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Sunday, 17 July 2016

Being A Christian Doesn’t Make You Spotless, But A Perfect Vessel For God To Fill

It’s hard to believe it’s been seven years since I first stepped foot on the stage of BET’s Sunday Best Season 2. It seems like yesterday when I received the call that I made it through the auditions and was on my way to Atlanta to compete nationally.  As I look at how far I’ve come, and how different I am now from the girl that stood on that stage, it reminds me just how long it’s been and how much I’ve grown in my music ministry and as a woman.
I was afraid then and I struggled to function amongst all of the new people that were in my space. It was difficult for me to be in a new environment away from the things that made me feel safe because I was holding a big secret. The whole time I was hiding that I suffered from social anxiety disorder.
As a woman of faith, it was difficult to talk about suffering from this disorder because I thought the non-believer would think my God wasn’t real because he couldn’t or wouldn’t heal me and that other Christians would tell me to pray about it because it’s the devil. Even now, as a mom, it’s scary when I have a panic attack as it causes me not to think clearly. During those moments, it’s easy for me to slip into a space where I have to shut myself off from my son because I’m too overwhelmed.
These days I have to push myself to keep from focusing on the negative side effects of my condition. I spend every day educating my son about it and incorporating it into my testimony to show people that as a Christian it doesn’t make you spotless, but instead it makes you the perfect vessel for God to fill.

God’s Sanctuary: The Substance and the Shadow

To confound Beijing with Paris, or Bogota with Tokyo would appear bizarre to most people; after all, the differences in location and style set them far apart. Nevertheless, when it comes to Christian experiences such mistakes may occur without raising too many eyebrows.
It is generally accepted that the first rule of orientation is to know where we are in relation to a known location—the North Pole being generally the point of reference. If this rule is accepted, a significant number of evangelicals must have lost not only their compass but their map as well, for fantasy is often mistaken for substance and virtuality for reality.

Discerning the substance from the shadow

The problem can be traced back to the way material entities usurp the place of their spiritual counterparts. Too often the shadow is being mistaken for the object or the contour for the substance.
This is by no means new. Jesus had to clarify such misconceptions a long time ago. The Samaritan woman for instance was confused about the acceptable place of worship. “Our fathers worship on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.” This sounds like a modern evangelical debate doesn’t it? Is it here, there, or in both places?
The answer Jesus gave didn’t provide mere information. It reached deep into her spirit and ministered life: “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem worship the Father. … … But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him” (John 4:21&23). This is not empty spiritualizing. It is a call to reality, a reality being recurrently eclipsed by material substitutes and mental simulations.
In the days of Jeremiah the same thing was happening. People thought everything was fine because they were worshiping in the temple (Jer. 7:3–8). In many ways they were the equivalent of traditional churchgoers. They stood in their emblematic sanctuary unaware that the real one was as far from their heart as paradise from their eyes.
The apostle Paul had to tackle the same problem. While writing to the Colossians he points out that several things are but the shadow of things to come (Col. 2:17). Obviously, some Christians in Colossae were entertaining themselves with umbras while forgetting the substance. Paul had to remind them that the body is of Christ (Col. 2:17). The word he uses for body is σῶμα, which means in the context: That which casts a shadow as distinguished from the shadow itself (see Thayer’s Greek Lexicon). The Orthodox Jewish Bible reads: Which are a shadow of the things to come in the Olam HaBah; but the reality, the substance, is Moshiach”.
I believe shadows are still confusing several well-intentioned Christians today. The line between appearance and substance is so thin that to discern the one from the other is not always easy, yet the former is lifeless while the latter is life imparting.
For instance Jesus declares in John 6:63: “The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.” But then Paul draws the line between the mere reflection and the object being reflected: “who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). It is this existent duality that can engender confusion and lead to what has been called a stagnant Christian life.

The Shadow: earthly sanctuaries

There are still plenty of earthly sanctuaries surrounding us today. Tabernacles are found on street corners, offering opportunities to enjoy the smell of heaven on the pulse of hymns or rock beat, and this, with the best intentions in mind.
Now please! Don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying such places should not exist. I am only pointing out the deceitful presumption existing in many minds that the temple justifies the experience, which often falls short of spiritual reality. For if clothes don’t make the man and a book should not be judged by its cover, evangelical experiences should not be canonized by the stones of a building or the name of a preacher. But regrettably what should not be done often is, and books are being bought at first glance and religious practices evaluated on their evangelical tint.

Substance: the true tabernacle

“Now this is the main point of the things we are saying: We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man” (Hebrews 8:1,2).
This is the tabernacle justifying the experience, the true and eternal sanctuary where spiritual reality strikes the mind and enlightens the heart. Therein stand the seraphim with their faces covered with two wings, one crying to another saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!” (Isaiah 6:3). In that temple there is no grumbling, no backbiting and no arrogance. There is only reverence and everyone says: “Glory!” (Psalm 29:9).
When we cavil or belch out resentment, when we utter falsehood or scoff at our neighbor we are not in His temple. We might be inside an earthly sanctuary amidst hymns and prayers, but surely we haven’t crossed the everlasting doors. Maybe the woman next to us has crossed them; maybe she is beholding the throne of glory. If she does you can be certain her life is experiencing a transformation. She is being changed into the same image from glory to glory even as by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Cor. 3:18). But are we?
Why do we run after earthly goods so much? How is it that through consumption society has succeeded in hypnotizing such a large sector of our evangelical world? Maybe the old song has the answer: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face, and the things of the earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.” If these words mean anything at all, much of His glory must be hidden from many evangelical worshipers, for what is being observed provokes the question: Where are we standing? Can we say with Jeremiah: “A glorious high throne from the beginning is the place of our sanctuary” (Jeremiah 17:12).

Changing perspectives in the sanctuary

I believe there is something of great importance to be learned in Psalm 73. The psalmist narrates how he was envious of the boastful when he saw the prosperity of the wicked. His heart was full of questions and doubts. What he observed disturbed him/ He was soaked in frustration and exasperation. But suddenly we see him waking up. His meditation is abruptly transfigured. The veil of deceitful appearance is lifted up and truth appears in all of its glory.
How did it happen? Verse seventeen explains how: He went into the sanctuary of God. This made the difference. Amidst angelic hosts and rays of divine light he reached the place of understanding. The question of Job had finally been answered: “But where can wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?” (Job 28:12 & 20). At last the psalmist knew, and knew with certainty, where the place of understanding was. One single entrance into the Ancient Tabernacle was sufficient to captivate his entire being and enlighten the eyes of his understanding.
Isaiah experienced the same thing. Inside the heavenly temple his life underwent a restoration. There was a sudden change at the level of the mind. He could now discern between the profane and the holy, between the clean and the unclean. At once he realized he was unfit for the Master’s use: “Woe is me, for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 6:3).
Inside these gates virtuality cannot breathe. All shams are laid bare and smashed on the floor of factuality. The conscience is shaken and the thoughts exposed.
What I am saying is that nothing has changed. The place of understanding still exists and we can enter and dwell there.

Entering the true tabernacle

Brethren! Let us not be at ease in Zion (Amos 6:1). Let us strengthen the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees (Isaiah 35:3; Hebrews 12:12). “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:22–25).

The Power of the Holy Spirit

World-renowned gospel singer of the early 20th century, Mahalia Jackson once said, “The mind and the voice by themselves are not sufficient.”
For a woman known as “The Queen of Gospel” who spent her life building one of the greatest musical legacies of all time by the power of her voice, this is a massive statement.
Rather than being hypocritical, Jackson’s statement reveals the heart behind her music: a heart devoted to and reliant upon God.
The Spirit of Gospel Music
In many of her quotes, Jackson is contrasting gospel music with blues music. “Gospel songs are the songs of hope,” she said. “When you sing gospel you have the feeling there is a cure for what’s wrong, but when you are through with the blues, you’ve got nothing to rest on.”
Her point, I think, is that there is something more to gospel music than the human voice alone. God’s truth, actively proclaimed and actively heard through the avenue of gospel music, gives the songs meaning and power that other types of music lack. Similarly, the Holy Spirit gives meaning and power to our lives that we would otherwise lack on our own.
Romans 8:26-27 says, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
The Holy Spirit and Us 
One of the most miraculous truths of the gospel is that God, through the Holy Spirit, comes to dwell within our hearts. Because of this our old, dead bodies are given new life and purpose through the sanctifying influence of the Spirit of God within us. Now, with the power of the Holy Spirit, we have the hope of growing to become more like Christ every day.
The beautiful thing about gospel music is that, ideally, it has the power of the Holy Spirit in it, just like prayer. As the Spirit intercedes for us during prayer, so too does the Spirit carry the truths and the heartfelt cries proclaimed through gospel music up to the ears of our Heavenly Father.
Without God, we are nothing. Without the guidance and sanctification of the Holy Spirit, we are empty and powerless. Thank you, Father, for the redeeming presence of Your Spirit within us. Help us to submit to His stirrings more each day, humbling ourselves to Your Mighty Grace.

On Attitudes

There are elements of our personality that have the power to make us or destroy us. They can cause us to ascend to awesome heights or descend into the depths of misery. I am referring to our attitudes. Every member of the human race has them, yet we are often unaware of the influence they have on the formation of our character.
What is an attitude?
An attitude is a mental position one takes in relation to someone or something. The mental position can be related to prayers, trials, people and more. Attitudes can be good or bad, constructive or destructive, edifying or discouraging. On the aesthetic scale they range from beautiful to repellent, and although they might affect people around us, they mostly bear on our own development and identity.
Attitudes never become part of us accidentally. We are not born with them, but they are the result of a progressive creation we have willfully fed. They might have been prompted by society or perhaps triggered by a third party, but ultimately they are the product of our individuality.
As much as the formation of attitudes depends on us, once we accept them they have the power to form or deform our very character. Attitudes are like molds. They have the power to shape us.
Specific attitudes are often related to a definite object. When the triggering object is not present the attitude might be latent, but the moment the object returns the attitude is revived and the person’s actions or reactions become conditioned by it. The only thing that can make us free at this point would be a change of attitude. Using the words of Paul we can say, a mental transformation is possible since our mind can be renewed (Romans 12:2). But this demands humility and a certain amount of spiritual perception.
Our attitude towards trials
How do we face tribulations, trials or difficulties? Do we get impatient, frustrated and discouraged, thinking that such ill fortunes should never be part of our life? Do they have the power to demoralize us, leading our soul to the periphery of depression and misery? Do we look at them as enemies attempting to destroy our peace and happiness? Or can we say, with the apostle Paul in Romans 5:3-4, that “we also glory in tribulation, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope?”
Could it be that a large percentage of evangelical Christians prefer to avoid tribulations altogether, seeing little meaning or value in them? Our attitude towards tribulations will determine the way we are going to face them. Paul and Silas were able to sing in prison because their mind had been renewed (Acts 16:25). It had passed from worldliness to heavenliness. It had experienced a demolition leading to a reconstruction. So they were rejoicing and praising God where many of us would have been depressed and disorientated.
Revising our attitudes: Knowing the truth
“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2).
Attempting to revise our attitudes while conforming to this world is an undertaking that has little chance of success, because the worldview of our society opposes the one held by God. They are not only different; they are in opposition to each other.
We have seen how the attitude Paul had towards tribulations was related to knowledge. He knew tribulation produced perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope (Romans 5:3,4). He was not talking about mere Christian information, nor was he referring to theological data. Paul was making reference to what he knew by revelation.
Nothing can take the place of this sort of knowledge. One might have graduated from three bible schools and yet curse any tribulation coming his way. It is so because human information bears little on our conduct. In contrast, the knowledge coming from above exposes and challenges our character. It calls into question some of our attitudes and provokes revisions. In the long term it has the power to beautify our character.
Writing to the Colossians Paul says: “I now rejoice in my suffering for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24). Here we see the attitude the apostle had towards suffering: he rejoiced in it.
Peter had the same attitude. In his first epistle he writes: “Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12,13).
Let God transform your attitudes
These men had fellowship with the One whose attitudes express beauty and perfection. They were, with unveiled faces, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, and were thus transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:18). This is glory and exalted beauty.
As you grow closer to God, seek out ways in which He is trying to transform your attitudes. Whether it is through trials and tribulations that cause you to be humble and lean on Him, or through seasons of plenty that give you the opportunity to bless others, be attentive to God’s hand and the working of the Spirit in your life

Correct Protocol

The Miriam-Webster dictionary defines the word “protocol” as “a system of rules that explain the correct conduct and procedures to be followed in formal situations.” When meeting any high ranking dignitary there is an understood etiquette that needs to be learned and adopted or else there could be dire consequences.
Correct Protocol: Meeting the Queen
At London’s Buckingham Palace, should you be given the privilege of an invitation to have an audience with her Majesty, you cannot just walk in to the Palace unannounced. A time and date is scheduled, and it is extremely offensive to be late for your meeting.
Before the actual meeting takes place, you would be escorted into a room where for several minutes a Palace official will explain correct procedure and protocol. These include the following:
When the Queen enters a room, all in attendance are to stand.
Men are to bow, women are to curtsy.
When first meeting the Queen, she should be addressed as “Your Majesty” and then afterwards as “Ma’am.”
If her Majesty is accompanied by her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, he should be addressed as “Your Royal Highness” rather than “Your Majesty,” because he is of a lower rank than the Queen. After the initial greeting, the Duke of Edinburgh may be addressed as “Sir” and then, when departing, as “Your Royal Highness” again.
Should you be eating a meal with the Queen, everyone should stop eating when she does.
Furthermore, you must wait until the Queen extends her hand towards you before you can shake hands with her. You are not to initiate any physical contact. There are to be absolutely no hugs, kisses on the cheek or touching of the shoulder.
Always wait for her Majesty to initiate any conversation with you.
And, never, for any reason, turn your back on the Queen.
If this is the protocol for interaction with an earthly ruler, what does the Bible say regarding protocol for God Himself, the King of kings and Lord of lords?
Correct Protocol: Coming Before God
God could have stipulated that we come before Him with a plate of exotic fruit found only from the tallest tree in the Amazon jungle, which would make receiving an audience with Him extremely difficult for most of the world’s population. He could even have requested that we bring a certain measure of gold or silver or precious stone. But He has done no such thing. Instead, He gives us these instructions in Psalm 100:
1 Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth!
2 Serve the LORD with gladness! Come into his presence with singing!
3 Know that the LORD, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name!
Psalm 95:1-3 also says: “Oh come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods”
From the Scriptures we learn that the correct protocol for approaching God is simply to come by grace alone through faith alone. Through His beloved Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, we have the ability to come before God with glad and thankful hearts as we make a joyful noise and sing His praises.
Selah (stop, think, pause, meditate)

Learning Humility Through Disappointed Expectations

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Philippians 2:3-7)
For the most part, I live my life in expectation: sometimes in expectation of all the good things that I hope God will bless me with, but more often I live in expectation of all the trials and punishment I fear He will send my way. Both of these mindsets are wrong, because I am putting my focus on God’s actions, rather than His character. Whether I am proudly expecting God’s blessings, or living in fear of His judgment, I am still failing to live a life of humility before God.
Living a life of expectancy
Expectations are scary things. Nobody likes the feeling of putting their faith and confidence in someone and then being let down. I learned a lot about expectation and humility during my most recent season of collegiate swimming.
During my freshman year of swimming, I experienced a lot of success. I did the work and at the end of the year I saw great, immensely rewarding results. Naturally, I went into my sophomore year expecting that if I put in the same work I would see the same results. So, sophomore year rolled around, our season began and I trained my heart out. I did everything that was required of me and more. I gave it my all. But, when the championship meet finally arrived and it was time to reap the fruit of our months of toil, I got sick. After an entire season of avoiding illnesses, I finally got one. I spent the last two weeks leading up to the big meet wrapped up in bed, surviving on Dayquil and vitamin C.
If I had trained so hard and put in so much effort, why did God let me get sick during the most crucial part of my training? Weren’t my faithful efforts to my team, all of my hard work and dedication to this sport worth anything? Didn’t I deserve to do well and succeed?
Discovering humility in the midst of disappointment
I’ve come to believe that all of the months of hard work that I put into that season were for the purpose of getting me to the national competition. However, it wasn’t because it was my chance to be the shining star. At the meet I had the privilege of supporting my teammates, celebrating with them, praying and cheering for them, even comforting them. In a way, I viewed my role at Nationals not as an opportunity for personal success, but, in the way that I held my head high despite my disappointment, as an opportunity to humbly serve my team. Even though the success wasn’t as tangible this time around, I still feel like every second of hard work and every ounce of sweat that I put into that season were completely worth it, because I was a part of something bigger than myself.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul calls the believers to submit to one another out of a Christ-like humility and love. He teaches that the unity of the Body of Christ is dependent upon the humility of its individual members.
Expectation in the face of disappointment
Alexander Pope once said, “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.” While this statement is true, I can’t help but think about how much joy and contentment we are wasting in life by refusing to expect anything because we are afraid of being disappointed.
Life is extremely unpredictable, and, more often than not, it lets us down. But, we serve a God who is so much more omniscient than our temporal little minds can understand.
We can be brave because of who we know our God to be. Dare to expect great and beautiful things, but be prepared to not understand them immediately. Most importantly, humbly submit to God’s plan, not only for your life, but also for all of His creation. As you put your faith in God, have the confidence to live a life that proudly proclaims the truth that His divine plan will always be accomplished. I’m not ashamed to admit that I am often disappointed by life. However, I will never stop believing that God is greater.

Desiring Change

And so I insist—and God backs me up on this—that there be no going along with the crowd, the empty-headed, mindless crowd. They’ve refused for so long to deal with God that they’ve lost touch not only with God but with reality itself. They can’t think straight anymore. Feeling no pain, they let themselves go in sexual obsession, addicted to every sort of perversion.
But that’s no life for you. You learned Christ! My assumption is that you have paid careful attention to Him, been well instructed in the truth precisely as we have it in Jesus. Since, then, we do not have the excuse of ignorance, everything—and I do mean everything—connected with that old way of life has to go. It’s rotten through and through. Get rid of it! And then take on an entirely new way of life—a God-fashioned life, a life renewed from the inside and working itself into your conduct as God accurately reproduces His character in you.
– Ephesians 4:17-24 (MSG)
Discovering the need for change
It doesn’t happen overnight. You make a choice here, a choice there. You linger a little longer than you should. You let yourself focus on what should be ignored. Suddenly, you find yourself off of the path you started on, lost in a tangle of thistles. You didn’t intend to go there, didn’t intend to stray so far.
Distraction happens to the best of us. We get lazy, lax, and perhaps a trifle arrogant. We think that we don’t have to keep up the vigilance. Whatever pain or problem that drove us to fling ourselves fully upon the grace of God has faded. We are forgetful. Something temporary catches our eyes. We pull away from the Father and reach out our hands to grasp whatever it is that promises satisfaction and fulfillment. How surprised we are when it turns out to be fleeting and hollow, how shocked to find that we can’t sense the presence of God. Fearfully, we try to push through the stinging thorns and make our way back to where we last saw Him.
Our bodies are covered in scrapes and bruises resulting from our efforts at escape. Our clothes are torn and tattered. We’re as stuck as we ever were. Giving in to despair, we sit among the brambles, wincing at the pain. We can’t do it. We can’t get back to that place of light and life, so we might as well settle.
Looking down at our hands, we notice that one is balled up in a fist. Closed tightly around something precious. Slowly, one finger at a time, we ease the clenching to gaze at what’s held. It’s the thing. The temporary thing. The thing that once looked so bright and shiny. The thing that is now dingy and ugly. The thing that cuts into the soft skin of our palms, sending a trickle of blood down our wrists.
What do we desire more than change?
The cost of straying from that narrow way is high. Even a moment off of the road can end with us entangled, entrapped. We don’t want to be there, in that darkness, and so we try to flee. But we don’t realize that we cannot get out until we let the thing go.
Truth is, sometimes we just don’t want to.
No matter how dearly it comes, no matter how much it hurts, we want the thing–the job, the relationship, the money, the power, the fame, the drug, the clothes, the body. We think we can have it and a healthy relationship with God. We fool ourselves.
God has a plan for each of our lives. A good plan. A plan that keeps us safe. We know this. We can recite Jeremiah 29:11 in our sleep.
But, we don’t believe it.
Not really.
If we did believe it, we’d be done chasing the things. We’d turn our eyes upon Jesus, as the song instructs, and let everything but Him fade away. Somewhere in the back of our minds, in those parts we haven’t submitted to His Lordship, we hold back. We long for something else, something more. As if there could be more and better than God. As if we are wiser than the fount of all wisdom.
I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of tangoing with that prickly bush. I never win. I think I’m going to control it every time, but every time it controls me.
I need a change. We need a change.
Desiring Change
It starts with our “want to.”
God, grace us with the want to change. We’re not smart enough to simply do as You command. Our very desires need reworking. Right now, in our cores, where it really counts, we don’t want to. Give us the ability to want to. We can’t be the people You created us to be as long as we hold on to these old habits. Help us, Jesus. Help us to let go.
When we do let go, when we drop the thing, it’s as if our vision is immediately cleared. We see the thing for what it really is. We cry out to God with sincere repentance, begging Him to come and rescue us. We wonder if He will hammer us. The tears pour down our cheeks at the shame of disappointing Him. We think He’ll never look at us the same way again.
How strange it is to find ourselves enveloped in His arms, welcomed back onto the path with no words of condemnation. He cleans up our cuts and binds our brokenness. It hurts. The soreness will linger as a reminder, a consequence. He gives us new clothes to wear. We look down at our feet, encased in new shoes of gleaming white. The tears don’t stop. They dot the canvas, the laces. We are too afraid to look up at Him.
Tenderly, lovingly, He touches our chins with His fingers. We can see the holes in His hands, blurred by our grief. His voice, soft yet commanding, bids us to meet His gaze.
Wonder of wonders, there is delight on His face.

How to Love a Friend Who is Struggling with Their Faith

Recently, I have watched one of my closest friends struggle to hold on to her faith. As a result of family conflicts, school stress, medical problems and more, she says she has lost the ability to feel God’s joy and peace. I hear her hurting and I’ve seen her cry, but what can I do?
  1. Pray
I have learned that the most important thing to do before I ever approach my friend is to pray. When I pray, I ask God to soften my heart towards her, to help me feel her pain and empathize with her. I ask Him to help me set aside my cares and to prepare my heart to listen to her well.
When I pray I also ask for God’s wisdom so that I can respond well to my friend, but, more importantly, I ask God to speak through me. Ultimately, any love, encouragement or guidance that I can offer to my friend stems from the spring of God’s Spirit living inside me. As I seek to love my friend I am not taking God’s resources and using them of my own accord, but I am humbly submitting to God’s will as I give myself to the service of my friend’s needs.
2. Listen
Besides praying, the most important thing I can do for my friend is simply to listen. Oftentimes, people don’t really want any advice; they simply want to be understood. Listening is also crucial for my ability to respond well to my friend’s needs. If I don’t listen well enough to understand her, how can I help her?
Listening well can look differently in various situations. Sometimes, listening means shutting your mouth and letting the other person verbally explode as all of the thoughts, words and feelings they’ve been bottling up come flooding out. Other times, listening looks like being ready to ask the right questions to help someone along as they process their emotions. Listening can even look like complete silence. Sometimes, just being physically present with another person is enough to make them feel like you are listening and empathizing with their situation. Depending on how well you know the person, it may take a little trial and error before you figure out what listening posture they respond to best.
  1. Speak
Deciding what to say can be hard depending on the situation. With my friend who is feeling extremely soul-tired and worn down, the most important thing I can do is remind her of how constant God is. I’ve learned from my own experience that one of the most powerful truths to cling to during times of darkness is the truth that, despite how lost we may feel, we can never lose God and He most certainly never loses us.
When people say things like, “I just don’t feel God anymore,” it is probably a sign that reciting Bible verses and spiritual statistics isn’t going to work. Instead, remind them that God called them for a purpose, that He chose them, wants them and that He is not subject to change in the same way their emotions are.
  1. Pray again
After taking the time to listen to any new thoughts or feelings that they may have to share, it is so important to pray again. Whether you pray with the person, over the person, by yourself, or in all of these ways, devote what has just happened to God. Thank Him for the opportunities He gives us to share in each other’s burdens and ask Him to bless what has just happened, all that has been said and shared. Pray that the Spirit within your friend would be renewed and that they would once again be able to feel the presence of God within them. Pray for emotional healing, pray for wisdom and guidance if decisions must be made, pray for patience…just pray. Lift up your voice to God with peace and confidence knowing that he hears.
  1. Say and live ‘Amen’
The Heidelberg Catechism defines Amen like this:
“What does that little word ‘Amen’ express?
‘Amen’ means:
This shall truly and surely be!
It is even more sure that God listens to my prayer than that I really desire what I pray for.”
Encourage your friend that, as the Catechism says, the power of prayer lies more in the reality that God hears us than in our ability to articulate ourselves well or say the right things. Rather than waiting for your emotions to change, maybe deciding to have confidence in God’s truth despite your emotions will generate the emotional change you’re waiting for.
Thank you, Father, that you bend down to hear us. Thank you that you call us into community with one another and do not ask us to bear our burdens alone. As we interact with people around us who are hurting, help us to listen well and to love them well. Use us, Lord, to draw your people back to faith in You.

Keep the Leash On: Loving Obedience

Walking my neighbor’s dog is such a pleasure! She’s a good dog, and usually we enjoy spending an uneventful time together. One day I was surprised when she was particularly resistant to going in the direction I wanted to go. While she was pulling and I was encouraging her to go my way, she suddenly slipped her collar.
About the time I realized it, I saw understanding dawn in her eyes too. Then she was off at a run. My first thought was oh no, she’s outside my control! What if she gets run over or lost? What if she doesn’t come when I call? Then I wondered if our relationship would be strong enough to woo her back to me.
Slipping our collars: a lack of love
As I walked in her direction I realized an important truth. When we, God’s children, walk away from Him, we are essentially slipping our collars. We remove ourselves from under His authority by an act of our will. It is an act of disobedience and demonstrates a rebellious spirit and lack of love.
Then I saw her run toward the woods, where it would have been difficult for me to follow. I called “no!” in an authoritative voice, thankful when she turned from her intended destination. Hope dawned in my heart, for I had trained her in basic commands. It seemed the bond between us was strong enough after all.
Obedience out of love
I was reminded of God’s wisdom in the book of Hebrews.
“Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief:  for that is unprofitable for you.”  Hebrews 13:17 (KJV)
I stood watching as she rolled in the grass, waiting for inspiration on what to do next. A quick prayer was lifted up. Suddenly she stopped, and looked at me from across the field. I crouched down and called her, holding out my hand. She seemed to smile, then ran toward me. I thanked God for her decision to obey.
I was so thankful for the strong bond between us. I would have a story to tell to her mistress, but I was glad it was a happy one.
Keep the leash on
This stressful incident reminded me of some important truths about God:
God is good and worthy to be praised! He is not a harsh master. His “leash” protects, directs, and leads us homeward. His “leash” is never burdensome, but is an act of love helping me to lead a good life. He receives the repentant one with joy and gladness. Relief comes from being on God’s “leash,” under His authority and leadership. His Word serves as a guide to how to live a righteous life. The power of the Holy Spirit brings understanding. His direction is always trustworthy. Happiness comes from being under submission on His leash!

Why is it so hard to speak up?

Recently I was caught up in the dilemma of knowing that someone had cheated during a final exam, and not knowing what to do about it.
Why is it so hard to speak up?
In general, I shudder at the thought of being labeled a “tattle tale.” As a kid my favorite phrase was, “but that’s not fair!” and, over the years, I saw how those words created distance between me and my family and friends. Recently I have drifted in the opposite direction, becoming hesitant to say anything at all.
I wasn’t the only student that this person cheated off of. So, not only was I angry and hurt that I was his victim, but I was also burdened with the knowledge that others were too. The main question I kept running into was what would telling the professor even do? It seemed to me that it would only hurt the cheater by creating the opportunity for him to be disciplined, and it’s not like I was physically hurt by his cheating or anything.
To be very honest, I still don’t know whether or not telling the professor about what happened was the best thing to do. However, one good that came from the whole incident is that it forced me to ask myself the question: “Why is it so hard to speak up?”
As I pursued this question, I realized that many of the reasons I am hesitant to speak up about injustice in situations like the one I just mentioned also explain why I am hesitant to speak up about my faith when given opportunities for evangelism. All of the reasons pointed to the same thing: I was afraid.
What are you afraid of? 
The primary fear that kept me from immediately reporting the cheating incident was my pride, or the fear of being wrong. I was afraid to report the cheating because I was afraid that doing so would be childish, inappropriate or pointless. I don’t think that I am afraid to share my faith because I doubt that it is true; rather, I am afraid that it will be inappropriate.
My anxiety about the appropriateness, or inappropriateness, of both situations reveals a deeper fear that I have: the fear of man. Undervaluing God’s opinion of myself and overvaluing man’s opinion has made me more concerned about breaking a social taboo than about faithfully sharing the truth.
What do you value the most? 
One of the main reasons why people (myself included) experience a disconnect between the things that they believe and their willingness to speak up about them is because their day to day actions do not testify to what they value the most. If I’m not living like Jesus is my Lord on a daily basis, then of course telling a stranger that He is will feel inappropriate. In a similar way, if taking a stand against injustice isn’t something that I have to do on a regular basis, then, naturally, it will be kind of scary when I finally have to.
Matthew 10:32 says, “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. (ESV)
In this passage, Jesus is very frank about the importance of acknowledging our faith, both by our words and through our actions. Since understanding is foundational to belief, one step you can take towards better proclaiming the truth is meditating on who Christ is in relation to who we, and the rest of the world, are.
Christ is the incarnate Son of God who, through the great love of the Father and by the power of the Holy Spirit, humbled himself here on earth, suffering and dying on the cross in order to pay the debt for our sins. This is the miraculous truth that has saved us. This is the miraculous truth that we have the privilege of proclaiming. We are the treasurers of this glorious truth, which the rest of the world is in desperate need of. Before we can proclaim what we believe, we must first understand what we believe and, then, live in accordance with those beliefs.
Given the love of our Heavenly Father, the goodness of our Savior, the miraculousness of the truth we possess, and others’ undeniable need to know it, how can we possibly keep silent? The next time you are given the opportunity to share your faith, take a look at your life and see whether or not your actions are proclaiming the same truth.

Facing Temptation

All of us face temptation, in one way or another, practically every day. There’s really no point in being ashamed of it. After all, it’s not the temptation itself that is the sin, for even Jesus was tempted (Hebrews 4:15). We have a real Enemy who seeks to devour us (1 Peter 5:8), and while he’s not especially creative, recycling the same lies over and over  again, he is relentless. We should expect temptation and we shouldn’t feel bad about ourselves when that thought crosses our minds, for it is part of living on this broken earth. At every moment we have a Lord who is willing and able to help us learn how to take those thoughts captive and destroy them with truth (2 Corinthians 10:5). We do not have to live in defeat and habitual sin.
Nevertheless, we’re left with some questions: What does it look like to overcome temptation? How do we destroy false, unrighteous ideas? Most of us imagine that it would require 10 hours of daily, concentrated prayer and Bible study. Honestly, maybe it does during certain seasons. But in the day-to-day living that most of us experience, when the attacks are random, how do we respond?
Facing temptation on a daily basis
I have not departed from Your judgments,
For You Yourself have taught me.
How sweet are Your words to my taste,
Sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through Your precepts I get understanding,
Therefore I hate every false way.
– Psalm 119:102-104 (NKJV)
Over and over again the author of this longest of psalms shares his love for God’s word. Really, he shares his love for God Himself, for it is impossible to love Scripture without loving the voice found in every phrase. He delights in the commands of the Lord. He revels in them as if he’s preparing a dinner party for God.
Delighting in the Lord
Can you picture it? He’s cleaned his house from top to bottom and has decorated it in the way he knows the Guest of Honor will enjoy. Sweating glasses filled with refreshing ice water drip on the crocheted white tablecloth. Polished silverware glints in the soft light. Steam rises from heaping plates. He adjusts the magnificent centerpiece filled with fresh flowers as the doorbell rings. He can’t help himself; he rushes across the house, yanks open the door and weeps with delight.
The King has come and he cannot wait to hear what He has to say.
They sit together at that table, the author pulled as close to the King as he can get. He doesn’t want to miss a single word. He takes notes because he knows how forgetful he can be. He asks questions. The King is happy to give him all the answers he needs. Not always what he wants, but what he needs.
The dinner passes all too quickly. The candles have burned down to their wooden holders and wax drips over the sides. The food is gone, the glasses refilled and drained again and again. The host knows the King must go, but he also knows that, somehow, the King never truly leaves. He bows, trembling, as the King places a hand on his head and speaks a word of blessing. Tears blur his eyes as he dares to take one last look at the dear face and sees that the King is smiling.
If only he could remain in that holy moment! But there are dishes to do. And he’d best get to bed, for the alarm will be buzzing soon, carrying him off into another workday. Before he knows it, the next day has arrived and he’s sitting at his desk, biting his cheek to keep from screaming at the coworker who, yet again, is late.
He chooses, in that moment, to turn his mind back to what the King had said. He takes a deep breath and extends grace to that coworker, the kind of grace he knows he himself lives in daily.
As the days pass, he cannot forget that dinner. He spends time with his family. He does yardwork. He watches a television show. He finds that the glow of what he used to focus on has dimmed. Nothing is as good to him as the words. Nothing finer.
He gets up earlier than usual and opens the King’s book. He puts an app on his phone so he can turn to the words when he’s on his lunch break. When he wakes up in the middle of the night, thirsty, he knows he longs for more than water.
Overcoming temptation
Really, there’s no great secret to overcoming temptation. Victory is wrapped up completely in the Lord. The more we nurture our relationship with Him, the more we will be able to say “no.” The more we dig into His word, the more we will be able to distinguish the false from the true and choose accordingly. Oh, it will hurt. There will be sweat and tears. It will seem like agony to turn away. We are shortsighted people bent on immediate gratification. Sanctification is a long, hard-won process, never fully completed this side of eternity.
But we can choose. We can say “no” to temptation. Satan likes to try and make us believe that we’re helpless, and sometimes we like to pretend that we’re helpless as an excuse for our bad decisions. The truth is that, in Christ, we can have victory.
The more we learn from God, the more we understand how very small and silly we really are. We are confronted with our weakness and, if we’re smart, we embrace it. We fling ourselves upon the grace and mercy of the Lord. We beg Him to give us what we need for the battle. He teaches us how to turn to Him when tempted, even if we’re turning to Him every few seconds over the same issue. He doesn’t get tired of helping, encouraging, strengthening.
Little by little, we begin to understand. We begin to see that any way that’s not His way is false – and we start to hate it. Because we know that those false ways will take us from Him, and that’s a fate worse than anything we can imagine. He has become our prize, our very great reward. All else pales in comparison, no matter its shiny packaging.
In this journey to overcome temptation, we will fall. We will have days when we’re arrogant and think we don’t need Him. Or days when we’re tired and Satan takes advantage. Whatever the case may be, we’ll take a little dip in our upward progression and we’ll be tempted to stay there and dig a little deeper. In those moments, we must remember grace. God forgives, always.
So we can get up and begin anew, wiser than before, and more determined to stay within His shadow, following as He leads.

For Everything There is a Season: Saying Goodbye

Because I grew up with a father in the military, most people would assume that saying goodbye is second nature to me—I even find myself assuming that sometimes. However, as the years go by, I’ve found that saying goodbye never really becomes any easier. If anything, you just get more used to it.
Why is saying goodbye so hard?
Saying goodbye is hard because it requires letting go—of friendships, of futures, of plans. When we’re no longer able to interact with friends on a regular basis, it’s easy to feel like we have no control over the relationship anymore.
A lot of times, it can seem like you’re saying goodbye forever. You may not know if or when you will ever see this person again. Saying goodbye can feel unjust, like something of yours is being unlawfully taken from you.
Goodbye is also hard because, despite its frequency, each time involves new contexts, new people, new relationships, and even new words. Every goodbye feels unique and hurts like the first time all over again.
When faced with something so painful and, at least for me, so frequent, it’s easy to despair. But, one thing I rest in during such times is knowing that goodbye is not the end.
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 “ For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.”
For everything there is a season
These verses from Ecclesiastes help me to find comfort in saying goodbye by reminding me of the seasonality of life. There are seasons in life that are devastatingly hard, and there is often nothing we can do to avoid them. But, the hard things in life are often necessary parts of the good things.
As Ecclesiastes shows: we cannot have peace, unless we have had war; we cannot sew if something has not been torn; we cannot build something up if it has not been broken down. Not only do hard things in life create the opportunity for good and joyful things, but hard things also help us to more fully appreciate and cherish the good things when they finally arrive.
Painful means to a better end
Rather than proclaiming a backwards, upended sort of prosperity gospel that suggests the more grief you experience, the more joy you’ll be rewarded with; I mean to suggest that sometimes life’s hardships can be the means to a better end.
Every time I say goodbye, my heart breaks a little bit more. But, as my heart heals, which it always does, I find new wisdom and thankfulness in my scarred heart than before.
The next time you are faced with a painful goodbye, allow yourself to feel the hurt, but don’t let your journey end there. Run to our Heavenly Father who understands the grief of the moment and allow Him to change the way that your eyes see and your heart feels for the future.