Bench-Pressing a Hersey Bar

“Strength is the capacity to break a Hershey bar into four pieces with your bare hands – and then eat just one of the pieces.”
― Author Judith Viorst

When I was raising my children and dreaming of one day being–dare I say it–a famous author, I enjoyed reading Judith Viorst’s column in Redbook magazine each month. I also read her books. I even wrote to her once and received in return a sweet postcard.

When I become famous, I’ll answer my fan mail too, I thought.

Mrs. Viorst could make us chuckle about what it takes to keep house and raise children and maybe even teach us about resisting chocolate. But she couldn’t tell us where the ultimate source of strength comes from.

Like me, you’re probably faced with areas of weakness or a problem that doesn’t seem to be getting solved quickly enough for you. Where do you turn? Bench-pressing a dark chocolate candy bar seems like a good idea, but it doesn’t truly solve a problem of any magnitude. (Much as this chocoholic hates to admit that.)

My children are grown, but being a parent of a grown child possesses its own challenges. I’ve always been good at the housekeeping thing, but there are days I’d sooner eat that Hersey bar than sweep and mop the floors. And then, there’s the never-ending challenge of keeping finances in order, relationships from falling apart, and my health from doing likewise. I’m getting old and sort of broken down.

Heaven, help me! Literally.

“Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

When I’m honest, I’ll tell you I’m challenged on some days to keep my eyes on Jesus, the one who keeps me strong. We face things like the annoyance of a cancelled appointment, a disobedient child, needing an unexpected surgery, or the death of a loved one. Scripture says these things, which we can see, are “light and momentary troubles.”

It doesn’t seem like it, does it? Yet we’re told to stay strong because what eternity holds is worth it. God wouldn’t tell us a lie about eternity; it’s his dwelling place and inherent in his nature. So trust him for that and stay strong.

With Graciousness and Kindness Toward All

Slowly, my mind is changing about judgement calls on people based on their looks, their words and actions, or their attitudes. For a long time I’ve believed it was okay to take notice and immediately place someone in a category. The categories were, of course, arbitrary, based on personal preferences, what I’d been taught was ‘correct,’ and a solid belief that I was probably always right.

What Changed? The Lord has shown me more of Himself. I see him interact with a variety of people in Bible stories and He never seems to judge the way I do. His judgements are true. Whether it’s a Samaritan woman sitting alone at a well, a group of Pharisees verbally abusing Him, a man sitting in a booth cheating his fellow Jews on their taxes, or a Centurion asking Jesus to heal his servant––the Lord sees what’s in their hearts.

I can’t see into hearts.

The best I can do, when I watch someone ‘acting out,’ as I usually describe it, is to pray for that person to find a better way of expressing themselves. Perhaps I will pray for them to find the Light of Jesus. Perhaps the person is already someone who claims to have a relationship with Him; yet they ‘act out.’

That could be me on any given day.

God’s word gives instructions for when we discover what we name as their wrongdoing.

“Don’t criticize, and then you won’t be criticized. For others will treat you as you treat them. And why worry about a speck in the eye of a brother when you have a board in your own?  Should you say, ‘Friend, let me help you get that speck out of your eye,’ when you can’t even see because of the board in your own?  Hypocrite! First get rid of the board. Then you can see to help your brother” (Matthew 7:1-5)

The Apostle Paul makes another distinction.

“What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside” (1 Corinthians 5:12).

In other words, how can we expect anyone who has not seen the Light, to behave as if they have.

Again…That could be me on any given day.

Nevertheless, as disciples of Jesus, we are given warnings and instructions about heeding the teachings and the fruit of those inside the Church.

“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit” (Matthew 12:33).

Ultimately, I can never know the motives of one’s heart. Only Jesus knows that. Since life experiences, ill health, daily stress, and any number of things can make me ‘act out’ even when I know it’s inappropriate, I long for the grace of Jesus.

And with the help of the Holy Spirit, I could offer that grace to others as well. To extend graciousness and kindness toward all. To pray for them as I would hope they would pray for me.

Short Stories for Empowering Youth

“Ed’s Tohlet & Other Stories: The Teen’s Guide to Spiritual Growth; By Don Keele, Jr.; Teach Services, Inc. Publishing; 103 pages

Don Keele has spent his career pastoring teens and young adults and helping them engage in church ministry. This book, humorous and challenging even to adults, is a written vehicle for doing so.

Through the power of story, Keele examines areas of strength as well as weakness in himself. We get to know him as he was as a youngster, a teen, and an adult. He tells on himself and it’s an endearing thing to see. Too often, Christians fail to make connections with the unchurched (not to mention with one another) because of a desire to not seem vulnerable.

But the lessons we need to learn, implied in Keele’s parables, come when we admit how much we need our Savior.

In “Smells,” the first story in Ed’s Tohlet, he starts off right. Not only does he indicate how we can be unaware of our spiritual need, he offers the reader a chance to decide to be one with Christ. And isn’t that the starting point for us all?

Keele handles such topics as bullying, Christian service (this is where the ‘tohlet’ comes in), pain, faith in our prayers, accepting God’s “No,” obedience, and more. While directed at a teen audience, this Christ follower found wisdom to follow and even took some notes.

In “Secret Weapon,” Keele describes what it meant to finally be part of an athletic team when he knew he had absolutely no athletic ability. Someone else showed faith in his ability to help. With success, came this realization

“I had only done what Richard had taught me…

Allow (God) to do that work and simply do what He asks you to do.”

At times, Don gets a little off-topic (and sometimes he admits it). Sometimes he seems a might preachy. But his stories really are funny in places. They really do point us to our own experiences with peer pressure, temptation, and a need to belong. They’re not just the needs of teenagers.

God has challenged me in a specific area and take I it seriously. After reading “COPS,” the author’s story about being pulled over and witnessing an arrest, the challenge God extends is even more real. That would the challenge to bear witness of God’s love and goodness to the world. Not just to those whom we celebrate with on the Sabbath and in our Christian huddles.

The reviewer received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through the BookCrash.com book review program. The opinions expressed are those of the reviewer.

God Calling

reading-the-bibleWhenever I have questions about what it is God is trying to say to me (in any situation), God’s word is where I first turn for answers. However, the quote below from Michael Molinos often comes to mind. These words are simple and clear, like scripture.

They also seem to come from someone who’s believed God. Someone who has experienced His love. A love that is faithful and sweet no matter what the situation is at present.

In all Your Journey as a Believer,
You will have two kinds of Spiritual Experiences.
One is tender, delightful, and loving.
The Other can be quite obscure,
dry, dark and desolate.
God gives us the First one to Gain us;
He gives us the Second to Purify us.

          ~ Michael Molinos, 17th Century Writer

How Sweet It Is

twain-forgive-violet-quoteSometimes, for me at least, the idea of forgiving someone leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.

Over the years, with help from God, forgiving others isn’t the drawn-out, dreaded process it used to be. Matter of fact, I forgive fairly quickly now. Wait. Perhaps I should insert “sometimes” in that sentence as well.

One thing I do know is when I’m in a situation where I need to forgive, I find a good starting point is remembering “I’m that person too. If I haven’t done that thing they did or said, I’m guilty of doing or saying things as bad or worse.”

That reminder is the jumping-off point for extending mercy to others. Just as God extended mercy to me. And how sweet that is.

24/7 Thanksgiving

The Secrets in the Box

Scraps of paper with scribbling on them populated a lidded box which was a gift from a friend. Periodically, I would add another scrap of paper to the collection. Occasionally, I took the scraps out to read them. I should have been scribbling more often and reading even more often.

My scribblings were praises to God for answering prayer, for meeting a need just in time when I hadn’t even prayed for it, and for giving me the strength to get through a difficult time. I called it my God Box.

Last week, after submitting another scrap to the box, I realized it should be full and even overflowing. I was paying attention to God’s faithfulness, but not recording it as a visual reminder. That may not matter to some people, but since I’m someone who journals and likes a written record of what matters to me, it mattered to me.

A Solution in a Jar

I begin most days–or end the evening–by creating a list of things to do. Years ago I began the practice of writing in colored marker at the top of the list “Be Grateful.” The practice of constant praise also matters to me, but I’m weak and often selfish so I need a reminder.flower-wreath-thanks

Another way of reminder, which is solving the problem of too few scraps of paper, was to place the scribblings in a place where I was more apt to notice them. Now, on the windowsill near my desk sits a canning jar full of papers folded up with my scribblings on them. I can’t help but see that container. The open blinds let the sun in and the sun shines through the glass. I see the folded slips of colored paper and, voila, my gratitude and God’s faithfulness are in clear view.

Since placing the jar in the window, gratitude doesn’t seem to be so secret. For sure, no one else needs to know, but like I said, I’m weak. I need all the help I can get.

From the Little to the Large

Gratitude for what God gives and what he does in my life has slowly become a way of life. As I drive around town, I often say, “Thank you, Lord,” just for the joy of seeing wild turkeys or a deer standing in a patch of grass. Little things can make me smile and I thank God for the pleasure of seeing critters in the city. (You should have heard my squeal of delight the day I left church and saw a red-tailed hawk swoop over the parking lot grasping prey in its talons.)

I’m also convinced he’s at work behind the scene and aware of my needs. How else to explain the woman at the thrift store drop-off station asking me if I need a twin mattress? I’m not sure what the look on my face said when she asked me. I was simply watching her wrestle it to the door. But, yeah, I was long overdue for a new mattress. I answered in the affirmative and she and her son loaded a name brand mattress––one-year-old and in pristine condition––into the back of my van. Then a couple guys from my church wrangled it into my apartment and took the old one to the dumpster. I would never have been able to afford that mattress, nor do the lifting myself.

That was a big thing. I know I shouldn’t be amazed at this. But I suppose keeping a sense of wonder at God’s works reminds me that, yes, I’m weak. I can’t do it all myself and he’s taking care of me.

Any Time is a Good Time

The jar sits on the windowsill for me to see every day. God’s goodness and blessings stand for me to see daily as well. I just need to keep my eyes open. When I can’t see something tangible, all I need to do is remember his mercy, new every morning. I pray to not take for granted that every good and perfect gift comes from him. Not only the things I can touch and see but the abundant life that faith allows me to know exists even when I may not “feel” like I have it.

I strive for a practice of constant praise. To “Be Grateful” 24/7, and not just because it’s on my To Do List. After all, Thanksgiving time is coming here.

 

God Asks Questions

Occasionally, I ask God a question. It’s not a case of questioning God, which is entirely different. Sometimes I just feel the need to have a conversation in which he makes things clearer. I don’t always understand.

For instance, I sometimes ask, “What’s going on here, Lord?” Hoping he’ll give me insight to a situation or how another person is responding, I check in with him first. Another one I ask is “Will you please direct me here, Lord? I’m not sure which way to go.”

These, obviously, aren’t hard questions for God. He can answer any question. When he wants to. The thing I’ve learned about asking God a question is sometimes he answers in a way I wasn’t expecting. God’s answer to my question might be that I get another situation. When asking for direction, he more often than not leads me to some place I never even considered. Or someplace I thought of but didn’t want to go.man in woods praying

God is in the habit of asking me questions as well. In fact, I get more questions from God than he gets from me.  To inspire me toward further spiritual maturity and to being conformed to the image of his Son, the questions are much harder for me than my questions are for him.

Obviously.

Some time ago, God asked me about my motivations and wanted me to be clear on something. Turnabout is fair play with him, for sure. This is what he asked me:

“What is the difference between your devotion to Jesus and devotion to your idea of what Jesus wants?”

This question is one I return to repeatedly. Because I tend to think I know what God wants, my actions will reflect that. If I don’t stop and consider first my relationship with Jesus and remember what his mission is, I create my own mission.

Heavenly Father, I’m so grateful that you’re always working and that your Son is as well. The questions you ask are sometimes difficult for me because I so often think I know the way you work and how you want to work in the world. Please keep reminding me that you are the one in charge, even when I don’t understand what’s going on. You’re the perfect parent and I trust you to raise me as a good Father would. For your glory, Amen.

The Letter

As I begin work on a devotional book and a memoir, I’ll be spending more of my writing time on those works. I’ll still post original essays, Media Monday, Good News, and Foodie Friday, but you’ll occasionally see re-blogged posts like the one here. This story is from a couple years ago. What a difference it can make in someone’s life to write one letter.

This story is a version of what might have happened when the slave Onesimus returned to his master, Philemon. Purely conjecture, it is nevertheless partly based on facts. For the original letter from Paul, see Philemon in your Holy Bible.


I heard the door of the outer chamber open and close and went to investigate. Quartus stood with Onesimus kneeling next him. Onesimus stared down, holding out a sealed letter.

“Onesimus has returned, master,” Quartus said.

“I see that, Quartus; you may leave us.” I was full of conflicting emotions. Anger. Sadness. Confusion. Mostly relief. “The letter, Onesimus; what is this letter? Hand it to me.”

He stood and handed me the letter. He remained standing with his eyes averted while I read the whole thing through. In fact, I had to read it twice. It was from Paul, the apostle, imprisoned in Rome. The letter was a plea on behalf of my slave–a request to accept him back now that he’d become a follower of Christ.

It was a good letter and he made good arguments.

“Do you know what this means, Onesimus?” I asked him.

Onesimus nodded, his eyes still averted. “Master, I cannot speak as Paul does. His words are much more convincing. Of course, they are or I wouldn’t be here. All I know is that now I belong to Christ Jesus. I was freed from the bonds of my sin to serve Him. I suppose you could say I’m a slave in two ways; first to God and then because I’m still bound to you. That’s why I’ve returned.”

Yes, he knew exactly what it meant.

“You may go to your quarters, Onesimus.” He left and I sat down heavily on the chair by the table.

He’d made it all the way to Rome! Somehow he’d found Paul and now he was a follower of Christ and a brother. Of course, he knew what could happen to a runaway slave. But he returned.

I got up and paced the room. I pounded my fist on the table where the letter lay. I don’t know why I was so agitated. Paul’s letter requested nothing more than what my Lord would do. But forgiveness is hard, even when it’s someone you care about. And I had always cared about Onesimus. Maybe we hadn’t always seen him as anything but a house slave, but we cared about him.

I put my head in my hands and I prayed. I thanked God that Onesimus had made it safely to Rome and found Paul. It was a blessing that he could be of use to Paul so I thanked God for that as well. Then I prayed that God would give our household the willingness to accept my decision because we are bound together in love with Christ as our head. I sighed deeply before calling him to me.

“Onesimus, come!” Once again he stood before me, eyes cast down. “Look at me.”

A man is what I saw through my eyes. But now, because of what had happened for Onesimus in Rome, I saw someone else in my heart. I put my hands on his shoulders and squeezed.

“Welcome home, Brother. It will be a pleasure having you here serving again.”

Using Good Grammar

As my children were growing up I often corrected their grammar. Naturally, they were annoyed, but a good parent doesn’t want his child to someday jeopardize his or her chances in life using the wrong tenses or double negatives. I believed it was for their own good. Even though I often didn’t get no satisfaction. (That double negative is on purpose, folks.)

God, the perfect parent, for my own good, showed me some poor grammar I was using and let me know I was in the wrong. I repeatedly used the double positive “Yeah, right,” which automatically becomes a negative, canceling the meaning it’s meant to convey.

“Yeah, right” conveys disbelief. The phrase means “No” or “I disagree.” Or “Not true.” We often use it in a sarcastic manner.

At one time, I prided myself for the way I could come up with sarcastic remarks. Many of them were aimed at myself. Then I learned that the word sarcasm comes from a Greek verb, sarcazo, which means “to tear flesh.” Since then, I’m more aware of my sarcasm habit.

Sarcasm used against myself formerly had its place in my normal use of the language because it seemed to relieve me of part of the guilt I felt due to my lifestyle. Using it seemed to give me an out because I was admitting just how awful I was. That might sound like I was being honest, but–honestly–it was a weak self-defense.pleasing thoughts bubble

Self-putdowns now send up red flags. My use of them most often comes in the form of doubts about myself. Using put-downs, however, is a difficult habit to break.

Again, my perfect parent shows me how wrong I can be. When I sit in his presence and really listen to what he has to say, he speaks to me with unconditional love. Because he loves me, he will correct me. He shows me the difference between how I speak about myself and how he truly feels about me. He lets me know that “Yeah, right” leaves me with the wrong idea of who I am now that I belong to him.

God has a much higher opinion of me than I have of myself. When I remember that my identity is first of all related to being his child, the doubts go away. I’m certainly not perfect, but children usually want to please their parents. I’m sure “tearing flesh,” mine or that of someone else, doesn’t please him.

Do you always remember, when you’ve failed in some way, that he loves you with an everlasting love? Sometimes it can be difficult for us to accept, but we are fearfully and wonderfully made. Each of us is a treasure to him and he has ordained each day of our lives, expecting and enabling us to do great things.

Yes, that’s right. He does.

(Now that’s correct use of grammar and a fine affirmation.)

Father, thank you for always reminding me of my true identity. I count on you to show me how my negative thoughts can affect my words and my behavior. I pray that you will guide me into the truth every moment so that my actions will draw others to your truth as well.

The Best Christmas Gift

Is it too early to talk about Christmas gifts? I think not. This coming Sunday is the first Sunday in Advent. Those who celebrate the Christian calendar mark Advent with a variety of activities.  Advent gives us a chance to recognize the coming of the Savior and the gift that He is to the whole world.advent-candles-5

Today in my small group we talked about forgiveness. The subject always brings to the forefront various emotional responses.

Comments by my friends indicated that, like many other people, they sometimes have a difficult time forgiving. Some have a difficult time accepting forgiveness; especially the complete forgiveness of God.

During our last fifteen minutes we answered some questions from the book we’re studying. The final question asked us to compare one of the best Christmas gifts we’ve ever received with the grace we receive from God.

From our discussion and from what I’ve learned from scripture, here are some ways our traditional gift giving differs from God’s gift of grace.

One Size Fits All
When we receive a Christmas gift from a family member or friend, that gift was chosen specifically for us. On the other hand, God’s grace is for anyone, no matter who they are. The grace God extends to teachers, mechanics, CEOs, presidents, those in prison, people with disabilities, entrepreneurs, geniuses and baristas is one size fits all. God is no respecter of persons. The same grace that saves a blogger will save a movie producer. No kidding.

Shelf Life
Traditional Christmas gifts all have a shelf life. Even the most carefully constructed technology or the most expensive jewelry eventually shows wear. Rust and moths destroy. But the grace of God is never ending. His mercy is new every morning. God’s gift of grace will always be the same and will always be there when we need it. It never wears out.

Price Tags
That bubble bath, the golf clubs, your new iPad, her Barbie doll and the TV set as big as your living room wall come with a price tag you know is set in dollars, pounds or euros. However, God’s grace is immeasurable. The price tag attached to His grace is the life of His only Son. Who can put a price on a life? Who can put a price on the Son of God?

The Incomparable Gift
Anyone can bestow a gift we feel, see and experience with our senses. Only God can offer the perfect gift of His grace. Fur coat? Expensive cologne? Surround sound stereo system? No comparison at all to what God gave us in Jesus.

The Holidays All Come Together
As of this writing, tomorrow we’ll celebrate Thanksgiving in this country where I live. Then Sunday is the first day of Advent. Christmas, the day we celebrate Jesus’ birth, comes soon afterward. Gratitude, expectation and anticipation, and worshiping the Messiah’s birth make this time of year special for those of us who believe in Jesus and what he did for us at the Cross.

It’s not too early to talk about and think of Christmas gifts. Especially if the gifts we’re excited about are God’s acceptance of us, His love for us, and His grace toward us.

Happy holidays.
And come, Lord Jesus.