Sufficient Grace

My journey through life in God's grace.

About Joyce Barbatti

Essential vs. Non-essential

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Bible+Reading“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered.  “You are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed, indeed only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, and it will not be taken away from her.”   Luke 10:41-42

One of the sins I have to repent of often is making plans and asking the Lord to bless them instead of seeking His will for me.

I was guilty of this a few weeks ago. As president of our church council this year, I have been writing a letter each month to share with the congregation. In April I had the topic and several ideas written out. I was planning to finish it one Saturday after doing some yard work at the lake.

The Lord’s schedule for me was different that day.

Many things in our lives have been rearranged in the past few months and new words have entered everyday vocabulary—self-quarantine, social distancing, essential and non-essential businesses and activities.

We’ve all been forced to give up things that we thought were extremely essential not long ago. The loss of some things has caused anxiety and chaos, and life is more stressful for many. The “stuff” of this life that we put so much stock in has become quite non-essential in the face of pandemics and economic uncertainty.

What is essential is our relationship with Jesus. No matter what storms come our way, jobs that are lost, days and weeks and months separated from friends, our God is bigger than any of them and has promised to be with us.

I heard someone speaking last week about “vampire Christians”—those who just want the blood of Jesus, not the relationship. My prayer is that many of us are growing closer to Jesus during these challenging days and deeper into relationship with Him.

C. S. Lewis in his classic, “The Screwtape Letters” clearly describes Satan’s tactics of distraction. Screwtape, a senior demon, offers advise to his apprentice nephew, Wormwood. “But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy (Jesus). It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing.”

Jesus said, “The thief (Satan) comes only to steal, kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.” John 10:10. Satan subtlety distracts us with non-essentials that eventually replace that which is eternal.

That Saturday in April, as I sat on my mom’s bed looking at her small, frail body, I was reminded powerfully how non-essential everything in this life is except Jesus. Her soul had gone home to heaven.

I sorted through a few drawers and her closet. As I left with two paper sacks filled with mostly family photos and a blanket quilted by Hospice volunteers, the sum total of her “essential items”, I was comforted that, not only did she know the Lord, but she had brought me to church and raised me in the faith as well.

God is essential. He knows the number of our days here on earth. At the end of those days, whenever that may be, our relationship with Him is the only essential thing and the only lasting thing.

Lord help us all to number our days, to put all our hope and trust in You. Forgive us for relying too often on our strength and wanting our way and not Your will. Fill us with your Holy Spirit that we may be drawn into a deeper relationship with You and to always remember You are the one essential in all of our lives. We ask this in Jesus holy name. Amen.

Silent Saturday

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“Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make the tomb as secure as you can.’ So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard.” Matthew 27: 65-66 

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Yesterday was certainly not a traditional Good Friday. I missed the somber service where everyone departs in silence. I missed the emotional cross walk through the busy downtown streets of our community.

Instead, everyone is sheltered. The streets are empty and silent. We are sequestered in our homes, separated from family and friends. Uncertainty, fear and unease abound.

Max Lucado shared a message last night broadcast worldwide. He said we always focus on the events of Good Friday and of Easter Sunday, rightfully so. But what about Saturday?

Nothing happened on Saturday after the crucifixion. It was the Jewish sabbath.

We don’t understand this in our culture. When I was in Israel a few years ago, the significance of the Sabbath was more evident. We were told to avoid using the “shabbat” elevators in the hotel. These were designated for the Jewish people who still acknowledge the Sabbath. These elevators would stop on each floor of the hotel so that Jews would be able to get on and off without pressing the floor button. Even this was considered “work” which isn’t allowed on the Sabbath.

So back to Holy Saturday. The streets would have been silent and deserted. People would have been sequestered in their homes.

The disciples and followers of Jesus would have been afraid and uneasy about their future and certainly confused about what to believe now that Jesus, whom they thought was the Messiah, was dead.

Where was God? This couldn’t possibly have been the plan of redemption.

It was Silent Saturday.

And then came Sunday and everything changed. Saturday was forgotten! The tomb was opened! The angels were inside to greet Mary and the disciples!

Jesus was ALIVE!

In these days of quarantine and uncertainty and anxiety, let us all remember that first Silent Saturday. God was silent but He wasn’t absent. He was at work defeating Satan and death and sin and locking the gates of hell for His children.

Let’s take this time of separation to grow closer to Jesus, to deepen our relationship with Him and to affirm that, while things are happening all around us that we don’t understand and can’t control, God is still at work. The tomb is still empty. Jesus is still alive.

Lord Jesus thank you. Those words don’t begin to express the gratitude we feel for Your great love and sacrifice for us. Help us in these times of uncertainty and anxiety to cling to You and the hope that You claimed for us by suffering, dying and rising to defeat Satan and death so we may be confident in Your love and plans for us for eternity. In Your Holy risen name we pray. Amen.  

 

Someday…

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“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.  At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’  Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’  ‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.  Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’  Therefore keep watch because you do not know the day or the hour (when the Lord will return).”   Matthew 25:1-13

bridegroom

One of my worst vices is procrastination. There are so many things that I’ve said about “someday I’ll get to that.”  Cleaning closets.  Organizing piles.  Reading stacks of books.

Even now during the pandemic, I find myself thinking, “Well, I may have several more days (hopefully not weeks or months) to do those things, so I’ll watch another episode of The Crown.”

Many of my less put-it-off-till-tomorrow friends have said they have cleaned all the closets and drawers in their house, read many books, sewed masks for the local nursing home, etc. and don’t know what they will do the rest of their time in these days of social distancing.

If it were safe and acceptable, I could surely find some things in my house for them to organize!

It is interesting and somewhat ironic to me that we are all being told over and over and over again to wash our hands, cover our mouths, stay six feet apart from one another.  All good advice.  I’m sure you know of people who are wearing masks and gloves in public.  And lots of people who are a bit on the panicky side.

I’m not criticizing any of these things or saying we shouldn’t heed the CDC guidelines.  What I find ironic is that so many millions of people are going to such extremes to protect and preserve their physical wellness, but what about their spiritual wellness?

Let’s face it folks.  None of us is getting out of this life alive, unless the Lord returns first.  We certainly don’t want to die before our time, but if we are true believers in Jesus, we know that that isn’t even a possibility.  God has numbered our days from before we were even born.   Jesus says, “Who of you can add even one day to your life by worrying?”

This pandemic has taken away all of our idols in our lives that we have put before the Lord.  Kathie Lee Gifford had a great post on Twitter that said what I have been feeling in my heart.

“In three short months, just like He did with the plagues of Egypt, God has taken away everything we worship. You want to worship athletes, I will shut down stadiums and arenas. You want to worship musicians, I will shut down every venue. You want to worship actors, I will shut down theaters. You want to worship money, I will shut down the economy and collapse the stock market. You want to worship your own bodies, I will close down all the gyms.  You want to worship your own intellect and pat yourself on the back with a graduation, I’ll close down your schools.  You want to place your trust in your friends and not in Me, I’ll make sure you can’t even meet with them physically. You don’t want to seek my face and worship Me, I will make it where you can’t go to church.”

I don’t know when this will all end.  I pray that the Lord will spare businesses and lives and families.  But most of all, I pray that we all heed 2 Chronicles “If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

This pandemic will end someday.  Someday when it’s over will we:

Be kinder and more patient when we are stuck in traffic or in line at the grocery store?

Smile more often when we pass on the street?

Hug our friends and family tighter just because we can?

Appreciate our neighbors and co-workers more?

Recognize the small blessings of life like the cardinals singing or the daffodils blooming?

Understand that all of our “stuff” is just that and can’t protect us from a pandemic?

Realize how much we need one another?

Admit that we have very little control over anything in our lives?

Recognize how good and patient and loving our God is?

I don’t know but I hope all of these things will happen.

Some people wonder if these times are the beginning of the last days.

I don’t know that either.

What I do know is that someday Jesus is coming back.  He has promised that He will return as the bridegroom for His bride—the Church.  Not the small “c” church where many are like the foolish virgins and go to sit for an hour each Sunday and then go back into their lives and forget Him until the next service.

When the Bridegroom returns, will you be like the wise virgins who have prepared your hearts and souls to enter into the wedding feast?  Or will you be caught off guard and have the Lord say to you, “I never knew you.”

This, my friends, is more deadly and frightening than any pandemic can ever be in our lives.

Lord Jesus, thank you for your great love for us that you took all of our sins and bore them on the cross.  Forgive us again Lord for making so many false idols of the things of this world.  We pray for wisdom for all of our health care workers.  Give them strength and protect them so they can be your hands and feet in caring for those who are ill. Help us to prepare our hearts and souls to spend eternity with you.  Help us to feel an urgency to share You and the Good News with those who don’t know you.  Help us remember Your advice to number our days and realize how short our time here in our earthly bodies is compared to the joy of eternity with you.  We love you Jesus.  In your name we pray.  Amen

But God

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“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.”   Ephesians 2:4-5

crown crib

First, thank you for your patience and following these past months. God has been working in amazing, powerful ways in my life this year.  I haven’t had much time for blogging, but God-willing I’ll do more this year.

These past few months have been emotionally challenging.  They started in October with the anniversary of the day my husband went home to heaven. No matter how much time passes and though I know he’s with Jesus, that time is always difficult.

A few weeks later, word came of the death by suicide of the 18-year-old grandson of a long-time friend. He was a high school senior with a multitude of friends and his whole life ahead of him.  Yet he succumbed to darkness.

Another weekend in November just before Thanksgiving I had arrived home from dinner with our granddaughter and some friends. As I ran water for a bath, my golden doodle began barking furiously.  I went to the sunroom to calm her thinking one of the many neighborhood deer were taunting her.

The room was lit with flashing red and blue lights. When I looked across the street, our dear friend’s home was engulfed in flames.  My stomach lurched as I immediately began praying, “Oh Lord helps us!”  I didn’t know who of the family with eight children were home or if anyone was still in the house.  After firefighters battled the blaze for seven hours, the house was a total loss, but everyone was safe.

Then just a few weeks ago, a friend invited our Bible study sisters to an Honor Walk as her special needs son was taken off life support and donating any tissue or organs that might be useful. This same friend’s life was turned upside down with grief in August when her husband died unexpectedly.

The saying that can be so carelessly tossed around about “God never gives us more than we can handle” is not only hurtful, but unbiblical.  None of my friends would have wished any of these tragedies on their lives.

Jesus promised in this life we would have trouble.  Sometimes the hurts and hits feel like hurricane waves battering against us, barely allowing for a breath before the next one hits.

But God.

That phrase appears in the Bible over thirty times, mostly in difficult circumstances.

In her blog “True & Faithful”, Lisa Appelo shares that “God doesn’t just redeem us for Himself. He redeems our stories for Himself.”  She uses the Old Testament example of Joseph in explaining the guiding principal is “that God, no matter the circumstances, God holds the ending.”

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In every situation I shared I have seen the sovereign grace of God.

My friend Connie was able to donate her son’s lungs for Cystic Fibrosis research and much of his skin will be used to help many people. She attended a service of comfort and hope with me before Christmas. We talked about the amazing reunion in heaven with not only Jesus, but his stepdad and twin brother whom he hadn’t seen since they were seven days old.

Our neighbors have expressed total gratitude for all of their children being alive and safe and have been strong witnesses for Jesus above the “stuff” of this world.

The family of my friend’s grandson have seen an amazing outpouring of love and support as well as an opening to talk about and share tough conversations about suicide rather than keeping it bottled up or swept under the rug.

On the anniversary of my husband’s death God gave me the perspective that it wasn’t the day I “lost” Tom, but the day he was cured.

Reflecting on these past months and the miracle of Christmas just past, I am so grateful that, even though I only deserve God’s wrath and judgement and could never by my own doing live into His requirements for righteousness, but God…

But God came down to earth from the majesty of heaven.  But God humbled Himself to live as a lowly servant on our fallen earth.  But God loves each and every one of us so much that He died on a cross and rose again so that we all might have a personal relationship with Him and live together with Him for eternity.

I will be forever grateful for “but God”.

 God thank you that you are sovereign. Thank you that in such challenging times, because of your incredible love for us, we can rest in your peace and comfort knowing that You already know the end from the beginning. Thank you that nothing is a surprise to you. That we can trust in You completely with our whole lives.  Help us to live this and show this every day.  In Jesus precious name.  Amen.

God of Amazing Details

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“You are the Lord, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you.”  Nehemiah 9:6

When God brought Tom and me together, He knew how we would compliment on another. Tom was the analytical, detail person, which served him well as an All-American football player and financial advisor.

I am a big-picture, creative, leave-the-details-to-someone-else personality.

Rarely did we have fights or arguments. Just as rarely did we go grocery shopping together! I learned to leave Tom at the meat counter so his detail-oriented mind could examine the marbling of a steak or analyze which was the better deal on a can of beans by dividing the number of ounces to the penny.  While he was doing that, I was gathering things from the next three aisles into the grocery cart.

When we built our home, Tom drew the plans to give to the architect. After the basement was dug and the actual building began, he turned it over to me. He said, “I can’t make a living and take care of all the day to day details of this project at the same time.”  I still joke today that if it were up to him to have chosen the stain color of the hardwood floors or which kind of door knobs to use, the house still wouldn’t be done today, 22 years later!

God not only gave us complimentary talents, He used us to show each other the dangers and blessings of each viewpoint.

When we would travel, no matter where we were, on the last night Tom would go to the dock or the beach or look out the window and take what he called “a mental snapshot.” He was painting a picture in his mind of all the details of the place.

On the other hand, I was usually crying because the time had flown by too quickly. Too often I hadn’t been present in the moment and missed so much.

On a walk last week with my puppy, Ellie, God showed me that I need to quiet my mind and notice life around me.

God is the ultimate big-picture creator who’s made not only 100 billion galaxies but also the delicate little purple and white violets poking through the leftover fallen oak leaves.

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He created over 25,000 types of orchids yet when I look closely at the ones blooming in my sunroom, I see the intricate patterns and colors that even the most talented human artist couldn’t paint.

He’s dressed the trees in our yard and the whole neighborhood in delicate pink and white spring finery. He’s scented the air outside my kitchen window with my favorite spring scent of lilacs. He’s given the birds songs to sing according to their own kind.

God is the perfect balance of details and wide-angle lens; of love and discipline, of grace and truth.

He calls us to see His awesome vastness and His caring small touches.

The most incredible thing is that this unfathomable Spirit who spoke the entire universe into being knows every hair on my head, every breath I’ve taken since I was born up until my last earthly breath and most amazing of all—loves me as if I were the only thing He ever created.

Not only me, but every person who has ever lived or ever will live on this earth.  He invites us to be awed by His immensity and humbled by His very presence with us each and every step of our life.

He created all of this for His glory and for our enjoyment while we are here on His earth.  And He wants us to experience Him and everything He created in relationship with Him.

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Dear Heavenly Father-You are so awesome! My mind cannot comprehend the billions of galaxies you spoke into being as well as your powerful love for everyone of us.  Thank you for being the creator of the universe and our personal God at the same time. Forgive me for too often missing the details of Your creation or getting too caught up in the minutia to realize Your great power and love. Help me in everything-large and small-to always glorify You.  In Jesus name I pray.  Amen

Breakfast with Jesus

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“When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it and some bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’”  John 21: 9, 12

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Photo courtesy of Timon Wanner on Unsplash

Eating is an important part of our family gatherings, especially with great cooks and our Italian heritage where food is the centerpiece of every celebration. Grandma Barbatti’s handwritten recipes are still used and our grandchildren—the fourth generation—are now doing some of the cooking.

Food offers comfort, like my mother-in-law’s chicken and dumplings. I remember one particularly challenging time several years ago when she was in the hospital for what we all knew would be the last time.  In addition, a friend of ours had attempted suicide. Our emotions were raw and we were tired.  I made a big pot of chicken and dumplings for Tom and me that warmed our tummies and our souls.

So many other great memories of special family times center around food—our crazy July 4th celebrations were everyone pitches in with a meal like homemade spaghetti sauce that has cooked for three days or the traditional Low Country Boil served off newspapers down the middle of the tables; the Thanksgiving feasts with two turkeys, a smoked lamb roast and fixin’s that could feed the whole neighborhood

Food is a symbol of love.

Eating was important in the lives of Jesus and His disciples. The Bible talks often about Jesus eating with friends and acquaintances—Mary and Martha, Peter and his family, Matthew and all of his tax collector friends and “sinners”.

The setting for these verses from the gospel of John take place after Jesus’ resurrection. He had already appeared to His followers several times.  On this occasion, the disciples are out fishing when they see a person cooking on the beach. They don’t recognize Him at first until John says, “It’s the Lord!”

Don’t you love the image of our risen Lord and Savior cooking breakfast for His friends?

One of my favorite miracles of Jesus is the first one when He turns water into wine at a wedding celebration. Our Lord loves fun and celebrations and provides for every detail of the party!

When Jesus teaches His disciples to pray, He says to ask for “our daily bread.” That is our God—He cares for everything in our lives whether it is spiritual, emotional or physical.

Sometimes “religion” tells us that God doesn’t care about the little things in our life like breakfast.  But in the words of Joyce Meyer, “God created the universe. Everything is small to Him!”

Jesus wants us to come to Him.  He wants to care for us.  He wants to fellowshjp with us.

The Bible also talks often of the feast of the Bridegroom that all followers of Jesus will partake of in heaven.  God is preparing that party for you and for me. I can’t wait to see the amazing food that will be at that banquet!

Lord, we thank you for our “daily bread.” We thank you for your fellowship with us that feeds our spirits. We thank you for your sacrifice for our sins that we remember through Holy Communion. Help us to claim all the blessings you have for us and share them with others as we eat together and in every aspect of our daily lives until we can eat the feast with you in heaven! In your holy name we pray Jesus. Amen

Life-changing Hope

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“On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightening stood beside them. In their fright, the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” Luke 24:1-6

empty tomb

 

HE IS RISEN! ALLELUIA!

Easter always been the most meaningful holiday for me. When I was young, my sister and I would dye eggs with our dad on Saturday night. It was one of only special traditions we had with him. After the eggs were colored and sitting in their little cardboard ring holders, we went to bed early, really early! At our church, Easter Sunday meant sunrise services at 6:30! But even in my groggy state, I loved that tradition and the yummy Easter breakfast in the church basement afterward.

The church I attend today doesn’t have 6:30 a.m. services, but I still love the beautiful ceremony. A kaleidoscope of colorful spring plants adorn the entire front of the church. Joyful voices accompanied by trumpets and timpani sing praises. Little children are dressed in frilly new Easter dresses and uncomfortable bow ties that moms bribed them into wearing just one day.

But my favorite part is the most powerful best news ever–Christ is Risen!

I’ve always believed this statement, but it has become the foundational truth that guides my life since my husband Tom is now part of the great cloud of witnesses waiting for me in heaven with Jesus.

Jesus’ closest followers had lived with Him for three years. They left all they had to follow Him. On that terrible night in the Garden of Gethsemane, they all fled. I know I would have as well if I were faced with the fear and threats they experienced.

Those who stayed watched their best friend and teacher, the one who claimed to be the Messiah, die a horrible, gruesome death on the cross.

The disciples and followers of Jesus were crushed. They wept. They grieved. They were confused and in shock.

And they were afraid. They hid behind locked doors. Their leader was gone and there was no one stepping forward to take His place or to help them regroup.

Death sucks. There’s no other way to describe it. It’s touched my life deeply. It’s touched many of yours. I’ve cried tears to the point of exhaustion. I’ve woken every morning wondering what day it is and if it’s still a nightmare that Tom is gone. I’ve been overwhelmed at times and confused about what to do.

But I’m not afraid. Because even though the disciples were hiding and mourning behind closed doors, the most amazing thing happened: Jesus, their friend and leader suddenly appeared with them!

A few days later He appeared to them again and this time said something to them with us in His heart. “A week later His disciples were in the house again and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then He said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’ Thomas said to Him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen, you believe. Blessed are those who have not seen, yet believe.'” John 20:26-29

That’s us! Jesus looked all the way 2,000 years into the future and spoke these words for us!

Jesus saving hand reaching for the faithful

Several weeks after the resurrection, these same disciples who were lost and terrified and locked behind closed doors were boldly walking the streets of Jerusalem proclaiming the Good News that Jesus rose from the dead and was alive! They faced those who had put Him to death at the risk of flogging, imprisonment, even death to be witnesses to the truth of what they saw–a risen Christ. The rest of their lives they lived led by this great truth. Everyone who knew them couldn’t deny the change in them.

John Eldridge in his book, “All Things New” says, “If it is anything at all worth talking about, Christianity is supposed to be the triumphant entry of an astonishing hope breaking into human history. A hope above and beyond all former hopes. An unbreakable, unquenchable hope.”  He goes on to say that because Jesus rose from the dead, as His followers, our lives never end.  “If you woke each morning and your heart leapt with hope, knowing that the renewal of all things was just around the corner—might even come today—you would be one happy person! If you knew in every fiber of your being that nothing is lost, that everything will be restored to you and then some, you would be armored against discouragement and despair. If your heart’s imagination were filled with rich expectations of all the goodness coming to you, your confidence would be contagious; you would be unstoppable, revolutionary.”

1 Peter 1:3 also declares, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In His great mercy He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.”

One of my favorite Easter anthems, “Now all the Vault of Heaven Resounds,” declares “Oh fill us Lord with dauntless love! Set hearts and wills on things above, that we conquer through your triumph! Grant grace sufficient for life’s day that by our lives we truly say, ‘Christ has triumphed! He is living!'”

Shouldn’t the world notice a difference in us if we believe this?

The disciples couldn’t do what they did alone. Only the Power that raised Jesus from the dead could create this change when it came into them. I can’t do it alone either. If it was up to me and my strength, I’d have wasted away in bed a long time ago.

I still grieve and miss Tom, but I am totally confident that he is ALIVE with the risen and living Lord! And we will be together again with Jesus forever! What a wonderful promise and hope!

Heavenly Father–I praise and glorify You for Your incredible love and grace that, because You longed for us to be in relationship with You so badly, You sacrificed Your only Son to pay the price for our sin. Fill us with the Holy Spirit so that the world can see by our lives that we believe this great and awesome truth–that Jesus is Risen! He is alive! Help us to receive Your peace, boldness and unending joy. In His Risen name. Amen.

 

Strawberries

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“But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.'” 1 Samuel 16:7

I am NOT a fan of Iowa winters. The cold is bad enough, but days without sunshine make me sad. The color of the world seems to fade to nothing but grayness. My skin dries out and gets itchy and my fingers crack and make me just plain crabby.

The last straw is trying to push a grocery cart through the snow and slush of the parking lot! Arrgghh!

For many winters, Tom and I were blessed to escape the dreary, frigid weather and mountains of snow in the Midwest for the balmy palm trees and ocean breezes of Florida. On a boat in the blue waters of the Atlantic I discovered I was made for shorts and flip flops! Far better than mittens and snow boots.

Even grocery shopping was a more pleasant experience–the parking lot at Publix was never aggravating.

It might sound strange, but grocery stores in Florida, as well as Farmer’s Markets, were some of my favorite places. The variety of fruits and veggies and exotic, colorful flowers–orange and purple Bird of Paradise, scarlet Bromeliads and yellow and pink orchids–make me pause at the wonder of our Lord’s creativity and artistic talent.

One of my favorite treats from the markets are red, ripe strawberries. They are full of flavor and so juicy I need a napkin to wipe my face! The strawberries I buy in the winter in Iowa look pretty–big and red with perfect green tops–but when I bite into them, they are disappointingly tasteless and dry.

strawberries

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

I wonder if this is how Jesus sees my life sometimes?

Andy Stanley has a series called “Christian”. He talks about how few times this word is used in the Bible-only three or four. Jesus doesn’t ask us to be “Christians”, he asks us the be His disciples. “A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you shall love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:34-35

Andy Stanley teaches that the word “Christian” has a very broad definition. “Disciple” is very narrow with specific expectations. Many people identify themselves as Christian. Far fewer consider ourselves true disciples or live by the qualifications of discipleship.

Too many times when I examine my life, I look good on the outside. I’m mostly kind and friendly. I wear my cross necklace. I go to church and Bible study and serve others.

But what is Jesus seeing in my heart? The selfishness? The pride? The jealously and self-righteousness? Am I really loving everyone I encounter as Jesus does?

I’m afraid that I am like the strawberries that are bright red and pretty on the outside but dry and flavorless on the inside, just like those that deceive and disappoint in northern supermarkets in the winter.

Am I living too often as just a Christian? Or am I striving through the Holy Spirit to be a true disciple?

None of us can do this on our own, nor does anyone achieve perfect status. The Holy Spirit is the only one who can “ripen” us on the inside. The world and its trappings can make us attractive on a superficial level but only a relationship with Jesus can give us rich fullness in our souls.

The first step in becoming more of a true disciple is recognizing how dry and empty we are inside no matter what our lives look like on the outside. Then we can ask the “Master Farmer” Holy Spirit to fill us with the Living Water so that our spirits might be full and rich for Jesus.

I want to be a rich, ripe, juicy strawberry inside for Jesus!

Jesus help me to be more like you every day. Send me your Holy Spirit to fill my heart and keep my eyes on you and our permanent home in heaven. Help me to become more and more a disciple of yours so that Your light shines in me and through me to everyone I encounter. In your name I pray. Amen.

Happy new year!

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“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you.” Deuteronomy 31:6

 

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Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind.

This line from the popular New Year’s Eve song always bothered me. Why would I want to forget old acquaintances? It makes more sense in the literal translation, “old days gone by.” Looking back on the years of my life, each one has its share of good days gone by as well as not-so-good days gone by.

Last year was no exception. There were days I would happily forget, packing them in a box and putting them on the top shelf of the closet.  Even if I could, I wouldn’t want to wipe all of last year from my memory. Like life itself, there were many good days sprinkled in with the challenges.

Reflecting on 2018, there were many reasons and occasions to celebrate. I was blessed to travel to Copenhagen with my step-daughter to visit family. The trip to Israel last summer was life-changing. I made many new acquaintances throughout 2018, some of whom turned into good friends. There were new marriages celebrated and a new great niece born.

Even the tough days grew my faith and resilience and reliance on God. I’m still learning to recreate my life without Tom’s physical presence.  Life after sending a loved one home to the Lord is like a beautiful vase that has fallen to the floor and shattered. God picks up the pieces and puts them back together, but we are never the same. There will always be cracks and evidence of something having been before.

But God is with me. He was with me every minute of 2018 and will be with me every step of 2019.  We grow most in times of trials and challenges because we are reminded daily of our dependence on and need for Jesus.

The anticipation of a new year brings mixed emotions. Some of you are in that same season as I am having sent loved ones home to Jesus or had other challenging changes the past year.  I know several people who have loved ones on the verge of death right now.

When I was in my late teens and early 20s, I always had a good cry on New Year’s Day. Sometimes it was for the good times that had gone too fast. Sometimes it was fear of what the new year might bring. I was always particularly anxious about losing loved ones or friends.

As I look back on those years, I find it strange. I knew God and trusted Him. But I knew I wasn’t in control of everything in my life. I would let anxiety take hold of my thoughts and emotions believing any great earthly loss or heartbreak would leave me crushed.

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Since then, God has drawn me closer to Him and strengthened my faith and reliance on Him.  He was with me when a dear friend went to heaven in 2013 after battling ovarian cancer. He gave me strength when my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and died in 2015.  He has carried me through the days and long nights when my dear husband was diagnosed in 2012 with pancreatic cancer that began a long, yet blessed journey of four and a half years before he also went to be with Jesus.

What will 2019 bring?  None of us know for sure. There will be joys–weddings, new babies, fun times with friends–as well as hard times–difficult diagnosis, continued political upheaval, personal loss.

The Lord doesn’t promise us a life of ease and comfort. In fact, Jesus warns His followers, “in this world you will have trouble.” But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He says “take heart! I have overcome this world!”  That’s a promise we can all believe.

And no matter what the year ahead brings, God is already there. He already knows our story and the good days and the challenges that lay before each of us.

God is above and outside of time. He is sovereign. No matter how bad things get this year, His will is still going to be accomplished in His perfect timing. He tells us to trust Him and the light He shines on our path.

Will you choose to trust and live each day as if it was the only one you have? Because it is.

Heavenly Father–thank you that You promise to be with us every minute of our lives. Thank you for so many good days and blessings and thank you that in the challenges and hard times, You draw us closer to You. Help us in this new year to always seek Your face and to show Your light and love through our lives to the world that needs You so much. In Jesus name. Amen.

What Israel Taught Me About Christmas

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But you Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from old, from ancient times.” Micah 5:2

Being raised in the church, I have always appreciated the sacrifice Jesus made for me at the cross. Until my trip to Israel this past summer, though, I never truly understood the significance of what Jesus gave up to come to earth in such humility out of absolute love for me.

Bethlehem is portrayed in Christmas carols and on cards as a quaint, pretty little hillside village.

At the risk of spoiling your Christmas visions, it’s not quaint or pretty. It is on a hillside.

Bethlehem is only a few miles from Jerusalem, but today there are some challenges in getting from one place to the other. Visitors from Israel wanting to go to the birth town of Jesus are required to pass through checkpoints complete with barbed wire and young military men and women carrying machine guns.

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It’s not exactly the picture of a silent and holy night. But that is reality in the West Bank today.

Our tour group visited the Church of the Nativity. This huge, ornate cathedral is built above and around the small cave where it is believed the king of kings was born. The accuracy of the location is up for discussion depending on whom you ask. Our tour guide was Greek Orthodox, therefore in his mind this is the real place. The Church of the Nativity is cared for by all of the Orthodox religions as well as the Catholic Church.

According to their tradition, this spot was the earliest place recognized as the birth place of Jesus, perhaps even told to the disciples by Mary herself. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the Romans built a pagan temple over the spot to keep pilgrims from coming to worship.

Many years later when Constantine sent his mother Helene to Israel to reestablish the Christian holy places, the faithful pointed out this spot because of the pagan temple.

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Many of our “western” traditions surrounding the birth of Jesus aren’t culturally accurate. The Greek word for “inn” probably is more closely translated as a guest room in a home. In those days it was very common for animals owned by families to be brought into a part of the home or in a section attached to the home at the back or under the main living quarters. It was most likely a cave, rather than a barn where sheep were kept.

While this may change the way we look at our Nativity sets, it doesn’t take away from the humble circumstances of the birth of our Savior.

Jesus was and is and will always be God Incarnate. Imagine the most luxurious, pampered palace on earth and multiple that by 1,000. That would only begin to give us an idea of heaven that Jesus left to come to earth. And He wasn’t born to royalty or even wealthy or well-respected parents. He humbled himself to be born to peasants, as an infant, in a cave.

One speaker I heard not long ago put this in perspective–just being a baby with poopy diapers is about as humble as anyone can get!

In preparation for our trip I read Kathie Lee Gifford’s book “The Road, The Rock and the Rabbi”. Messianic Rabbi Jason Sobel co-authored the book and offers more historical and cultural insights. The shepherds who were watching the sheep were most likely guarding sacrificial lambs. These special lambs had to be protected from injuring themselves so they could be unblemished for sacrifice. Shepherds would use clothes to wrap the lambs. These clothes usually came from old robes that had been worn by priests.

These details add to the symbolism of Jesus, our sacrificial, unblemished lamb who became our high priest.

The fields where angels appeared to the shepherds could have most likely belonged to Boaz, the Old Testament ancestor of Jesus, where Ruth gleaned. Boaz was a relative redeemer to Ruth and Naomi and the great-grandfather of King David. In the same way, Jesus became our relative redeemer.

In another part of the Church of the Nativity is an altar to The Innocents, those children who were murdered by King Herod after the birth ofJesus. This is a reminder of the struggle between good and evil, the reason for Jesus coming to earth.

All that I saw and learned in Bethlehem shows how much God loves me and you, that Jesus left splendor of heaven and His righteousness not only to die for us but to be humbled in the lowliest of births with no place to lay his head in birth or later in life.

It truly is amazing grace and unbelievable love.

Dear Jesus–thank you for loving us so much that you were willing to leave the splendor of heaven to come to our dark and fallen world. Help us to carry the spirit of Christmas love and joy with us every day of the year and to shine Your light brightly in our world until you return again in glory. In your name we ask these things. Amen.