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Well-Watered

The parking lot was empty, but the lawn was well-watered, thanks to an expansive irrigation system. The perfectly scheduled midst was going off each day without a hitch, ensuring great looking grass even if there was not a soul in sight.

This was the scene I encountered just the other day while driving past one of the largest churches in my local area. This particular mega church building is so mammoth a person could easily get lost in its halls. First time visitors should be given a map or, better yet, a tour guide! On the outside, the maze continues with a gargantuan parking lot paved with thousands of parking spaces interspersed with lush green spaces.

But, for the past three months, the church’s parking lot has been completely empty – as have been the seats inside the stately sanctuary. Despite being legally permitted to open in the state of Tennessee, this particular church – and many others like it – willingly shut their doors in response to COVID19. And they’ve kept them shut week after week after week.

Like many of my fellow church goers, I was disappointed when pastors and church leaders made the decision to stop all in-person services back in March. And yet I continued to believe that God was working all things together for good. As I wrote in previous posts, March 2020 wasn’t the first time Christians were scattered out of their comfortable church buildings. God used previous shutdowns to sanctify and strengthen His people and I believed He was performing this purifying work again, in our day and age.

Even though I believed this and continue to believe it, I still became discouraged while driving past the shuttered church’s well-watered lawn. I shook my head in disgust at the failure of the church to nourish its people as well as it cares for its grass. “How does this further the gospel message?” I asked myself. “Why can’t the church see the duplicity of keeping their lawn well-watered while leaving their people parched?”

I wrestled with these questions for a few days until I finally brought my wrestling before the throne of God. And that’s when He impressed a verse upon my heart. “Feed my sheep…” (John 21:17) He said. And then He put it a new way. “Water my people…”

Hearing those words spoken to my heart was like having the lights turned on in a dark house. Suddenly I was reminded that I cannot control what other people (and churches) do or don’t do. But I can control what I do and how I live out my calling to serve God’s people. I can control my decision to put on the Holy Spirit, pick up my watering can, and take the message of Jesus Christ to the dry and weary bones around me. I can offer the water of God’s good news to the thirsty who are desperate for spiritual hydration.

Without a church building or an irrigation system, you and I, the church, can be ambassadors for Christ right where we are. In His Word and through His Spirit, God has given us everything we need to serve with a full watering can. So, dear friends, fill up on the fresh springs of Christ’s living water, then go out into all the world and point parched people to God’s well where they can freely drink and never thirst again.

“…but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” – Jesus {John 4:14}

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Lessons from Lightening Bugs

Something magical happens almost every summer night right around 8 PM… lightning bugs appear.

As if on cue, the rear ends of these beloved flying creatures begin to illuminate the dimming sky at the precise moment that the sun starts saying good night. Even though they arrive without a sound, the lightening bug’s presence is undeniable. Like flickering lights, they dance across the grassy earth in a captivating display of nature’s unrivaled beauty.

Although lightening bugs are relatively simple creatures, they are simply wonderful creatures, too. They boast impeccable timing, showing up at precisely the same moment every night. And they are utterly dependable, returning every summer, without fail, to entertain children and adults alike. But, more than that, lightening bugs are a marvelous picture of who God is and how He reveals Himself to man’s eye.

You see, like lightening bugs, God is most visible in the dark. While the world’s lights are blazing with earthly ease and glittery pleasures, it is all too easy to miss the majestic light of Jesus moving before our very eyes. We become so distracted by entertainment, productivity and the everyday comings and goings of a comfortable life that we fail to see the very Light of Life. But when our lives go dim and the blinding glare of earth’s desires fade off into the distance, what remains is the captivating glow of Jesus’ light piercing through the darkness.

Perhaps this is why God allows His children to end up in the dark, permitting the extinguishing of earthly lights and stripping away of worldly securities. Because our God is a jealous God who wants our full attention. He does not want us distracted and preoccupied with temporary gratification. He wants us entirely fixated on and completely captivated by the brilliant and eternal light of His Son, Jesus Christ.

To see lightening bugs, we must go out at night and wait for dark but, beloved, that is not so with God’s light.

Unlike the lightening bug, God’s light is not seasonal nor is it only visible during a certain time of day. His glorious light can be seen anytime, anywhere and all year round. Although we might not always perceive Jesus’ brilliance shining into our lives, that doesn’t mean the sparkle of His Spirit is not there. Right before He ascended into Heaven, Jesus promised that He would be with us, “even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) But in order to find Him, we must intentionally and wholeheartedly seek His light, much like a child looks for a lightening bug on a warm summer night. (Jeremiah 29:13)

Beloved, God’s light is all around you. Do you see it? Day and night, the splendor of His presence is right before you. Does He have your attention? Oh, how I hope and pray you will turn your eyes upon Him tonight and let Him captivate you in body, mind and soul. I can assure you of this, when you enter into the presence of God and fix your eyes on Jesus’ Light of Life, you will never want to return to the dark.

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The Sent Scattering

A few weeks ago I wrote a post entitled “Scattered” addressing the issue of churches closing in response to COVID-19. In that piece I referenced Jesus’ pre-crucifixion words recorded in John 16:32, “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home.”

While reflecting on this scripture, I saw the current circumstances facing our country and the modern-day church. Like Jesus’ disciples, we too, are in trying times and, we too, have been scattered. Christians have been cut off from their comfortable life groups, regular programming and familiar Sunday morning services to experience the unknown future in solitude and isolation. (Click here to read the full post.)

But, as I previously wrote, I believe that in this scattering there will be sanctifying. In fact, I believe the purification of the church is already underway. At this very moment, broken people are, for the very first time, entering into a personal and private relationship with the lover of their soul. There is a great awakening taking place behind closed doors and it isn’t over yet. In fact, based on what we find in the Bible, I believe it’s just beginning.

So, let’s return to the Bible and turn to the ministry of Jesus post-resurrection.

After rising from the dead, Jesus dazzled His followers with some seriously shocking entrances (such as coming into a room through the wall – no door required). In both word and deed, Jesus confirmed His holy identity while pulling back the curtain on the future, giving His followers a glimpse of what was to come, namely the Holy Spirit.

Immediately before ascending into Heaven, Jesus said, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8). The disciples were instructed to stay sheltered in place but not indefinitely. Once the Holy Spirit descended into their midst they were to then leave the protection of their homes so they could travel EVERYWHERE and tell EVERYONE about the way to truth and eternal life.

The disciples obeyed, heeding Jesus’ instructions to a T. They stayed hunkered down until they were met with “a sound from heaven like the roaring of a mighty windstorm, and it filled the house where they were sitting.” (Acts 2:2) “Then what looked like flames or tongues of fire appeared and settled on each of them. And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit…” (Acts 2:3-4)

What happened following Pentecost was a second scattering: the sent scattering.

Once the disciples received the Holy Spirit, they were transformed from fearful followers of Jesus into powerhouse proclaimers of the Gospel. Peter, the same disciple who had denied Jesus during the first scattering, became so bold and brave that he stood right up and addressed a crowd of skeptics who were convinced that the disciples were just plain old drunks. In response to that sermonette, three thousand doubters became believers.

In those early days of the post-Pentecostal church, followers of Jesus became united as brothers and sisters in Christ. They held everything in common, fellowshipped and broke bread together. They spent time in each other’s homes, praising, performing miracles and celebrating as more sinners got saved.

But it wasn’t all butterflies and roses. During that abundant harvest was an abundance of hardship. Standing up for Jesus put the disciples directly in the cross hairs of the enemy and his attacks were fierce.  Persecution reached a fever pitch when Stephen, “a man full of God’s grace and power” (Acts 6:8) was stoned to death. Following his murder, Saul, the chief of persecutors, gathered up arrest warrants on a mission to invade the homes of believers and imprison them for their faith. During that time, “all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1) and “preached the word wherever they went” (Acts 8:4).

What’s interesting about this moment in the church’s history is what the persecuted Christians didn’t do and where they didn’t go. They didn’t hide from the unbelievers and persecutors who might hurt, imprison and possibly kill them. Nor did they deny the truth about Jesus or try to downplay their devotion to the Risen King. Instead they fearlessly proclaimed the truth of salvation. They boldly and bravely scattered the Gospel message throughout the land, distributing the Good News everywhere they went.

So, dear Christian, what does this mean for us? How should we heed the call in the midst of the COVID-19 hysteria? How are we to move from being sheltered to sent in the face of shutdowns, restrictions and government mandates? How should we as post-resurrection, post-Pentecostal Christians embrace Jesus’ command to go everywhere and tell everyone about the way to eternal life?

With each passing day, it is becoming more and more likely that our sent scattering won’t include a swift return to church as knew it and that’s okay. The believers in Acts weren’t living life as they knew it, either. Nor were they gathering in sanctuaries, meeting in connect groups or offering a stellar children’s programs. Yet none of those perceived limitations stopped the power of God from performing miracles and saving lives through the work of the earliest Christians. What the disciples lacked in organized religion they made up for in what I like to call the four F’s. Fearless. Faithful. Forward. And filled with the Holy Spirit.

  1. The earliest Christians were fearless. What’s so ironic about this particular characteristic is that, during the first scattering, Jesus’ followers embodied the precise opposite characteristic. During the sheltered scattering, the disciples were so afraid of what people would think of them and do to them for being a friend of Jesus that Peter denied knowing Christ not once, not twice but three times! Fast forward to the second scattering and Peter is standing in front of hostile crowds (including the authorities) preaching the Gospel! Retribution no longer scared him because He had encountered the resurrected Christ.
  2. The earliest Christians were faithful. Being a follower of Christ wasn’t a Sunday only event for them. Being a follower of Christ was everything to them! They were devoted to one another so wholeheartedly that they sold everything they had and held it in common. They were, as we would say today, all in. Becoming a Christian was the defining feature of their lives.
  3. The earliest Christians were forward. Shy is not a word found anywhere in the Acts account of Jesus’ followers. They were the very antithesis of shy. They were bold in any and all circumstances. It didn’t matter if the disciples were among friends or among enemies, they put forward the truth about Jesus Christ with conviction and confidence.
  4. And, last but certainly not least, the earliest Christians were filled with the Holy Spirit. It is this characteristic that empowered them to go from sheltered to sent. The impartation of the Holy Spirit was required for them to be forward, faithful and fearless. Without the spirit of the living God working in and through them, the disciples could do nothing. They needed to be unconditionally surrendered to Christ so that the Holy Spirit could be poured out and into their lives. Then and only then could they heed the call to go EVERYONE and to EVERYONE proclaiming the way, the truth and the life.

Friends, more than the reopening of a building or the relaunching of normal order, our lost world needs the simple Gospel. They need followers of Christ who have been scattered and sent to faithfully and fearlessly share with them the Good News about the blood of the Lamb that takes away the sins of the world. They need Christians who will come forward, filled with the Holy Spirit and unashamedly declare that Jesus is the only truth, the only way and the only everlasting life.

 

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The “Good Stuff”

Mark 2:8 is what I call an “on the way to” text.

What is an “on the way to” text, you ask? An “on the way to” text is one of the many Bible passages that often gets skimmed over on the way to the “good stuff” (ie: the miracle, the healing, the loaves and fishes, the water into wine). These scriptures aren’t the most quotable Bible verses and are rarely chosen for topical sermons. They aren’t memorized by children in Sunday school and aren’t the choice scriptures for plaques, greeting cards and journal covers.

But “on the way to” texts aren’t throw away verses. They are fundamental to understanding, comprehending and appreciating the fullness of God’s Word.

So, let’s take a look at one.

The text we’re going to dive into is found in the second chapter of Mark and recounts Jesus’ healing ministry. As we learn in verses 1-7, Jesus is in Capernaum, preaching to a large crowd inside a house. There were so many people crammed into this home that there was literally no room for anyone else to enter in, which proved to be a problem for a paralyzed man and his four friends outside. This man was desperate for the healing touch of Jesus and since desperate times call for desperate measures, his friends decided to deliver the man to Jesus by way of the roof.

When Jesus saw the paralyzed man being lowered into the house, He was moved by this awe-inspiring display of faith and said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” This should have been a beautiful, redemptive moment but the uptight religious leaders weren’t feeling the love. In their minds, they began judging Jesus, claiming that He was blaspheming.

Now, this is where a cursory read of the story could result in missing what I think is one of the very best verses in the whole chapter. As the hypocritical teachers were thinking to themselves – just thinking, not even saying a single word out loud– Jesus discerned their thoughts as Mark records in verse eight: “Immediately Jesus knew in His spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts.”

Pause and reread that verse again.

Isn’t that incredible? Immediately Jesus knew the thoughts of His observers. It didn’t even take Him a minute to figure out what was occurring in their minds! The second they had a thought, Jesus knew it in His Spirit. Before they opened up their mouths to speak or had a chance to furrow their brows in judgment, Jesus knew their every question, curiosity, wonder and accusation. They could not hide a thought or feeling from Jesus because He looked right through their exterior and saw into their hearts.

The second half of Mark 2:8 recounts what I would call a “drop the mic” moment. After we learn that Jesus knew the thoughts of the teachers of the law, He goes on to ask them, point blank, “Why are you thinking these things?” Can you imagine it!? One moment you’re thinking something and the next moment the most incredible preacher, teacher and speaker you’ve ever heard – the man who claims to be the Messiah and very Son of God – is calling you out for questioning His authority? And you never even said a word! That’s what the crowd in Mark chapter two were experiencing.

As the rest of the scene unfolded Jesus expounded on His knowledge about their thought lives and, more importantly, their spiritual lives.

First He asked them which is easier, to tell a paralyzed man that his sins are forgiven or to tell that man to pick up his mat and walk? No one in the crowd responded which might have been because Jesus didn’t give them a chance to or because they were still so stunned no one could speak. Either way, Jesus quickly moved onto healing the paralyzed man’s physical body and ordering him to pick up his mat and go home. Which is just what the obedient, able bodied man did, leaving the suspicious crowd dumbstruck and amazement.

If you’re like me, your history with this particular passage of scripture has been primarily focused on verses five and eleven. “Jesus saw their faith” and “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” I used to consider these verses “the good stuff” because they comfort me with the truth that Jesus sees faith and rewards it! (Yay!) He heals in response to faith. This is good – and true – news! But it isn’t the only good news and good truth found in the first twelve verses of Mark two.

Tucked into verse eight is a reassuring nugget of comfort worth feasting on: Jesus knows our every thought.

Just as Jesus saw into the minds and spirits of His listeners during His earthly ministry, He sees into our minds and spirits to this day. When we’re doubtful, He understands our questions and concerns. When we’re worried, He hears our fears. When we’re depressed, He feels our deepest pain.

Without ever saying a word or speaking a prayer, Jesus knows our every thought and feeling. We cannot hide from Him physically, mentally, spiritually or emotionally.

The fact that Jesus knows your every thought might be disconcerting to you – especially if you’re trying to hide sin from God. It’s true that Jesus sees every sin you have ever and will ever commit but the good news is that He saw them before He died to save you. Long before you ever knew which sins you would commit and when, Jesus knew every one of them and willingly sacrificed His life to pay the penalty that was due to you. He wiped your slate clean by crucifying the very power of your sin nature. Then He rose again to give you new, abundant, righteous, eternal life.

Once we invite Jesus into our lives and surrender our sinful, rebellious hearts to Him, we can take comfort in the good news that He knows every part of us. We can rest assured that we are never alone because He is always with us, interceding on our behalf when we can’t find the right words to say and comforting us when we are too chocked up to even speak.

“On the way to” the miracle, the Gospel of Mark reminds us that Jesus, our Redeemer, Counselor, Savior and Friend knows our every thought and loves us just the same. If you ask me, that’s remarkably “good stuff,” don’t you agree?

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Fear Not

“You should be afraid.”

My neighbor’s words took me aback and I didn’t know quite how to respond. I was just being lighthearted, trying to infuse the coronavirus pandemic with a little “social distancing” humor. Apparently, she didn’t find my joke comical. I would have tried to pick my jaw up off the sidewalk, but I was too stunned to think that clearly. Her violent reaction to my harmless banter left me completely speechless.

When I finally found words, they were lame. “Are you seriously telling me I should be afraid?” She confirmed that she was indeed dead serious and then expounded, making it very clear that I was not only a fool – I was offensive, too.

I walked away from that exchange feeling like both the victim and the perpetrator of the crime.

The mix of emotions was unsettling and, in the hours that followed, I struggled to shake them. While replaying the scene over and over again in my mind, I felt like Kathleen Kelly in You’ve Got Mail, as she lamented her inability to come up with zingers on the spot. But it wasn’t a “gottcha zinger” that I wished I would have produced in that moment. It was a “God’s got this witness” I kicked myself for missing. I wanted to rewind time and go back to the sidewalk so I could tell this neighbor that I’m not afraid because I trust God and His perfect providence. I joke, banter and laugh because I am at peace knowing that God is in total control. There is no need to fear the past, present or future because Jesus has already won the ultimate war – the war for the sinner’s soul.

Had my facial muscles and brain been firing on all cylinders, I would have gone on to tell this woman that I learned not to be afraid of death, sickness and uncertainty in the fires of disease. Then I would have undoubtedly expounded, explaining how, two years ago, I was sixty-eight pounds, living with a “comatose” blood pressure reading that caused many a nurse to go ghostly white. I would have told this woman that, against all human logic, God carried my body throughout that storm, making it possible for me to stand before here today as a living testimony to His sustaining and overcoming power. If only I had confidently and joyfully told her that I don’t need to be afraid of a virus because I know the Great Physician!

But, more than a physical story, I would have told her about Jesus’ story that makes it possible for anyone to live free of fear – regardless of what storms they’ve faced in the past.

When Jesus hanged on the cross of Calvary, He bore all of our sins, shame and burdens. He took eternal death to the grave and, when He rose again three days later, He left it there. When Jesus resurrected, He opened the door to Heaven so that every man, woman and child can join Him there forever. And all He asks is that we accept Him and turn our lives over to Him. Pretty good trade off, don’t you think? We surrender our earthly life – fears and all – and, in return, He gives us eternal, abundant, overcoming life. Jesus graciously takes our heavy load upon Himself and gives us abounding hope and unshakable assurance instead.

Followers of Jesus can endure every earthly problem and pandemic with peace and confidence, knowing that their Savior has already overcome this world. They can smile, laugh and experience joy in the midst of suffering and uncertainty because their greatest fear – the fear of eternal separation from God – has been put to rest.

Unfortunately, I didn’t speak any of those glorious truths to my angry neighbor and since I have a feeling she’ll be social distancing herself from me in the future, I doubt I’ll ever get the chance to share what I so wish I would have said in the moment. Fortunately, God’s ability to save my neighbor (or any of our fearful neighbors) is not limited to my ability to recite a spellbinding testimony on the sidewalk. He does not need my words to do His work. And although I hope to witness to His majesty with more power, joy and love in the future, I know that He has already forgiven me for the past. The moment I sought His mercy, He extended it without delay, graciously assuring me that there is nothing added to my record of wrong that can’t be washed away by the blood of the Lamb. Nor is there anything I said or left unsaid that His Holy Spirit cannot overcome.

The more I’ve pondered the scene on my humor fail, the more I’ve been compelled to pray for my neighbor. I cannot undo what was or was not said but I can take the situation, my regret and my hopes for this woman to God. He knows my heart and He knows her. And, what’s more, He can restore, heal and deliver us both.

So, that’s my prayer for her. May God restore her soul, heal her heart and deliver her from all her fears.

 

For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.

2 Timothy 1:7

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Wash Your Hands… And Your Heart

While the whole globe is in hysterics, I just keep wondering, do we really need this many reminders to wash our hands?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard about the coronavirus. If you didn’t find out about it on the news, then you might have discovered the pandemic while standing dumbfounded in the empty toilet paper isle of your local grocery store. Or perhaps you were notified when your email inbox was inundated with a flurry of messages about “coronavirus precautions.” Or your child is no longer allowed to attend school. That last one makes me question who’s behind this whole coronavirus hysteria. I have a feeling it’s middle schoolers who are secretly high fiving in collective victory.

But, more than any of those germy thoughts, my mind has been wondering a far more impactful question: what if people took Jesus as seriously as they are taking the coronavirus?

I’m convinced that if people were as consumed with Christ as they are COVID-19, we wouldn’t have a global fear pandemic. Instead, we would have an international faith explosion! There wouldn’t be a frantic run on toilet paper (sorry Charmin) but there would be great revival of praise. Schools wouldn’t be shutting down (sorry students) but more churches would surely be opening their doors. While out and about, you probably wouldn’t see many people dawning hospital masks. On the other hand, you would definitely see more people shaking hands and even exchanging hugs.

If we as a global community, took the eternal Jesus more seriously than we take an earthly virus, our entire world would be transformed. If we paid as much attention to safeguarding our spiritual well-being as we are paying to protecting our physical health, our communities would be turned upside down.

During His earthly ministry, when germs were running rampant and viruses were no joke, Jesus told his followers, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.”(John 14:1)

Notice that Jesus did not say, believe in your toilet paper or your hand sanitizer or your face mask. He also did not say that we are to believe in man’s ability to come up with a vaccine or the government’s quarantine regulations. What we are told to do is actively guard our hearts from being troubled while believing in the unshakable foundation of the Almighty God.

If you bought a lot of toilet paper, I’m sure it will come in handy, but it won’t save your soul. If your kids are off of school, I do hope that measure is effective for keeping them healthy, but it won’t make their spirit well. Only Jesus can do that. Only the Son of God who died to cleanse our hearts and make us whole can protect us from the greatest virus of all: the sin that destroys our eternal lives.

So, don’t just wash your hands. Let Jesus wash your heart.

Bring your sin and stain to the foot of His cross and let Him purify you from the inside out.

Drop your fear and welcome in abundant faith.

Pick up praise and rejoice as all panic falls away.

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Memories that matter: a cradle and a cross

They say a picture says a thousand words but, to me, this picture said at least fifteen-thousand.

It was our family vacation photo taken on the last day of our 2011 trip to Hilton head. There were fifteen of us in attendance – two brothers, two sister-in-laws, two parents and eight nieces and nephews. We had just finished enjoying a perfect week on the beach and, if I recall correctly, there had barely been a single argument or squabble among the whole group. It truly was a picture perfect trip.

In the picture, we were all sporting our very best tans and smiling with sun kissed glows. This particular shot has always been one of my very favorite family photos because every one of us looks happy, healthy and full of life.

But I wonder if we would have been smiling that big had we known what was to come over the next nine years?

Heaven knows, I didn’t have a clue!

What that picture was taken, I was feeling so good! I had just recently climbed out of my first go around with illness and, although I didn’t understand why I’d suddenly become sick in the first place, I didn’t care. All that mattered to me was that whatever had plagued me appeared to be history. I considered it a miracle and gift from God. I was thrilled to be well again and able to plan for the future without factoring in physical limitations. My body was strong, pain free and vibrant and I was loving every minute of it!

But my health didn’t stick around.

Before long, the plans I made (some on that very family trip), including a return to college and future as a fitness professional, went up in smoke. By November 2011, my weight was falling off again and every pound I gained (and then some) was gone. By Thanksgiving, every bit of muscle I worked so hard to restore had wasted away entirely.

On our family’s 2011 summer vacation to the beach I had no idea that, by the following June, I would be living in  Florida to be near a particular doctor I believed could solve my health mystery. I couldn’t even begin to imagine that over the next four years I would go across the country in search of someone who could explain what was wrong with my failing body. During that perfect summer, I didn’t think that in 2015, at the age of twenty-five, I would receive MRI test results revealing lesions on my brain. Nor did I have a clue that, two years after those brain scans, my life would be changed again by the word “Lyme.” To think, in 2011, I didn’t even know what the world Lyme meant!

Now, as I look back at that 2011 family photo and recall my former, long haired, optimistic, smiley self, all I can think about is how naive I was. There was so much I didn’t know and so much I wasn’t prepared for. Back then, I thought my life was on the verge of taking off, when in reality, it was actually on the precipice of falling apart.

As 2019 comes to a close and I stare at that beloved picture with 20/20 hindsight vision, I’ve asked myself this question: “If you could go back in time, would you want to know that life was going to get this hard?” 

The answer is an emphatic, “no.”

Even if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t have wanted to know that a my life’s path was going to be this challenging to traverse. I wouldn’t have wanted to know that I was going to spent years fighting for my life and endure such excruciating pain that I thought I might die. Knowing how long and how trying this road was bound to be would have only proven to discourage me and, had I known what it looked like before I embarked on it, I fear I would have succumb to hopelessness and possibly even given up.

But, praise God, back in the summer of 2011, He made sure I walked into the future entirely unaware of what lay ahead. He blessed me three months of amazing health and picture perfect opportunities to enjoy it! During those months of ignorance, I lived in bliss and excitement about the future. I dreamed. I hoped. I lived life to the fullest and made exciting plans that included honoring and serving God with my restored body and soul.

Just because my illness returned after that summer, should I now look back on those memories with sadness and longing?

Since I have, once again, relapsed into sickness, wouldn’t it be understandable for me to moan, groan and complain to God?

Don’t I have grounds to say, “God, this isn’t fair! I wanted to pour out my life for you and you let me become sick, keeping me from the life of fruitful service I wanted!”

The answer, again, is “no” to all of the above.

No matter how hard these years have been, I have no grounds for grumbling to God. Like Job told his friends and wife after having every earthly treasure snatched away from him, he would not denounce God. The Lord had given and the Lord could take away. That was Job’s stance and it’s mine, too.

But, I must admit, sometimes I fall prey to lamenting. When I look at what I lack and what I’ve lost, it is tempting to slip into a state of utter hopelessness and defeat – especially during this Christmas time of year when, all around me, are messages about merriment and holly and jolly happiness.

But God never leaves me down in that dark and dreary pit. As long as I keep calling out to Him for help, just like Job did, and keep trusting Him, just like Job did, He keeps showing up to pull me out of the emotional and spiritual depths of doom and death. He reclaims my Christmas spirit and restores my hope and joy by calling back to remembrance two scenes: one of a cradle and another of a cross. These are the two memories that matter most. 

As soon as I return to the heart of the gospel and the reason for not only this Christmas season but the reason for my very life, what did and didn’t happen in the past nine years fails to matter. With my eyes and heart fixed solely on Jesus, I remember that the only moment in time that has any power over my joy and peace is the moment that the long awaited Messiah entered the world on a mission to save me and all of mankind from sin and hell. The only event that can impact the state of my hope its the event of the perfect Lamb of God’s sacrificial death on the cross and victorious resurrection from the grave.

The last nine years have been unexpected and, of course, the next nine are too. But I’m not afraid of the unknown because I have the confidence of knowing what and Who awaits me after my time on earth is through. Because I have been born again into the Kingdom of God by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, I can step into the future knowing that, one day, I will walk through Heaven’s gates and onto streets of gold where I will live perfectly healthy and completely whole in the company of my Father God.

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Every Thought Captive

Hello, my name is Stephanie and I have a tendency to feel sorry for myself.

It’s not something that I talk about very often, at least not out loud (or at all online), but, in the recesses of my mind, I must admit, I am prone to thoughts of self-pity and poor me.

It always starts with that sneaky and destructive mental exercise known as comparison. I click around on FaceBook (a sure way to feel inferior), observe couples out and about or simply think about all of my childhood dreams that haven’t come true and end up feeling gypped. All throughout my twenties, when I planned to graduate from college, get married, excel at a career and build a family, I ended up stuck in an ongoing saga of sickness, false starts, and loss. It’s like I ended up with the short end of the destiny stick and it doesn’t feel fair.

This pathetic, poor me dialogue could very well go on indefinitely but for the grace of God. Sooner or later, in His gentle yet get-to-the-point way, the voice of Christ always manages to interrupt my pathetic thoughts with a question that pierces the heart. “Are you taking every thought captive in obedience to me?”

It’s a drop the mic moment and a humbling one, too. To answer honestly, I have to tell Jesus, “No, I’m not taking every thought captive.” Which He already knows since I couldn’t possibly be taking every thought captive to Him when I’m consumed with comparing myself to the people around me. It is simply impossible to embody a spirit of holy obedience while harboring thoughts of ungratefulness. 

But, praise God, there is a way to rescue the mind and restore it to Christ and it starts with the cross.

First, I must crucify my thoughts of comparison. Those thoughts never die willingly. They only go by force.

Second, I must fervently seek the cross and let Christ take my thoughts captive by asking Him consistently and consciously to be the Lord and Master of my mind.

Third, I must intentionally guard my mind. It’s popular to say, “guard your heart” and, it’s true, the heart needs guarded but so does the mind. In this world, there are copious sources of temptation that invite in thoughts of comparison, envy and lust. This is why it is so important to guard what intercepts the mind and be choosey about what is allowed take up residence in that sacred place.

When I’m stuck feeling sorry for myself, journeying into the valley of “poor me”, one thought in particular always brings my mind back into the captivity of Christ. It is the thought of my BC life. When I think about who I was before Jesus took hold of my life, I cringe. I was headed for destruction until God, in His unmerited, undeserved, unconditional mercy, saved me from myself. He broke the enemy’s stronghold and set this captive free so I could go on to live as one who is rescued, reconciled and redeemed.

When I look to the cross, I can’t find a single reason to feel sorry for myself. All I can feel is gratitude and reason to praise the Savior who has given me everything I will ever need for this life and eternity.

 

“We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…” – 2 Corinthians 10:5

 

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Southern Hospitality

For as long as I can remember I’ve heard about Southern hospitality but have questioned whether or not the phenomenon is true. Does geniality really corollate with geography? I doubted it until I moved to Tennessee.

In just two short months, Tennessee has made me a Southern hospitality believer. What can I say? People are just plain friendlier in the volunteer state. They offer up kindness free of charge and provide service with a smile. Cashiers strike up conversation and somehow manage to find a topic that goes deeper than the temperature. The atmosphere in Tennessee is so welcoming and inviting that it’s easy to feel right at home in the buckle of the Bible belt.

Being surrounded by hospitality has caused me to question why. Why is the south known for their hospitality? After all, southerners are human beings, no different than northerners. Is it something in the water? Or perhaps something in the sweet tea? Could it have to do with the warmer temperatures? Maybe people are kinder when exposed to less cold air?

But then I looked up at the landscape and realized that southerners aren’t more hospitable on account of a beverage or the climate. They are more hospitable because of active belief in Christ.

You see, when I look across the landscape of middle Tennessee, I see an absolutely glorious sight. Steeples. Dozens of them in just a few square miles. Steeples in middle Tennessee are like Starbucks in New York City. They’re everywhere.

In the buckle of the Bible belt where churches are thriving, so is the gospel message of kindness, generosity and hospitality. People are hearing the words of Jesus and, the good news is, they’re practicing what He preached. The even better news it that anyone, no matter where they live, can embody this same characteristic because being hospitable isn’t dependent on where we live but on Who lives in us.

 

“…Always be eager to practice hospitality.” – Romans 12:13

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The Power of a Compliment

“Hey, l like your haircut!”

My head spun around as if it were on a swivel. Who was the unfamiliar voice talking to, I wondered. And could I get the name of their hairdresser?

But, when I looked behind me, there was no one there. Confused, I turned back around, thinking I must have been hearing things but that’s when I realized that the stranger was staring straight at me. Convinced I must have misheard what he said I kindly asked, “I’m sorry, I missed that. What did you just say?”

“I said, ‘I like your haircut.’” Then, just to be sure he was heard and taken seriously, he added, “It’s a really good haircut.”

My bad hair day hair and I were so stunned by the stranger’s compliment that it took me a second to get the words, “thank you” out of my mouth. Before I could elaborate further, the stranger opened a door, turned down a hallway and disappeared. It’s as if he was an angel sent for a brief moment in time to brighten my day before being sent on his way to bless another weary soul.

Looking back on that fifteen second exchange, there are so many responses that come to mind that I wish I would have said.

If I could go back, I would have been more profusive in my thanks, conveying to this kind man how worn out I had been feeling and how his words provided a much-appreciated lift to my day. Chances are I would have blabbered on about feeling like my hair was laying too heavy on my head and making my face look drawn. On second thought, it was probably better that the stranger didn’t stick around for that conversation.

But, if he would have had time to really chat, I would have gone deep with the kind stranger, telling him the story of how, four years ago, I chopped my hair off on account of illness and disease. I would have poured my heart out, describing how letting my hair go was a step of trust in God, believing that He could heal me if He wanted to but was still good even if it was His will that I remain sick. Then I would have gone on to explain that, since cutting off my hair, I’ve struggled with feeling feminine and beautiful and that little compliments, like the one he gifted me with, are precious reminders that I am still attractive even with a short pixie haircut.

But I didn’t have the chance to say any of those things. All I managed to squeak out was an awkward, caught unawares, “thank you.

So, here’s the moral of the story (because there is always a moral to the story). Be overly kind. Catch someone off guard with a compliment. Make a stranger’s day by shining the light of Christ into it. Be someone’s God wink.

And, to those who receive the compliment, graciously accept it and pass it on. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to take this gift and give it to someone else because there is power in a kind compliment and smiling face. In those moments of generous compassion, we get to be the face of Jesus for someone else, even if only for a few fleeting seconds.

PS…To the stranger in the hall who complimented my haircut, I give you my sincerest thanks. What you said went so much deeper than strands of hair. Your kindness was truly a gift from God that touched my heart, reminding me of Jesus’ love and inspiring me to pass it on to someone else.