God has given each of you a gift from his great variety of spiritual gifts. Use them well to serve one another. [1 Peter 4:10 (NLT)]

great blue heronWhile writing about the spiritual gift of healing these last two days, I recalled a conversation about this spiritual gift with a pastor friend. I asked if anyone in his church was gifted with healing. He said no with a caveat: just because he knew of no one didn’t necessarily mean that no one had it. Having a gift doesn’t guarantee it will be used.

Take our Aunt Margaret, for example. When she died, we found several boxes of brand new shirts and nightgowns stashed in the corner of her closet. The same size and style as the stained and threadbare ones she always wore, they were birthday and Christmas presents we’d sent her through the years. Aunt Margaret’s receipt of her gifts didn’t mean she used them and receiving a gift from the Spirit doesn’t mean we’ll use it either!

Unlike Margaret’s gifts, spiritual gifts aren’t mass produced or come in a box from Macy’s. They are individual gifts God designs expressly for each person that are given to us when we become Christ’s servant. His gifts are capabilities like wisdom, teaching, encouragement, helping, administration, pastoring, giving, hospitality, evangelism, leadership or healing that enable us to build God’s Kingdom. If we are going to be good stewards of these gifts, we must both recognize and use them by responding when the Spirit offers us opportunities to do so. Unfortunately, willfulness, fear, and lack of faith often keep us from doing that.

Several years ago, in our small group at church, I met a troubled young woman who needed encouragement. At the Spirit’s urging, I surprised myself by offering to email her each day with an uplifting Bible verse. Originally, I expected the emails to stop when our group study ended. God, however, had other plans and, before I knew it, I was adding a few words to the day’s verse and sending out messages to sixty people. When a friend (one gifted with encouragement) urged me to post my devotions on a website, I pushed back in fear. Like Moses, I thought of all the reasons I was unqualified rather than trusting God to qualify me! Eventually, in obedience, I stepped out in faith, started using His gift and fulfilling the purpose He had for me. Now, more than six years, 2,000 devotions, and 500 followers later, I know the ability to do this is a God-given gift; I couldn’t do it on my own.

In Sunday school, the children sing, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!” before asking, “Hide it under a bushel?” and answering with a rousing shout, “No!” What about our lights—those special gifts designed just for us and given to us by the Holy Spirit? Are we letting them shine? I’ve been a follower of Christ for a long time but it didn’t take the Spirit decades before He gifted me. It just took me decades to shine my light and use His gift as He intended!

Only God knows if anyone in that pastor’s church is gifted with healing. One day, however, we all will be asked to account for the way we used our spiritual gifts, whatever they may be. Let’s not make the mistake of hiding them under a bushel or leaving them ignored and unused in the corner of our hearts.

Your spiritual gifts were not given for your own benefit but for the benefit of others, just as other people were given gifts for your benefit. [Rick Warren]

The master said, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!” … To those who use well what they are given, even more will be given, and they will have an abundance. But from those who do nothing, even what little they have will be taken away. [Matthew 25:23,29 (NLT)]

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At the same time the Spirit also helps us in our weakness, because we don’t know how to pray for what we need. But the Spirit intercedes along with our groans that cannot be expressed in words. The one who searches our hearts knows what the Spirit has in mind. The Spirit intercedes for God’s people the way God wants him to. [Romans 8:26-27 (GW)]

sandhill craneAs a writer, I like to create with words. When writing a devotion, I carefully organize my thoughts, often cutting and pasting while moving sentences or entire paragraphs around. Supporting Bible verses are sought and various commentaries are consulted. Every word is carefully chosen (often after a synonym search). Grammar and spelling are double-checked and editing and rewriting continue right up to publication. All of that messing around with words, phrases and punctuation may be fine when putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, but not when praying. Prayers would never get said if they required that amount of composing, revising and polishing!

God isn’t like an editor with a blue pencil telling us to shorten a paragraph, elaborate on an idea or find a better adjective before the prayer is worthy. He’s not like a teacher with a red pencil checking off our misspellings or grammatical errors. He’s doesn’t grade our prayers or refuse to listen if we’ve ended a sentence with a preposition or split an infinitive. He’s more like a mother who reads and treasures her young child’s letter from camp with its smudges, messy printing, and misspellings. He’s just glad to hear from us.

We’ve all felt painfully inarticulate when it comes to prayer but that shouldn’t prevent us from praying. Although our words may be clumsy, being eloquent is not a requirement for prayer. The power of our prayers is not contained in words, sentence structure, or eloquence; the power of our prayers is found only in the One who hears those prayers! Fortunately, in God’s infinite mercy, He’s given us the assistance of the Holy Spirit. This Spirit, living in us, intercedes for us in our hearts and it’s that heartfelt prayer that reaches God’s ears.

Don’t be so concerned about wrapping the gift that you never give it. … Better to pray awkwardly than not at all. [Max Lucado]

Dear friends, use your most holy faith to grow. Pray with the Holy Spirit’s help. [Jude 1:20 (GW)]

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ROCKY SOIL (Soil – Part 2)

rocky soilOther seed fell among rocks. It began to grow, but the plant soon wilted and died for lack of moisture. [Luke 8:6 (NLT)]

If sinners take up religion in a fair day, they will lay it down in a foul day. They are willing to go to seas, but on condition there are no storms. They think too much of wearing a thorn, though it is borrowed from Christ’s crown. [D.L. Moody]

In the parable of the four soils, some of the farmer’s seed falls among the rocks. Again, this is not the farmer’s fault. Much of the soil of Israel and Judah was rocky and only a thin layer of topsoil covered the limestone base. While seeds might germinate, the seedlings would have weak root systems. Any moisture falling on such shallow soil evaporates quickly and, with roots unable to penetrate the stone, the sprouts soon wither and die. Just as the seed that fell on the pathway could be snatched away, it’s easy for the enemy to pull such weak seedlings out of the soil.

The rocky soil represents a shallow and impulsive faith—a faith based on emotions rather than a conscious decision to trust God with all things. We must never mistake outward fervor (in others or ourselves) as evidence of conversion. This is a “fair-weather faith” that answers the altar call with joy but disappears at the first sign of difficulty, service, or sacrifice. Superficial, it’s more about being religious than being obedient or devoted to God. This shallow response is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer might call “cheap grace…forgiveness without repentance, baptism without discipline, communion without confession, and grace without discipleship or the cross.” The Apostle James called it “dead” or “useless” faith because it goes through the motions without growing or producing fruit. With no depth of understanding, it is vulnerable and easily deceived.

Although human emotion can’t sustain our faith, with enough effort rocky soil can be broken up and shallow faith can deepen. When we deliberately choose to yield our lives to God’s plow and allow His Word to penetrate deep into our hearts, our faith can flourish and survive both drought and flood!

So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless. … You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless? [James 2:17,19-20 (NLT)]

But blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence. They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water. Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought. Their leaves stay green, and they never stop producing fruit. [Jeremiah 17:7-8 (NLT)]

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May the Lord bless you and protect you. May the Lord smile on you and be gracious to you. May the Lord show you his favor and give you his peace. [Numbers 6:24-26 (NLT)]

crabappleThe Lord instructed Moses that this prayer was to be used by Aaron and his descendants (Israel’s priests) as a blessing for the people of Israel. Since then, this familiar benediction, often said at the end of a worship service, has been used by synagogues and Christian churches throughout the world.

There’s another blessing that’s been around for centuries: saying “God bless you!” after a sneeze. The source of this tradition is murkier than the source of that beautiful benediction. It may have been because of an ancient superstition that the soul left the body during a sneeze; the blessing was a way to keep evil spirits from invading the sneezer while his soul was out wandering. Another notion was that a sneeze expelled evil spirits and the blessing kept those spirits from invading a new person. Some people thought that one’s heart stopped beating during a sneeze so the blessing welcomed the sneezer back from the dead.

Some scholars credit Pope Gregory I with starting this pleasant tradition. During an outbreak of the bubonic plague in the late 6th century, the Pope commanded unceasing prayer to stop the epidemic. Since sneezing and coughing were plague symptoms, he asked that a sneezer be immediately blessed so he wouldn’t develop the disease. How ever it came to be, “God bless” following a sneeze is considered common courtesy. What does is actually mean when we ask God to bless someone?

A blessing is a divine gift (whether spiritual, physical, or material) that either directly or indirectly affects the life, health, or well-being of an individual or community. As with any true gift, a blessing is offered unconditionally. When we ask God’s blessings on someone, we are asking for God’s divine favor to rest upon him or her. It’s a prayer that God will care for someone and keep that person from harm. It’s a request for God’s kindness and mercy to someone. A blessing asks God to shower someone with His approval and to bring him or her harmony and peace.

We’re not Levitical priests, bubonic plague is not a concern, and we know our spirits don’t run off nor do our hearts stop beating when we sneeze, so we don’t need to ask God’s blessing on someone for any of those reasons. What does God’s command to Moses mean to us? As Christians, we are members of a royal priesthood. As Christ’s priests, we are called to bring His love into this dark and troubled world. Asking God’s blessing upon someone is more than good manners; it’s our job. We shouldn’t save the words “God bless you!” to be said unthinkingly only when people sneeze. As His priests, we should sincerely, thoughtfully, and regularly be asking for God’s blessings upon all of His people. May God richly bless you!

And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple. What’s more, you are his holy priests. … You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light. [1 Peter 2:5,9 (NLT)]

May the Lord richly bless both you and your children. May you be blessed by the Lord, who made heaven and earth. [Psalm 115:14-15 (NLT)]

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Then the rich man said, “O Father Abraham, then please send him to my father’s home—for I have five brothers—to warn them about this place of torment lest they come here when they die.” But Abraham said, “The Scriptures have warned them again and again. Your brothers can read them any time they want to.” The rich man replied, “No, Father Abraham, they won’t bother to read them. But if someone is sent to them from the dead, then they will turn from their sins.” But Abraham said, “If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t listen even though someone rises from the dead.” [Luke 16:27-31 (TLB)]

A land of contradictions, a spectacular pageant, a world incomprehensible…a wonderful gift to men from a benign God—all this and more. [Olin Wheeler, 1914]

lion geyser - grand canyon of yellowstone

Although Native Americans have existed in the Yellowstone area for as long as 11,000 years, it took three major expeditions before the American public finally believed that the wonders in what is now Yellowstone National Park actually existed. The earlier descriptions of “fire and brimstone,” huge waterfalls, exploding geysers, boiling mud pots and other strange features of the region were met with unbelief until William Jackson’s photographs and Thomas Moran’s paintings from their 1871 Yellowstone expedition were presented to Congress. Once people had visual proof of the area’s bizarre geothermal wonders, they finally believed and Yellowstone became our nation’s first national park.

Indeed, having recently toured this park that sits on atop of the largest super-volcano in North America, I can understand how unbelievable those first mountain men’s stories must have seemed. In my wildest dreams, I couldn’t have imagined either the beauty or the strangeness of Yellowstone—colored travertine terraces, mud volcanos, steaming caves, a 24-mile long canyon, over 200 waterfalls, and more than 10,000 geysers and hot springs. Other worldly, it is something that truly must be seen to be believed.

Jesus told the Pharisees a parable about two men: the unrighteous rich man who died and went to a place of torment and the beggar Lazarus who died and went to a heavenly banquet. The rich man wanted to send Lazarus back to warn his brothers to change their ways. His request was denied since, like him, his brothers had ignored the warnings found in the Law and the Prophets so they wouldn’t be convinced by someone returning from the dead. Indeed, even though Jesus did return from the dead, there are many who do not believe.

We often wonder what heaven and/or hell will be like. Jesus didn’t mince any words when he spoke of the final judgment and it doesn’t sound pleasant. When the Apostle John was given a glimpse of heaven, his words in Revelation seem almost as incomprehensible to us as the words the mountain men used to describe Yellowstone’s bubbling mud pots and hissing fumaroles were to nineteenth century Americans. Father Abraham didn’t send back Lazarus and no one is going to return from death with photographs or paintings to prove what happens when we take our last breath.

Words can’t adequately describe Yellowstone and the few Biblical descriptions of both heaven and hell don’t do them justice, either. Nevertheless, like the rich man’s brothers, we have all the information we need in Scripture. As the American public learned in 1871, just because we can’t imagine something doesn’t mean it isn’t there!

Just as in this story the thistles are separated and burned, so shall it be at the end of the world: I will send my angels, and they will separate out of the Kingdom every temptation and all who are evil, and throw them into the furnace and burn them. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the godly shall shine as the sun in their Father’s Kingdom. Let those with ears, listen! [Matthew 13:40-43 (TLB)]

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