The Lord himself watches over you! The Lord stands beside you as your protective shade. The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon at night. The Lord keeps you from all harm and watches over your life. The Lord keeps watch over you as you come and go, both now and forever. [Psalm 121:5-8 (NLT)]

mute swansIn his Small Catechism, Martin Luther instructs people to say the following prayer as soon they get out of bed: “God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit watch over me. Amen.” When I watch my grands, it’s not just keeping the baby dry and fed, getting the toddler to use the potty and take his nap, getting the kids to school, preparing their lunch, or making sure that homework gets done. Watching over them is more than just supervising them and keeping them from destroying the house. It means protecting them—from dangerous objects, people, and activities. It’s keeping them from getting hurt or hurting anyone else. Sometimes it means stopping them in their tracks and other times it’s removing something from their reach. Watching them is wiping their tears, laughing at their jokes, and kissing their ouchies; yet, it is still more. It is leading by example, introducing them to new things, encouraging them and challenging them to become stronger and better. It is walking and talking with them and opening their eyes to the world around them. It is correcting, helping, comforting, loving, teaching and nurturing them.

Thinking of what it means to watch my grands, Luther’s short prayer packs a giant request into a few short words. Guide me, convict me, protect me from sin and evil, keep me from harm and from harming anyone, defend me, sustain me, provide for me, inspire me, direct me, walk with me, guide me, guard me, encourage and calm me…all these and more are pressed into those three words “watch over me.”

God, like parents and grandparents, doesn’t go off duty when His children go to sleep; He keeps watch 24/7. Luther advises saying that very same prayer again at bedtime. After that, Luther instructs, “You are to go to sleep quickly and cheerfully.” When we know that God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is vigilantly watching over us, we can rest in peaceful sleep, secure in His loving arms.

God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit watch over me. Amen. [Martin Luther]

I lay down and slept, yet I woke up in safety, for the Lord was watching over me. [Psalm 3:5 (NLT)]

The Lord says, “I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you. [Psalm 32:8 (NLT)]

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Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. [Romans 12:2 (NLT)]

flower bouquetSeveral years ago, I purchased a beautifully drawn coloring book that featured scenes from our Colorado mountain town. A gift for one of my grands, I asked the artist to sign it. Along with her signature, she added the words, “Don’t be afraid to color outside the lines!” Excellent advice, I thought.

Rather than coloring outside the lines, the unconventional John the Baptist lived outside the lines. Nevertheless, in spite of his odd attire, strange diet, and extraordinary message, he fulfilled God’s purpose. His was the voice in the wilderness preparing the way for Jesus. Elisha lived outside the lines when he left his prosperous farm and teams of oxen to become Elijah’s successor—an odd choice his family and neighbors probably didn’t understand. The young shepherd boy David stepped outside the lines when he dared to take on Goliath—something none of Saul’s seasoned soldiers had attempted. Even Joseph went outside the lines when he remained with the pregnant Mary rather than breaking their engagement. Abigail crossed the lines when she kept David from taking vengeance on her foolish husband as did Rahab when she helped the Israelites. Mary of Bethany went outside the lines both when she sat with the men rather than help in the kitchen and extravagantly anointed Jesus with expensive perfume. Eric Liddle lived outside the lines by refusing to race on Sundays and becoming a missionary rather than parlaying his Olympic medals into fame and fortune. Instead of following his father into medicine or pursuing his interest in music, Dietrich Bonhoeffer went outside the lines when he became a pastor. Then, rather than fleeing the Nazis, he remained in Germany and resisted their evil. These men and women may have defied the status quo but they didn’t defy God! They answered His call by living outside the lines.

Living outside the lines is what we do when we allow God to take control of our lives; it’s taking that first step out of the boat as did Peter when Jesus called to him. Staying in the lines is what happens when, like Peter, we take our eyes off God, see the wave, feel the wind, and start to doubt. Staying inside the lines is not trusting God enough to answer His call or follow His lead. When we become more concerned about what others think than what God says, when how we look becomes more important than who we are, we are staying within the lines. Living outside the lines is refusing to compromise our faith; it is defying the system and obeying God. Those lines on the page were drawn by people. The blank page is given to us by God and He means for us to use all of it.

The artist’s advice to my grandchild applies to us all: “Don’t be afraid to color outside the lines!” Let’s not be afraid to live outside the lines—honestly, boldly, creatively and joyfully—fulfilling God’s purpose and trusting in His promises.

Our focus must be on God above and not on those among whom we live. [Oswald Chambers]

For God has said, “I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me?” [Hebrews 13:5b-6 (NLT)]

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But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. [Acts 1:8 (NLT)]

wood storkSeveral years ago, Pastor John, the youth pastor at our mountain church, shared his experiences while on a mission trip to Malawi, Africa. Here in the states, we expect our pastors to keep their messages to thirty-minutes so we can get a table at the Pancake House or arrive home in time for the game. In Monkey Bay, however, the pastor is likely to speak nonstop for two hours or more. Shortly before the day’s service began, the host minister, Pastor Paul, informed our young pastor that he would be speaking that morning. John quickly declined saying he hadn’t prepared a sermon. He usually worked several hours to prepare a Sunday message and was sure, without notes, he couldn’t possibly wing it for thirty minutes, let alone two hours. Pastor Paul was not to be rebuffed and insisted that John could and would do it. Paul assured him the words would come and, indeed, they did! Pastor John reported that he was still going strong two hours later! In spite of John’s fears, the words kept coming because he tapped into the power of the Holy Spirit.

Recently, another young pastor conceded that his sermon is not the most daunting part of Sunday mornings. The real challenge for him comes when someone asks a question after the sermon and he doesn’t have a prepared answer. If pastors can experience stage-fright when it comes to talking about Jesus, what about us lay people? While we’re probably not going to be asked to give an impromptu sermon, I think we’re offered many opportunities to start Jesus conversations that are missed because we think we don’t have the words. Instead of worrying that we don’t know enough, we should remember that Christianity isn’t rocket science. The story of Jesus isn’t complicated, no one expects us to be theologians, and “I don’t know,” is a perfectly acceptable response when we can’t answer a question. While it’s good to be able to quote chapter and verse from Scripture, it’s more important to know and share its message of Good News. If we trust the Holy Spirit, we will find the right words.

There is not a better evangelist in the world than the Holy Spirit. [Dwight L. Moody]

And when you are brought to trial in the synagogues and before rulers and authorities, don’t worry about how to defend yourself or what to say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what needs to be said. [Luke 12:11-12 (NLT)]

But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative—that is, the Holy Spirit—he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you. I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid. [John 14:26-26 (NLT)]

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Instead, you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. [1Peter 3:15 (NLT)]

pink roseSocrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth having.” It would seem that an unexamined faith isn’t worth much either and yet many of us are hesitant to examine it! Jesus told us to love the Lord with all of our heart, soul, and mind. Since He asked far more questions than He ever answered, it would seem that he wanted thinking disciples rather than unthinking followers. When we only love Him with our emotions and passion, we are vulnerable to the enemy’s attacks; faith can get shaky and stumble when it isn’t grounded in reason and certainty. Moreover, we don’t make good witnesses when we’re unable to speak as rational thinking believers. We must love Jesus with our minds as well as our hearts and souls.

At some point, when digging into Scripture, we may ask ourselves how we can believe the validity of what is read. Simply saying the Bible is true because it is God-breathed doesn’t hold water when doubt rears its ugly head (and it will). How can we trust the writers or know those really are the words God breathed? Since nearly 2000 years have elapsed since the writing of the New Testament and far more since the Old Testament’s prophecies, it’s not unreasonable to wonder if Christianity is more myth than reality. Fortunately, we have Christian apologists to help us see the truth. Rather than offering apologies for the wrongs committed by evil people in the name of Jesus, apologists share the objective reasons and evidence that Christianity is true and should be believed. The Apostle Paul was probably the first apologist when he showed that Jesus’ fulfillment of Scripture’s prophecies proved He was the Messiah. Paul knew that the truth could stand up to scrutiny and it still does today.

I’m not a religious scholar, historian or an archeologist; I haven’t examined the Dead Sea scrolls or ancient papyri. Nevertheless, I do read the work of those who have. The more I study Scripture and the work of Christian apologists, the more certain I am that there is nothing unreasonable, irrational, or unfounded about my belief. The Bible can stand up to intense archeological and historical investigation so we have nothing to fear (and much to gain) when we look closely at God’s word. Like the atheist turned apologist C.S. Lewis, we will know the reason for our belief in mere Christianity. As did Josh McDowell, we’ll discover that Jesus was more than a carpenter. When lawyer David Limbaugh put Jesus on trial, our Lord withstood the most intense scrutiny and cross examination and easily won. As thinking Christians, we must never be afraid to ask questions and seek answers. When we seek the truth, as did Lee Strobel, we’ll be able to make a case for Christ. We’ll recognize what Nabeel Qureshi did when, while seeking Allah, he instead found Jesus: Jesus really is the way, the truth and the life!

As was Paul’s custom, he went to the synagogue service, and for three Sabbaths in a row he used the Scriptures to reason with the people. He explained the prophecies and proved that the Messiah must suffer and rise from the dead. He said, “This Jesus I’m telling you about is the Messiah.” … they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth. As a result, many Jews believed, as did many of the prominent Greek women and men. [Acts 17:2-3, 11b-12 (NLT)]

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DARK GREEN FRITILLARY“You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people. No, don’t be afraid. I will continue to take care of you and your children.” So he reassured them by speaking kindly to them. [Genesis 50:20-21 (NLT)]

The above words were spoken by Joseph to his brothers—the men who planned on killing him until greed entered into it and they sold him into slavery for twenty pieces of silver. In retrospect, God’s plan made sense to Joseph but what about the thirteen years he spent between being thrown into a cistern like a piece of trash and becoming second in command to Pharaoh? Was Jacob’s beloved son so confident of God’s plan while standing on the slave auction block in Egypt? What about when he was unjustly accused of rape by Potiphar’s wife? He may have been the warden’s favorite prisoner, but he languished in jail for a crime he refused to commit! What did he think of God’s plan then? When Pharaoh’s cup-bearer was restored to his former position, Joseph’s hopes rose only to have them dashed when the man forgot about his cell mate for another two years. Did Joseph ever doubt? Did he ever ask, “Where’s God in all of this?”

I thought of Joseph’s words after praying for a toddler who is fighting a losing battle with metastasized cancer. In terrible pain, her physicians are running out of treatment options. “Where is God in all of this?” I wondered. “What good can possibly come from it?” If I’m asking these questions, I know her family must be asking them as well. As they watch their daughter suffer, do they ever wonder if God has abandoned them? In retrospect, maybe it will make sense someday. Perhaps the knowledge the toddler’s oncologists glean from her treatment will save some other child. Who knows? Right now, however, her parents can’t look back—they can only look forward and the future is bleak.

It’s times like these that call for faith and hope. God didn’t walk away from us when He finished with creation and He hasn’t walked away from us now. He is still here—at large and in charge! No matter how desolate the circumstances appear, God has not forgotten, abandoned or ignored us.

If I truly believe God is good and in control, I must trust in His inexplicable plan. I believe He is gently holding this little girl and wiping her tears. I believe He is standing with His arms around her worried parents as they stand beside her and that He’s guiding the hospital staff as they insert IVs and search for ways to save her precious life. I know His Holy Spirit is giving voice to my silent prayers for her.

In retrospect, Joseph saw God’s purpose in all he endured. Whether or not we will ever understand God’s actions regarding this beautiful child, I don’t know. From Joseph’s story, we know that God can reroute evil to accomplish good. God was there for Joseph and He’s there for this little girl and her family. He is present; we’re just having trouble seeing Him. Open our eyes, O Lord, open our eyes.

We want Christ to hurry and calm the storm. He wants us to find Him in the midst of it first. [Beth Moore]

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this: The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning. I say to myself, “The Lord is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him!” [Lamentations 3:21-24 (NLT)]

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Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying, “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.” [Luke 2:13-14 NLT)]

Naples botanic gardenWhile visiting a church recently, the pastor announced a new security precaution: ten minutes after the service started, the outside doors would be locked from the inside and no one could enter the building. Yesterday afternoon, another church offered a four hour class for their congregation. Led by a private security company, topics included ways to identify threats, how to develop layers of security, and techniques for conflict resolution. While talking with my daughter about a recent school shooting in her area, I learned that my grand’s school has regular “lock-down” drills in preparation for such an attack. Is no place safe from violence?

In 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists created what is known at the Doomsday Clock. Designed to show the world how close it is to destroying itself with technology, the clock was originally set to 7 minutes before midnight with midnight being catastrophe—the end of the world as we know it. After the Soviet Union tested their first atomic bomb in 1949, it was reset to three minutes before the hour and, by 1953, it was down to two minutes. I was in first grade at the time; rather than “lock-down” drills, we had air-aid drills and practiced ducking under our desks in case a bomb was dropped. In 1991, with the end of the Cold War, the clock’s hands were set back to seventeen minutes before midnight. Since 2007, disruptions from climate change have figured into the calculations. This past year, the clock was set to only two and half minutes until midnight. Locking down a church or school, ducking under a desk, or building a bomb shelter won’t protect any of us if the minute hand reaches the twelve.

The world is in turmoil; we’re no closer to peace now than two thousand years ago. We live in a divided and troubled world and it grows more brutal daily. It’s no longer just atomic bombs that threaten us—cyber warfare, biologic weaponry, thoughtless rhetoric, fake news and catastrophic weather events all contribute to the danger. Where is this peace on earth we sang about these last several weeks?

Scripture tells us wars and violence will continue (and even get worse) until Jesus returns and establishes true lasting peace. Indeed, the end times appear to be on the horizon but what are we to do until then? I suppose we’ll continue having lock downs, going through metal detectors, getting luggage x-rayed and handbags searched, securing church doors, and meeting with security companies but that’s merely trying to stay safe. It’s not enough.

When we accepted Jesus, His Holy Spirit brought a fruit basket as a house-warming gift. In it we find peace along with several other qualities that will help us be peaceful: love, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, calmness and self-control. We all got the same beautiful basket and, as Christians, we’re all capable of letting His peace rule our hearts, actions and words. While our behavior may not move the hands of that clock backward, we might be able to make our little corner of the world a kinder, gentler, and better place.

Over two thousand years ago, the angels sang, “Peace on earth.” Let our lives continue that song as we move into this new year. Heavenly Father, let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.

And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful. [Colossians 3:15 (NLT)]

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