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Archive for April, 2013

Not long ago I came across these words in Acts 14:22: “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”

I don’t like the sound of that! Especially the word must. And considering the recent converts Paul was speaking to that day, it seems awfully harsh. Shouldn’t Paul have softened his message a bit by saying, “We might go through hardships?”

Raphael, St Paul Preaching in Athens

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yet Paul was saying nothing that Jesus hadn’t warned his disciples about: “In this world you will have trouble.” (John 16:33, emphasis added).

The reality begs the question why. Why is hardship inevitable? God Almighty is sovereign over all. It’s well within his power to protect us from difficulty. So why doesn’t he?

Here are some possibilities:

1. “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17). Paul could have said his troubles were heavy and ongoing rather than light and momentary. He had been falsely accused, beaten, stoned, imprisoned, and more. But Paul’s focus wasn’t on his earthly life. He was already focused on his future life in heaven. Every time he endured suffering, it meant the glory yet to come would be all the more splendorous by comparison. Paul understood:  Problems focus our perspective.

English: Saint paul arrested

English: Saint Paul arrested (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

2. Hardships remind us of what Jesus endured for us. Anything we might suffer cannot begin to compare to what he suffered on the cross—the extreme pain, the loathsome humiliation, and the unbearable separation from his Heavenly Father. Problems foster appreciation for our precious Savior.

3. “Faith must be tested because it can be turned into a personal possession only through conflict” (Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest). Faith does not grow without testing. Trials provide the best opportunity to become intimate with God. And what could be more valuable than an intimate relationship with our loving, wise Heavenly Father? Therefore, we need to remember: Problems draw us closer to God.

Heavenly Father, thank you for caring so deeply about me that you discipline me. I want to reach that level of maturity where I rejoice in problems because of the growth opportunities they provide and the intimacy with you that will result. Continue to chip away at the hesitancy and obstinacy in my spirit that stands in the way.

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(This is the fiftieth post on From the Inside Out. In celebration, I’m diving into the archives for an early piece and reposting.)

 

On the way to work one foggy morning, I spotted a small patch of bright colors peeking through the haze ahead. That’s strange, I thought. What could it possibly be?

 

A few moments later the mystery was solved. Wafting over a garbage can was a bouquet of helium-filled mylar balloons!

 

Mylar balloons

Mylar balloons (Photo credit: Transguyjay)

It occurred to me (no doubt prompted by the Holy Spirit) that:

Out of the garbage that sometimes collects in and around our lives (the difficult people, the stressful circumstances) God provides mylar balloons—joyful, bright spots of blessings. I just need to keep my eyes open.

 

Alright, Lord,my heart responded that morning. I’ll try it. First, thank you for the way the lacy wisps of fog have produced a quiet serenity over the landscape. I’m reminded of your ethereal, surrounding Presence. Thank you for always being with me (Psalm 23:4).

 

English: Fog in Wayanad

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Those balloons certainly put a smile on my face. If someone else had been in the car with me, no doubt we’d have laughed out loud at the extraordinary sight. Thank you for the gift of humor, for the way it lifts my spirit (Proverbs 17:22).

 

Thank you also for the way you engineer circumstances. Just recently I recorded in my Blessings Journal how you miraculously shortened a to-do list that was impossibly long. But you changed dates and cancelled commitments until the items which remained were very doable. You are amazing!

To-do list book.

To-do list book. (Photo credit: koalazymonkey)

 

My heart overflows with joy as I consider the variety of ways you minister to my spirit. Sometimes it’s through a family member or friend, through a song, a speaker, or something I read. Just the other day you spoke to me through a story I was reading. One of the characters explained that trials make us stronger and purer, and you see more of your reflection in us. It was as if you spoke those words directly to me, and my eyes filled with tears of joy, to realize I have the privilege of reflecting your glory.

 

Well, Lord, just another minute and I’ll be at work. Soon I’ll see my precious colleagues who have been so encouraging and supportive. Thank you for Christian sisters who care and pray for each other.

DSC_5104.JPG

DSC_5104.JPG (Photo credit: @superamit)

Needless to say, I practically skipped into work that day. And what fun to share with special coworkers, “You are a beautiful mylar balloon in my life!” and then explain.

 

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

 

What bright spots of blessing have surprised you recently? Name them and be uplifted. “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy” (Psalm 126:3).

 

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St John Chrysostom, St Patrick's cathedral, Ne...

St John Chrysostom, St Patrick’s cathedral, New York City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few months ago, if you had asked me about John Chrysostom, a Christian of ancient times, you’d have been answered with, “John who?” Since then, I’ve come across him several times in my reading. Now I know him as a worthy entrant into the Christianity Hall of Fame.

John was born around 350 A.D. As a youth, he aspired to become a monk. The monastic movement had begun in the late 200s by those who believed the world was an inherently sinful place, and the best thing to do was to live separately.

But John’s mother urged him to wait. She had been widowed as a young mother, only twenty years old, and devoted all her time and effort to her son and his education.

“You do not know how hard it was for me to take care of you,” she told him. “I don’t want you to be unhappy, but I do want for you to stay with me until I die.”

John stayed. But when she passed on to heaven, John did become a monk. From 374 to 380 A.D. he lived in a cave on a mountain near Antioch (Turkey).

Over time, John came to realize that a more meaningful life might be spent helping others, rather than living separate from them. (No doubt the Holy Spirit was guiding him!) He returned to the city of Antioch and became ordained as a priest.

John became well-known as an eloquent speaker, although he did not use lofty language. He kept his focus on explaining the scriptures plainly. Today, Bible scholars and church history students can study 640 of his sermons, of which we still have record. Here is one worthy example of John’s God-given wisdom:

“Take time regularly to read the Bible. Don’t let anyone make excuses like, ‘I’ve got this duty to fulfill,’ ‘I’m a skilled worker, I must get on with my job,’ or ‘I must provide for my family. I’ll leave that to professional Christians like monks and priests and theology students.’

“What on earth are you saying? It’s not your business to read the Bible because you’ve got too many other things to bother about? But that’s the very reason why you need to read the Bible! The more worries you have, the more you need the Bible to keep you going!

“People like monks and nuns who have left the troubles of the world behind are quite safe; they are like ships sailing on a calm sea, or moored in a quiet harbor. But you are in the middle of this godless world’s stormy sea, and so you need spiritual help and sustenance far more urgently.”

John accompanied his preaching with love and care for his congregation. He was known as a courteous, affectionate, and kindly priest. Perhaps that explains how he was able to be very pointed in his remarks. For example, John told his people:

“Money is like water. It goes bad if it does not run. Don’t think you have done enough because you beat down your body with fasting. I don’t object to your fasting, but helping others is more important.”

Restored section of the Walls of Constantinople

Restored section of the Walls of Constantinople (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

John’s fame grew all over the Roman Empire. When a bishop was required for the capital city of Constantinople, the emperor’s prime minister wanted to put John, the most famous orator, into that position. But he knew Antioch would never give up their beloved priest, and John would not want to leave his beloved Antioch. So the prime minister had soldiers kidnap John, and take him to Constantinople! There he was installed as bishop.

Perhaps John considered sneaking out of the city, but the historical record indicates he accepted the turn of events as the intervention of God.

John maintained his pure, simple lifestyle, giving away much of his salary to the poor. He also continued his frank style of preaching. That was not well received. The rich grew angry, the hierarchy of the church grew indignant, and a jealous bishop in Alexandria became bitter because he coveted that prestigious post at Constantinople. All of these people conspired against him, and as the result of false charges of heresy, John was banished from the city. He died in exile.

Sometime after his death, John was given the title Chrysostom, which means “golden-mouthed.”

Surely no one could refute that John Chrysostom was a moral man, who was dedicated to pious simplicity, unvarnished truth, and loving-kindness to others. Yet he was one selected for persecution, while unlawful greed and selfishness ruled in high places as well as low. Those against John surely wished to shame the caring priest. But for how many centuries has the shame actually been on them?

Now, 1600 years later, the world is still inhabited by greedy, selfish, shameful people. But there are few who follow John Chrysostom’s example. I want to be among the latter.

Heavenly Father, I thank you for men like John who resolutely lived out their beliefs, and whose greatest desire was to please you. May I remain strong in faith and practice. Help me to listen attentively to your Spirit and be obedient. I want to serve you with integrity, determination, and focus, just like John Chrysostom.

Cover of "Christianity Through the Centur...

Cover of Christianity Through the Centuries

Resources:

Christianity through the Centuries by Earle E. Cairns, 1970.
The Church of Our Fathers by Roland H. Bainton, 1969.
Eerdmans’ Book of Christian Classics compiled by Veronica Zundel, 1985.

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Minnesota Blizzard 10 - 22609

Minnesota Blizzard 10 – 22609 (Photo credit: DavidErickson)

Maria felt compelled to make a big pot of lamb stew one winter morning. By afternoon she knew why. A blizzard paralyzed city traffic. Right down the street from her home a bus load of passengers became stranded. Maria perked coffee for them—pot after pot–and invited them into her home for the lamb stew. Gratefully and incredulously they came, about half a dozen or so at a time. The driver was the last to be served, with the remaining spoonfuls from the bottom of the pot. Maria never even got a taste! But it didn’t matter. Her heart was filled with gratitude that God had prompted her to make that stew. He enabled her to help twenty-plus stranded commuters and show them the love and grace of God.

Gordon burned his hand severely—so badly the doctor said he’d probably have to amputate several fingers. But Gordon’s mother and many others prayed, and day by day the hand got better—not worse. Today, you have to look close to even find the scar.

Nita often wears a favorite pair of gold earrings, given to her by her children. One day while golfing with her husband, she lost one those precious earrings. Nita was heartsick. A few days later, these avid golfers were again on the course. Nita prayed. “Father, I don’t know where that earring is, but you do. Please help me find it.” On the twelfth green, when Nita walked up to where her ball had landed, she saw something glinting in the grass. Not one foot from where her ball landed, there was her earring.

These stories are just three of many, recently shared by members of the Bible study I attend.  Maria, Gordon, and Nita are in that group.  No doubt you’ve heard stories like theirs, too. In fact, you’ve probably experienced a few miraculous situations yourself. It’s important we share our God-stories as encouragement for our faith. Our God-stories prove:

1) God’s Word is true. God is loving, gracious, faithful, and powerful.

2) We are never without hope.

3) God keeps his promises.

4) God continually blesses his children.

5) Christianity works.

Do all of these facts mean we can expect God to intervene in every difficult circumstance? No. We’d become very spoiled children if he did. But the number of times God does provide miracles goes beyond coincidence. They are indeed God-incidents.

Yet we cannot ignore the times God does not answer our prayers as we’d wish. Sometimes he does not step in to provide and protect. He does not always solve our problems for us. It’s in those situations that God works a different set of miracles: patience and perseverance (James 1:2), growth in godliness and spiritual strength, his compassion and mercy (James 5:11).

Such statements might sound glib to someone recently bereaved of a loved one, or an innocent person suffering unfair circumstances. But there are powerful God-stories from suffering saints as well.

G. lost her husband recently and was terribly insecure about living on her own. But God revealed his presence to her in a powerful physical sensation of warmth through her whole body. Although still grieving, G. has felt surrounded by God’s peace and empowering presence.

K. had always dreamed of getting married, creating a home, and raising several children. Then came her fortieth birthday. It appeared that dream was not going come true. Depression seeped into the corners of her life, even though she was a woman of strong faith. But day by day, the truths of God’s Word fed her spirit and hope began to grow again. Not the hope of marriage and a family, but hope in God’s plan to prosper her, to give her a future (Jeremiah 29:11)—albeit in a different direction.

In the final analysis, these miracles are the most wondrous of all. They are miracles of transformed hearts.

“Our troubles have always brought us blessings, and they always will. They are the black chariots of bright grace” – Charles Spurgeon.

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Henry James, by John Singer Sargent (died 1925...

Henry James, by John Singer Sargent (died 1925). See source website for additional information. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

“A writer should strive to be a person on whom nothing is lost.” – Henry James.

Some of you may recognize that name from literature class. Does Portrait of a Lady or The Turn of the Screw sound familiar?

Henry James became known for well-developed characters and for stories with an undercurrent of commentary on politics, the social classes, feminism, and morality.

With many works to his credit, his advice for writers–to “live aware”–is advice worth taking.

So we writers become observers–of people, situations, and creation.

We try to see more – the swirling rainbow on a bubble; the slight arch of the eyebrow indicating doubt.

We try to hear more – the squirrel’s staccato tapping as he scampers up a tree; the brief pause of uncertainty.

We try to smell more – the promise of harvest in the freshly turned soil of spring; the aroma of love in a Thanksgiving feast.

We try to taste more – the flavor of winter in a snowflake; the delectable sweetness of moments spent with family or old friends.

We try to feel more – the downy softness of silk on a milkweed seed; the comforting warmth of traditions.

As a result, we’re better equipped to convey meaning to our readers—with clarity and specificity, we hope.

And it occurred to me, Christians should also strive to be persons on whom nothing is lost.

We Christians need to live aware, so as not to miss what God reveals.

We must try to see more – in His Word, His people, and creation.

We must try to hear more – of his still, small voice.

We must try to smell more – in the fragrance of His presence.

We must try to taste more of God’s goodness in our everyday circumstances.

We must try to feel more of the wonder.

And what will be the result?

Out of the glorious riches of all these things, “we may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19). God wants to fill us with His attributes:

His love—everlasting, mindful of our needs, caring.

His wisdom—truthful, trustworthy, impartial.

His holiness—pure, separate from all else, beautiful.

His righteousness—promise-keeping, miracle-working, faithful.

His power—creative, sovereign, protective.

Think of it. The King of the universe wants us to fully enjoy all that He is, all that He has to offer.

Oh, how I want to be a person on which nothing of the King is lost.

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[I am sorry for neglecting the blog this past week.  A flu bug got the better of me, in spite of getting the shot.  Hopefully I’m back on track now!]

Bee on a flower

Thomas Brooks, a Puritan preacher and author of the 1600s, wrote the following about meditation. This is a paraphrase:

A bee cannot gather honey by merely touching the flower. 

She must abide for a time on the flower, to draw out the sweet.

A Christian cannot gather heavenly truths through hasty reading.

It is serious meditation that draws out the sweet.

It is not he who reads most, but he who meditates most,

who will prove to be the choicest, sweetest, wisest and strongest Christian.

That’s my desire—to be the choicest, sweetest, wisest, and strongest Christian I can be. My guess is you feel the same.

Evidently, meditation is key. Did you know it’s mentioned twenty times in the Bible?

And what does meditation include? Reflection, pondering, intending the mind, and contemplation.

This is what it might look like:

1) Praying while reading the Bible, asking God to give understanding.

2) Asking God also, How should this verse impact my thinking and my actions?

3) Celebrating his miracles, works, and mighty deeds (Psalm 77:11-14) with words of appreciation.

4) Reviewing his promises (Psalm 119:148).

5) Praising God for his attributes.

6) Contemplating whatever is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, and of good repute (Philippians 4:8).

Meditation takes effort. To be of any profit, it must also lead to application.

Meditation requires stillness. “Be still and know that I am God” he tells us (Psalm 46:10). To be reflective, we need time to listen, to just wait before God. That’s not going to happen if the email inbox is visible on the laptop nearby or one eye is on the clock.

As always, Jesus is our perfect example. He frequently participated in meditative prayer—pulling away from the crowds, even from the disciples, to a place of solitude and quiet.

Meditation means slowing down the thought processes so new discoveries can emerge. For some, that might mean praying, others may meditate through song, still others by writing.  Writing thoughts about God, and especially to God can be very meaningful ways to meditate. Such exercises  help us notice and realize truths that would otherwise be left undeveloped and nebulous in our minds.

Meditation ushers us into more intimate communion with God, and a deeper relationship with him. In fact, meditation is bound to produce greater peace, increased passion for God, and heightened joy.

All the more reason to make time for meditation.

Here’s a habit I’m trying to practice: As I go to bed each evening, I meditate on what God has done for me that day, and where I witnessed his glory. The experts say that such reflection provides several benefits:

1) The body begins to relax. (Have trouble falling asleep? Try meditation!)

2) Breathing and heart rate slow down.

3) Even emotions and the flurry of thoughts will settle down.

4) As we put aside the anxieties and frustrations of the day to concentrate on God’s goodness, gratitude, peace and joy flood into our spirits.

5) In the stillness, God makes himself known.

But morning quiet-time meditation and bedtime contemplation aren’t enough. With David I want to extol the Lord at all times and always have his praise on my lips (Psalm 34:1).

What could be sweeter than that?

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English: A gift wrapped in yellow and green paper.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was late afternoon when the doorbell rang.

Through the sheer curtain at the window I could see D.,  from down the street. She and I had recently met and were becoming good friends.

“Is everything okay?” I asked while ushering D. inside.

“Oh, yes. It’s just…I have a present for you,” she replied. Sure enough, D. was carrying a wrapped box. We sat on the living room couch.

It was not Christmastime, and not my birthday. Why was she giving me a gift?

“Open it,” she encouraged.

“But, D.,” I hesitated.

“Go ON!”

Upon removing the paper and taking the lid off the box, I beheld a lovely navy blue Bible with gilded pages.

Now you need to know, D.’s husband and mine were in seminary at the time. Neither of our households had much money to spare. So this gift seemed over-the-top extravagant to me. Of course I could not accept it.

“D., this is absolutely beautiful, but…”

She stopped me. “I chose to buy this for you; I want you to have it. Besides, if you won’t receive it, you’ll steal my blessing!”

D. was referring, of course, to Acts 20:35: It is more blessed to give than receive.

I had never considered that interpretation, but she was right. In order for a giver to be blessed, there does need to be a receiver.

“Besides,” D. continued with a grin. “I already wrote inside the front cover. I can’t take it back. So there!”

D.’s words of that long-ago afternoon still play in my mind when I find myself balking at unexpected or overly-generous gifts. Even favors can make me uncomfortable. But if I don’t graciously receive, I steal the blessing from the giver.

And what’s at the bottom of my reluctance? A sense of unworthiness and pride. Now there’s a strange set of opposites!

D.’s gift made me feel unworthy. I wasn’t deserving of her sacrificial gift.

Yet pride was part of my reaction, too. I didn’t need her gift. I already had a perfectly good Bible. Yes, it was an old and worn King James version, but it had served me well and could certainly continue to do so.

What I began to understand that day is: receiving well is in itself a form of generosity. When I graciously express heartfelt gratitude for a gift, and share my appreciation for the time, effort, and thoughtfulness of the giver, I make a positive contribution of affirmation into her heart.

After D. left that day, I remember tearfully reading her inscription, and fingering the gilded pages. I felt incredibly honored, loved,  and appreciated by D.’s gift.

Now, if it’s more blessed to give than receive, I wonder what D. felt as she walked home that afternoon? I pray she, too, felt honored, loved, and appreciated, even though my gratitude seemed paltry.

But surely the greater blessing came as God loved, honored, and appreciated D. for her gift.

Heavenly Father, I thank you for D.’s example, still strong after all these years. May I never miss an opportunity to be a blessing to others, whether I am the giver or the receiver.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *    *     *     *

What lessons have you learned from the givers and receivers in your life?  Tell us your story!

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