WALKING IN HOPE

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” [Revelation 21:3-4 [(NLT)]

dawnMy Advent devotional suggested taking a prayer walk while looking for signs of hope. I took my regular route and, since I often pray while walking, I wasn’t sure how this walk would be different. Nevertheless, I went in search of hope. The first thing I noticed was the sun rising in the east—a sure sign of hope with its promise of a new day and all of its possibilities. I spotted a family of ducks waddling down to the pond. The five youngsters were no longer little yellow fluffs of feathers but mama duck still kept her eyes on them. Mothers of every species hope to keep their children safe—even when they’re no longer children! I noticed the lilies, canna, and arrowhead that had been planted at waters’ edge last spring to prevent shoreline erosion. They were starting to bear their first flowers—another sign of hope because it means they took root and will serve their purpose. A few people had decorated their houses for the holiday; since not all the décor was secular, I found hope that some people still keep Christ in Christmas. Further on, a patient great blue heron stood absolutely still, neck fully extended, hoping to catch a tasty fish breakfast. It reminded me that we must remain patient in our hope—all things in God’s time. Seeing a few wood storks wading in the water also was a hopeful sign; once an “endangered” breed, their status has been upgraded to “threatened,” meaning there is hope for the survival of their species.

Since this was a prayer walk, I went through my prayer list of hope-filled prayers for what could be called happy endings—things like a successful surgery, passing grades, reconciliation, recovery from illness, sobriety, a new job, successful endeavors, the sale of a house, safe travels, a problem solved, and an obstacle surmounted. Sadly, for some of the names on my list, happy endings on this side of the grass don’t seem likely. Modern-day Jobs, the cards they’re holding are bad ones. Unlike Job who got a better hand in a re-deal and ended up with more than he’d had before, they appear stuck in their dismal situations with no new cards in sight. Barring a miracle, their circumstances aren’t likely to improve. In 1 Corinthians 13, the Apostle Paul mentions the three things that last forever: faith, hope and love. He calls love the greatest of the three; perhaps hope is the hardest.

Wondering about the purpose of my hope walk, I thought back to the day’s Advent readings from Revelation and Isaiah. Advent hope isn’t a wishful thinking/finger-crossing kind of hope, like hoping the pathologist’s report says “benign.” It’s more than hoping a good outcome for something about which we’re unsure. Our hope is in God and He’s already promised us a better future. Advent hope is knowing that, in spite of our circumstances, God eventually will work it all together for our good. While we hope for deliverance from our present troubles, we know that, ultimately, we will be delivered. Our hope isn’t in situations, people, medicine, or the stock market and we don’t need a knight in shining armor to rescue us from our woes. Our hope is in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit! Whether the hand dealt to us looks hopeless or not, we continue to maintain Advent hope by looking away from our circumstances to the One who holds our lives in His hands.

Our hope is in Immanuel, which means “God is with us”! He is with us in our birth and death, sickness and health, joy and sorrow, good times and bad. Let us remember that, if He is with us, then we are with Him—in His resurrection, ascension, and the glory of His second coming!

Optimism and hope are radically different attitudes. Optimism is the expectation that things—the weather, human relationship, the economy, the political situation, and so on—will get better. Hope is trust that God will fulfill God’s promises to us in a way that leads us to true freedom. [Henri Nouwen]

The Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’). [Isaiah 7:14 (NLT)]

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OUR GATEKEEPER

Be careful what you think, because your thoughts run your life. [Proverbs 4:23 NCV]

Corkscrew SwampActing as gatekeepers for the temple in Jerusalem, the Levites opened and closed its doors and guarded it during the night. Among their many duties, they prohibited entry to anyone considered “unclean,” protected the temple from theft or desecration, watched the offering and tithe money, and maintained proper decorum within the temple. They also were the ones who imposed the death penalty on any who dared enter the temple illegally.

Although many churches have implemented security measures, we no longer have Levites at our church doors. Most of us, however, could use a similar gatekeeper to protect our minds (and mouths) from anything that could defile us. Like crashers at a party, negative thoughts can sneak into our heads. Once in, they tend to prop open the door so more negativity can follow. Anger often brings his pals animosity and resentment. Once fear steals in, worry slips in right behind him; doubt, regret and suspicion are sure to follow. Before we know it, bitterness and hatred have joined the party, along with envy, lust, and their old friend guilt. When our minds are filled with undesirable and unwelcome callers, there’s little room left for any positive thinking. Once those bad thoughts have gotten into our heads, they want to continue their damage by spilling out through our mouths.

The mind’s gatekeeper must be diligent, on duty 24/7, and refuse entry to any thoughts and feelings considered “unclean” or inappropriate. He’d maintain order in house and keep our thinking in line. On the lookout for hazards, he’d steer us away from situations that could bring trouble or temptation. Rather than kill temple trespassers who stepped beyond the warning stone, the gatekeeper would squash any negative words before they could escape!

Unfortunately, the books of Kings and Chronicles tell us that the Temple’s gatekeepers fell down on the job. They allowed the dwelling place of God to be defiled by idolatry and fall into disrepair. When King Hezekiah ordered the Temple’s purification, it took more than two weeks simply to clean it!

At the moment of Jesus’s death, the Temple was no longer the place of God’s presence. Because of Christ, God dwells within each one of us. Having provided each of us with a far better Gatekeeper in the Holy Spirit, Levites are no longer needed at our doors. We, however, must cede control to the Spirit so that He can do His job!

You should know that your body is a temple for the Holy Spirit who is in you. You have received the Holy Spirit from God. So you do not belong to yourselves. [1 Corinthians 6:19 (NCV)]

Those who live following their sinful selves think only about things that their sinful selves want. But those who live following the Spirit are thinking about the things the Spirit wants them to do. If people’s thinking is controlled by the sinful self, there is death. But if their thinking is controlled by the Spirit, there is life and peace.  …The true children of God are those who let God’s Spirit lead them. [Romans 8:5-6,14 (NLT)]

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THE STORY CONTINUES 

I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world. [John 16:33 (NLT)]

mute swanYesterday, I wrote of those times when we’re blind-sided by challenges and difficulty. When that happens, it truly is difficult to accept and trust God’s love and wisdom. Unfortunately, while Jesus made many promises, an easy life was not one of them. In fact, we’re told that troubles are pretty much guaranteed.

Just as a book has several chapters, some happier than others, so it goes with our lives. Often a chapter filled with challenges is followed by a chapter of blessings. That happened for several of those people about whom I wrote. Three estranged adult children came together to help their parents during that series of medical crises. Better yet, their mother recovered from her stroke and her cancer treatment was successful. The man defrauded by his business partner paid off his debts and started over again; he has become a wealthy man. The woman betrayed by her husband met a widower and fell in love; the two married and she is now mother to his three children. God blessed the couple who lost their twin boys with a beautiful healthy little girl. Although she didn’t beat cancer, the fifteen extra years God gave the last woman allowed her to raise her children and hold her first grandchild. Her once heartbroken husband recently remarried and started a new chapter in his life.

Does this mean an end to all of their troubles? No; troubles will come and go. More chapters will be written, some better than others, but none of us should worry or be afraid while waiting for the next chapter to unfold. We must trust God’s plan for us and live each day, one day at a time, secure in the knowledge that God will provide us with all we need to meet every challenge. We can remain confident that the last chapter of our lives, the one when we enter God’s kingdom, will be the best one ever!

If God can bring blessing from the broken body of Jesus and glory from something that’s as obscene as the cross, He can bring blessing from my problems and my pain and my unanswered prayer. I just have to trust Him. [Anne Graham Lotz]

My health may fail, and my spirit may grow weak, but God remains the strength of my heart; he is mine forever. Those who desert him will perish, for you destroy those who abandon you. But as for me, how good it is to be near God! I have made the Sovereign Lord my shelter, and I will tell everyone about the wonderful things you do. [Psalm 73:26-28 (NLT)]

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PERMANENT RECORDS

He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west. [Psalm 103:12 (NLT)]

I—yes, I alone—will blot out your sins for my own sake and will never think of them again. [Isaiah 43:25 (NLT)]

great southern white butterfly

When I was a girl in elementary school, the teachers would speak ominously of our permanent records. While the threat that Santa knowing if we’re good or bad only worked during December, a teacher’s threat of, “This is going on your permanent record!” scared us into obedience the entire year! Perhaps elementary schoolers in the 1950s were more naïve than today’s youngsters, but my friends and I were convinced that each of us had a permanent record that logged test scores, grades, and attendance records along with every infraction or disciplinary action. Every time we used our outside voices inside, chewed gum in class, forgot the hall pass, passed notes, got in a spat, lost our lunch money, or were sent to the office, the transgression was documented for posterity. Passed from teacher to teacher and school to school, that record might even follow us from job to job.

Nowadays, the dreaded permanent record no longer may be a threat and yet, with social media postings, today’s youngsters are far more likely to have a real permanent record of their assorted transgressions than I ever was!

Fortunately, God doesn’t keep a permanent record of our transgressions. When Jesus died on the cross, He paid for our sins (past, present and future) once and for all. Once we repent and accept Jesus, our sins are both forgiven and removed. Erasing them from our permanent record, God chooses not to remember them. His forgiveness, however, doesn’t mean we’ll never sin; just as we didn’t get 100% on every test in school, we won’t do life perfectly. But, because of Christ’s sacrifice and our faith, our sins no longer have any bearing on our salvation. When we repent and ask forgiveness, God’s loving grace forgives us and yesterday’s mistakes have no bearing on today. God gets out his holy eraser again and again and wipes them away. Along with the Apostle Paul, we can forget what is behind us and look forward to what lies ahead.

If seven times a day we offend him and repent, does he forgive? Ay, that he does. This is to be unfeignedly believed, and I do believe it: I believe that, often as I transgress, God is more ready to forgive me than I am ready to offend, though, alas, I am all too ready to transgress. Hast thou right thoughts of God, dear hearer? If so, then thou knowest that he is a tender father, willing to wipe the tear of penitence away, and press his offending child to his bosom, and kiss him with the kisses of his forgiving love. [Charles Spurgeon]

No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. [Philippians 3:13-14 (NLT)]

For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. [2 Corinthians 5:21 (NLT)]

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PUTTING IT IN PERSPECTIVE

I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn over what is going to happen to me, but the world will rejoice. You will grieve, but your grief will suddenly turn to wonderful joy. It will be like a woman suffering the pains of labor. When her child is born, her anguish gives way to joy because she has brought a new baby into the world. [John 16:20-21 (NLT)]

baby boyOn the night He was betrayed, Jesus forewarned the disciples of the grief and fear they’d encounter in the days ahead. In his short parable about labor and delivery, Jesus prepared the remaining eleven disciples for the emotions they would encounter over the next three days: their anguish and despair as He hung upon the cross, died, and was buried. For His followers, those three days would feel like an eternity of hopelessness. But, as happens when a woman beholds her newborn baby after hours of painful labor, their despair would turn to joy when they saw the resurrected Christ!

At the time, no one could have convinced me that I would forget the pain of my long labor and medication-free delivery but, when I held my first-born, I did. All women do (or every baby would be an only child)! Those first six months of sleepless nights spent comforting that colicky boy seemed endless; I didn’t know how I’d endure them but I did. Yesterday, he celebrated his 50th birthday and the 24-hours he spent making his way into this world make up only 1/18,251th of his life and just 1/26,406th of mine! Even the six exhausting months he spent crying in my arms every night are only 1% of his life and less than .7% of mine! While putting my labor and sleepless nights into perspective, I realized my fractions are wrong because I can’t determine the true length of my life; rather than ending here on earth, it will continue forever in God’s heavenly Kingdom.

Jesus’s parable applies to more than those three days the disciples hid in a room following his crucifixion. It applies to the suffering and pain endured by all of His children (which often lasts far longer than 24 hours, 3 days, or even six months). Anguish of any kind seems interminable and unbearable but, when put in perspective, it is but a blip on our eternal lifeline. For now, we live in a world of tears, weariness, frustration, anxiety, confusion, disappointment, loss, fear, and affliction but, on the other side of this earthly life, there is a place without pain, sorrow, grief or tragedy! Although it’s of little comfort to those hurting, our present suffering must be viewed in the light of eternity. As heavy as the weight of our present pain may be, when put on a scale and weighed against the eternal joys of heaven, it is no more than a feather. That doesn’t mean anyone’s pain is small; it simply means that eternity is absolutely enormous! Let us remember—all that’s wrong in this fallen world is temporary and will be forgotten when we joyfully behold His face in eternity!

The best we can hope for in this life is a knothole peek at the shining realities ahead. Yet a glimpse is enough. It’s enough to convince our hearts that whatever sufferings and sorrows currently assail us aren’t worthy of comparison to that which waits over the horizon. [Joni Eareckson Tada]

For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. [1 Corinthians 4:17-18 (NLT)]

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TRUSTING THE OUTCOME

This is what the Lord says: “Cursed are those who put their trust in mere humans, who rely on human strength and turn their hearts away from the Lord. They are like stunted shrubs in the desert, with no hope for the future. They will live in the barren wilderness, in an uninhabited salty land.” [Jeremiah 17:5-6 (NLT)]

Our pod is missing! Well, not exactly missing but no one can tell us where it is! We only know that the large box holding our precious possessions is no longer sitting in our driveway back in Illinois nor is it sitting in our driveway here in Florida. While the company promises us that it will arrive by September 29, their responses to our inquiries don’t inspire much confidence. How can they know when it will arrive if they don’t know where it is? Moreover, no one can tell us why it will take four weeks to travel 1,378 miles! Although I keep reminding myself that it’s just stuff, it is our stuff—the stuff we cared about enough to keep and move.

My impatience and frustration at not knowing where the pod is, what condition it is in, and how close it is to arriving make me think of my impatience in prayer, and I don’t think I’m alone in this. Not only do we want to dictate the manner, timing, and outcome of our prayers but also we’d like God to provide us with regular updates as to His progress on our requests. While God is far more trustworthy than any moving company, He usually is as silent about the particulars of our prayers’ outcomes.

It really comes down to trust. Do I trust the movers? Well, I trusted them enough to fill their box with things that were important to me and have them haul it away. At this point, I can trust them to keep their delivery promise or worry about it. Since worry isn’t going to get it here any faster (if at all), I have no choice but to surrender the outcome to them (while praying for its safe and speedy arrival).

It comes down to trust in our prayers, as well—trust in God (and He has a far better track record than any moving company!) Trust has to fill the gap between our heartfelt request and His response. It’s found in that space between our telling God the what, how, where and when of what we want and our ceding the outcome and all of its details to Him. Not everything we ask for will be received; we’re not the customer and God isn’t our celestial vending machine. We don’t get to dictate the terms of our agreement or the end result. We can’t threaten to take our business elsewhere and, unlike the proverbial customer, we are not the ones who are always right. There is only one God and, as the One in charge, He is not at our mercy; we are at His!

When Jeremiah spoke his words of condemnation to the people of Judah, the people had trusted in false gods and military alliances instead of God. In effect, they’d trusted in their own wisdom rather than God’s promises. We may not be erecting Asherah poles, sacrificing to Baal, or making alliances with pagan nations but, when we dictate the outcome of our prayers, we’re little different; we’re trusting in our wisdom and strength rather than God’s.

“The great act of faith is when man decides that he is not God,” said Oliver Wendell Holmes. Indeed, it is. When we turn our concerns Godward, we must trust that our Heavenly Father, the omnipotent creator of the universe, actually knows what He’s doing. Recognizing that God is God (and we are not), we must surrender the outcome and all of the particulars (including the timing) to Him. He is our hope and confidence, our strength and our shield!

“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)]

The Lord is my strength and shield. I trust him with all my heart. He helps me, and my heart is filled with joy. I burst out in songs of thanksgiving. [Psalm 28:7 (NLT)]

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