WHAT’S YOUR STATE?

For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. [Jeremiah 29:11 (NLT)]

For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. [Philippians 4:13 (NLT)]

african iris

If there were a Hall of Fame for favorite Bible verses, John 3:16, Jeremiah 29:11, and Philippians 4:13 would be in it; every year, they are the most popular verses on my favorite Bible web site. This year, in a stunning upset, Jeremiah 29:11 edged out perennial favorite John 3:16 for first place with Philippians 4:13 running a close third.

In 2017, John 3:16 easily held first place with Jeremiah 29:11 and Philippians 4:13 in a hotly contested race for the next two spots. In honor of the Electoral College meeting that year, the website determined which of those two verses carried each of the fifty states and gave them electoral votes. Had it been a presidential election, Jeremiah 29:11 would have won with 302 electoral votes. With the nation split into two camps, rather than dividing us into red or blue states, the site asked: “Do You Live in a ‘God Has a Plan’ State or an ‘I Can Do All Things’ State?” While my residence in is a “God Has a Plan” state, I wondered if that truly is my state of mind.

I’m a voter who splits her ticket. Sometimes, I’m accepting of circumstances, serenely confident in God’s plan, and (usually without complaint) easily can step forward in trust and faith. Other times, I’m sure that God has intentionally given me challenges to overcome—challenges to strengthen and mature my faith. Rather than accept the situation, confident in God’s power, I try to surmount the challenging circumstances. The problem arises when I’m unsure about whether I should trust and accept or trust and overcome.

Most of our decisions are made without consciously thinking about God—red or blue shirt, sneakers or sandals, oatmeal or yogurt, walk in the park or at the beach, and so on. We don’t ask God if we should go through the yellow light, where to park, or whether to buy peas or beans. We don’t consult Him about mowing the lawn, making the bed, balancing the checkbook, going to the grocery, or doing the laundry. Although we’re operating on auto-pilot, many of those little decisions can make a difference in our lives. They may determine if we’re in the right place at the right time or in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nevertheless, even if we did stop and pray about even the smallest decision, it’s unlikely that God would provide a definitive answer about all of them. I don’t think it’s because He doesn’t care but rather that He expects us to use our God-given common sense and free will to make our everyday choices godly ones.

Sometimes, even when we’ve asked for His guidance, God seems to be silent. We ask who to marry, which job to take, how much money to give, how much to keep, where to live, what cancer treatment to choose, how to deal with the addicted child, where to attend church, or whether to start a new business and His definitive answer just doesn’t seem to come. There’s no angel, star in the East, burning bush, writing on the wall, or wet fleece. The heavens don’t open, a lamb doesn’t miraculously appear, a donkey doesn’t speak, and a neon sign is unlikely. That God knows the detailed plan doesn’t mean He’s going to tell us what it is!

Perhaps knowing the plan isn’t as important for us as knowing the God who made the plan. He has revealed Himself and everything we need to know about living a godly life in Scripture. The more we know Him, the more we know His answers. We pray and proceed, trusting in the God who loved us enough to sacrifice His son for our salvation, the God whose plans are for good and not disaster, the God who wants to give us a future and hope. We do so, confident that we can do all we need to do through Christ who gives us strength.

Now may the God of peace—who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, and ratified an eternal covenant with his blood—may he equip you with all you need for doing his will. May he produce in you, through the power of Jesus Christ, every good thing that is pleasing to him. All glory to him forever and ever! Amen. [Hebrews 13:20-21 (NLT)]

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LAST RESORTS

Listen closely to my prayer, O Lord; hear my urgent cry. I will call to you whenever I’m in trouble, and you will answer me. [Psalm 86:6-7 (NLT)]

“Lord, help!” they cried in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress. [Psalm 107:13 (NLT)]

digging in the sandOnce upon a time, a little boy was busy digging in the sand at the beach and, like other youngsters through the years, he thought he even might be able to dig all the way to China. His steadfast excavations got so deep that he encountered a large rock. With great determination, he dug and dug with his small shovel in an attempt to free it from the ground. Unfortunately, the little boy and his plastic shovel were no match for the rock. When the shovel broke in two, the boy let out a howl and burst into tears. Hearing the child’s cries, his father immediately ran to comfort him. Through his sobs, the boy told how he’d tried and tried to free the rock but was too weak, his arm was too short, and he’d broken his only shovel. His father gently asked why he hadn’t used all of his strength. “But I did, Daddy, I really did!” exclaimed the boy. “No, son, you didn’t,” explained the man as he reached into the hole, grabbed the rock with his large hands, and pulled it from the ground. “You should have called me!”

While the circumstances and challenges are different, we’re really not much different than that little boy. Determined to be self-sufficient and strong, we often fail to call on our Heavenly Father to help with the heavy lifting. I’ve never sobbed at the beach while holding a broken shovel but I’ve sat in despair and hopelessness in plenty of other places and cried because I thought I was at the end of all my resources. That’s usually when I complain to God with some version of why: why this, why now, why here, and (my personal favorite) why me? While God rarely offers an answer to the whys, perhaps it’s simply that trials exist to drive us to God: to trust in Him and call on Him in faith.

During David’s reign, Israel suffered from a three year famine and David prayed to God about it. When God told David the famine was because Saul had dishonored a covenant Joshua made with the Gibeonites, the king took rather gruesome steps to make amends and, apparently, the famine ended. [2 Samuel 21] Famine in Israel, an agricultural society, was a grave matter and I can’t help but wonder what King David was doing during the three years of scarcity before he finally fell to his knees and consulted God. Why didn’t he pray at the first sign of trouble rather than waiting until the people were starving? Could pride have made David think that he and his advisors could solve a food crisis on their own? If so, that pride caused his people to suffer for three years simply because he didn’t use all the strength available to him by calling on his Father!

Ours is not a God of Last Resorts! He is not where we go when all else fails: when the shovel breaks or the grain bins are empty. Ours is a first responder God! He’s the first call we make when we see the rock that seems immovable, discover insects infesting our fields, or see challenges looming on the horizon. With His power, we can do things we could never accomplish by ourselves. Let us be strong in the Lord!

We tend to use prayer as a last resort, but God wants it to be our first line of defense. We pray when there’s nothing else we can do, but God wants us to pray before we do anything at all. Most of us would prefer, however, to spend our time doing something that will get immediate results. We don’t want to wait for God to resolve matters in His good time because His idea of ‘good time’ is seldom in sync with ours. [Oswald Chambers]

A final word: Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. [Ephesians 6:10 (NLT)]

He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless. … But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint. [Isaiah 40:29,31 (NLT)]

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NINE MONTHS

Mary responded, “Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! For he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed. [Luke 1:46-48 (NLT)]

campionWe know that within a few days of the angel’s visit that Mary went to her cousin Elizabeth’s home, but what of those first few days after the annunciation? Did Mary tell anyone or did she wait until she’d seen proof of Elizabeth’s pregnancy before she truly believed that she, too, was with child? Did she tell Joseph immediately or wait until she returned to Nazareth three months later?

Have you ever wondered how that conversation went and about Joseph’s initial reaction to her unbelievable news? The couple’s betrothal was far more involved and serious than today’s engagements. In those days, betrothal wasn’t just an agreement between two people; it was an arrangement and commitment connecting two families. Joseph would have presented a ketubah, or marriage contract, to Mary and her father and paid a bride price, called a mohar, to compensate her father for the cost of raising the young woman. He then would have returned home to prepare a place for her and their engagement may have lasted as long as a year. Although the couple didn’t live together and certainly didn’t have sex, they were bound to one another as if married.

Though unconsummated, their betrothal was binding and could only be undone by a divorce with just cause (such as Mary not being a virgin). Knowing he wasn’t the father of her child, Joseph could have had her stoned for adultery. Matthew tells us he considered quietly divorcing her until he was visited by an angel who explained how the baby was conceived. But what of Mary’s parents? Worse, what about the reaction of Joseph’s family? How did Mary and Joseph explain this miraculous conception? Who would believe them? For that matter, what about the gossips of Nazareth? Mary had gone to visit her cousin and returned pregnant so it couldn’t be Joseph’s! There probably were whispers of scandal surrounding Mary all of her days.

After the angel Gabriel told Mary that she would conceive without virtue of a husband, he left. We can only hope that when the Holy Spirit came upon her and the Most High overshadowed her that Mary was given more than a baby—that she was given wisdom and strength beyond her years. I suppose any doubts Joseph had about the baby boy eventually were allayed by the unprecedented visits of shepherds and angels at the nativity, their encounters with Simeon and Anna at the temple, and the visit of the Magi with their extravagant gifts. Nevertheless, I’d like to think that the angel who visited him also gave him wisdom and strength for the challenges ahead.

The Christmas story actually begins nine months before that extraordinary night in Bethlehem. In celebration of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, many churches celebrate the feast or festival of the annunciation on March 25 but it’s easily overlooked by many of us. Today, as I set out the figures for the nativity scene, I thought about Mary and Joseph and couldn’t help but wonder what happened in the nine months between Nazareth and Bethlehem.

All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet: Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel,  which means “God is with us.” [Matthew 1:22-23 (NLT)]

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BUT HOW?

Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.” … Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.”  [Luke 1:34,38 (NLT)]

queen butterfly Angels taking on bodily form and appearing to people certainly wasn’t an everyday occurrence so it’s understandable that Mary was troubled and perplexed by Gabriel’s presence when he showed up in Nazareth. After telling her not to be afraid, the angel gave her the startling news that she would conceive and give birth. Mary may have been a virgin but she knew that babies weren’t brought by the stork or found in a cabbage patch. “But how?” was her first response.

“But how?” Isn’t that our typical response when God calls us to His work? Abraham couldn’t see how his people would possess Canaan, Sarah couldn’t see how God could give her a child when her child-bearing days were over, Moses wanted to know how he could convince both the Israelites and Pharaoh, Gideon asked how he could rescue Israel, Samuel asked how he could anoint a new king without being killed by Saul, and Zechariah asked how his wife could possibly become pregnant. Given their situations, “But how?” certainly seems understandable.

The angel’s answer that the Holy Spirit would come upon her still didn’t tell Mary exactly how her pregnancy would come about. Had that been me, I would have wanted a better explanation and then followed with a series of “whys” and “what abouts.” While being told that her barren cousin Elizabeth was already pregnant may have reassured Mary that what seems impossible can actually happen, Elizabeth was married and Mary was not! “But how?” probably was just one of many questions circling in Mary’s head.

Unlike Moses, Mary didn’t try to squirm out of the task with excuses; unlike Sarah, she didn’t laugh in unbelief; unlike Gideon, she didn’t ask for a series of signs; unlike Samuel, she didn’t point out the problems she was sure to face with her pregnancy; and, unlike Zechariah, she believed the angel. After asking him, “But, how?” Mary accepted the simple explanation that nothing is impossible with God and humbly submitted.

Do we forget that God doesn’t have the limitations we have? He can make manna appear, feed 5,000 with a few fish and loaves, part the sea, walk on water, restore sight to the blind, and raise the dead. Nevertheless, we often ask, “But how?” when called by God to serve and then allow the logistics of His task keep us from doing His work. Could we be missing God’s blessings because we’re too busy asking, “But how?” instead of responding in faith? Let us never forget that God will work out the how; we just need to submit as readily as did Mary.

You are blessed because you believed that the Lord would do what he said. [Luke 1:45 (NLT)]

Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.” [Matthew 19:26 (NLT)]

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OTHER DEMONS

No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. And I am convinced that 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 8:37-39 (NLT)]
Halloween ghost

Yesterday, I wrote of the emotional vampires that can plague us but there are other demons even harder to spot than those two-legged ones. Invisible, they go by the names of guilt, anger, doubt, resentment, shame, regret, fear, and worry. They haunt us with “if only,” “what if,” “should have,” and “could have” and leave us discontented, sullen, resentful, fearful or worried. They are the hobgoblins that whisper lies and half-truths in our ears: we’re unlovable, contemptible, unforgiven, helpless, inadequate, or worthless. Like vampires, these monsters also can suck the life out of us. Friends of the enemy, they keep us from living boldly, stepping out in faith, and leading the fulfilling and joyful life Jesus promised.

It’s time to declare war on these monsters; they have no place in our lives. In the old movies, evil was repelled by the crucifix—a mere religious symbol. In real life, however, it is the power of Jesus that defeats the enemy! Through His power, we can banish those demons that steal our joy and suck the life from us. We can face our secrets, shed our shame, forgive others (and ourselves), know we are loved, release our anxiety and fear, trust God and choose His truth. The voice we hear can be that of the Holy Spirit rather than the unsettling voice of the enemy. With the power of the cross, we will be able to step out of the haunted house of our lives not in fear, but in faith—not in darkness, but in light.

Heavenly Father, help us look into the dark corners of our lives and, through your power, banish the demons that keep us from the abundant life you promised.

The scariest monsters are the ones that lurk within our souls. [Edgar Allen Poe]

The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life. [John 10:10 (NLT)]

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you. [Philippians 4:8-9 (NLT)]

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RATINGS

Obviously, I’m not trying to win the approval of people, but of God. If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant. [Galatians 1:10 (NLT)]

passion glower - pasqueflower“Over 1 million served,” was the sign Ray Kroc posted at his first McDonald’s franchise in 1955. That number became 100 million in 1958 and was 1 billion in 1963. When the number of burgers served surpassed the 99 billion mark in 1994, operators were told to change their signs to “Billions and Billions Served!” Executives at McDonald’s claim they no longer keep track of how many are served but I don’t believe it! Someone there knows exactly how many of those hamburgers have been sold, along with the number of Egg McMuffins and chocolate shakes.

People gauge their success with numbers and I’m no different. Before quitting my work for the day, I often check the stats for my web site. How many people visited and how many views did they take? Did I get any new subscribers? Worse, did I lose any? I doubt that I’m alone in checking stats; we all seek approval and use some sort of yardstick to measure our success. The restaurant measures sales, the YouTuber his subscribers, the author his place on the best seller list, the student his class rank, and the blogger her followers. We live our lives measuring and comparing: how many likes on the posting, hits on the website, orders taken, compliments on the outfit, friends on Facebook, or Christmas cards received.

Granted, publishing a blog is a little like speaking into a radio station microphone and not knowing if anyone is listening. Nevertheless, I had to ask myself, “Whose approval do I seek?” Like most people, I tend to seek tangible approval from people when the only approval that matters is that from God. It’s not who or how many people follow me; the only thing of importance is that I follow Him!

Our pastor shared the story of a successful evangelist who literally lost his voice. No longer able to preach, he asked God, “Don’t you care about my ministry?” The answer clearly given to him was, “No! I care about you!” I think of his story whenever I struggle with my writing ministry—when the words don’t come or I feel like I’m speaking to an empty auditorium. God cares about us—not about our triumphs and certainly not about how many people hear our voices or read our words. That pastor’s voice returned when he understood that God loved him rather than his accomplishments. Consider the Old Testament prophets: with Haggai (at whose urging the temple finally was rebuilt) being the exception, most of the prophets’ messages fell on deaf ears. Misunderstood, persecuted, ridiculed and ignored, by human standards they were failures. God, however, uses an entirely different kind of measuring stick. The prophets’ lives tell us that the success of our endeavors is not what matters; what matters is our obedience to God’s word and the doing of His will. It’s not about our glory; it’s about our bringing glory to God!

So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless. [1 Corinthians 15:58 (NLT)]

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