AT ALL TIMES, IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES (Thanksgiving Day)

Praise the Lord! I will thank the Lord with all my heart as I meet with his godly people. How amazing are the deeds of the Lord! All who delight in him should ponder them. Everything he does reveals his glory and majesty. His righteousness never fails. [Psalm 111:1-3 (NLT)]

Great Blue Heron
As we gathered for worship that Saturday night, it was just ten days after Hurricane Ian devastated our part of Florida and the mood was somber at best. Many of the regulars were missing and, for every story of hope, there were two more of unspeakable pain and unbelievable loss. Nevertheless, the pastor announced the theme of our service was gratitude and we began our worship singing Now Thank We All Our God, a hymn more associated with Thanksgiving Day than natural disasters. Indeed, as we thanked God “with heart and hands and voices,” my husband and I were thankful; for us, Ian was little more than an inconvenience in our lives. Most people, however, were not so blessed and I wondered how thankful they were.

The gratitude theme continued in the day’s Scripture starting with Psalm 111 and the words, “Praise the Lord,” followed by the miraculous healing of Naaman, the master’s lavish grace and mercy seen in the Parable of the Vineyard Workers, and Jesus’ healing of ten lepers, a story familiar to most of us. Although ten lepers were healed, only one returned to thank Jesus. Naturally, we laud the example of the one who expressed his gratitude and find fault with the nine who didn’t. Nevertheless, as soon as the ten saw their clean skin, there’s no doubt they all were incredibly thankful. As lepers, they’d been pariahs from society and literally untouchable but Jesus gave them a new lease on life. Although only one returned to express his gratitude, can we honestly fault the other nine? The lepers were desperate to return to their families, friends, homes, and trades but that couldn’t happen until the priests declared them clean! Like children who want to play with their new toys before thanking the grandma who gave them their presents, they were so focused on reclaiming their lives that they lost sight of the One who restored them!

Are we that much different from those nine? Do we ever get so caught up in the here and now— hurrying hither and yon, coping with our challenges, pursuing our goals, attempting to make do with what seems like not enough, dealing with difficult situations and even more difficult people—that we fail to express gratitude to the Giver of All Gifts? Do we let life’s trials or tasks keep us from giving thanks?

I’m reminded of a story told by Ann Voskamp in her book, One Thousand Gifts. As a farmer’s wife and mother of six (now seven) children (all of them homeschooled), she clearly knows the chaos, turmoil, and busyness of everyday life that so often overwhelms us and takes our focus off God. One morning, she unknowingly stepped into a war zone between siblings and the boys she loves behaved in a distinctly unlovable way. A tossed piece of toast became the proverbial straw that broke this mother’s back and, as she slammed her hands on the table, the exasperated woman asked herself, “How do I see grace, give thanks, find joy in this sin-stinking place?”

Remembering how Jesus gave thanks that night in the upper room, she took a deep breath and, focusing on God, gave thanks out loud. She thanked the Lord for her boys, toast, the hope of forgiveness, and for being a God who wouldn’t leave any of them in their ugly mess. Like the one leper who returned to thank Jesus, she paused in the midst of all that was happening and offered thanks to the Giver of all things who was there with her in that kitchen.

Whether we’re dealing with a child’s temper tantrum, undergoing chemo, straining to make ends meet, burying a loved one, laboring in the kitchen to get the turkey on the table, tarping a leaky roof, or shoveling mud out of a flooded house, we must never be too busy, too intent on our task, too angry, too tired, too broken-hearted, too exhausted, or too focused on our circumstances to turn to God and express our gratitude for His blessings! The only way any of us can see grace, give thanks, or find joy in this “sin-stinking place” of hurricanes, war, rage, disease, and loss is with the eyes of gratitude. Even in the worst of circumstances, there always is something or someone for which to be grateful.

Nothing comes close to God’s gifts of unconditional love, forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life and there is no way we can thank Him enough for those gifts. Thanksgiving shouldn’t be limited to the fourth Thursday in November; regardless of the circumstances, every moment of each day should be one of gratitude and giving thanks!

Enter his gates with thanksgiving; go into his courts with praise. Give thanks to him and praise his name.  For the Lord is good.  His unfailing love continues forever, and his faithfulness continues to each generation. [Psalm 100:4-5 (NLT)]

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LOST

“If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the Lord. [Jeremiah 29:13-14a (NLT)]

Trapp family chapel - Vermont
As devout Jews, every year Joseph, Mary, and their family made the seventy-mile trek from Nazareth to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread. After spending the week in Jerusalem, they gathered with others to make the three-day journey back to Nazareth. It wasn’t until making camp that first night that they discovered Jesus was missing. At first, Joseph and Mary appear to be neglectful and careless parents and little better than the absent-minded McCallisters (of Home Alone) who misplaced their son Kevin not once but twice! After God entrusted His only son to their care, can you imagine Mary and Joseph trying to explain to the Lord how they managed to lose Him?

Mary and Joseph’s error, however, is understandable. Jerusalem normally had a population estimated at 80,000 but, during the Passover, it would have swelled to around 400,000 as people crowded into the city for the festival. Entire villages often travelled together. Traditionally, the women and children would have been in the front of the caravan while the men followed in the rear. Being twelve, Jesus was neither a young child nor a grown man and could have been in either group. As the people gathered for their return trip to Nazareth, each parent probably assumed Jesus was with the other one. Once they discovered His absence, Mary and Joseph returned to Jerusalem the next morning to search for the missing boy and eventually found Him.

While at a mall some 45 years ago, we lost our youngest child in the same way—I thought he was with his father while he thought the boy was with me! Once he and I reconnected and discovered that our child was with neither of us, we spent a frantic ten minutes until we found him enjoying a lollipop at mall security. I can’t imagine waiting days before he was found! No wonder Mary’s anxiety and fear turned into a little scolding when Jesus was discovered!

Bible scholars disagree on how long Jesus actually was missing. Some say it was a total of three days: one day to discover His absence, another day to return to Jerusalem, and the third day to find Him. Other scholars, however, interpret Luke’s words to mean that after the two days of travel, Joseph and Mary searched Jerusalem for three days. Whether three days or five, it appears that the temple was not the first place Mary and Joseph looked. Knowing Jesus as His parents did, shouldn’t it have been the first place they looked? When they finally found Him there, Jesus was surprised by their frantic search. We now understand Jesus’ rather impertinent words to his parents: “‘Why did you need to search?’ he said. ‘Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?’” [2:49]

Like Joseph and Mary, do we make incorrect assumptions about Jesus’ presence in our lives? Do we expect Him to follow us or us to follow Him? Do we make the Pharisees’ mistake of assuming that being religious is the same as being righteous? Do we assume pardon without any penitence or forgiveness when we won’t forgive? Do we assume we’re saved without having been transformed? Do we assume He’ll answer our prayers without our answering His call? Do we assume we’re living for Him without first having died with Him? Do we take Jesus’ presence for granted? Do we expect him to take our journey or are we taking His? It’s never Jesus who is lost but, without Him, we surely are!

As Joseph and Mary learned, if we discover Jesus is missing, a good place to start looking for Him is in His Father’s house.

Search for the Lord and for his strength; continually seek him. [1 Chronicles 16:11 (NLT)]

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HIDDEN BLESSINGS

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)]

great blue heronAs Christians, we know everything that touches us has first passed through our sovereign (and loving) God’s hands. While it is our faith in Him that enables us to accept difficult (even tragic) events, acceptance is easier said than done. Along with faith, Pollyanna, the fictional heroine in Eleanor Porter’s book by the same name, found that the correct mind set helped.

When Pollyanna was disappointed to find crutches instead of the doll she wanted in the package sent by the Ladies Aid Society, her missionary father taught her the “glad game.” Telling her to look at the good side of things, he pointed out they could be glad because she didn’t need the crutches! Pollyanna continued to play the glad game until she was sorely tested by paralysis. Admitting the game wasn’t as much fun to play when it got so challenging, she eventually found some good in her plight—she still had her legs! Indeed, the “glad game” is much harder when the issues are greater; nevertheless, it is a game worth playing.

At the age of 96, my lively and alert father-in-law died, but not of natural causes; he died within an hour of being in a car accident. As my mother-in-law rehabbed in a nursing home from the same accident, I was shocked when she said, “I’m so glad he went that way!” Fortunately, she explained, “He would have hated being in a place like this.” While I would have preferred God taking Grandpa while he napped in his easy chair, she had a point. Like a cat with nine lives, he had several amazing recoveries from earlier strokes and other health problems and still had a good quality of life. In reality, however, he was just a fall or another stroke away from becoming an infirm resident in a nursing home. This energetic and active man of faith was ready for his heavenly home and would have hated waiting for his departure as an invalid. Rather than being angry at the driver who caused the accident, I joined my mother-in-law in the glad game and chose to look at that accident as one of God’s blessings in disguise.

Sometimes, it takes time and the gift of hindsight before we recognize hidden blessings. I was fifteen and the only child still at home when my mother died within a few months of her cancer diagnosis. My emotionally detached and workaholic father was left with a teenager he barely knew while I was left with a man who was more a presence than a parent to me. He knew next to nothing about parenting and I resented his coldness and dogmatic ways. In an odd way, as much as we both mourned my mother, we were blessed by her absence because her death threw us together in a way that demanded change. Out of necessity, he gradually became a loving father and a far better man while the angry troubled teen I was became a loving responsible daughter and a far more compassionate woman. My father died less than five years later but several more years passed before I became aware of my older siblings’ continued resentment, anger, and bitterness toward him. It was only then that I realized how my mother’s death was a blessing in disguise because it gave my father and me an opportunity to build a relationship and to change for the better.

God often conceals blessings in our challenges, disappointments, and heartbreak; it is our task to seek them out. Playing our own version of the “glad game” by looking for God’s loving hand in our lives is the way we can have joy, not in spite of our troubles and sorrow, but because of them.

Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NLT)]

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MAKING A DEAL

God is not a man, so he does not lie. He is not human, so he does not change his mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through? [Numbers 23:19 (NLT)]

halloween pennant dragonfly
While my college mantra was, “Study like you don’t pray and pray like you don’t study,” I tended to wait until the end of the semester to do either one. While cramming for finals, my prayers always included a promise that, if God would help me pass my exams, I’d never again cut class or wait until the last minute to do the required reading.

It certainly is tempting to make promises to God in return for answered prayers. In the 1940s, when Danny Thomas was down and out, the young entertainer did just that. Turning to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, he prayed, “Show me my way in life, and I will build you a shrine.”  When his career took an almost immediate upswing, he envisioned a children’s hospital and started raising money to build and maintain it. In November of 1958, Thomas dug up the first spadeful of dirt at the groundbreaking for St. Jude Hospital! I’m not maligning Danny Thomas, condoning praying to saints, or disparaging the wonderful research hospital that resulted from Thomas’ promise. Nevertheless, in spite of the good that resulted, I don’t think prayers promising something to God if He fulfills our prayers are ones we should make.

When we pray “I’ll do this, if you’ll do that,” it seems like we’re asking God for something we don’t think we’ll get unless we “sweeten the pot” with a promise. It’s as if we don’t truly trust His intentions. The promise to do something for God seems like we’re asking Him to see it our way instead of us desiring His way. Yet, if we’re praying within God’s will, He promises we will receive.

Sometimes, sin is what causes us to make a promise to God. At finals’ time in college, forgetting that both repentance and facing consequences are an essential part of confession and forgiveness, I glibly promised a change in my behavior if I didn’t have to meet the consequences for my foolishness. Others, thinking their sins are just too great for absolution, make a promise to serve God in some way to merit His forgiveness, which seems a lot like bribing a judge for an innocent verdict. Such deal making is refusing God’s grace. Since Jesus already paid for our sins on the cross, paying God for forgiveness and absolution is an offense to Him!

Sometimes we make promises to God out of gratitude. Preferring to rely on ourselves rather than Him, we’re uncomfortable with feeling beholden or indebted to God. Rather than offering Him praise and thanksgiving, we make a pledge to do something as a way of thanking God for blessings received. Then, after fulfilling our promise, we’re the ones who feel praiseworthy for our good works! Trying to pay God for blessings received is another insult to Him; our good works should come from our love for Him rather than as a payment to Him.

Although God always keeps His promises, we humans aren’t so reliable and, more often than not, we break our promises to God. Granted, Danny Thomas kept his promise but perhaps he’s the exception that proves the rule. When the next semester rolled around in college, because I’d failed to keep the previous semester’s promise, I again made the same conditional prayer while cramming for exams. Although I always ended up with decent grades, it had nothing to do with my promises. Those grades, like Danny Thomas’ success and every other good thing that comes our way, have nothing to do with our promises—they are received only by God’s grace!

Praying with conditional promises of any kind turns our prayers into a transaction. Moreover, because we think it was our promise that caused the prayer’s fulfillment, it robs God of his deserved glory and praise. May we always remember that following Christ isn’t about making promises to God, it is about depending on the promises of God!

Believers do not pray, with the view of informing God about things unknown to him, or of exciting him to do his duty, or of urging him as though he were reluctant. On the contrary, they pray, in order that they may arouse themselves to seek him, that they may exercise their faith in meditating on his promises, that they may relieve themselves from their anxieties by pouring them into his bosom; in a word, that they may declare that from him alone they hope and expect, both for themselves and for others, all good things. [John Calvin]

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. [Ephesians 2:8-9 (NLT)]

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RELIGIOUS PRIVILEGES

But it is no shame to suffer for being a Christian. Praise God for the privilege of being called by his name! [1 Peter 4:16 (NLT)]


Before my evening prayers, I often reflect on a prayer from The Valley of Vision, a collection of Puritan prayers edited by Arthur Bennett. In a recent selection, the prayer’s author asked the Lord to let him know his “need of renovation as well as of forgiveness,” and confessed, “I am often straying, often knowingly opposing thy authority, often abusing thy goodness….” He went on to admit, “Much of my guilt arises from my religious privileges, my low estimation of them, and my failure to use them to my advantage.” His words gave me pause.

Since a privilege is a special right, advantage, benefit, exemption, or legal immunity granted only to a particular person or group, I pondered the “religious privileges” we enjoy as Christians. The obvious is that even though we remain sinners, our belief in Jesus gives us God’s forgiveness; because Jesus paid the price for our sins, we are exempt from an eternity in Hell. That, however, was God who willingly gave up His absolute power and privilege to take on mankind’s limitations and die a criminal’s torturous death for us! Do we truly appreciate what He did or do we take that privilege for granted and fail to do the spiritual renovation necessary to show our appreciation for His sacrifice and blood? Do we thank the Lord each and every day for what He did on the cross?

Aside from a Christian’s destiny of having a home in heaven and sharing in the glory of God, what other religious benefits do we have? As Christ’s followers, we have the advantages of the peace that surpasses all understanding and the ability to find joy in all circumstances. We have the blessings of His continual presence, guidance, and protection from the enemy. We have the privilege of sharing the Gospel message and even that of suffering in His name!

Do we value the privilege of direct access to God and the advantage of two intercessors: the Holy Spirit who intercedes within us and puts our concerns into words along with Jesus Christ who intercedes for us in heaven? The Holy Spirit, however, is more than an intercessor. He corrects, teaches, sanctifies, strengthens, comforts, protects, and enables us to recognize the truth and obey God. He gives us one or more spiritual gifts and produces His fruit in us. Do we fully appreciate and use the many privileges and benefits that only Christ followers can enjoy or do we ignore and possibly abuse them?

A Christian’s “religious privileges” are offered to all but accepted by few. May we never be unappreciative, neglectful, or careless with God’s gifts or favor by disregarding the privilege of being one of His adopted children.

It is our privilege to know that we are saved. [ D.L. Moody]

Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory.[Romans 5:2 (NLT)]

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NO GUILT

For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. [Matthew 5:45 (NLT)]

peony
50 years ago, mothers spent several days in the hospital before going home with their newborns. While sharing my hospital room with a young woman who’d given birth to her first child, I overheard the pediatrician explain that her baby had Down’s syndrome, was being examined by a pediatric cardiologist, and likely needed immediate surgery. Although my heart broke for that mother, I also felt a sense of relief his news wasn’t for me. Statistically, as the older woman with three children, I was the mother more likely to hear that diagnosis. Knowing I was no more deserving of a healthy child than was she, I felt a tinge of guilt for the healthy infant nursing at my breast.

Have you ever felt guilty for receiving blessings when others weren’t so blessed, for reaping a harvest of blessings that you didn’t sow, for catching “lucky breaks” that come from God’s hand, or for having the equivalent of manna from heaven when others go hungry? We’re no more deserving than anyone else and yet our fertility treatment worked, we beat the odds with the chemo, we survived the crash, a loved one got sober, or our prodigal child returned. While others are not so blessed, we have healthy babies, loving parents, successful children, a financially secure retirement, a booming business, or simply were in the right place at exactly the right time. Yes, we may have prepared well and worked hard, but so have others who never enjoyed those blessings! When hearing the horrific stories told by Ian’s survivors and witnessing the destruction this hurricane left in its wake, I felt guilty admitting that the worst we suffered was lack of cell service, 24-hours without TV, and a few hours of yard and lanai clean-up.

With so many others suffering or in need, I’m probably not alone in feeling some sort of guilt or shame for God’s blessings like better circumstances, answered prayers, and what seems like “dumb luck.” Job asked “Why me?” about his suffering and I can’t help but wonder “Why me, Lord?” about the incredible blessings He’s bestowed on me. But, just as Job never discovered God’s reasoning, neither will I! As the one who controls the universe, God knows exactly what He’s doing even though we don’t. Rather than understand Him, God asks us to trust in His infinite wisdom and love.

God is not sadistic, cruel, neglectful, incompetent, or capricious. He doesn’t scatter blessings and trials impulsively, haphazardly, or accidentally. Knowing the past, present, and future of the entire cosmos, His perspective is far wider than ours ever will be. Although He orchestrates events that frequently seem questionable, needless, tragic, or unjust, we must accept that God is God and we, most definitely are not. We will never know the reasons behind our blessings or tragedies.

As Christ followers, what we do know is that we are recipients of the most undeserved and greatest gift of all—Jesus! As sinful and undeserving as we are, I suspect none of us feel guilty about receiving God’s only son and the salvation and eternal life that He purchased for us! Why then should we feel any guilt for His other blessings (all of which are equally undeserved)?

Let us remember that guilt is a gift from the enemy. If he can’t make us envious of the blessings received by others, he’ll try to make us ashamed of the blessings God gives to us. Rather than questioning God’s reasoning, let us recognize His amazing grace and appreciate his lavish generosity. It’s an insult to the Giver of All Gifts to discount, disregard, squander, or fail to appreciate, enjoy, and use all that we’ve been given. While we should be humble when accepting God’s blessings, we must never be ashamed or embarrassed about them.

If God has bestowed a blessing upon us, it’s because others are in need and we are the means by which He fills those needs. The only reason for guilt or shame is when we’re not good and faithful servants who steward and share His gifts wisely and generously while giving God the glory!

All the blessings we enjoy are Divine deposits, committed to our trust on this condition, that they should be dispensed for the benefit of our neighbors. [John Calvin]

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. [Ephesians 2:8-10 (NLT)]

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