emotions, had a physical reaction to the words of Jesus. I want you to take a minute and think about whatever is weighing on your heart lately. Or, think about something you were going through recently that lasted substantially longer than you’d have preferred. Jesus talks to us in the midst of our struggles, you know. He’s right there. The whole time. And you know what else? He’s guiding us. But like these two men, we get so caught up in foolishly trying to understand it all or having our own way or being mad because life didn’t happen the way we expected that we shut down the burn from the Holy Spirit that we feel within. Some of us shut it down with substances. Some of us shut it down with noise: social media, hectic schedules that keep us busy and occupied from sun up to sun down, television, even social engagements so we make sure we aren’t ever still and quiet. Some of us shut it down with food. And then others of us find ways of insulating ourselves against that burn with anger or harshness or hatred. But what if we stopped all that? What if we just let ourselves feel the burn? What if we just stopped making excuses and getting so wrapped up and just let Jesus be Jesus? Sure, it’s going to be hard to do and, I’ll be totally honest, pretty painful at first. But look at our reward: Jesus, by way of the Holy Spirit right there with us, guiding us, explaining things to us, helping us in every possible way. That’s definitely worth it, wouldn’t you agree?

At the close of Luke 24, Jesus is taken up into heaven while in the presence of His disciples, including the two friends from our story, but before going, He says to His friends, “Peace be to you!…Why are you disturbed and troubled, and why do such doubts and questionings arise in your hearts?” As friends of Jesus, He is saying these things to us, too. He’s asking you and me, why are you choosing doubt and upset and anger and food and alcohol and distraction over me? I am trying to help you. I am trying to point out to you the things in your life that need your attention. I am trying to help you make decisions that, while possibly inconvenient and unpopular right now, will set you up for abundant blessings down the road, but you refuse to heed the burn of My Holy Spirit’s prompting within you. Stop fighting Me. Stop avoiding Me. Stop carrying into your future all that baggage (guilt, hurt, shame) that I died to save you from. Why are you disturbed and troubled when I’m right here? I want to help. I died to help. Please, let me.

Dear Lord, thank you so much for the incredible gift of the Holy Spirit that, as a believer, I get to carry within me at all times. Thank you for the continual guidance and instruction I receive from Your Spirit. Father, I ask that You please help me to mirror my life after Your Son. I recognize that Jesus’s life wasn’t comfortable or easy, and I know that sometimes mine won’t be either. I know that You’re right there with me, though, when things get tough, and I know that You’re using those trials to bless me and bring glory to You. Help me, also, Father, to stop tuning out the voice of the Holy Spirit when I feel it burning within me. Help me and those I care about to stop seeking ease and comfort and to start seeking You, no matter what that costs us. I love you, Lord, and I simply want to know You and to have more of You. In Jesus’s name I pray, Amen.

 

 

Fruit of the Womb

I’m not totally sure why, but this post has been really challenging for me to actually get written. Maybe it’s because my tiny girl has been battling the flu plus a sinus infection plus a possible virus for the last week and a half. Maybe it’s because I’m overwhelmed by the news that, as it turns out, many, many famous men are total pervs. I don’t know. Whatever the reason, I have just really struggled with this one. I’ve had the subject in mind for over three weeks, but for some reason I haven’t felt God leading me to really discuss it in a clear way until sometime over the last couple of days. (At least I hope it’s a clear way.)

Like many of you, I grew up in church and have, therefore, heard the telling of the Christmas story for as long as I can remember. As an adult, I feel that the repetitiveness of the story itself presents a special challenge: how to think about Christmas in a way that doesn’t feel routine and doesn’t desensitize me to the huge impact the birth of Jesus has on my life today. As a girl and as a woman, I always found myself so intrigued by the story of Mary. Now, as a mom, it’s become a fascination. I’ve had a wiggly, growing baby in my belly.  I’ve had swollen feet and tired legs in the almost-9th month of pregnancy. I’ve felt overwhelmed by the challenges I was soon to face with impending motherhood, so I can understand her situation in some ways. However, I’m pretty sure that’s where our similarities stop. But to really understand this miraculous event that is Christmas, a better understanding of Mary is where we must begin.

As we know, Mary was merely a child when she we selected by God to be the mother of His Son Jesus. One of the questions I’d love the opportunity to ask God is “why Mary?” What was it about this young girl (although not nearly as young as 13-14 is by our current standards) that made her the perfect person to carry, birth, love, and raise the Savior of the entire human race?? While thinking about this question recently after hearing my all-time favorite Christmas song, “Mary Did You Know?,” and while studying a portion of Galatians 5, I felt as though God opened my eyes to help me understand just a little bit more about why Mary was the chosen mother of Jesus.

Before we circle back around to Mary, let’s play a little game, shall we? I’m going to list for you several character traits. I ask that you simply slow down, look at each trait carefully, and rate yourself and how well you exhibit each trait on a scale from 1 to 10.   (1=nope, not me at all; 10= me, all day every day) Okay, ready? BE HONEST! (Shame on you for trying to lie at Christmas!)

*Love                                     *Patience                    *Faithfulness

*Joy/joyfulness                    *Kindness                   *Gentleness (meekness)

*Peace/peacefulness          *Goodness                   *Self-control

So, how’d you do? If you’re like me, several of these made you cringe. In this past week alone, my scores for patience, gentleness, and peacefulness are very low. Yes, it’s been a challenging and stressful week, full of tests and trials, but isn’t it during difficult times that our true selves rear their heads? The list above isn’t something I made up. It’s God-breathed. These traits can be found in Galatians 5:22-23. In these important scriptures, God lists the traits, the fruits of the Holy Spirit, so that those of us reborn in His Son will know exactly what’s expected of us behavior-wise: “But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy (gladness), patience (an even temper, forbearance), kindness, goodness (benevolence), faithfulness, gentleness (meekness, humility), self-control (self-restraint, continence).” If you’ve ever wondered exactly what God expects of you, or how to know if you’re being the kind of person/Christian that God wants you to be, there’s a way to know. Simply take a minute and evaluate how you, your attitude and your behavior match up.

Now after all that, you’re probably wondering what in the world this has to do with Mary, right? (Edge of your seat, I can tell!) Well hear me out. If God saw Mary, saw her heart and her soul and decided she was exactly who He wanted to be the mother of His Son, isn’t it safe to assume that Mary embodied many of these fruits of the Spirit already? In my opinion, there’s absolutely no way that God would choose to inhabit the womb of a woman who wasn’t loving, who wasn’t joyful, who wasn’t good and kind and faithful, who didn’t display self-control and wasn’t patient with others. This was the future mother of Jesus, for crying out loud! She was going to grow him and nurture him, and lead and guide him. Before the Holy Spirit, before Jesus, there was Mary, and given Jesus was the fruit of her womb, isn’t it safe to assume that she bore many of the same traits that He did, even if to a lesser degree?

So what does this birth mean for us, living here in 2017 just trying to survive the utter insanity and sin that is the world today? It means that a baby was born, long ago, who brought with Him all the goodness and love and peacefulness and gentleness and patience that you and I could ever need. It means that you and I now know God personally, that you and I no longer have to live by hundreds and hundreds of laws just to avoid hell. It means that we have an example for how we are to live our lives, and we have the Holy Spirit within us to help us bear fruit with our lives. Galatians 5:16 instructs present-day Christians (um, hello, that’d be us!) to “walk and live [habitually] in the [Holy] Spirit [responsive to and controlled and guided by the Spirit], then you will certainly not gratify the cravings and desires of the flesh…” But as Christ-followers eager to be more like Jesus, to have more of Him in our daily lives, we must go one step farther than simply acknowledging the necessity of walking in the Spirit; we must have a clear understanding of what the Spirit looks and sounds like so we make no mistake (or excuse) about which parts of us we must keep and develop further and which ones we must work hard to remove.

“We cannot know God through someone else.” A relationship with your Savior is personal. No one can develop those fruits of the Spirit in your life for you. No one can cultivate that relationship for you. Let me encourage you, if there’s an area where you know you struggle–maybe your peace is so far gone you don’t remember what it even looked or felt like…maybe you’ve tossed aside your self-control so many times that you’re not even sure where to begin in order to get it back–take that area (or areas) to the One who can help you to once again bear good fruit. “A good (healthy) tree cannot bear bad (worthless) fruit, nor can a bad (diseased) tree bear excellent fruit [worthy of admiration]” Matthew 7:18. You and I may not be Mary, but we are good people, people who God loves so much that He gave us His Son, that we might be joint heirs with Him in all that is good and holy. We are the children of God, just as Jesus is, and it’s through His Holy Spirit who lives in us, who bears these good fruits in our lives, that we are sealed (marked, branded, and secured) as God’s own (Ephesians 4:30–AMP).

This Christmas season, I’d like to invite you to consider the Spirit of Christmas in a slightly different way. How much of the [Holy] Christmas Spirit are you carrying around with you today? How much will you carry around with you tomorrow? This Christmas, spend some time evaluating what kind of fruit–good, healthy fruit or bad, diseased fruit–you’re producing in your life. Spend some set-aside, intentional time thinking about what the birth of Jesus was really like, for His earthly parents, for His Heavenly Father. Let us aspire to be both like Mary and the fruit of her womb, Jesus. Let our lives bear the fruit of the Spirit.

Dear Lord, thank You so much for my Savior. Thank You for His birth, for His earthly parents, for His purpose. Father, I am so grateful that when Jesus left earth and ascended into Heaven, You didn’t leave us empty but instead sent the Holy Spirit to abide in each of us who believe in Your Word. I ask today, Lord, that You take my hand and my heart and guide me through life so that with my actions and my decisions I bear good, healthy fruit to glorify Your name and Your kingdom. Help me, Father, to be honest with myself and honest with You so that I can ratify from my life any strongholds crippling my maturity in my relationship with You. Thank You for Christmas, thank You for all that it means. Thank You for the sacrifice of Mary and Joseph and their families. Help me to spend my holiday with my eyes and heart focused on You so that I am clothed with the Lord Jesus Christ, able to resist the weaknesses of my flesh. I love You, Lord, and I am so grateful that You hear this and all the prayers that I pray. It’s in Your Son’s glorious name that I pray. Amen.

***MERRY CHRISTMAS, EVERYBODY!! May your 2018 far surpass your expectations, and may God show up in a mighty way in your lives this next year. As always, I continue to be so grateful for your loyalty and support. God has blessed me in a HUGE way with each of you! Now go drink some egg nog (yuck!) and eat some Christmas cookies (much better!)! Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday, Jesus!