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New Life Resolutions

“I hate new year’s resolutions,” the man said to his wife with a gravelly, sneering tone that conveyed absolute contempt for the annual tradition. In five forceful words he made his feelings known. Convincing him to change his mind would have been a waste of time – a fact his wife must have known because she didn’t even try. Silence followed the man’s statement and the conversation abruptly ended.

The exchange that unfolded between the man and his wife is a common new year’s scene. People tend to either love or hate new year’s resolutions. The pro-resolution crowd believes it is good to at least make an effort to better one’s self. The anti-resolution crowd says it’s a silly tradition especially since 80% of resolutions fail.

Resolution haters have a point. Every year like clockwork the resolution resolve that was so strong on New Year’s Day wanes by Martin Luther King’s holiday and is ancient history by Valentine’s. After a few slip ups (and who doesn’t slip up?) the resolution feels more burdensome than beneficial. The promises made get trapped in the ruts of life and rarely do they make it out before December 31st.

New Year’s resolutions have earned their bad rap. They have a horrible track record for producing lasting change which is why this year I’m promoting a whole new kind of resolution: A New Life Resolution. A promise to make a spiritual change with eternal significance.

My new life resolution for 2019 and beyond is to pursue Christ…and nothing else.

For my entire life (up until now) I have pursued Christ AND something else. Christ and education…health….a miracle healing modality…a career…a killer business idea…a calling…a livelihood….a passion….a purpose. I believed it was acceptable to seek what this world has to offer while still honoring God.

Turns out I was wrong.

Seeking the world’s offerings made me more like a frenetic squirrel than a faithful follower of Christ. Like a wild, bushy tailed animal that scurries up every tree in search of a tantalizing nutty treat, I frantically searched for purpose and usefulness in this world. I thought if I could just find the right tree bearing the treat I’d be happier, more content and fulfilled.

What I’ve discovered is that I can’t pursue the world in addition to Christ. The result is a life of dissatisfaction, confusion and distraction. Balancing two lives, one lived for God and one lived for the world, doesn’t work. God requires my full, undivided attention be given to knowing Christ and making Him known.

In order to fully obey and glorify God I must put an end to my frantic search for a place in this world. I must surrender my former life of dual quests so I can live exclusively in pursuit of Jesus – His way, His truth and His life.

As I embark on my new life resolution it is important to acknowledge that the key to success does not rest in my own power. If I bank on my own resolve I am doomed to fail as miserably as most new year’s resolutions. The only hope I have of realizing my resolution is to rest in the truth and assurance of Christ’s resurrection. All the strength I need is available at the foot of His cross and to receive it I must stay put, resisting the temptation to be the squirrel that goes scampering off after every distraction. I must continue in the way of obedience, constantly surrendering myself to Jesus and God’s will for my life.

Jesus said in Luke 9:24 that “whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.” With the Savior of the world as my sole pursuit in this world I have no idea what the year ahead will bring but I know who will bring it. And knowing Him is enough for me.

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Redeemed by Belief

December 2018 was a bust – well, almost.

The first twenty-three days of my December were short on Christmas spirit and high on Christmas angst. The dominating thoughts in my mind revolved around shopping and sulking. If I wasn’t on a frustrating hunt to find the perfect present for every person on my list, I was most likely in a depressive funk. My mood was more melancholy than merry. Sadly, I must admit I was more prone to crankiness than cheeriness. To those who had to share a roof with me this Christmas season, I’m sorry.

Sadly, I know I’m not alone in experiencing a depressing December. When Christmas lights come on and jolly tunes are turned up every sadness and heartache gets magnified. Smiling Santas betray the despondent, mocking them at every festive turn. “Have a holly, jolly Christmas” doesn’t ring true. “I’ll have a Blue Christmas” sounds more appropriate. For those who have an identifiable “reason” to be sad it’s easy to slip into a season of sulking come Christmastime.

And so, on December 1st, that’s precisely what I did. I entered into a twenty-three day season of sulking.

While out shopping I was hopeless, unable to find the perfect gift for the loved ones on my list. While at home I was discontent, trapped in the sadness of my not-so-perfect life. Staring me in the face was the heavy weight of grief born out of a life sidelined by sickness. Although there was much to celebrate since last Christmas – more healing, vitality, improved health – I was blind to the many healing victories. All I could see were a lifetime of dreams and plans destroyed by a decade of sickness.

But then the light of God pierced into my darkness on December 23rd by way of a simple children’s Christmas play.

At New Life Community Church, the home of my church family, a small group of children performed a short and sweet Christmas program that shared a powerful and profound message. With bed sheets for costumes and a simple Bethlehem set, the kids told the story of Jesus’ arrival into the world. Mary and Joseph entered the manger scene followed by angels who appeared to shepherds as they watched their flocks by night. After telling them the good news about the Savior’s birth the young shepherds excitedly declared their desire to travel to Bethlehem and see the promised King of Kings.

As the play came to a close the audience’s attention was drawn back to the narrator as he said, “In believing, they found the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, their Savior. And tonight, just as it was in Bethlehem so many years ago, God has chosen you to hear the good news and believe.” That one line changed the spirit in the room – or at least it changed the spirit in me.

Belief transformed my heart.

Belief in Christ, who He is and what He came to do transformed my December bust into a beautiful time of celebration. By returning to Jesus Christ and fixating on His life from the cradle to the cross, my depression lifted and quickly disappeared. In the Savior’s presence the sadness I had experienced all season long was replaced by abundant joy and overwhelming peace.

Whether it be Christmastime or the middle of July, when we approach the manger throne believing in Christ and the salvation He delivers, we will encounter His peace, comfort and joy. By seeking the Savior and entering into His presence our hearts will be renewed by redeeming love.

Come to God bearing your bust of a month. Surrender your sadness and sorrow so He can transform it. God is faithful. He will redeem and restore you. Come to the manger and God will revive you with an eternally abiding Christmas spirit.

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Christmas is a Box of Chocolates

Tucked in the basement of an old church in downtown Erie, Pennsylvania is the fellowship and dining hall used by the Upper Room, a local homeless shelter.

The windowless space is dim and the kitchen’s appliances are ancient. The long, rectangular tables have seen better days and the hard metal chairs aren’t particularly comfortable. But, on Christmas morning, there’s no place I’d rather be than that humble dining room.

For the homeless, Christmas can be one of the loneliest and most depressing days of the whole year. While families congregate and celebrate the day with delicious meals and carefully wrapped gifts the homeless go without, often spending the holiday alone. Even places they usual gather (McDonalds and soup kitchens) are usually closed, making Christmas not only one the loneliest days of the year but one of the hungriest, too.

It was this lonely, hungry thought that inspired the Christmas Morning Brunch at the Upper Room. Five years ago members from around the community began what would become an annual tradition of hosting a meal for those in need. At the morning meal guests are invited to indulge in a spread of home cooked food complete with fluffy egg casseroles, a variety of muffins, juicy Honey Baked Ham and freshly cut fruit. There is hot coffee on tap, second helpings and even the finest chocolate in all of Erie, PA – Stefanelli’s melt-aways.

Of all the delicious food and baked goods at the Christmas brunch – and there was lots – the box of Stefanelli’s chocolates  was by far the most treasured delight. The white box filled with luscious chunks of rich chocolate was purchased from a local company in town and placed conveniently by the coffee pot where everyone could grab a piece . As guests happened upon the chocolate I watched as their faces lit up. They immediately recognized Stefanelli’s candy – everyone in Erie does. It is considered a luxury and a rare treat, especially for those who often go without daily meals. So it was no surprise when everyone that passed by the box stopped in amazement before scooping up a piece – or two – of chocolatey treasure.

Watching the reception of the Stefanelli’s chocolate struck me as profound. What I witnessed was so much more than men and women being offered chocolate to freely enjoy. What I was watching turned out to be a sweet picture of how God offers us the greatest gift ever – Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. 

Like the special box of chocolates offered at the Upper Room on Christmas morning, God made Jesus accessible to all. He sent His most precious gift, His Son, into the lowliest of circumstances – a humble stable with only a manger for a bed. Although God could have delivered the Savior into a guarded palace or high, lofty estate, He didn’t. He could have kept Jesus far away for the people and out of reach but He didn’t. Instead, God delivered Jesus right into the middle of our broken world where He could shine His light of life in the darkest places and to the most desperate of people. He made Jesus approachable, knowable and conveniently within our weak and feeble reach.

God made Jesus available to all – the worst of sinners, the sickest of individuals and even the dead. When Jesus went out into the world, He said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28). Jesus didn’t come for only the people who had their act together or who had a stellar pedigree. Jesus came to seek and save the lost, the hopeless and the “too far gone.” His gift of salvation was and is for anyone and everyone who will come to Him bearing broken lives, believing He is the Son of God who rescues sinners by way of the cross.

God gave Jesus in endless abundance – just like the box of chocolates.

By the end of the brunch we’d run out of a few breakfast foods. Certain casseroles were all gone and the hash-brown potatoes were no more but the box of chocolates was still half full. Somehow even though nearly every guest had indulged in the rich, meltaway chocolate the supply never ran out. There was enough for everyone and then some.

And so it is with Jesus. In Jesus Christ we have the one and only gift that will never run out and is always fully stocked. Anyone who approaches Jesus’ manger throne in search of the richest mercy and sweetest, most amazing grace will always find that the storehouse of His Salvation is full. Jesus, the Savior of the world, is abundant in boundless love, limitless grace, unfailing forgiveness and abiding peace. His goodness knows no end. There is always more than enough of Jesus to go around…and then some.

On Christmas morning it was a box of chocolates that delivered a special message: that God sent Jesus Christ, the greatest gift of all, into our broken world to offer us salvation through His sacrifice completely free of our charge. All He asks is that we come as we are from wherever we are and partake of heaven and earth’s sweetest, richest, eternally abiding gift: God’s one and only Son.  

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My Grown Up Thanksgiving List

Out with the old and in with the new…traditions that is.

This Thanksgiving I’m instituting a new tradition and I think it could catch on: The Thanksgiving list.

My thanksgiving list could go on forever because, as the saying goes, there is always something to be thankful for. From the bed I woke up in to the family that will fill the dinner table tonight for a feast, my life is full of blessings that give me an abundance of reason to over flow with daily thanksgiving.

So, without further ado, this is my grown-up Thanksgiving List:

1.     Redemption.

I was once a lost, rebellious, hideous sinner. My life was marked by bad decisions and double-minded wickedness. But God saved me and on November 2, 2009 I received new life in Christ and a fresh new start. On that fateful day Jesus rescued me from myself and redeemed me with Himself. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the day I received God’s free gift of salvation was the best day of my life.

2.     Forgiveness.

I mess up daily, if not hourly. Although I constantly fall short God is always full of second chances. He keeps picking me back up, brushing me off and giving me the opportunity to try, try again.

3.     Strength (and weakness).

Becoming intimately acquainted with my weakness by way of chronic illness has introduced me to the limitless depth of God’s strength. Every time I surrender in weakness it is an invitation that welcomes God in so He can effortlessly lift me up by His almighty, strong and powerful hand.

4.     Grace.

“Amazing Grace” has always been my favorite hymn and with good reason. It tells the story of my life. “I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind but now I see.” By grace through faith in Jesus Christ I have been given new life.

5.     New mornings.

Every sunrise is an opportunity to wake up, get up and start again.

6.     Healing.

God is the healer of the body and the soul and I am thankful for both. Last year at this time I was a shocking 65 pounds; a walking skeleton, uncertain of what the future held for my health. Wow, it is truly amazing what a year can do. Although my journey to full health isn’t over yet the healing I’ve experienced in the past year is a miracle. I am alive! That in and of itself is a miracle. I am regaining function in parts of my body that were either dead or dying. At the same time God has been doing a work on the inside, restoring hope, peace and joy to my soul. God works from the inside out, healing on deeper levels than I ever imagined possible.

7.     Church family.

This year more than ever before I am aware of what a precious gift it is to be a part of a faithful body of believers and so appreciative for the incredible prayers warriors who intercede on behalf of one another. I am always stunned by how many dear brothers and sisters in the Lord are praying for me and pleading with God for my continued healing and renewed health. I cannot say thank you enough.

8.     Eternal assurance.

I have no doubt about what comes after this life. After I leave earth I’m going to Heaven. End of story. That part of my journey is not a mystery because I am a child of the King and know that one day I will cross through the pearly gates and spend eternity with God.

9.     Pain with a purpose.

I’ll admit that I am slow to be thankful for pain. Naturally, I tend to have the opposite reaction while assaulted by gripping pain in my gut, burning in my eyes, or spasms in my legs. Instead of rejoicing I want to escape but when I consider my circumstances through a spiritual lens my agony drenched tears are replaced with abundant thankfulness because my pain has an eternally profitable purpose: to pull me closer to Jesus Christ, to make me wholly dependent on the Holy Spirit and to draw me into a deeper, more intimate relationship with God.

10.  Love.

The greatest gift of all is the love of God poured out on the cross of Christ. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son.” I am alive today – both physically and spiritually – because of the love of God that will not let me go. God lavishly showers me with love through His Word, His Spirit and the people He has put around me.

 

Although this list is not exhaustive it is foundational. My abundance of thanksgiving is rooted in this list because every good gift, from the love of family to the comforts of home, comes from above and springs forth from the fountain of everlasting life.

 

Have you written a Thanksgiving list? I’d love to hear what you’re most thankful for.

Share in the comments below!

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A letter to my Mom on Mother’s Day

Dear Mom,

This Mother’s Day a store bought card just wouldn’t do. To be honest, I didn’t even look for one in the store because I knew that nothing written in a card could capture what you and I have been through in the past year (not to mention the past 28).

You, more than anyone, know how difficult this past year has been. Treating Lyme Disease has been a roller coaster ride crazier than anything I could have ever imagined. The journey has been insane since the very first dose of treatment and yet you’ve kept your cool. I don’t know how, because heaven knows I haven’t. Through it all you’ve remained steady and sure. You have never wavered in your belief that I will be healed and restored. All the while you have been the hands and feet of God in my life – literally – graciously comforting my calloused feet with essential oils and my burdened spirit with fervent prayer.

I’m not always the easiest person to love. In fact, sometimes I’m down right grouchy and cold, yet you keep loving me. When I am short and unappreciative, you give me grace. When I take out my frustration and anger on you, you forgive me. You love me unconditionally. You love me with the love of Christ.

I know this year you said, “Don’t write anything sappy.” So I won’t. I’ll just write what is true: You are an incredible Mom, my very best friend and you have taught me how to love and support someone “in sickness and in health.”

I know our relationship isn’t perfect. It has its ups and downs but I wouldn’t trade it for anything because by being your daughter I have been taught how to love. By how you care for me I have been showered with sacrificial love that is drawn from the very source of love, Jesus Christ.

On this Mother’s Day I  want to thank you most of all for your devotion to Christ. Thank you for coming alongside me in my battle and encouraging me with scripture and faith. Satan’s attacks have been real, fiercely trying and testing my faith, but you have surrounded me with prayer. Every day you put on the armor of God to defeat the enemy on my behalf.

God doesn’t make mistakes. He had a plan for me as your daughter before I was even born. He had a journey plotted out for you and I  before you knew if I would be a “Stephanie” or a “Steven” (or some other boy name). God knew what He was doing when He put you and I together. He knew I’d need a Mom who would be willing to fight for me and with me.

Mom, I know someday you are going to hear those glorious words, “Well done good and faithful servant” because you are good and faithful and you are a servant. You serve Him everyday by the way you care and love for me.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

She is clothed with strength and dignity;
she can laugh at the days to come.
She speaks with wisdom,
and faithful instruction is on her tongue.

Proverbs 31:25-26