Still Room

“Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” ~ Jesus

The day after Christmas, my lifelong friend’s father passed away. Hearing the tributes at this man’s funeral made me consider what a well-lived life looks like and reminded me that our time here is limited.

So much of our lives can be spent on achievements – the gaining of accolades and things, yet it’s the unremarkable, ordinary bits that have a way of squeezing to the forefront, while the larger become the lesser and blur into the background.

We each leave an impression; our own individual indent on our patch of time here on earth. The things we do are meaningful – even the smallest of them. Surprisingly, the most mundane, everyday bits are perhaps most memorable – the parts lived in-between the “big stuff” instead of that which we might consider the main or most prominent events.

The echo that remained in the wake of this father’s last days wasn’t the accumulation of treasures and trophies, degrees or diverse portfolios. Resonating most powerfully was the very ordinary way in which this man lived his life and how a final decision altered his eternity.

It appears the achievements of a life well-lived are not actually the “achievements” at all. Paradoxically, greatness may resonate most fully through quiet kindnesses, a hand held out to the needy, a listening ear, or simple silence – the countless breaths between the fanfare.

I was also reminded of how, as long as you have breath, it’s never too late to find God.

This same father wondered why he had let go of God at the age of fifteen, and if it was too late for him. He had spent fifty-nine years away from God, but grasped hold of the Father two short days before he died.

See…even if, in the last cluster of moments, we wonder for half a heartbeat if there is still room in heaven for us, still a hope, still a chance to return from a lifelong detour, even then God’s offer still stands, even then His embrace is fully enfolding, even then heaven assured.

This father found, not unlike the thief on the cross an arm’s length or two from Jesus, that heaven is secured by a simple, repentant cry, “Is there still room for me?” or, “Remember me when you come in Your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42)

There is always room enough for you and me under heaven’s canopy.

May you experience an extraordinary life in Christ.

An Invitation to Love

We love because He first loved us. ~ 1 John 4:19

It started long before you or I was born – before humanity ever existed – this love that swings the door wide to invite us in.

It is a vulnerable baby in a manger. A mercy-filled man with dusty feet. A Saviour with arms extended on a cross. God’s Son, sent to suffer for our sin and die in our place, showing how He loves us.

Then comes the weighty realization of what this love offer means: we matter. The creator of the created offering a way back – a way out – from our sin. We are forgiven. We are free. We are made new. The Lover loves us – enough to live to die.

It is a grand invitation and it changes everything.

We learn to love Him back. It takes a lifetime and perhaps even eternity.

But there we are, reaching back to the outstretched arms, our fragile faith turning to the One who can turn it into so much more.

Here we pile our tears, sorrow, disillusionment, cynicism, all the battered debris of our lives, and exchange it for joy, peace, hope, love, and thankfulness – the very washing of our souls as we are repeatedly made new.

Then we learn to love others. It takes a lifetime. Perhaps even an eternity.

But we learn to love not for what they can do for us, say to us, or give to us. We learn to love in spite of what they do to us, say to us, or give us. Because Jesus said, “Love others as yourself.” (Mark 12:31)

And love begins to look an awful lot like the cross – the very laying down of your life for another.

It looks like repeated forgiveness and grace.

And that love-learning continues while we begin to live unoffended and unafraid.

We begin to reflect the Lover with a bold love that ravages the darkness, scatters the enemy, and provokes peace; a transforming love that welcomes the beggar or the boastful, the beautiful or the battered, the weary and the worried; a rescuing and restorative love that fights for freedom and rebuilds the waste places.

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”  ~ 1 Corinthians 13:13

I bless you that you receive God’s love-offer and extend it to others.

 

Freedom Fighters

Perfect love expels all fear. ~ 1 John 4:18

We are a fearful people. We think we are safe if we just follow the rules. We build elaborate structures to fortify our faith, effectively placing God in a tidy box, like a cosmic cause and effect that believes, “If we do this, then that.” But this is merely a fearful attempt to control a God that we do not fully understand nor trust. We may even conclude that if we simply play by God’s rules and get them all right, He will keep us from all harm and “bless” us. The trouble is we can’t get them all right.

God is infinitely larger than our constructed confines and faith much more complex. We cry for order, easy answers, and straight lines. But life is messy, confusing, and full of detours. We don’t always get what we deem we deserve. Often, we receive the opposite. We misunderstand that God’s blessings are rarely in the form of a neatly wrapped gift.

The religious leaders in Jesus’ time were meticulous rule keepers. They were so taken by rules – and the power of wielding them – that they added more rules. With their Saviour in their midst, they missed the One who came to save them. They overlooked relationship in favour of rules.

But God is more interested with intimacy than rule following.

The rich young ruler, after asking Jesus what else (besides keeping all the rules) he needed to do to inherit eternal life, went away despondent because he had hoped for another rule to follow. Instead, Jesus felt love for him and points him to the one thing that was keeping his heart from His Saviour. Sadly, the “ruler” missed the very thing his heart and soul most needed. He passed up his freedom and future in favour of riches and the rule-ridden order of the now.

Because it’s much easier – even safer – to keep rules than relationships.

It’s easier to declare one deserves what they got and let them wallow in their pit, than to reach out a recovering hand and love – even when it makes no sense.

It’s much simpler and more satisfying to judge others when we have a rule book to follow than, as Jesus did, to walk into the messiness of relationships, travel alongside pain, disparity, poverty, or amid the fresh stench of repeated sin.

No, that takes fearlessness forged by God’s love.

It’s easier to throw fear stones than to be willing to lay down your life for another or take the hit on their behalf.

It’s simpler to choose bitterness than the kind of deep, soul-searing love that Jesus exhibited which declared forgiveness while being nailed to a tree in order to secure that love from now into eternity.

It’s much more manageable to keep people in line with rules that exact control and order than to fearlessly love no matter the cost.

But God is love. And He invites us to the divine feast.

Man’s rules limit God’s love, crowd out grace, mask mercy, and are, at best, mere behavior modification, when God would give us an entire heart transplant. Rules make us a slave, whereas God’s love makes us fearless and free.

Jesus came to teach us that it’s not about rules but relationship. Not about striving for salvation but accepting an invitation and resting in undeserved, unearned grace. Not about working to be loved, but learning to listen to the Lover. Because “nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38)

We need to give up fearful control of our own lives – and of others – and replace it with love. “Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love.” (1 John 4:18)

Fear crowded out makes space to effectively hear God’s voice. Fear removed leaves breathing space for God’s Spirit. Once freed of fearful control, God can become the author of your – and others’ – life stories. Your best penmanship will not come close to the love story God desires to write through your life. Release your grip and let God take hold.

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Is it possible that God’s kingdom is a good deal more spacious, free and joy-filled than we permit? In our feverish rule maintenance, we find ourselves rebuilding walls around ourselves or others to keep things neat, tidy and manageable. Our pristine, white-washed constructs are the very obstructions Jesus tore down by His death and resurrection alongside other walls like guilt, shame, rejection, hate, jealousy, and everything unlovely – from these Christ freed us. And God yearns for us to live secure in His love and the freedom from bondage He died to secure.

In what ways are you confining God, yourself, or others and bridling the freedom of Christ? I bless you that you might live in greater freedom in Christ.

Lacking Lift

For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. ~ 2 Corinthians 4:17

Gazing out over the lake in front of the cottage, I notice a wasp crawling up the arm of my Muskoka chair, and moving perniciously close to my hand. I knock it away with my pen, but he doesn’t take flight. He just falls to the ground close to my feet. I flick him away expecting that he’ll lift off. He doesn’t. He just crawls across the flagstone patio in front of me.

I notice he doesn’t seem to have anywhere to go. He just continues crawling and periodically stops to clean himself (I think, but I’m no expert in insect grooming practices). Perhaps he is one of the displaced wasps from the nest my husband, son, and cottage neighbours recently – even gleefully – took turns knocking off the cottage with a football, the carefully crafted paper house – and all its precious contents – mercilessly ravaged to a pulp, its papery insides left ragged and exposed in the nearby grass.

I suppose that in mid-August in Northern Ontario, it’s already that time of year when the bees and wasps seem to grow a little groggy and you’re more prone to getting stung by them. Maybe, between the cold and homelessness, this wasp doesn’t have the strength to fly. Probably all he can do now is simply crawl.

I think some days our lives bear a striking resemblance to this crawling wasp, and his destructed home, maybe even some weeks, some months, or some years. Strangely cold and numb, we feel all we once knew has been knocked out of the sky, when the coldness of winter whispers word of its cruel onset, when we only have the strength to crawl when we used to fly – soar even.

But now we are relegated to the ground. No marvelous scenery, no lofty heights, no busy work with which to contribute, no friends and family buzzing around us, no perspective in the dirty, low-altitude dwelling places. We’re grounded, with no sign of flight.

Praise has turned to pallor, dreams to drudgery, and light to dark.

How can this be? How can we have experienced such heights, such faith-filled intimacy, been so on top of the world, only to fall to such depths? Has God abandoned us, we ask. Is He withholding His loving kindness? Worse, is this some kind of punishment? The silence can be that stifling.

Though backward thinking perhaps, I’m growing more and more convinced that these trials are the exact opposite of what it appears in the natural. That the darkness of the valley of the shadow of death does not exclude those living in Christ; the trials, and even the voiceless silence, an act of supreme kindness and love by a God who is willing to have us think He is anything but, to invite us to the very best.

For by them, we find faith that looks to things unseen (2 Corinthians 4:18), we are refined as silver and tested as gold (Zechariah 13:9), we learn perseverance, character, hope, and gain the ability to love more fully (Romans 5:4). And, amazingly, these heartaches become the rugged pathway to eternal glory (2 Corinthians 4:17).

Do not despair if you seem to be lacking lift. It is a temporary place in preparation to ascend the other places God intends. But first you must be trained in order to endure higher altitudes – the places where eagles soar.

Though you may not see tangible evidence today, may you rest in the truth of what you know of God.

Light Giver

I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness. ~ John 12:46

There is a kind of suffering only God understands. A kind of grief, loss, heartache, emptiness, and loneliness nestled in the silent recesses of our souls we can’t find adequate words to utter within a quiet room, let alone speak aloud to another human being.

These intense feelings reside in the deep, soundless groaning of the heart, and require expert attention before they mute all joy.

But we neglect to go to the Physician.

Instead, we try.

Sometimes we try harder. Sometimes we try medication. Sometimes we try others. 

And sometimes these offer some measure of comfort and help. Other times they do not.

That’s when it gets even more painful. 

When we suffer and there seems no remedy. When we try everything but repeatedly face a brick wall. When we are confronted with impossible situations. When mountains rise up on every side blocking out the sun. When the water keeps rising and there’s no relief in sight. That’s when hopelessness threatens to suffocate and lies seep in to convince us that we aren’t worthy of joy, love, or life.

However hard we try, some things can’t be fixed. However compassionate, no other living soul can fully comprehend your pain or be all you need. However successful, helpful, and necessary, medication is not the true life-saver. 

What we really need is a different kind of giving up. Not giving up on life, but giving up our life as we know it. Not admitting defeat and giving up, but admitting defeat and giving in. Not handing it off, but handing it up. Not declaring it is the end, but recognizing there is a new beginning.

Because no matter how dark and hopeless it appears, a second chance is just a prayer away. 

These fierce battles are God’s domain. You were never expected to fight them on your own. You weren’t made to be impervious to hardship, but to be equipped with God-fitted armor. 

But to be fitted for it, we must admit the need for it. And all the while we are trying hard, covering over, and looking for quick fixes where serious surgery needs to take place, we will not find relief for our weary body, mind, heart, and soul. We will not find peace.

We need to admit our weakness, accept our failings, and ask for the soul-cleansing forgiveness we so desperately need. We need to drink deeply from the well of God’s love to quench our thirsty soul and renew our spirit. God removes the weight of heavy burdens, illuminates the darkness of our soul, breathes new life into the dead places, and lets us truly live. 

Pain is part of the human experience. Though we try, we cannot escape suffering. But we can choose to bring the pain, grief, loss, heartache, emptiness, and loneliness that is lodged deep inside and hand it to Christ: the One who died to rescue us and the only One who fully understands.

Then we find we no longer need to stagger around in the darkness. Christ is like a light illuminating the far reaches of our souls and helping us out of the darkness.

God, I admit my desperate need for you. I cannot do it alone anymore and I give my life over to Christ, the One who died to save me from death. Forgive me for my sins, cleanse me, and make me new. Teach me how to live side by side with you. Amen.

Picky Eaters

Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. ~ 1 Thessalonians 5:13

You’ve seen it before. The meal placed before the child whose nose wrinkles in disgust. “I don’t like that!” he says, pushing away the plate. He crosses his arms and stubbornly refuses to eat. After a while, he asks his parents for something he prefers.

What is our reaction when we are given something less than appetizing in life? Do we get angry, play the victim, feel rejected, blame others, and allow our joy to be extinguished? When difficulties darken our door, what is our posture toward God? Do we, like the willful child, reject what we have been given and shout, “I don’t like this”? Maybe we compare our portion with another’s and declare, “It’s not fair!” or wish – even pray – for another serving of a different variety? Perhaps we get stuck asking “why?” Maybe we grow weary or become disillusioned with God because He didn’t meet our expectations or demands.

Maybe we have demonstrated some, if not all of these reactions, but there is another posture we can assume. We can choose to thank God for the trial that He has allowed. He may intend it to sharpen our character and nourish our soul, if only we would ingest it. We can choose to agree that our Father’s ways are higher than ours, and that He knows the very circumstances which produce the greatest beauty in our lives. It may be difficult and painful, but if we accept what are actually the choicest morsels – the handpicked cuts – we will ultimately grow in strength, beauty and grace, and indeed prosper with this heavenly nourishment.

It is easy to thank God for the “good” gifts – the nice things we consider blessings. But today’s verse says that it is God’s will that you be thankful in all circumstances. Maybe God knows something we don’t about the shift that happens in our mind, heart, and body when we are thankful for the tough stuff. Could it be that we have been looking at hardships all wrong, and that they are some of God’s greatest blessings?

The next time you are faced with a situation that is difficult to swallow, or if you are facing one right now, thank your heavenly Father that He has entrusted you with it. He loves you enough to use this challenge to alter your taste buds so your desires line up more fully with His. He is more interested in your character than your comfort. In fact, comfort often befriends complacency, and He loves you too much to let that happen. These less than palatable circumstances shift us out of our comfortable places and have the potential to create a change that may not have otherwise occurred. Although not what you asked for, it just might be what you needed, and the insight you gain just might be what someone else needs to hear in their struggle.

We may not have the faith or insight at this moment to believe our circumstances will change, but we have enough to take just one step. And one step – one mouthful at a time – is likely all that is required. Maybe that first mouthful needs to be words of thanks. Bon appetite!

May you see ways to thank God for the trial He has given you, and be open to where He is leading.

God With Me and Other Happier Endings

The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. ~ Deuteronomy 31:8

When I was in grade school, I recall writing a short story (yes, I was stunningly creative even then). I felt exceedingly proud of the gripping plot I had created, but my teacher didn’t appreciate my genius. She informed me that the ending was unsatisfactory. One of the main characters died.

My husband read my last devotional and, being the most honest critic I have, mentioned that I might not have provided a very hopeful ending to my readers – which would imply I normally do! His comment reminded me of that grade school teacher (if you’re reading this, Honey, no offense) who wanted, like most of us, everything wrapped up in a tidy bow.

We all like happy endings. Revisiting the devotional I wrote last week, I wanted to add some disclaimers, not only because I love my husband and value his opinion, but because I should probably stick to the theme of my byline which says, “Words to encourage faith, hope and love.” I can’t promise a neat, tidy ending, but I can expand on “God, My Help” and tell you the things I didn’t tell you…

I didn’t tell you that while my anger toward God was real, it wasn’t the shake-your-fist-at- the-sky sort, but rather the perplexed wonderings of why, the frown of a child whose parent said no, the quiet resignation and turning away of a daughter whose Father doesn’t seem fair, and the silence of puzzling over the new normal after the trauma of loss, while trying to remain a decent human being to those around her (aka: not bite their heads off).

I didn’t tell you about the surprise element in the furnace story either (I’m sure you’ve read Daniel 3 by now because I hinted you should), as if it’s not surprising enough that the fellows didn’t get burnt to a crisp. The Lord was with them in the fire! And He was with me too, as He is with you in your scorching furnace. Even though I felt abandoned because of the perceived lack of leading, I’m beginning to see I was being led but didn’t know it. Or maybe I didn’t want to see it because I prefer a more reasonable climate (furnaces aren’t really my thing). But scorching places refine and make beautiful, even though I felt uglier than ever. And, like the furnace fellows, I too went through the fire and lived to tell about it.

Finally, I didn’t tell you that “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) Maybe that’s why, despite that I was disappointed and partially prayerless, I had a sense that God understood and was patiently waiting for me. He understood because He was there with me the whole time, at every turn. And He is with you too. He sees to the depth of our being and is faithful even when we aren’t.

Though the” happy ending” isn’t what I imagined and prayed for – there’s a high probability it’s better. I’m just not wise enough to see it yet. And though I may never figure out this side of heaven why God let it happen, it comes back to trust. Once again, God is asking us to trust Him even when we don’t have all the answers. Even now, “God is my help; the Lord is the one who sustains me.” (Psalm 54:4) And as it turns out, God is not only my help, He is with me, walking ahead of me, never leaving me, and encouraging me to not be afraid.

Be blessed to know that God hasn’t left you. He is with you, even now.