Two Signs

A lot of homeowners in my area have “No Trespassing” signs on their property. I put one up as well (long story). The same kind of signs are around the perimeter of the walking trails, with the addition that violators will be prosecuted. The 120 acres of trails belong to the homeowner’s association. I’ve been making good use of them, exploring and enjoying the quiet and beauty of the woods. 

As I came across one of these signs, I had the happy thought that I was neither trespassing nor violating – I belonged there. I continued on my walk, thinking that having a sense of belonging is such a wonderful thing. We all want to be included, to feel wanted, accepted and loved. Many don’t experience this and as a result, look for belonging and acceptance in harmful ways. 

For Christians, belonging is found in Jesus. We are his and he is ours. In John 17, we are told we have been given to him by the Father and all who belong to Jesus also belong to him. Sometimes we can feel a bit left out, lonely or isolated, but reading the conversation between Jesus and his Abba reminds us we are his forever, kept safe and protected by the great love shared by Father, Son and Spirit. He never tells us to keep out. If he did hang up a sign, it would say “All are welcome; come to the place I have prepared for you, beloved of my Father.”

No Skipping to the End

During the wedding of Prince Humperdinck and Buttercup (in the movie The Princess Bride), the prince became impatient and told the clergyman to skip to the end. He was a very busy man – in fact, he was swamped. We are often like Humperdinck, wanting to skip to the end so we can get on with other things. We want to skip things like illness, grief, hard times and anything even a little bit unpleasant. It’s a natural human desire – we don’t want to suffer. 

One of the reasons Jesus came to earth as a human was just for that purpose – to suffer. He not only came to suffer and die, but he also entered into our suffering. He took on our pain, sorrow, misery and even hopelessness to redeem all the sin and evil that come with being human. Paul understood this to the point of wanting to suffer with Christ, as he said in Philippians 3:10-11: “I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead” (NLT).

We know we can’t avoid pain and suffering and we also know death awaits us all. We’d like to skip over all of that and get to the joyous, wonderful time when we will share eternity with God, but as Paul said, sharing Jesus’ suffering and death gives us a way to really know him and to experience the incredible power that raised him from the dead – the power that will allow us to share in his resurrection.

We certainly will have life after death, but we can also count on having a rocky road along the way. Let’s embrace it the way Paul did, asking God not when we can get out of the suffering, but what we can get out of it. Jesus didn’t skip to the end and neither can we, but oh how glorious new life with him will be! 

Our Power is His Power

Very few people have been or can be described as powerful. Some have great physical strength; some have been given the power to command countries or armies; some have intellects that allow them to solve big problems, write great novels or masterful pieces of music. I am not such a person and I can’t even recall a time when I felt even a little bit powerful in any way. Most of the time, I’ve felt weak, powerless or not able to control large parts of my life. I think that’s why I like superhero movies, especially when the heroes are the good guys. They have power we can only dream of. 

Paul wrote about power greater than any ordinary human being (or superhero) has ever experienced – the power that raised Christ from the dead (Ephesians 1:19-20). He said he had the same power: “That’s why I work and struggle so hard, depending on Christ’s mighty power that works within me” (Colossians 1:29, NLT). We also have this power, as Paul said in Romans 8:11 (NLT): “The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. And just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies by this same Spirit living within you.”

How do we make use of this power? We can’t use the Force like Luke Skywalker. We can’t rely on a spider bite like Peter Parker or undergo some chemical or cyber transformation. But we also can’t access it by flipping a switch or even by praying for God to turn it on inside us. As I contemplated this, the Holy Spirit spoke a word to me: “death.” It seems so much of being in Christ always comes back to death. We die with him in baptism; we die to self by dying to our desires and the pull of worldly power, wealth and fame. We put to death what belongs to our earthly nature (Colossians 3:5). 

In laying ourselves down in death to self, the incredible power of Jesus in us comes alive, giving us both the will and the strength to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). His power is our power, as we die to self, grow in grace and learn the attitude and mindset Jesus had in Philippians 2:5-8. We don’t have to feel powerful, but we can, in our weakness, let his power and grace shine forth to give him praise and glory. 

Surrender First

In 1940, Winston Churchill addressed the British House of Commons on the defense of Dunkirk and the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force. Toward the end of this dramatic speech he stated that England would defend itself no matter the cost, fighting on the beaches, on landing grounds, in fields, streets and on the hills. “We shall never surrender,” he promised. 

Surrender is usually the last thing on the mind of any commander. Rather, the troops are told to keep fighting, no matter what. Even if captured, a soldier maintains his loyalty and determination not to give up to the enemy. Most of us are the same. We’re taught from an early age that giving up is not a desirable trait. We should keep going, no matter the odds or difficulties we face. Anything less is seen as weakness. 

When Jesus walked the earth, he did and said many things that seemed to oppose the traditional ways of doing and thinking. Some have even said he turned the world upside down. He said to be great, one must first become a servant; the first shall be last and the last shall be first; to live we must die. He turned surrender upside down too. As Christians, surrender is not a last resort, but a beginning strategy. Surrendering our lives to God begins with admitting our weakness and believing we can do nothing without him. We are then able, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to begin giving up everything that makes up the self – self-will, self-determination, vanity, pride and arrogance. 

Instead of fighting to the bitter end, like soldiers who only consider surrender when they’re outnumbered, surrounded or out of ammunition, let’s employ the strategy of Jesus. His battle plan for his followers calls for absolute surrender of the self, to the Father, in the power of the Spirit, and always as a first resort.

In Need of Rescue

I’ve never needed to be rescued from a burning building or been in danger of drowning, but I did experience a rescue of sorts when I broke my arm several years ago. I started walking to an urgent care center about half a mile away, in pain, in my socks and pushing my bike. A nice woman driving an SUV stopped and asked if I needed help. I gratefully accepted a ride. She put my bike in the back, took me to the doctor and even dropped off the bike at my home. I could have made it on my own, but I’ve never forgotten her kindness and the relief I felt at getting some help. 

We know God is our rescuer. David called him Deliverer many times. The name of Jesus means savior or the one who saves or rescues (Matthew 1:21). He has saved us from the misery of sin and death, to be welcomed into his eternal kingdom, which is the most amazing rescue ever. But he also helps us in small ways, letting his mercies rain down on us even in the minutiae of life. Everything about us is important to God because he loves us and he knows everything we experience is an opportunity for trust, love or praise – or all three. 

A greeting card sentiment I’ve used in my handmade cards says: “God is not too great to be concerned with our smallest wishes.” I like this reminder that my life matters to him and he is always ready, willing and able to rescue me in matters large and small. And just as I had to walk for a little way in pain, we all sometimes have to endure a bit of pain before he comes to our aid. That just makes the rescue all the sweeter and the gratitude more heartfelt. What a Savior!

The Miracle of Seeds

After living in big city-adjacent suburbs for most of my life, I’ve been enjoying rural life for the past two and a half years. Driving by fields of wheat, grasses and veggies somehow creates endorphins and makes me feel good. We’re also surrounded by grazing sheep, horses, cows and even pigs. I never cease to be amazed at how a field of dirt can be planted with seeds and in just a short time, it’s full of seedlings which grow into plants, which produce food to be harvested and distributed. God’s mind is incredible and I love how he set up all of that.

Jesus talked about seeds in Matthew and Mark, comparing the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed. When talking about his death, he said if a seed doesn’t die, it won’t produce anything (John 12). He also puts seeds in us. When I was about ten, I remember a tiny seed of awareness of God sprouting in my consciousness. It took some time before it grew and began developing into a greater understanding of him and his love. 

As we interact with family and friends, meet new people and move around in society, let’s remember that God has already planted seeds in everyone. God doesn’t “sit on his hands.” His Spirit is working, actively planting, cultivating and giving growth where and when he sees fit. Everyone is in different stages, and that’s not our concern, but we shouldn’t forget the seeds are there. Let’s carry around a watering can of love, a bag of the fertilizer of encouragement and a basket of the sunshine of kindness so we can participate in God’s work of propagating his kingdom.

Eyes on Jesus

The word focus, like a lot of words in the English language, has several applications. We focus our eyes, a laser beam, a light, a camera lens. Our minds can be focused too but it often takes a lot more effort to zone in on something and stay there, especially (here comes the broken record) with the many distractions we face. From newspapers/news sites to Twitter, articles and messages keep getting shorter to accommodate our shrinking attention spans. Text messages are often only emojis – reading even a few words takes too long.

Allowing ourselves to be easily distracted can have negative consequences in many areas of our lives, including the spiritual. Most of the disciplines take time and simply cannot produce any fruit or add to our growth if we approach them as we would a Twitter post. Learning obedience wasn’t instant for Jesus, so why would we expect it to be so for us? Eugene Peterson has described discipleship as a long obedience in the same direction, asserting there is no instant discipleship.

Selwyn Hughes, in his book Everyday Light said, “Life works better when we know how to glance at things but gaze at God. Seeing Him clearly will enable us to see all other things clearly.” Focusing on Jesus and learning to block out all distractions will help us become more single-minded in our devotion, loyalty and faithfulness to the one who is totally devoted, loyal and faithful to us.

Being Aware of God, Self and Others

Many years ago, when my husband and I were new to ministry, a woman came up to me and told me she thought I was stuck up, but after being around me for several minutes, she realized I was just shy. I was a bit taken aback. As an introvert, I often stood around the edge of a room and had to force myself to mingle and talk with people, but I had no idea I might have come across as stuck up, perhaps even aloof and standoffish.

Awareness of God is an essential component of the Christian life, and it follows that awareness of self and others go hand in hand. As God opens our eyes to know him better, he also opens our eyes to see ourselves better. It’s been said that humility is knowing who we are in relation to God. Our relationships can only improve if we can at least sometimes see ourselves as others do and in relation to them. I’m still an introvert, but I’ve learned to be more outgoing and sociable, even when the introvert part of me wants to hide in the corner.

Greater awareness of others can also be learned and is something Jesus seemed to do with very little effort. We, on the other hand, need to learn to listen and observe as we interact with our friends and family. These practices can go a long way in helping us get along and live in peace. 

Awareness of God, self and others might take more effort now than it used to, with all the distractions we encounter, but it’s well worth it. Let’s keep our eyes open and our minds aware of how others see us and how we can love God and our neighbors as ourselves.

Open Our Eyes

Have you ever become frustrated while looking everywhere for something, only to discover it was right in front of your eyes? This happens to my husband when he has his nose in the refrigerator. He’ll ask me where something is and I then point out it’s in plain sight. I’m sure we’ve all done this from time to time, either because we weren’t expecting the item to be so easy to find or because we just have a temporary block in our brains.

Sometimes we are simply lacking awareness about what’s going on. We are often not aware of what God is doing in our lives and the lives of those around us. Some wonder if he’s doing anything at all. Just as we can practice being more aware of God, we can also learn and practice being aware of how the Holy Spirit engages, teaches, reminds, delivers and makes connections to help us participate more fully in kingdom life now. 

When the king of Aram suspected a mole in the ranks was informing the king of Israel about his military strategy, he discovered it was the prophet Elisha who was guiding the Israelites (2 Kings 6). He decided to go after Elisha with a huge army of chariots and horses. When Elisha’s young servant saw the army surrounding them, he became frightened. “‘Don’t be afraid!’ Elisha told him. ‘For there are more on our side than on theirs!’ Then Elisha prayed, ‘O Lord, open his eyes and let him see!’ The Lord opened the young man’s eyes, and when he looked up, he saw that the hillside around Elisha was filled with horses and chariots of fire” (verses 16-17, NLT).

He must have been surprised and also greatly relieved to see the army of God ready to defend them. We also have a heavenly army on our side which vastly outnumbers those against us. Perhaps we should make Elisha’s prayer our prayer – O Lord, open our eyes and let us see! Let us see your presence in and around us; let us see how you are working tirelessly on our behalf; let us see your majesty, glory, strength and beauty!

Heightened Awareness

We don’t think about our brains much, but maybe we should – they are remarkable organs, and not just organs, but miracles of creation. When you consider what our minds are capable of, I daresay it’s mind boggling. I’ve been pondering how we can be aware of several things at once, like time, the weather, our hunger or fatigue, others in the vicinity, the temperature of the room, what we should be doing now or have to do later. Mothers are (almost) always aware of the whereabouts of their babies and all of us are aware of our own bodies. 

Why then, is it so difficult to have a continual awareness of God? We think about him first thing in the morning, or before we go to sleep, or maybe give him some thought at other times of the day as we have time and opportunity. But are we continually aware of Christ in us? In an effort to follow Paul’s exhortations to pray unceasingly, be cheerful at all times and always be thankful, it’s good to focus on being aware of God more than just a few times a day – even at all times, at every moment. 

In a beautifully written and moving book by Sue Monk Kidd, called God’s Joyful Surprise, the author quotes Thomas Kelly, who defined prayer “as living concurrently in the level of the world and in the level of God’s presence.” Kidd says, “when Douglas Steere, a friend of Kelly’s, was asked whether it was possible to carry out his friend’s call to live in the awareness both of the world and of God’s presence, he wrote: An old Indian saint gives the identical counsel: ‘Do all your work then, but keep your mind on God….The tortoise swims about in the waters of the lake, but her mind is fixed to where her eggs are laid on the bank. So, do all the work of the world, but keep your mind on God.’”

Awareness of God – who he is, how he is working in ourselves and others, the whispers of the Holy Spirit as we go through our days – is a profound way to stay connected. It’s vital to our inner lives and even for our spiritual growth and transformation. It takes time and effort of course, but training ourselves to always be aware of him will be the most fruitful endeavor of our lives.

(Thanks to my friend Connie Whitmire for recommending this book.)