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.

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.

Not Just For a Day, But Always

In the U.S. we take a day to recognize our gratitude for what we have. We call that day ‘Thanksgiving.’ Traditions have been established based on what we believe happened when settlers from Europe first came to the continent. happy-thanksgiving-always-gratefulWe didn’t even have a name for where we were yet. The land belonged to the natives. But we worked with them and showed gratitude for making it through a difficult time.

I don’t know the whole ‘thanksgiving’ story associated with our history. I’m sure my old school lessons had some focus on it. What I do know is every day there is something to be grateful for. Even when I feel frustrated and alone, I know what I see in front of me isn’t the whole story.

My vision is limited.

God has a plan for the days when that ‘abundant life’ seems a little too much. Despite my sometimes grumpy attitude, gratitude in an acknowledement of God prevails.

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.

 

Back Up? Look Up!

“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” Hebrews 12:2

October has arrived and people are planning fall events, one of which is called a Corn Maze. They’re meant to provide family fun and sometimes a little bit of Halloween mischief.

A corn maze is like any other maze built of shrubs. The difference between a corn maze and a maze of shrubs from those puzzles in the magazines is they’re 3D. The idea with any maze puzzle is to find your way from the opening of the maze and, without hitting any barriers, make it to the other side, where you can exit.

The puzzles are designed to have natural stops and starts built into them.fall-corn-maze-2-kids

I’ve done these puzzles numerous times. For the puzzle to be challenging going over the barriers doesn’t make sense. Besides, that’s cheating.

I could draw a line through one, but what’s the point? It’s more fun and satisfying to solve the puzzle and getting through by following the natural openings offered at each turn.

Furthermore, once I’m in, I can’t go around the maze. That means I’ll need to back up sometimes and start over.

So really, the only way out is through.

Life is like that. The way through isn’t straight. There are always many possible directions that look like the way to go, but we meet barriers at every turn. Natural stops and starts. We have to look for the openings that lead to other openings.

In a historical novel I read a few years back, two children asked the heroine to run through a maze. The first time she tried, she got lost, not to mention frustrated, as they ran ahead of her. The children, however, encouraged her to try a second time.

“Look up, instead of down,” they told her. “It might be easier.”

The advice didn’t make sense to her, but partway in, she looked up. There, in the upstairs window stood her Beloved, looking down at her in the maze. From his vantage point, he could see every turn that would take her to the other side of the puzzle.

Because she trusted him, she kept looking up and he guided her all the way out.

Naturally, the only way out was through.

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.

Strength Over the Long Haul

“Just like a tree that’s standing by the water, I shall not be moved.” ~ traditional Christian hymn

How we respond when trouble comes into our lives does two things, in my estimation. Our responses can reveal our character. They can also develop our character. How we respond also reveals what we believe about God. In other words, how we see his character; his personhood, if you will.

At my age, I’ve been through numerous troubles. Some of them never happened–they were all imaginary and caused by nagging worries and fretting. Some of them were hardly worth mentioning. I was acting spoiled and being petty to think I had it so bad (Insert ‘pet peeves’ here). But in truth, I’ve also seen troubles hard enough to put my faith in God to the test.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The way I see it, whether I’m 21 or 61 (as I am now), those troubles come not to test my maturity at a chronological age, but to test my spiritual maturity. I believe our growth in spiritual maturity begins the moment we respond to the initial promptings of the Holy Spirit. We may not know who that is when we first respond, but later, we realize that it was him speaking to us and drawing us to God. Twilight tree Jeremiah 17

I’ve been slow to move at times, needing to repeat an experience to finally understand what God wants me to know about him. Over the years, however, I’ve kept in mind something I read early on from A.W. Tozer’s, “The Knowledge of the Holy.”

“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”

Even after reading that book almost 20 years ago, that truth stays with me. Look in the table of contents of Tozer’s book and you’ll see he included each thing that makes God who he is. We can’t separate holiness, goodness or majesty from wisdom, love or justice. God is. Period.

May I go out on a limb and say his immutability–the unchanging nature he owns–explains why we can’t leave out any of his attributes? Nor can we forget that God will always be who he says he is. This unchanging nature is one reason I’ve discovered that God gets me through those troubles better than I can do it myself. (Insert “I change my mind” and “I can be moody” here.)

He guides me, comforts me, has each situation under control. And he gives me strength. I’ve seen it over the long haul, and that strength is only equal to the faith I have in him. Whether it makes sense at the time or not, I have to believe he’ll do what he says he’ll do. Formerly, when my faith was less strong, the realization that he was involved so intimately in my trouble often came later. Now, that knowledge is instinctive.

Trusting him has helped me get through some trouble recently. I wish I could tell you how safe I feel because of it. But it’s beyond words, and that’s probably what God intends. He doesn’t need to be understood as I sometimes think I should be.

Agree with me that Jeremiah the prophet is right when he says a person who trusts in the Lord and has confidence in him is blessed. Does that necessarily mean God gives us gifts so we can make our lives better? I think not.

I believe it means the blessing is the gift of God himself. The God who–because he is who he is–gets us through our troubles and gives us strength for the long haul.

One Size Fits All

When it comes to God’s grace, don’t worry about whether you qualify.

Don’t worry about whether or not the things you regret doing disqualify you.

God’s grace is immeasurable and one size fits all.

grace changes everythingHow can I be so sure? Where do I come off telling anyone they can count on God? Believe me, I understand how someone would have doubts. I did.

In fact, I remember the day when I was having a telephone conversation with a friend and a light bulb went on, so to speak. You could say the light of Jesus shined into my life and I became aware of the darkness I’d been living in. I realized how many were the sins I’d committed. That was hard to admit and I wasn’t sure I even wanted to use the word “sin.”

But there I was, crying about it. And I felt dirty. I knew I needed forgiveness, but wasn’t sure God could forgive all the things I’d done. Or failed to do.

Furthermore, it sometimes seems God isn’t doing much to make this world a better place. How can so many terrible things be happening around us if God is in control like Christians claim he is? How can we trust a God who seems absent?

I wish I had an answer to that. The best I can do is point to history. Look at how people have been behaving–or not behaving–since the beginning of time. Things aren’t worse even though it may seem that way. People have been hating, terrorizing, killing, stealing, lying, gossiping and just plain acting out for several millennia. Do you feel betrayed right now? Alienated? Misunderstood? Left alone? Jesus experienced the same. He understands every trouble we can ever know.

All I know is what I’ve found to be true because of what God tells me is true in the Bible. He says his grace is there no matter who we are and no matter the size of our sin. Believe it or not, I also count on having personally experienced grace. Ask anyone who’s been walking faithfully with God for a while and they’ll tell you his goodness and grace never fail.

Not long after that disturbing telephone conversation, I made a decision to recommit my life to following Jesus. I read and re-read the Bible and became familiar with the gospel. Not just the Gospels, as in books of the Bible, but what the message of Jesus’ birth, life of ministry, death and resurrection meant. I joined a small group of women who met regularly to pray, study scriptures and talk about living life according to God’s plans.one-size-fits-all-T-Shirts

I then understood grace. With that understanding and the peace and hope I’ve experienced, I’m sure. God’s grace is big enough to cover my sin and the sin of anyone, no matter what it is.

Go ahead and put it on today. Come under the cover of God’s free gift of grace. You may not feel like it fits yet. But God will even appeal to your logic, telling you it’s all you need if you’re willing to believe him.

“Come now, let us reason together,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool” (Isaiah 1:18)

This is a Test

When I was a kid, it was common to receive messages from the Emergency Broadcast System through television broadcasting. Our show would be interrupted by a voice announcing the message and then a grating, buzzing sound would come on for a few moments.

That warning sound was so disturbing, I remember times we covered our ears so we wouldn’t hear it.

When the buzzing stopped, that voice would come on and let us know that the pause in our regularly televised program was “only a test” of the system. Had it been a real emergency, the voice said, we would have been given instructions on how to proceed further.

Sometimes I wish God would let me know ahead of time when he’s testing me. It seems that I often don’t know a situation occurring in my life has been a test of my faith until the whole thing has passed.

It’s true what they said about hindsight.

But I wonder. If God gave me fair warning of an upcoming trial and the manner in which I’d be tested, would I listen to it? Would I consider it a grating sound in my ears and cover them so I could ignore that warning?

Frankly, I don’t remember one time when I received advance warning of a trial coming in my life. A test, so to speak. But I remember times when, further into the difficult situation, I realized it was probably a test.

God wants to know how I’ll respond when things get a little “testy.” He wants to see if I’ll trust him through it to do the amazing things he can do in that situation. Will I respond to people and events as Jesus would?

Will I pray, seek his direction and stay out of his way?ex cu woman praying

A little over a year ago, a friend gave me the opportunity to leave a situation in which we both felt frustrated and somewhat angry. Another individual had entered our happy circumstance and jarred it with an annoying presence. He was only doing what he’d been asked to do and the permission he was given to do it was given by someone who had authority.

Still, the situation was “testy.”

When my friend said, “You can leave if you want,” I told her I’d stay. In this situation, which actually wasn’t a big deal compared to some, I realized immediately that God might have something for me to learn. And that’s what I told her.

While that situation was one in which I knew right off that God could be testing me and watching to see how I responded, that’s not always the case.

Often times, as I said, it takes me a while to recognize that God has a hand in the situation and that his hand is large and in charge. He wants me to do some footwork in most cases, but ultimately, he’s in control.

In the letter Jesus’s brother, James, wrote to Jewish Christians, he said

“You know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete” (James 1:3, 4)

When I read scripture, I’ve learned to pay attention to the places where it says, “so that.” Those two words tell me there’s a good reason for the direction I’m being given by the writer. Because I know the writer’s words were inspired by God himself, I trust them.

Trusting those words, however, doesn’t mean it will always be easy to follow through on the directions. God’s ideas are usually simple ones, but he doesn’t make things necessarily easy for us.

That means if we’re to grow in our faith in God and what he can–and will–accomplish in our lives, we can’t cover our ears when he tells us “This is a test.” Listening–and follow-through–will keep us humbled. It will help us to grow. Listening and follow-through will keep us safe. Just in case of a real emergency.

Sometimes It Doesn’t Make Sense

Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Matthew 19:16, 21, 22

What happens when there’s something we know for certain we need to do, but the action itself goes against what makes sense to us?

Do we ignore that nagging voice telling us to follow through?

God often gives instructions to act on what He says without explaining why. Perhaps you can relate to some of the stories in the Bible.

Joshua was a general. He followed Moses as leader of the Israelites when God led them to the Promised Land. It was now time for them to seize the property and take possession of it. The first city to be taken was Jericho.

God explained to Joshua that He had delivered Jericho into his hands. It implied that all the people had to do was follow God’s instructions. Imagine what some of the people must have thought when they were told the plan.

March around the city with all the armed men and the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant for six days. On the seventh day, as they marched, the priests were to blow the trumpets. When they heard the long blast from the trumpets, God told Joshua to have the people shout loudly. “The walls of the city will collapse and the people will go up, every man straight in.”

Yell at a huge fortified city after marching in silence for six days? That doesn’t make sense. But they did it. The city fell.

God chose Gideon as a judge of Israel to defeat the Midianites who were constantly harassing the people. Here’s another example of God commanding a plan that doesn’t make sense to mere mortals.

To prepare for the battle, God told Gideon to reduce his troops to 300 men. First, the ones who were afraid to fight went home excused. The rest of the army was tested to see if they lapped water like dogs or with their hands to their mouths. Only the men who drank water in a ready position were retained.

Fight the enemy with only 300 men?

Gideon had previously been wary of God’s message that he was a “mighty man of valor” and even went so far as to ask for signs from God that He meant what He said. When Gideon asked, God didn’t become angry; He answered Gideon in the way Gideon requested. (Judges 6:36-40; 7:1-8)

Naaman, commander of King Aram’s army “was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy.” He sought a way to be healed and one of his servants offered a solution. She suggested her master see the prophet Elisha. When Naaman arrived, Elisha sent a messenger to say that the commander should wash himself seven times in the Jordan River and his flesh would be restored.

Naaman went away angry. He had the idea that Elisha would intervene, calling on the name of the Lord for a miracle. When considering the solution given, he ranted that the Jordan was an unfit river and there were better ones in which he could dip himself.

Again, his servants seemed to grasp the situation better than he. They reasoned that if the prophet had told him to go and “do some great thing,” would he not have done it?

Washing in what Naaman thought was a dirty river didn’t make sense to him. But he went. He was cleansed. (2 Kings 5: 1-14)

The prophet Jeremiah had an inside track with God, continually receiving God’s word as a way to speak to the Israelites about His plans. The message that the people would be sent into exile wasn’t a pretty one. The message had been given by other prophets as well. Israel had plenty of warning about what was coming.

At one point, God told Jeremiah to buy a piece of land from his cousin. Surely buying property during a time of siege by the Babylonians must have seemed foolish to Jeremiah’s friends. Even to his enemies.

However, Jeremiah obeyed God when his cousin came to him in the courtyard of the guards. Despite the fact that he was a prisoner and the people would be exiled for seventy years, Jeremiah knew when God restored His people, “Houses, fields and vineyards (would) again be bought in (the) land.” (Jeremiah 32: 6-25)

Jesus’ chosen apostle, Peter, was a commercial fisherman. One day, after Jesus taught the people who gathered on the shore to hear Him, He told Peter to put his boat into deep water and let down the nets for a catch.

“Simon (Peter) answered, ‘Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.’”

After fishing all night and not catching a thing? Why now? That doesn’t make sense.

But Peter obeyed. And they caught such a large number of fish the nets broke. (Luke 5: 4-11)take first step

Who are you most like? Naaman, who argues God’s instructions? Gideon who doubts he can be used by God and asks for signs to be sure? Jeremiah who has an inside track and trusts God will come through? Or Joshua and Peter, who obey immediately because God “says so”?

Maybe you’ve acted like any one of them at some time. That would be understandable because faith can be a tricky thing.

Sometimes, as in Naaman’s case, we need other people to help us see what God is trying to do in our lives. Or we need to ask God for further clarification like Gideon did with the fleece. Then we can move with a small “army” instead of surging ahead full force.

As we mature spiritually, God gives us an “inside track.” We may still pray for a clearer vision, or depend on others to help us see how God intends His instructions for our benefit. Ultimately, we’ll come to a point in which we simply obey because God says so.

Even when it doesn’t make sense.

Imagine what would have happened for the young man whom Jesus told to sell his possessions and give to the poor. Imagine the rewards he would have seen and the joy that could have been his if he’d decided to obey, despite the fact that losing his riches didn’t make sense.

What is God asking you to do today that doesn’t seem to make sense? God’s thoughts are greater than ours. His ultimate plan may be hidden even though He provides a way to see His revealed will. Maybe today is the day to trust God and put our lives completely in His hands.

“We live by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7)