The Incomparable Word

Introduction

Occasionally, I depart from my usual story-telling format to share a Bible study or devotional I prepared for the women in my church. Such is the case this week.

Earlier this summer, as I thought and prayed about my designated topic, Scripture, verses started coming to my mind. I realized Scripture has plenty to say about itself, so I let some beloved passages teach the lesson with minimal comment from me.

I pray reading the following verses (still with minimal commentary) will remind you how blessed we are to have the incomparable Word of God to guide, nourish, and protect us.

Spiritual Nourishment

The first passage that came to my mind was Jesus’ response to Satan’s temptation to satisfy His hunger by changing stones into bread. Recorded in Matthew 4:4 and Luke 4:4, Jesus’ reply, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,’” hearkened back to an event recorded in Deuteronomy:

And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.
Deuteronomy 8:2-3

The Armor of God

In using Scripture to rebuke Satan, Jesus gave us an example of putting on the armor of God as described in Ephesians:

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil . . . and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God . . .
Ephesians 6:11, 17

Living and Active

Hebrews also describes the Word of God as a sword, and it goes on to proclaim it is alive.

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
Hebrews 4:12

Have you ever read a passage you know you’ve read many times before, but this time it comforts, convicts, or informs you in a whole new way? I know I have! God’s Word is indeed living and active.

Trustworthy

The night before Jesus went to the cross, He prayed for His disciples, those who were with Him then, and all those to come, including us.

Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.
John 17:17

God-breathed

In his second letter to Timothy, Paul described the all-encompassing role of God’s Word in our sanctification.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
2 Timothy 3:16-17

To Be Obeyed

James never minced words. He made it clear that reading the Word isn’t enough. We must do as it says.

Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
James 1:21-25

A Light

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
Psalm 119:105  

Think about footlights in a theater or airplane cabin when the lights have been dimmed. They provide enough light to safely take the next step or two, not see great distances. And so it is with God’s word. Though Scripture describes the end of the story (see Revelation 21 and 22), we sometimes wish to know the details of how our lives will play out. Instead, the Lord leads us step by step as we live by faith and endeavor to follow Him.

Fruitful

 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
Isaiah 55: 10-11

I used to think I needed to share the whole plan of salvation to be an effective witness. God has repeatedly shown me that isn’t the case. Even when I use words like “blessed” or mention I attend Bible study or quote a snippet of Scripture, it can open the door for me to share more, knowing that God’s word will accomplish His purposes.

Eternal

The grass withers, the flower fades,  but the word of our God will stand forever.
Isaiah 40:8

Pure, Perfect, Desirable, Sustaining

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart. The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever. The rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. God’s word is like honey.
Psalm 19:7-11

The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.
Psalm 12:6

Jesus – The Word Made Flesh

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John 1:1-5; 14

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.
John 6:35

With these verses, we come full circle. Jesus, the Word, provides the very life alluded to in the passage in Deuteronomy. As the second Person of the Trinity, He has existed from eternity past and will exist for all eternity. In Him, we have all we need for life and godliness – spiritual nourishment, guidance, protection from the evil one, and victory over death.

So, dear readers, I hope you’ll revisit the passages I’ve included and maybe even add some more (this list is far from exhaustive) as you contemplate the beauty and sufficiency of God’s incomparable Word.

Age-old Assurances for a New Year

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”
Lamentations 3:21-24

Downcast

It’s a rainy afternoon in Georgia, and my mood matches the scene outside my window. For as long as I can remember, I’ve used the last few days of December to reflect on the year just past and plan for the one ahead. But a week of isolation due to a positive Covid test may have given me too much time for my yearend ruminations.

Recent celebrations hammered home the resounding headline for 2021: Mom’s gone. The New Year won’t change that or bring her back.

And, already looming on the horizon, more significant changes for our family, the details and what-ifs of which are disconcerting. Plus, there will no doubt be challenges currently known only to God.

Fighting for Joy

As you may have gleaned from my last couple of posts, though, I’ve been valiantly fighting for joy throughout this first holiday season without Mom by counseling my heart with truth. This post is no different, so I’ll let Scripture do the talking for a while:

  • Deuteronomy 31:8: “It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”
  • John 16:33: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
  • Romans 8:28: And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
  • 2 Corinthians 4:17: This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.
  • James 1:2-4: Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

Proven O’er and O’er

Scripture is the inspired word of God and to be trusted regardless of our feelings or circumstances; however, one of the things I like best about growing older is I have more and more real-life examples of God’s faithfulness and trustworthiness to recall. As the lyrics to ‘Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus say, “Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him! How I’ve proved Him o’er and o’er! Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus! O for grace to trust Him more!”[1]

There will be challenges this year, but the Lord has never left or forsaken me, and He never will. In fact, He uses the hard things to draw me closer to Him, to grow my faith, and to comfort and encourage me so that I might comfort and encourage others with the same comfort and encouragement I’ve received (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

And, just as there are unknown difficulties ahead, there will be joy and blessing beyond what I can ask or imagine because God does work all things together for good for His beloved children.

Encourage One Another

I don’t know how you’re feeling today, dear reader. Maybe you’re entering the new year buoyed by fun family gatherings, having enjoyed all your favorite foods and traditions. Then again, you may be like me, fighting for joy, having engaged in those traditions without a loved one, and facing more changes in the near future.  

Regardless of our circumstances, we can take heart in knowing we belong to the One who never changes (Hebrews 13:8). Our loving Heavenly Father is always working out His purposes according to His good and perfect plans and will see them through to completion, when Jesus returns to set all things right. Therefore, let us encourage our own hearts and one another with all we know to be true as we await His promised return.

Dear Lord, thank You that we can come to You with our joys and sorrows, our hopes and fears, knowing that You are a compassionate Father who remembers we are dust. Your mercies are new every morning, and your grace is sufficient for each day. Thank You that we’ll never face life alone because You are with us, now and forever.

P.S. Since I started this post some three hours ago, the rain has stopped, and the sun has peeked out a time or two, providing the amen to my thoughts.


[1] Louisa M. R. Stead

Too Good to Be True

For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Romans 5:7-8

Intriguing Email

I casually scrolled through email while my daughter, Jessie, got ready for our special post-Biltmore-tour dinner. One particular subject line made me pause before opening the note attached to it: “You won! Time to claim your prize.” Curious and cautiously optimistic, I clicked on the message.

The email wasn’t sent by a bogus prince from a remote overseas country. No, it was from the sweepstakes fulfillment company employed by Starbucks®. Even though I’d been playing their Summer Game, garnering entries by purchasing my usual tea and treats, and even though the graphics looked exactly like the ones featured on the sweepstakes emails, I was skeptical. I reread the note from top to bottom, including all the fine print, before showing it to Jessie.

“Do you think this is real?”

“It looks real, Mom, but I think you should call Starbucks® to be sure.”

We went to dinner, splurged on our selections, and mused over my potential win.  The next day, as Jessie chauffeured me back to Georgia, I called Starbucks’ customer service. After a lengthy hold, a transfer to a different department, and another brief wait, the cheerful associate on the other end of the line confirmed the win and congratulated me on my good fortune.

Misgivings

The email stated I had three days to respond or I would forfeit the prize.  That night, after returning home, I determined to set aside my lingering doubts and fill in the affidavit of eligibility.  Despite the earlier confirmation received directly from the Starbucks® agent, my confidence withered when it came time to divulge my tax info.  With the knot in my stomach growing tighter by the moment, I filled in my social security number, having discerned (via a Google search) that it was a legitimate request so my winnings could be reported to the IRS.

I hit send on the finished documentation and prayed I hadn’t fallen for a perfectly executed scam. A few days later, I received an email confirming my eligibility and informing me that my winnings would be posted to my Starbucks® account in approximately two months.  I felt more confident but still only shared the good news with Jessie, my parents and my older daughter, Mary. I wanted to limit future humiliation if this ultimately proved to be a sham.

The rhythm of everyday activities and responsibilities intervened, and I mostly forgot about the promised stars. When I did think of my winnings, I half expected not to receive them. But then, on the designated day, I pulled my phone out to check my account balance, and there they were, thousands upon thousands of stars, deposited as promised.[1]

No Boasting

You may be wondering if I created a celebratory Facebook post or messaged all my friends with the exciting news. Nope. I still didn’t tell anyone – until now. Even though my win was undeniably real, I didn’t want to appear like I was boasting since I hadn’t done anything exceptional to deserve the prize. I simply bought tea and pumpkin bread and treated Mom to her beloved frappuccinos, as usual, while the sweepstakes was going on.

Nonetheless, my love of a good analogy has overcome my reluctance to share about my prize, and I hope by now you’ve surmised where I’m going with this tale.

As believers, we have something far more valuable than stars that can be redeemed for beverages and tasty treats. Yet, we’re tentative about telling others for fear they’ll scoff at our too-good-to-be-true message:  God loved us so much He sent His only Son to die for us so we can live with Him forever (John 3:16). From a human perspective, it makes no sense that a righteous man would die for the unrighteous, His very enemies.

But from the first book of the Bible (Genesis 3:15) to the last (Revelation 21:1-4), God promised to redeem a people for Himself and dwell with them throughout eternity. No fine print to read. No scams to fear. We can always count on our covenant-keeping God, who is Faithful and True (Revelation 19:11).

And just like I had nothing to boast about in winning the sweepstakes, Scripture makes it clear we have no room to boast about our salvation. We are saved by grace through faith which is itself a gift (Ephesians 2:8-9). But unlike my hesitancy to share the news of my winnings, we’re commanded to tell others about God’s plan of salvation (Matthew 28:19-20), encouraging them to heed His voice and acknowledge their need (Hebrews 3:7-8), while giving Him all the glory (Jude 1:24-25).

True After All

Occasionally a barista will notice the extraordinary number of stars in my account when I ask them to “please use stars for the whole order.” Their look of amazement is usually followed by, “I’ve never seen that many stars!”

I humbly reply, “I won the Summer Stars Sweepstake! I’ve never won anything big before. I could hardly believe it!”

“Wow! I’ve wondered if anyone ever really wins those games!”

We share a smile before I move on, happy to know that sometimes news that seems too good to be true is real after all.

Dear Lord, as we joyfully celebrate Jesus’ resurrection and triumph over death, help us to endeavor to share the good news of the gospel with others, unafraid of their potential skepticism. May our lives underscore the truth of our message and point them to You.


[1] For those of you unfamiliar with the Starbucks® rewards program, you can use stars to purchase menu items and merchandise.

Superfood for the Soul

But Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’”
Matthew 4:4

Unequal  Options

From the time he was big enough to sit in his highchair, grandson Joshua and I have enjoyed watching the birds flock to the feeder his dad had hung from their deck. Not wanting to be left out of the fun, I added “birdfeeder” to my Christmas list several years ago. My dad fulfilled my wish, launching a pastime that’s given me hours of enjoyment since.

Being a novice faced with multiple options, I didn’t know what kind of food to buy. I settled on a bag of Southern Regional Blend. The tagline on the bag declared, “blended to attract Southern songbirds,” while another statement promised “25% sunflower plus safflower” seeds. However, a closer look at the ingredients list revealed millet to be the predominant component.

I chose a location for the feeder where I could keep an eye on it from two key vantage points: the window above the kitchen sink and my seat at the table. I filled the feeder and awaited the birds’ arrival with joyful expectancy. It took a couple of days for them to notice the new food source, but one morning a red-bellied woodpecker arrived, followed by several tiny chickadees and some tufted titmice.

I mentioned my new hobby to a fellow bird-feeding friend who promptly shared some of his stash of many birds’ favorite food: black oil sunflower seed. I gradually transitioned the contents of the feeder from the original blend until it contained only that delicacy. The changeover led to increased activity around the feeder and attracted a wider variety of birds.

In the years since, I’ve become more knowledgeable about the preferences of different birds. I’ve added suet, thistle seeds, and a premium blend containing peanuts and striped sunflower seeds to the bird buffet.

Soul Food

Observing my feathered visitors, I’ve reflected on the options available to us when it comes to nourishing our souls. We’re blessed to live at a time when technology allows us to access spiritual teaching in many different ways – podcasts, blogs, and books, both printed and electronic. Yet, with such an assortment of choices available, we need to be discerning consumers.

Just like the components in the blend of seeds I originally purchased varied dramatically in nutritional value, some lessons are little more than filler. We must be careful not to feast on snack food when we require a diet of sound teaching instead. The Apostle Peter confirmed the importance of feeding our souls with the proper nourishment. He urged those who received his letter to crave pure spiritual milk, like infants hungering for their mothers’ milk, that they would grow strong in their faith (1 Peter 2:2).

Praise God for providing His inerrant Word, the standard against which all other instruction is to be measured. Scripture is

  • profitable for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, capable of equipping us for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
  • living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).
  • able to accomplish the purposes of God and never return to Him void (Isaiah 55:11).

Given the power of this spiritual superfood, it’s no wonder Jesus deflected Satan’s temptation to turn stones into bread by affirming the real source of our sustenance – every word that comes from the mouth of God.

In his second letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul warned that a time would come when people would no longer listen to the truth but instead turn to teachers who told them what they wanted to hear (2 Timothy 4:3-4). Like my friend who enlightened me when it came to feeding the birds, may we faithfully point fellow believers to the supreme soul food found in the Word of God.

O Lord, how blessed we are to have Your Word to guide and sustain us! Thank You for providing many ways for us to receive spiritual nourishment. Please help us to make Your Word the benchmark against which we evaluate the nutritional value of all other sources. 

Let’s All Sing

If you’ve ever visited Disneyland or Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, I bet those three words caused an image to pop into your head, accompanied by the rest of the stanza, “ . . . like the birdies do, tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet.”[1]  You may even be humming the tune sung by the inhabitants of the Enchanted Tiki Room, where “the birds sing words and the flowers croon”. [2]

The cheerful ditty has come to my mind repeatedly the past couple of months because of a mockingbird who’s taken up residence in my crape myrtle. The canopy of the majestic tree reaches across much of the front of my house and above the roofline, shading the windows of my bedroom and providing a proper perch for the mockingbird to serenade me. I often hear it singing soon after I awake, prompting me to think, “That bird sure sounds happy!” And then, “I can rejoice and be exceeding glad too because God has allowed me to wake up to another day.” (Psalm 118:24)

But sometimes we burrow under the covers instead, our enthusiasm stifled by the demands and uncertainties looming in the hours ahead. There have been plenty of the latter the past 3 months, right? Even so, Scripture is full of assurances:

  • God’s mercies never fail. They are new every morning. (Lamentations 3:21-23)
  • Jesus acknowledged we’d have troubles in this world, but went on to say, “Take heart. I’ve overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
  • If God cares for the birds who sing so sweetly, He’ll surely take care of us, His beloved children. (Matthew 10:29-31)

As I’ve navigated the challenges of the past weeks, I’ve been comforted by these and other promises in the form of lyrics from beloved hymns. Before long, I’m whistling the tune and then singing complete verses aloud. Great is Thy Faithfulness, It is Well with my Soul, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, Be Thou My Vision, and our family anthem, Amazing Grace.  Such is the power of music to encourage and edify.

And to connect.

Musical Ties

My mom grew up attending a tiny Presbyterian church in rural North Carolina. Some 8 decades later, when the first few strains of a hymn familiar since childhood emanate from the piano at our current church, she smiles, leans over, and whispers, “That’s a Gulf song!” I nod and return her smile as we fondly recall the white wooden structure and the loved ones buried in its cemetery, links in our heritage of faith.

When my now-adult daughters were little, my husband Ray and I used Amazing Grace as a lullaby. Though their dad died when they were in elementary school, leaving them with few memories of their godly father, they clearly remember him singing them to sleep with that classic hymn.

img_3559When my grandchildren were born, I continued the tradition their grandfather and I began with their mother, soothing them to sleep with Amazing Grace, planting seeds of faith from their earliest days. Six-year-old granddaughter Lyla is prone to humming as she works on a craft project or tackles one of her small household chores. I believe it’s an overflow of her happy heart. Occasionally she’ll sigh, “I’ve got this song stuck in my head!”

Frequently the song on replay is a hymn. Because she and her siblings are being brought up in the training and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4)

How wonderful to have God’s Word sewn into our hearts with threads of music, binding us to Him and to generations of fellow believers!

Let All Creation Sing

Hearing the shouts of praise and adoration as Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem, the Pharisees, indignant and no doubt jealous, said, “’Teacher rebuke your disciples.’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” (Luke 19:39-40)

The psalmist shares similar sentiments: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth and their words to the end of the world.” (Psalm 96:1-4)

Indeed creation does praise the Creator in myriad ways. Yet we who’ve been the recipients of God’s great love and mercy are best-equipped to articulate all He’s done for us. So let us sing with joyful abandon like the mockingbird outside my window, proclaiming His goodness and faithfulness, as we rejoice in the gift of each new day.

 

[1] “Let’s All Sing Like The Birdies Sing” was written in 1932 by a team of songwriters lead by English composer Tolchard Evans.

[2] Songwriters: Richard M. Sherman / Robert B. Sherman, “The Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room” lyrics © Walt Disney Music Company

Soil Amendments

When we moved from Delaware to Georgia 28 years ago, we had the opportunity to start from the ground up. We chose our lot, chose a house plan, chose a builder. Though most of the construction communication occurred long-distance, business trips provided opportunities for me to stop by the construction site periodically during the months leading up to our relocation.

After years of working as a colorist and carpet stylist for a large corporation, I enthusiastically put my job experience into practice. I selected all the finishes for the house – from bricks to shingles, wall colors to carpet – and amassed a burgeoning file of paint chips and swatches. My late husband, Ray, was equally excited about using his horticulture training in designing our landscape. His task proved to be much more challenging than mine.

For starters, most of the top soil had been scraped away by bulldozers cruising back and forth grading the site.  Compacted Georgia clay – think terra cotta pottery – remained in its place. I watched as Ray struggled to dig holes in the hardened ground, thinking he might as well have been chipping away at the concrete driveway.

Next, there was the appalling, but then-legal practice of burying construction debris on the property. Among our stranger discoveries – the lid to a 5-gallon paint bucket and a caulking gun containing a half-empty caulk canister.

051And then there were rocks to deal with, some too big to dig up, others temporary yet annoying obstacles. The distinct clank of the shovel hitting their unyielding surfaces accompanied Ray’s efforts to install carefully-chosen plants.

053Born and raised in South Dakota farm country, Ray was accustomed to soil so rich it’s nearly black. When we lived in Delaware we would occasionally get a load of mushroom compost to top dress the yard – smelly, but effective when it came to adding nutrients to the soil. These experiences plus his horticulture degree informed Ray there would be no shortcut when it came to improving the hardpan he’d been left with. Thus he began the tedious process of amending the clay by tilling in top soil and compost.

But was it ever worth it!

Now, almost 30 years later, the soil is dark, easy to dig, and full of busy earthworms, a sure sign of health. When I cultivate those beds, my thoughts often drift to the early days when Ray was challenged by the conditions he’d been dealt. Nonetheless, he persevered, patiently applying the principles he knew would yield the longed-for results.

By now, I bet some of you are thinking about Jesus’ Parable of the Sower. Recounted in three of the four Gospels[1], Jesus described different kinds of soil and compared them to one’s ability to accept and sustain the seed of Gospel truth.

Certainly, there are parallels to the various soils within the saga I’ve described, however, I want to focus on the good soil that yielded a bountiful harvest. Though Jesus’ parable begins with sowing, other passages introduce the idea of preparing the heart to receive Truth (Ezekiel 36:26). After our stony hearts are replaced with hearts of flesh, the Master Gardener sends the Spirit to tend the now-receptive plot.

Though the heart exchange is a once-and-done event, the tending will continue until we’re called Home. With the Spirit’s help, we’re to amend our softened hearts with the Word, working it ever-deeper into our lives. Then our roots will have room to grow and we’ll be like the trees planted by streams of water described in Jeremiah 17:8 – unafraid of drought, consistently bearing fruit.

And there will no doubt be rocks and debris to be removed as we dig deeper into our souls, stumbling blocks to our spiritual growth. Here too, we can depend on the Spirit to empower our efforts as He conforms us to the likeness of Christ (Romans 8:29)

When I went back to school to study horticulture, I gained a whole new appreciation for soil. Structure, drainage, nutrient-holding capacity – all are important in determining what kind of life it can sustain.

How about you? Are you amending the soil of your soul with the life-giving, life-sustaining Word of God?

 

[1] Matthew 13:1-8, 18-23; Mark 4:3-8, 14-20; Luke 8:5-8, 11-15.

 

Love Never Ends

February 14th. Valentine’s Day. One of several days throughout the year when I have to take myself in hand and preach truth to myself even more so than usual. Father’s Day, my late husband’s birthday, our would-be wedding anniversary, the day God called Ray Home. Difficult days when I’m tempted to question God’s goodness; to wonder why He wrote my beloved spouse’s too-soon-for-me departure into our story.

The sunshine streaming through my windows this morning provided a stark contrast to my mood. No card, no flowers, no warm embrace from my forever love. Everything in me wanted to ignore the holiday. Well, almost everything. Whispers of truth made their way through the silent, solitary morning moments, “You’re not alone. Reach out.”

I sent a few texts, their content more cheerful than my prevailing state of mind. Soon my phone began to ping notifying me of incoming replies, most bedecked with emoji hearts and hugs:

“Happy Valentine’s Day to you, my friend!”

“Happy Valentine’s Day to you as well! I am thankful today for friends and family! Love to you today!”

“’The Lord has appeared of old unto me, saying, ‘Yea, I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn you.’ Jeremiah 31:3 . . . Praying this will minister to you.”

Gratitude, love, the Word of the Lord – potent antidotes for sorrow, doubt, and self-pity. They provided the traction I needed to extricate myself from the emotional quagmire I was languishing in. Back on solid footing, I redirected my thoughts.

img_2626-1I’m thankful for the time Ray and I spent together. I’d rather have been married to him for 13 years than not at all. The last card he gave me was a Valentine card. Unlike other memorabilia tucked away in various boxes and file folders, it resides in a special spot on my bookshelf. Lost in my reverie, I retrieved it from its slot and reverently removed it from its well-worn envelope. After savoring the sentiments within, I placed it on the edge of my dining room table which also serves as my desk. There, alongside other tangible reminders of loved ones, it radiated a message of glowing encouragement.

When I first read the words some 23 years ago I asked Ray if he truly felt that way about me. I didn’t see much of myself in the card’s lofty ideals which reference the Proverbs 31 woman. He didn’t hesitate before confirming the message rang true. What a gift to be able to see someone’s potential in the Lord, wherever they may be in the life-long process of sanctification, and then graciously point it out to them.

God used Ray’s unconditional love to show His love for me throughout our marriage. What a blessing to read the words contained in that final card all these years later and hear Ray’s resounding affirmation.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:7).

With my thoughts on a decidedly-positive trajectory, I pondered some things our pastor pointed out during last night’s study of the Westminster Confession of Faith: God is pleased to reveal Himself to us in His Word. He desires intimacy with His people. The Bible is a living document, God’s direct link with us. When we read our Bibles we should imagine God smiling at us because He loves us.

Isn’t that amazing?!!

And now here I sit, joyfully overwhelmed by God’s great love, with so many pertinent passages running through my mind, I don’t know how to end this post. Likewise, I don’t know how you’re feeling on this Valentine’s Day, dear reader. Maybe, like me, you’re yearning for a loved one who’s no longer with you. Then again, you may have a special date planned with your sweetie. Regardless, I pray the following Scriptures will cause your heart to rejoice as you remember the One who loves His children with a love that never ends (Psalm 100:5). To Him be all praise, honor, and glory!

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us (1 John 4:7-12).

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).

Love never ends . . . So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:8a, 13).

And the next time you’re feeling down or doubting God’s goodness, remember Martyn Lloyd- Jones admonition:

“Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul, ‘Why are thou down cast? What business have you to be disquieted?’ You must turn on yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself, ‘Hope thou in God’ instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way. And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, who God is and what God is and what God has done and what God has pledged Himself to do.”

 

The Anchor Holds

I suppose I should have expected his arrival. But, distracted by other things, I didn’t notice his approach until it was too late to bolt the door and deny him entry. By the time I perceived his presence, he’d unpacked his bags and flung a cloak of melancholy over my heart.

And just who was this uninvited guest? Loneliness.

After spending a week at the beach with my family, my house, usually a welcome oasis of tranquility, felt silent and empty instead. Nonetheless, being home alone wasn’t the calling card I referred to above. I could have invited a grandchild over or texted one of my daughters. No, the profound loneliness sprang from knowing I couldn’t be with the one person I longed for most at that moment, my late husband Ray.

The Crucible of Life

As is often the case when I write or teach about scriptural principles and God’s promises, real life intervenes, compelling me to speak the truth I profess to myself, to apply the healing balm of assurance to my own woundedness.  Such was the case last Saturday morning as I sat at my kitchen table, with whispers of fall meandering through windows open to the breeze after summer finally loosened its stranglehold on metro Atlanta.

You see, a few days before I returned home, my podcast, “Loving Christ in the Midst of Loss”, aired on CDM’s enCourage[1] website and I posted a companion article, “Stewarding our Stories”, on my blog. I used both platforms to proclaim God’s faithfulness across the 22 years since Ray died suddenly at age 39 and accompanied my proclamation with the assurance we can trust God as He sovereignly writes even the most difficult chapters of our stories.

So the appearance of my uninvited guest should have come as no surprise. In addition, my defenses were down, weakened by responsibilities and issues set aside while I was on vacation, only to be prayerfully resumed and mulled over when I returned. Thus, I didn’t shoo my squatter away as quickly as I might have under different circumstances.

Rather, I embraced him. My mind wandered, taking my heart with it. I wished Ray was sitting at his place at the table, holding my hand, listening as I poured out my concerns, a scenario played out numerous times during our marriage. I thought about how pleasant it would be to work in the yard together on that first fall-like day. And I remembered a long-ago night when I crawled into bed tearful and exhausted, bemoaning how little time Ray and I had to do things together. Our daughters were tiny, one an infant, the other a toddler. The days were long and my to-dos unending. In his attempt to comfort me, Ray uttered words that have become increasingly poignant over the years, “They’ll grow up so fast and then we’ll have lots of time together.”

Oh, Ray. You were gone long before our nest emptied. The lots of time you promised didn’t come to be.

Grieving

Over two decades of widowhood have tempered the searing pain of loss. Body-racking sobs are rare, replaced by silent tears, the occasional overflow of a heart yearning for its missing piece. There’s a sigh deep in my soul, born of sorrow mingled with longing and acceptance.

Even though those who belong to God don’t grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14), we still grieve, because death wasn’t part of God’s good plan. It’s part of the curse, a severe consequence of Adam and Eve’s disobedience (Genesis 2:16-17; Genesis 3:19b). Losing loved ones is painful and mourning our separation is a process, one that will continue until we’re reunited, as grief ebbs and flows. May we remember as much and be compassionate toward ourselves and others when the thorns of grief prick anew.

Never Forsaken

'Tis so SweetBut there is hope, dear reader, now and eternally. Having found comfort in the promises of the One who’s vowed to never leave or forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:8), I dispatched my erstwhile visitor. Furthermore, I can reaffirm all I said in the podcast and wrote in my last post. The bottom is good.[2] The anchor holds (Hebrews 6:19). Victory is certain (1 Corinthians 15:54-56).

Faith refined by trials is more precious than gold (1 Peter 1:6-7). And life-tested truth allows me to say with hymn writer Louisa M. R. Stead,

“’Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just to take Him at His word,
Just to rest upon His promise,
Just to know ‘Thus saith the Lord.’
Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him! How I’ve proved Him o’er and o’er!
Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus! O for grace to trust Him more!”[3]

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4, emphasis added.)

 

[1] CDM – Christian Discipleship Ministries is a ministry of the Presbyterian Church in America. The enCourage website features blog posts and podcasts aimed at “connecting the hearts of women to the hope of the Gospel.”

[2] Hopeful’s comment to Pilgrim in John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”, as they prepare to cross the river to get to their final destination, the Celestial City.

[3] ‘Tis So sweet to Trust in Jesus, text Louisa M.R. Stead, music, William J. Kirkpatrick.

Promises with parameters

One recent evening, I extended my Grammie day[1] to help daughter Mary with the three kiddos through dinner and bedtime. My son-in-law, Justin, was away on business for the second straight week and I didn’t want her to succumb to mommy fatigue. The five of us enjoyed filling each other in on the day’s activities while we ate and then headed upstairs to begin the process of preparing for bed.

With PJs on and teeth brushed, 8-year-old Joshua went to his room to read while I clambered into 3-year-old Emma’s bed, book in hand, and settled myself between her and 5-year-old Lyla. Upon finishing the selected story, I carefully extricated myself from the lower bunk in an attempt to not bump my head as I’ve done many times before. Safely positioned next to Emma’s bed, I listened to her and Lyla’s sweet prayers, sang their requested hymn, Silent Night, then stood and reached for the light switch. The orderly progression of the tuck-in routine came to an abrupt end as the two sleepy-heads protested in unison, “I’m not tired, Grammie! I don’t want to go to sleep!!”

IMG_1572Knowing they were plenty tired and would go to sleep quickly if they gave themselves a chance, I replied, “You don’t have to go to sleep, but you do have to lay down and be quiet.” Further protests greeted my statement, which I repeated more sternly as I turned off the light and crossed the hall to tuck Joshua in.

I barely finished singing to Joshua when I heard the sound of boisterous laughter emanating from the girls’ room. I opened their door and said in my stern-Grammie voice, “Girls, you need to settle down!” Lyla, in turn, replied, “You said we don’t have to go to sleep!”

Technically Lyla was right, at least as far as her abbreviated quote went. However, she latched onto the part of my statement that appealed to her and essentially ignored my instructions.

Ah, selective listening. But children aren’t the only ones who engage in the practice, are they? In fact, we’re sometimes prone to pick and choose verses or truncate Scripture passages to make them say what we want them to say, conveniently ignoring the parameters surrounding the promises. For example, consider these beloved and oft-quoted verses:

  • For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
  • And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)
  • But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33)
  • Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:4)
  • If my people who are called by my name 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. (2 Chronicles 7:14)
  • For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:11-13)
  • Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. (John 14:13)

I’m sure you can come up with other examples, but I’ll let these suffice for this post. In each case, I’ve bolded the promise, the part we like to quote, and italicized the parameter, the part we’d sometimes like to overlook. Yet we do so to our detriment. We need to ask ourselves:

  • Who is the promise for – believers, everyone?
  • What is required of me – believe, pray, humble myself, something else?
  • Is this a spiritual or physical promise, for this life or the life to come, or both?

Scripture is one grand story from beginning to end, the story of our covenant-keeping God, who chose a people for Himself and promised to be with them forever (Genesis 17:7; Revelation 21:3) And though He is gracious to give us numerous temporal blessings, He is most concerned about our spiritual welfare and fitting us for heaven (Romans 8:29-30); about having a relationship with us (Galatians 4:4-6), all for His glory (Romans 11:36; 1 Corinthians 10:31).

I knew if the girls obeyed the rest of my statement, “lay down and be quiet”, the desired result, sleep, would follow quickly. Likewise, God knows the parameters required for us to be transformed, to bring our desires and will closer and closer to His. By His grace, may we heed the full counsel of Scripture, trusting Him for the eternal outcome.

 

[1] I usually spend two days a week with my grandchildren. We call those “Grammie days”.

I love to tell the story – epilogue

I have a confession: I struggled to bring last week’s post to a satisfying end. I added words, moved sentences, and deleted phrases for several hours without making any meaningful progress. This, even though I’d worked diligently on the post across several previous days and had a clear mental outline of what I wanted to say. As bedtime loomed before me, I finally conceded and published the result of my efforts. Nonetheless, doubts lodged in my subconscious and accompanied my restless sleep. They continued to invade my thoughts the next day and the next, making me wonder if I should have published the piece at all.

I now realize I needed the experiences of the intervening week to be able to write the rest of the story and a more comprehensive conclusion.

A Look Back

Some 30 years ago, the Lord ordained a series of events in my life that forced me to deal with long-buried hurts I alluded to in “I love to tell the story”. After years of trying to keep the box of painful memories securely closed, I could no longer keep the lid on. The kind Physician came to heal the sick (Mark 2:16-18). Unwilling for us to remain stuck in a quagmire sin, guilt and wrong-thinking, He opens the wounds, gently cleans out the infection, and applies the balm of truth. My time had come.

In most cases, transformation is a long, often arduous, process. In fact, when I entered counseling, my therapist made it clear that it takes, on average, 5 years for new ways of thinking and responding to replace the old. That seemed like an eternity for determined, goal-oriented me. But she was right and eventually, bit by bit, a new normal settled in. (The grieving process is similar, but that’s a story for another time.)

As my sessions wrapped up months later, my counselor added a warning: “Although you’ve been very intentional about working on your issues and have made significant progress, you’ll always be vulnerable to the old beliefs, especially when stress and exhaustion deplete your emotional and physical reserves.”

The events of the past week left me in just such a state.

The Enemy

A line from a song by one of the early contemporary Christian groups plays in my head from time to time: “Satan is a liar and he wants us to believe we are paupers when he knows we are children of the King.” (Maybe one of you reading this can remind me who sang it!)

I hold fast to the admonition of the pastor who also counseled me during those early months of healing: “Rebuke the lies, no matter how many times you have to tell yourself, ‘That’s a lie!’”

And rebuke I did, over and over again, until I could recognize and embrace the truth more often than not. There are still times when what I’ve come to call my “old stuff” pops up and I recite, “That’s a lie!”

Even so, Satan doesn’t give up easily. He knows he can’t ultimately defeat us, but he delights in keeping us off-balance and making us ineffective (1 Peter 5:8). Since writing my last post, I’ve been distracted by many things, as the evil one stacked the kindling, stick by stick, preparing a target for his flaming arrows. His aim, perfected over millennia, hit the mark and soon I was surrounded by flames of self-doubt, choking on the smoke of his incendiary lies.

Nonetheless, the intensity of the attack opened my eyes to the source of the week’s trials, piled one on top of another, until I had no strength to fight. But He who is in me is infinitely stronger than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4). I called on Him whose ear is ever-attentive to the cries of His children (Psalm 34:15). When the flames subsided and the smoke dissipated, I could see clearly that I was safe in the grasp of the One who’ll never let me go, just as I had been all along (John 10:28-29).

The Ultimate Victory

Our past informs our present. God is the Author of our stories. He redeems our brokenness and works even the hardest, most hurtful things together for our good and His glory albeit in ways we may not comprehend until we get to heaven.

I don’t know where you are on your journey, my friend. But whether you’re just learning to rebuke the lies or have been fighting to hold onto truth for years, victory is certain. Jesus will return to deal the final death blow to the ancient serpent and to make all things new (Revelation 12:7-10; Revelation 20:9-10; Revelation 21:1-7). We’ll know as we are known and, with unveiled faces, reflect the glory of the Most Glorious One (1 Corinthians 13:12; 2 Corinthians 3:18). No more lies. No more tears. No more battles.

IMG_1469Until then, may we avail ourselves daily of the comfort and protection God has provided, confident that we have nothing to fear because the Lord goes before us (Ephesians 6:10-18; Deuteronomy 1:30). His steadfast love never ceases. His mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23). And His grace is sufficient to meet every need (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints (Ephesians 6:10-18).