I Will Walk In Freedom

Happy 4th of July, everybody! I know you guys are all super busy, so I promise I’ll make this short and sweet. WHO JUST CLAPPED?!

I owe you guys a gigantic THANK YOU! A couple of weeks ago, just before Father’s Day, The Samaritan Woman blog had her very first birthday. There are no words (ironic indeed) to explain how grateful I am to those of you who have read even half a paragraph of what I’ve written. Blogging this past year has taught me about God in a way that I didn’t expect. He’s broadened my understanding of His character and His heart in such an expansive way, and because you’ve shared in this with me, I just wanted to thank you. I want to especially thank those of you who have read every single post, and if you aren’t related to me by blood or law and you still read every post, you get an even bigger thanks! This has been such an incredible blessing to me, and you guys are all so wonderful. I don’t feel God pressing me to stop the blog at this time, so I’ll just keeping reading and studying and sharing with you, if that’s okay. Thank you for being receptive to straight-forward truth that isn’t always very comfortable or pretty. Thank you for sharing the posts on social media so that others can read scripture, maybe for the very first time. Thank you for sharing the posts with your families. It still absolutely blows my mind that even one person would spend his/her time reading something I write, and I pray that God helps me to continue to find messages to share that are useful to you and relevant to what you’re going through. I am forever grateful for this blog experience, and that gratitude extends to each of you (all 5 of you) as well. 🙂   Just…thank you. Truly. From the bottom of my heart.

And while we’re on this topic of thanks, I’d like to take a second to thank any of you who might be reading this who serve, have served, or whose spouse serves in the military. You guys are beyond-words incredible, and you do what those of us living in the freedom you provide cannot do: you make it happen. I would like to take a moment before closing and simply pray over you and your families:

Dear Lord, thank you so very, very much for our military personnel and their families. Father, I ask that You provide Your mighty, mighty hand of protection over each of those serving our country, and I ask that You also protect their families back home in the wake of their absence. God, we lift them before You, asking a special blessing on them for the sacrifice they each make on our behalf. Thank you that You have personally selected each person and his/her family to do exactly what they’re doing, that You have a plan in place. We pray Jeremiah 29:11 directly over them, Father, that no harm would come to them and that You would deliver abundant blessings over each and every military family. We are so very grateful for the freedom to worship and live as we choose, and we take this moment to thank You and all branches of our armed services for that precious privilege. It’s in Jesus’s name that we pray. Amen.

And one last thing. Y’all, we know who is ultimately responsible for our freedom: Jesus. During this holiday, while we’re celebrating with our friends and family, let us take a moment to be grateful not only for the freedom that comes from being blessed to live as a citizen of the United States of America, but let’s intentionally lift a praise to the good Lord whose death set us free from the bondage that comes with being human. There are so many fabulous scriptures (constantly re-amazed at the gloriousness of the Word!) regarding the freedom that is provided for those of us who recognize Jesus Christ as our Savior. I encourage you to simply Google “Bible verses about freedom” and read those promises for yourself. But until you get the chance to do that, let me leave you with a few of those that really stood out to me. May we all take a moment to pause, recognize ALL of our freedoms, those provided by our military and our country AND those provided by our Savior. God bless you all. Thank you all so very, very much. Happy 4th of July, and may God continue to bless America (the land of the free and the undeserving)!

Psalm 118:5–In my distress, I prayed to the Lord, and the Lord answered me and set me free.

Psalm 119:45– I will walk in freedom…

John 8:32–You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

John 8:36– So if the Son sets you free, you will really be free.

Galatians 5:1– So Christ has truly set us free.

2 Corinthians 3:17– Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

1 Peter 2:16-17– Exercise your freedom by serving God, not by breaking the rules. Treat EVERYONE you meet with dignity.     (Emphasis mine)

#FixItJesus

You know, I knew it was coming. I knew it was inevitable. I’d seen it happen to many, many people; I knew that no one escaped it. Heck, I’d even seen it happen to my own husband. But even with all that expectation, I was ill-prepared for it to happen to me. And it did happen…just a couple of short weeks ago. It’s a painful, difficult story to tell, so bear with me–

It was a regular day, unremarkable in most ways. Then, everything changed. I thought to myself, is this really happening?? Is that what I think it is?? Despite my ferocious denial, there was no pretending this away. I knew life was never going to be the same because there it was, right in front of my disbelieving face: MY FIRST GRAY HAIR!!! RIP, youthfulness. RIP.

Okay, so maybe I had a slight overreaction (I said slight, dang it!), but feeling insecure about my appearance is certainly nothing new for me. I want to take a minute, though, before going forward and blame this all, all of my insecurities based on appearance, on my friends. Y’all, all my friends crawled out of the same weirdly mutated pool apparently. They’re all vampires who have figured out not only how NOT to age, but they’ve obviously signed some seriously binding contract with the devil that allows them to look BETTER as they get older. What is this nonsense?! In a fun turn of events, they’re all smooth skinned and youthful looking (literally not a single one looks her age–it’s ridiculous!), and I’m saggy and baggy enough for all of us. I mean, if ever a case deserved #FixItJesus, it is this one.

All joking aside, struggling with my self-worth based on my appearance and setting my personal value based on how I felt I looked is something I’ve struggled with my entire life. It’s a stronghold (it’s actually a sin, believe it or not) that God has really been helping me to be loosed of, but full disclosure: I have a long way to go. While you might not struggle to the same extent that I do, I’m guessing that you, too, have felt insecure, not good enough, or less than simply because of your appearance too. That is certainly not a godly way to think and feel, so please join me in trying your very best to begin thinking about yourself as God does.

As it turns out, there’s this great book called the Bible (you might remember my mentioning it before) that helps us understand God and His character, and most importantly for today’s topic, how He feels about us, His creation. In Ephesians 2:10, we are described in one translation as “God’s handiwork,” in another “God’s workmanship,” and in yet another, we are referred to as “God’s masterpiece.” I know you have better things to do than listen to me quote Webster, but just sit tight for a minute. If you look up the word masterpiece, you’ll find that it’s defined as “a person’s greatest piece of work.” Let that sink in for a minute. God made every single thing. All of it. And yet we, not only collectively but each of us individually is His masterpiece. Imagine what it must feel like to have created something you love so much that you’re willing to give up what’s most precious to you for that creation, only to have it picked apart and fussed about and taken for granted. Y’all, I really and truly pray that the next time I start fussing about my thighs or those fun skin-wings that my arms are rapidly growing, I’ll remember instead that every single part of me is a masterpiece made by the God I so love. I pray that that thought stops me in my mental tracks, switching me instantly to gratitude instead of grumbling. After all, the truth is, my God loves me so much that He sent me a message letting me know just how much intentionality went into my being created: “I chose you before I formed you in the womb; I set you apart before you were born” (Jeremiah 1:5 CSB). You were no accident. Your crooked nose? No accident. Your thin lips or balding scalp? Not those either. All of you was on purpose. And all of you was for a purpose.

Yes, you say, I know God loves me and I know that I shouldn’t focus on my appearance, but when I’m around others and I feel like the ugliest one in the room or the heaviest person in the group or the least desirable of all my friends, it hurts and I can’t get past it. First of all, I think it’s important to acknowledge that every single person, no matter how beautiful he or she may be in others’ eyes, has felt insecure over appearance, probably way more often than you think. In fact, just the other day I read an interview with a stunning TV actress who seemed flawless but who admitted that some days she has to remove herself from social media because of how bad it makes her feel about herself, about how she looks. Do what?! Y’all, none of us are immune. That being said, an overly negative mindset full of self-hate is completely wrong and goes against all the Bible tells us should be the focus of the children of God.

In 1 Samuel 16:7, the Bible addresses our human, yet faulty, tendency to place value on our own (and others’) outward appearance, saying, “But the Lord said to Samuel–‘Don’t judge by his appearance…the Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance but the Lord looks at the heart.'” Oh how wrong we get this…on both counts! We judge ourselves too often based on what’s visible on the outside and we unfortunately pass that useless judgement on to others as well. It’s such a problem for human beings that even Jesus addressed it in John 8:15, “You judge according to human standards [just by what you see]. I do not judge anyone.” So let’s think about this logically: If Jesus isn’t the judge, that means God is, and we’ve already established that God made it clear He’s interested in our hearts, not our looks when passing judgement over the lives of His children. I believe the logical conclusion here is that the only judgement we should be concerned about is from our Heavenly Father AND He cares ZERO about our physical appearance. ZERO! Don’t believe me? Can’t follow my logic? Try this on for size: “Don’t let your beauty consist of outward things…but rather what is inside the heart–the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight” (1 Peter 3:3-4). Where’s that mic? I need to drop it.

Look, people, I know we are constantly bombarded by people and companies and products that both directly and indirectly tell us that we’re not good enough as we are, that we won’t be successful without this change, that we aren’t really beautiful unless we look this way. The disease of self-value based on physical appearance that so many of us have contracted, me included, is eating us all alive. Take what I found on statisticbrain.com for example: 91% of women are unhappy enough with their bodies that they resort to dieting. NINETY ONE PERCENT! That’s not the worst part though; 80% of women say the images they see on social media make them feel body-insecure. But we sure don’t put it down and pick up our Bibles do we? Nope. This is no formal study, but I’m guessing we’re all more likely to immediately Google some product or fad diet that we think will help us become more like those images we’ve just poured over instead of putting effort toward changing our thinking so we feel about ourselves more like God does.

Tragically, these women who are so undone by their own appearances (that’d be you and me, friend) are allowing this insecurity and self-loathing to trickle down to our precious girls. On that same site, it stated that 90%–let me repeat that…90%– of 15-17 year old girls desire to change at least one aspect of their physical appearance. How sad God’s heart must be over this. To pour His time and love and purposefulness into our sweet girls (and it’s boys and men, too, let’s not pretend) only for us to teach them that they’re not perfect just as they are. And honestly, I’d like to just tsk-tsk at this, say what a shame it is that these girls feel this way, chalk it up to their moody youthfulness, but I’d be hard pressed to limit myself to only one physical attribute I’d like to change. Their self-disapproval and my own self-disapproval is a slap in the face of the God we claim to love and serve and glorify. Shame on us.

So what do we do? How do we change? How do we fix this mess? First, as we discussed before, I think it’s so very important that you know how God feels about you–what He literally says in His Word–and that you pass that along to your children. When we hear our girls or boys complain about their bodies, when our brains instantly go there about our own bodies, isn’t it pretty simple to just remember that, 1. God loves me and made me on purpose, and 2. God REALLY likes me, just as I am. God doesn’t care if your eyebrows look microbladed. He doesn’t care if the skin under your armpit is bumpy or splotchy (in your face, Dove!). He is completely happy with how He made you, and not one bit of how He formed you was accidental.

The second step, in my opinion, is to know what God says about valuing outward appearance. There are so many verses that encourage us to spend our time focusing inwardly, ensuring that our hearts are right before worrying that our hair looks perfect. The average woman spends 335 hours a year, that’s TWO FULL WEEKS of her year, working on her appearance (Today.com). I cringe thinking about how much time would be represented if women were asked how much time a year they put into strengthening their relationship with God…reading their Bible…spending quiet time in prayer with their Savior. In Joyce Meyer’s book How to Succeed at Being Yourself, she doesn’t mix words over the importance of getting ourselves back into a godly mindset with regard to our thoughts about ourselves: “How we feel about ourselves is a determining factor in our success in life and in relationships.” There’s not a single area of our lives that’s not immediately and negatively affected when we have a poor self-image. Our dreams fail, our spirits fail, our marriages fail, our children fail. And Satan gets a hearty, satisfying laugh. I’m not good at this, y’all, but I desperately want to be. And lucky for us, we serve a God whose grace and mercy are all we need when trying to align our thinking more with His. I absolutely cannot do this alone. But I know that if I study what God says about me, if I bury those scriptural truths down in my heart and I use those to shut up the devil when he presses me to feel unworthy and insecure, I CAN defeat this attitude. I can reconstruct my brain so that my self-worth comes from knowing I was perfect enough AS I AM that Jesus died on the cross for me.

And before I finally shut up, let me say this. Some of you might be on the opposite side of this coin. Maybe you’re beautiful. Maybe you’re successful and athletic and you feel REALLY good about yourself. Good for you–if you put forth the work it requires to be those things, you should be proud of yourself. HOWEVER, you shouldn’t be convinced it was all your doing, and you shouldn’t allow yourself to feel superior or to base your self-worth, despite it being positive, on your appearance either. The Proverbs 31 woman is such a great example because it carefully reminds us all that “Charm is deceptive and beauty does not last but a woman who fears the Lord will be greatly praised” (vs. 30).

Let me reiterate, if you struggle with this in any form, you are not alone. God knew we would and the Bible is filled with scriptures to help us turn to Him for guidance and the renewing of our minds. It won’t happen overnight, and it won’t be something that you pray about once and walk away changed. And moms, a quick, non-judgmental word to you: please, please, please stop criticizing your bodies in front of your daughters. They are your children, they have your DNA, and when their hair or nose or ears or breasts or thighs or whatever turn out to be just like yours, how do you think they’re going to feel about themselves then? God doesn’t focus on our external appearance, and neither should we. Now THAT deserves a #FixItJesus.

Dear Lord, thank you so much that You have crafted me with such precision and with great purposefulness. Father, please forgive me for all of the times that I’ve set my value on such a superficial and fleeting thing as my appearance instead of, like You, valuing what’s internal. God, I ask for your help in changing my thinking; please deliver me from this negative mindset, and help me to see both myself and others as You do. Lord, as your Word says in Romans 12:2, I pray that I stand strongly against copying the behavior and customs of this world, but instead let You transform me into a new person by changing the way that I think about myself. I love you, Lord, and I know that to feel good about myself I must see me as You do, and I’m beyond grateful to be so loved. Help me to share that love with myself and with others. Help me to find balance, Lord, so that I can care about my appearance enough to keep myself healthy and well cared for, but not so much that it becomes priority. I desire to care less about physical training and more about training for godliness (1 Tim. 4:8) so that I might be blessed by You. Thank you for hearing my prayer, Father, for it’s in Jesus’s name that I pray. 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.

 

 

The Resurrection

Easter.   The resurrection.

Such a monumental event in the back-story of every Christian. If I’m being honest, trying to write a blog post about what this holiday means or should mean to those of us who consider ourselves Christ followers is intimidating and daunting. On top of my deep desire to convey the great display of love and forgiveness and sacrifice embodied in what this holiday represents, an interest in doing so in a way that’s not “same old” or simply a regurgitation of what we’ve all heard at church year after year makes it seem next to impossible. So, instead of stressing and fretting, I’ve decided to focus on just one of the positive reminders that Jesus’s resurrection creates for us, to keep it short and sweet (you’re welcome, Dad), and  leave the preaching to the pros. 🙂

If you turn in your Bible to Mark 15, you’ll notice that Jesus’s crucifixion and death are very detailed, down to the exact times when each event occurs. It states in verse 25 that it was 9:00 am when the crucifixion and torture began. In verse 33, we’re told that while the taunts and brutality continued, the sky completely darkened–it was noon. Take a second and just imagine what THREE HOURS of pain and torture, both physical and emotional, must have been like. How long those three hours must have felt to the man who was suffering on our behalf.

Then, after six full hours, at 3:00 pm, Mark 15:37 tells us, “Jesus let out a loud cry and breathed his last [breath].” It was over. Or was it?

Spoiler alert from Mark 16: Jesus didn’t stay bruised and broken and dead! Praise be to God, for three days later, Jesus rose from the dead having paid our debt in full, having conquered the grave, having fulfilled God’s promises to us, His children!! CAN I GET AN AMEN??!!

This Easter, I pray the Holy Spirit moves in you in a way that’s never before happened when you hear this story and consider its implications on your life. I pray that you feel Jesus’s love for you when you read about those nails, because with each pounding of that hammer, it was certainly His love for you that kept Him there. I pray that you experience something this Easter that you’ve never experienced before, that God whispers something to your heart and to your soul that heals you and inflames your passion for Him and His Word.

This Easter, consider a little fact that sometimes gets lost in all that happens in those chapters in Mark, in those descriptions and retellings of what our Savior endured. In the miraculous emptiness of the tomb. Friends, consider this great truth: so very much can change in just three short days.

I don’t know what death you’re facing: the death of your marriage, the death of your career, the death of a particular season of your life, the death of your will-power, the death of your motivation, etc. But I want you to think about this: if God completely defeated death for His children (that’s US!) in only three days, imagine what He can deliver you from. Our Jesus went from King to crucified in a few days’ time; then, He went from dead to risen, from hurt to healed, from broken to whole, from buried to being seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty IN ONLY THREE DAYS. Whatever it is you’re facing, whatever it is in your life that seems on its last leg, breathing its last breath, don’t count it out yet. Easter is a story of hope. Easter is a promise of God’s power bestowed upon our lives. Easter is a reminder that the mighty, mighty power of God, the power that literally made death a non-issue, is the same power available to you today to put toward whatever area you’re desperately trying to revive.

Happy Easter, my friends! Let’s celebrate! Won’t you let this holiest of holidays serve as your reminder that God’s love for YOU is so incredibly big, even death could not contain it. There’s nothing you’re facing, nothing you’ll EVER face, that’s too far gone for God; apply God’s Word to it and watch a resurrection of sorts happen in your very own life.

Father, it is almost too much for words what You did for me that day on Calvary. Because I know You know my heart, I know You understand that overwhelming gratitude there for Your sacrifice, Jesus. Thank you that I do not have to fear death because You have overcome it and I am Yours. Thank you for the reminders You’ve embedded into this Easter story. I pray, Father, that this year Easter and the celebration of it light this world of believers on fire for You. May Your Word affect us all like never before. Thank you for Your might, that I am able to apply it to those dead areas of my life and see life in them again. Help me to always remember that NOTHING is beyond Your ability. I love you, God, and I am so very grateful for the matchless gift of Your Son. It’s in His name that I offer my sincere prayer. 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.)

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.

 

 

Broken-hearted Thankfulness

I know, I know. You’re busy. You have a house to clean, children to entertain, food to buy and prep and cook. You have presents to purchase (for the holiday that’s not even here yet) and Black Friday deals to procure. As Thanksgiving arrives, you will undoubtedly have, both figuratively and literally, a lot on your plate (you see what I did there?!). But setting aside all the hurry and worry for just a second won’t kill you. So go ahead, take just a second to read something that, perhaps, might just help you enjoy your Thanksgiving a tiny bit more.

Before we get into the meat of the discussion (look at all these genius food-related metaphors!), take a second to read the section below. Thanks!

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Thankful: (adj) feeling or expressing gratitude; appreciative.

Hebrews 13:15, “Through Him, therefore, let us constantly and at all times offer up to God a sacrifice of praise, which is the fruit of lips that thankfully acknowledge and confess and glorify His name.”

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Despite one of these being taken from a secular dictionary and the other coming straight from the Bible, they have much in common. Let’s start with the verse in Hebrew. Many of us aren’t hearing for the first time this concept of being thankful to God at all times and in all circumstances. If you’re like me, you’ve read verses like this before, and after realizing it’s another verse telling you to do something you know you’re currently not doing very well, you sort of mumble “Sorry, God, I’ll do better,” and move on to the next verse. Don’t get me wrong, I think the type of attitude and mindset described in this verse is the key to living the kind of life that God intends for us. However, I don’t think the first part is the most important within this verse. I want us to really stop and look at the intentional reference to this mindset as “a sacrifice of praise.” A sacrifice. By definition, a sacrifice is something you choose to do, something that costs you something to carry out, but it’s something you do anyway because you believe it to be the right thing. Y’all, we cannot sit around waiting until our mood allows us to praise God, waiting until we feel like praising God. We must adopt a mindset that, no matter what we have going on, we are going to glorify the name of Jesus.

Notice the idea that thankfulness (like joy…see previous blog post!) is not a “when you feel like it” thing according to the dictionary definition either. Yes, there are many, many times in our lives when we feel deeply, deeply grateful, but there are many others when we don’t. Being thankful, according to Webster, might be a feeling you feel, but it might also be a decision you make to express gratitude.

I don’t know what you’re going through, I don’t know what you’ve been through, and I don’t know what you’ve lost this year. I do know, however, that the examples set for us in the Bible show people at their weakest, facing their greatest adversity, and coming through it successfully–blessed abundantly!–because they chose to praise God through each miserable step. Even when the devil is trying his best to help me remember every single upset in my life, I want to keep this song in my heart: I will enter His gates with thanksgiving in my heart. I will enter His courts with praise. I will say this is the day that the Lord has made. I will rejoice for He has made me glad. I want to value my relationship with my Heavenly Father enough that I purposefully use my time to simply be in His presence. To say thank you. To worship Him. I want to be so undone by His generosity that I have nothing but my love and my overwhelming, broken-hearted thankfulness to offer Him.

God is teaching me that for His children to live with Him in their hearts and minds all day each day isn’t convenient. It’s not natural for us, and it’s not easy. It’s hard, it’s frustrating, it’s even uneventful sometimes. And because I’m a sinner by nature, it’s sacrificial. John 4:24 says that “God is a Spirit (a spiritual Being) and those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth (reality).” Guys, just being thankful when it’s easy, just praising God for His innate goodness on Sunday mornings, that’s not enough. That’s nowhere near making a sacrifice of praise. It should be the first item on our “To Do” lists EVERY SINGLE DAY, not just when a holiday forces us to do it: “Give to the Lord the glory due to His name; worship the Lord…” (Psalm 29:2).

In my Bible reading this morning, the children of God were called “blessed.” Because I use an Amplified version of the Bible, it gave me deeper insight into what this term meant when applied to Christians. Blessed people = people who are happy, to be envied, spiritually prosperous, with life-joy and satisfaction in God’s favor and salvation, regardless of their outward conditions. With all my heart, I want this description to apply to me. Spiritually prosperous? Yes, please! Possessing life-joy? Absolutely! (I love that term, by the way…life-joy) Being joyful and satisfied regardless of what my outward condition is simply because I have a God who loves me enough to favor me and who rescued me from my sinful nature out of the goodness of His own heart? One million times yes! We serve an AMAZINGLY good God, y’all. He’s FOR us. He LOVES you. No matter what your heart feels like during this Thanksgiving holiday and the Christmas season to follow, be thankful. Choose to offer that wonderful God you serve your sacrifice of praise. You can never out-give God. Whatever it costs you to choose to set aside your sorrows and your worries and your upsets to white-knuckle your praise to God, DO IT. You will be repaid so very, very richly.

(Before the closing prayer, I’d like to take a minute and let you guys know how beyond-words thankful I am for you. I feel like I’d so often like to offer you an apology for the quality that you get here, but you don’t seem to mind. I will never be able to express my gratitude for your time and your feedback. Thank you for reading, thank you for sharing, thank you for sticking around. God is teaching me SOOO MUCH through you, and I’m forever grateful to Him and you. Big hugs to you all, and may everyone have a blessed Thanksgiving.)

Dear Lord, thank you so much. Thank you for every single thing in my life that you so continually provide. Father, I love you, and I ask that you help me to a more worshipful and grateful attitude regardless of my outward condition. In Psalm 25:12 it states that the person who worships You “shall dwell at ease,” and Father, this is what I want for my life. Please teach me to lay aside myself so that I can choose to offer You the sacrifice of praise that You so greatly deserve. Lord, I am incredibly thankful to be Your child. In Jesus’s name. Amen.