Tuesday, September 29, 2015

It's a gift! - "the GRACE project"

Grace, grace, grace...for the last two months I've heard the word "Grace" countless times. One day after hearing it in yet another song on the radio I said to my son, "Every song is about grace. They all have that word." His response, "Mom, they've always been like that...you just hear it now."

That conversation took place a day after our niece, Grace, was killed in an accident and J.D. was right, I heard that word much more often now. The songs haven't changed, nor has my pastor's preaching or the words in my Bible, but my awareness has. 

I've sang "Amazing Grace", listened to sermons about grace and memorized verses with the word grace and if I had to guess I'm sure you've sang about, heard about it and appreciated grace as well. Am I right? It's a common word in the Christian culture, but is it one we understand? 

I think we all do to a degree, but like everything with God there's always more we can learn and understand. Over the last 60 days, I have been listening better and studying more...Grace is a broad topic and the more I study sometimes it feels the more I have to learn. I promise this post won't cover it all, so let's start with the basics...

The definition of grace is - the free and unmerited favor of God. Grace is something we cannot earn and do not deserve. Ephesians 2:8-9 sum it up quite well, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast." To keep things simple, grace is a gift.

A couple of weeks back, I spoke with some elementary kids at AWANA's and as I described and tried to define grace I had a volunteer come forward. I gave the child a small wrapped package. The kids were excited...who doesn't like a present right? 

We talked about presents - how they are fun to receive, how we look forward to them and how we don't have to earn them. After a short conversation, I turned the focus back to my volunteer and the wrapped package. I said, "We can be excited about a gift, but right now she doesn't even know what this present is, it's really not doing her much good. What does she need to do?" In unison the whole room shouted, "Open it!" 

My volunteer unwrapped the package to find a note card with the Ephesians verse you read earlier. We went on to talk about God's grace that saves us...a grace many of us know about, sing about and learn about, but just like the wrapped present that's not enough. We have to receive the gift God wants to give, open it and use it or apply it to our lives.

Friend, perhaps you have received the gift of God's grace in relation to salvation. Maybe you have accepted His Son as Lord and Savior, but grace is so much bigger than that. God's grace is multi-dimensional and affects many areas of our lives and faith. It saves us and sustains us. It comforts and connects us. It convicts and cleanses us. It fills us and equips us. It tells us much about the God we love and helps us serve Him too. 

Grace is something we receive when we accept Jesus, but friend it's also a gift we need to unwrap everyday, actually every moment. We need God's grace when we're tired, when we're scared, when we're broken, when we're repentant, when we're empty, when we're...you fill in the blank. 

2 Corinthinas 12:9 says, "My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness." God's grace is enough. He will give us what we need. 2 Corinthians 9:8 tells us, "And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work." 

This grace is not some magic pill that will make problems disappear and pain cease, but it offers hope and provides peace that surpasses all understanding. Even when times are tough and life is hard. God's grace helps us take the next step and the next one after that. God's grace helps when we miss our Grace. 

We're grateful Grace opened the gift of grace and now as we grieve we're thankful God keeps blessing us with the gift of His amazing grace as well. 

Friend, today I challenge you to open the gift He wants to give - GRACE! Perhaps it's His saving grace; if so, open your heart and let Him come in. Maybe you're feeling weak and are in need of  His sustaining grace. Perhaps you need wisdom and should spend some time approaching His throne of grace. Whatever we need, He can provide, but we must receive. 

Once we receive the gift, let's share it with others. Today let's commit to being graceful towards others...maybe they don't deserve a kind word, offer it anyway. Perhaps they did nothing to deserve a special meal, serve it anyway. When we remember the grace God's poured out on us, it's easier to do the same for others.

Finally, if you're a Mom what's one of the first things you taught your kids in regards to gifts? I'm guessing, "Say thank you!" was at the top of the list. Friend, let's not take God's grace for granted...though we don't completely understand it and will never fully comprehend it, let's thank Him for it!! 

May grace and peace 
be multiplied to you
 in the knowledge of God 
and of Jesus our Lord. 
2 Peter 1:2

Friday, September 25, 2015

Who are you looking at?

A few years back while attending the local county fair my brother-in-law came across an old picture. It was of me during my early high school days and as he showed his wife, my husband and my children I was embarrassed.

Though everyone laughed, I hurt as I recalled many negative feelings associated with my looks. What really hurts is they haven’t entirely disappeared over the past 20 years. As a child and teen, I was a tomboy who enjoyed sports and life on the farm much more than fashion, make-up and the latest hairstyles and my picture proved it.

The doubts on the outside weren’t the only ones I recalled as I took a look at who I once was - I recalled the insecurities as well. The picture brought back a statement I’ve said to myself quite often as I’ve journeyed through life, “look at me!”

These words have never been an attempt to catch everyone’s attention, but instead have given me a reason to doubt. Many times I’ve looked at myself and thought I wasn’t good enough, pretty enough, smart enough or worthy enough to do whatever it was someone was asking me to do.

After giving my life to Christ in my early 20’s I caught myself giving the same response to God – “Look at me!! God, You obviously made a mistake; I'm not the girl for the job!"

In the past few years, God has used one of my children’s favorite stories to speak to me. My kids are intrigued with the idea of walking on water and have attempted to do it themselves, but more important than Jesus’ ability to defy nature is the message He has for all of us.

In Matthew 14:22 – 33 the story is told of Jesus walking on water. It begins,“Immediately after this Jesus made His disciples get back into the boat and cross to the other side of the lake while He sent the people home. Afterward He went up into the hills by himself to pray. Night fell while He was there alone. Meanwhile, the disciples were in trouble far away from land, for a strong wind had risen, and they were fighting heavy waves.” 

I think we can relate. I know there are times when storms hit my life and it feels as though Jesus is far away. In those moments it can be easy to lose focus and rely on my own strength. It is then that the “look at me” worries, fears and doubts resurface and seem just as powerful as the strong winds and heavy waves.

But we read on – “About three o’clock in the morning Jesus came to them, walking on the water. When the disciples saw Him, they screamed in terror, thinking He was a ghost. But Jesus spoke to them at once, “It’s all right,” He said. I am here! Don’t be afraid.” A man walking on water, who wouldn’t be afraid? But Jesus assures them of His presence and the story continues,

Verses 28 and 29 – “Then Peter called to Him, “Lord, if it’s really you, tell me to come to you by walking on water.” All right come.” Jesus said. So Peter went over the side of the boat and walked on water toward Jesus.” Again can we relate? Have you ever felt God’s presence in your life and by faith reacted to His calling? Like Peter have you jumped out of the boat with complete trust in your Savior who is calling you? Have you taken the initial step of faith only to experience what came next for Peter?

In verse 30 we read, “But when he looked around at the high waves, he was terrified and began to sink. “Save me, Lord!” he shouted.

I read this verse and can picture Peter mentally saying, “look at me” I’m walking on water and then when the reality of the situation hits I see the statement move from being one of confidence to one of fear and doubt. He looks around and sees the danger in the situation coupled with the lack of his own ability to do the very thing Christ told him to do and fear sets in.

As I share this story with my kids, I see myself in this role all too often – God calling me to do something and then in my heart I say yes, but as I survey the situation I too become terrified and start to sink. The “look at me” phrase returns and leads to many excuses in my mind that cause me to sink before my feet even leave the boat.

But as God continues to prove Himself faithful, the final verses of the story carry more power. Verses 31 to 33 say, "Instantly Jesus reached out His hand and grabbed him. “You don’t have much faith,” Jesus said. “Why did you doubt me?” And when they climbed back into the boat, the wind stopped. Then the disciples worshiped Him. “You really are the Son of God!” they exclaimed.”

How many times has Jesus uttered the same words to me? “You don’t have much faith. Why did you doubt me?” For years I believed doubting myself couldn’t hurt God, but I’ve realized that is wrong. If it is Him who lives in me, when I say "I can’t" who am I referring to? Take a minute and think about that.

As I do just that, I think about our evening at the fair and I recall someone saying, “Well at least you can say your looks have improved.” Perhaps, but more importantly than what’s on the outside is what’s happened internally.

2 Corinthians 5:17 tells us, “What this means is that those who become Christians become new persons. They are not the same anymore, for the old life is gone. A new life has begun!” I’m grateful I don’t see the same person anymore and I’m more thankful that every time I hear the familiar phrase “look at me” I’m beginning to sense God whispering, “No Jill, look at ME.”

Though He has yet to call me out of the boat and literally walk on water, He has asked me to do things I never thought I would do. How does this happen? By keeping my eyes on Jesus. As Peter did this he did the unimaginable – he walked on water! When I focus on Christ, though the winds may blow and the waves rage, He keeps me from falling and proves Himself true. Friends He will do the same for you – keep listening for His voice, you will hear Him say, “Look at ME.”

Who do you see when you look at Him today? What is asking you to do or believe? Remember He is powerful and His power is in you!!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Struggling in Silence

Struggling and silence are two words that often go together. When I'm hurting, I tend to close up and internalize things. When help is needed, I often don't want to ask. Can you relate? In my last post, "It Could Have Been Me", I shared about my struggle with depression. It hurts to know many can relate to this situation, but that's exactly why I'm sharing these words.

Depression is real. The pit is deep and the view is dark. In my previous post, I talked about how beginning a relationship with Christ helped pull me out of the pit. That is so true...surrendering control, letting go of the need to be good enough and receiving God's love in a personal way changed me immensely. Being filled with the Holy Spirit empowered me and transformed me. I am a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), but I'm still a human, and so are you. We are flawed, imperfect beings created in the image of God which means this transformation is a process.

All that to say accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior doesn't guarauntee I will never experience depression again. And if you've never battled this in the past it doesn't mean it won't ever happen in the future. If it doesn't happen to you, chances are it might affect someone you love. So rather than be overwhelmed with some bad news, why not be proactive and think about what to do if it happens.

For years I struggled in silence...wrestling with fears, doubts and feelings of unworthiness. I was afraid I'd never be enough, I wouldn't measure up and my life really wouldn't matter. I felt less than, thought I was ugly and was very insecure. I rarely expressed emotion, struggled to share my feelings and internalized my thoughts. All of this combined to create a mess and left me in the pit I previously described.

Thankfully, now as a believer in Jesus and follower of Christ, I have the Holy Spirit and God's Word to direct my thoughts and correct my thinking. Abiding is necessary and prayer is important, but I've learned a few other things to remember when depression hits -

ADMIT - There are times I start slipping back into the pit and I want to deny that it's happening, perhaps it's a pride thing. Satan loves this my friend. This strategy doesn't just apply to depression, but is helpful for any struggle or sin we face. Personally, it's helpful for me to admit this struggle through prayer with God and in conversation with my husband. Putting words to my thoughts, feelings and emotions makes it real...we can't fix a problem if we fail to recognize it.

My experience supports this idea, but more importantly God's Word does as well. But first let me say, I don't want to say depression is a sin, but I know at times it has been a result of my sin. The Bible tells us to take our thoughts captive (2 Corinthians 10:5) and think Godly thoughts (Phil. 4:8), well let's just say sometimes I fail to do this and when that happens over a period of time my thoughts can take over. As they snowball and Satan feeds me one lie after another, I often find myself in a pit and sliding into depression. 1 John 1:9 says, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." When I confess my sins, I admit my struggles. When I converse with God, I build my relationship with Him. When I embrace His forgiveness, He purifies me.

ASK - After I realize and admit I have a problem, I can move to the next step, one we often are slow to take - ask for help. This is hard because we don't want to burden others, we don't want to admit our problem and all too often we think we can handle things ourselves. Oh but friend, we need to remember the joy we experience when we can help others and then give someone the same opportunity. It's taken me years to learn this, and I've far from mastered it yet, but I've greatly improved when it comes to the most important ask - asking for prayer. Our family and friends will never pull us from the pit or make the darkness disappear, but they can intercede and ask the One who can.

If we follow this advice before we fall to deep, we can pray and ask God for help as well. Hebrews 4:16 says, "Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need." God has all we need...His answers may not always come as soon as we like and His plan may not be the one we've created, but it's the best. I've found David's words in Psalm 142 to be a great example to follow and personalize. David, the man after God's own heart, cried out to God and shared his complaint with Him yet He also declared God was his refuge and committed to praise Him.

THANK - Our pastor likes to say, "Thanksgiving is the rope that connects us to God." So when we are drowning in depression we must grab the rope that will save us. When I'm down and feeling depressed it doesn't take long to lose perspective and let life get out of focus. When I stop to thank God for who He is and all He's given to me, my thoughts shift and the darkness fades. 1 Thessalonians 5:18 says, "Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." We may not thank God for our circumstances, but we can thank Him while we're in them!

TRUST - Depression can hit when times are tough and it's something we often don't understand. But God's Word tells us who we need to trust; Proverbs 3:5 says, "Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding." It's easy for many to claim this verse as their favorite, but it's much more challenging to actually live it out. I'm a former algebra teacher and I'm a girl who always loved math; I love to figure things out and am thrilled when I get the right answer. I like to understand things and know why, but God commands us to do otherwise - friend, you and I are instructed to trust Him. Not just when it's easy, convenient or makes sense, we are to do this ALL the time with ALL of our heart. Easy? No. Essential? Yes!!

Friend, if you find yourself struggling in silence, I pray this gives you some insight and encouragement. Remember depression does not define you, God does! If you're hurting, admit it, ask for help, thank God and trust Him. He is faithful and will lift you from the pit, I know...He's done it for me! And if you're not struggling in silence, thank God and then perhaps share this with someone who is. Thank you friend!

I waited patiently for the Lord;

He turned to me and heard my cry.

He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
    out of the mud and mire;
He set my feet on a rock
    and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth,
    a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear the Lord
    and put their trust in Him.
Psalms 40:1-3

Friday, September 18, 2015

It could have been me...

Welcome to those of you visiting from the Encouragement Cafe today. It's humbling to be sharing a bit of my depression story with all the listeners there...if you'd like to listen in click HERE and then scroll down to the "Depression" show. As I prepped for and then reflected on the show, much has been on my mind - here's a bit of it -

We hear it on the news and experience it in our communities - suicide. A life taken too soon. Questions without answers. Deep grief, unexplainable guilt and broken hearts. The CDC says nearly 105 Americans die every day by suicide, that's one every 13 minutes. Clearly this is an issue in our society and something we all have a connection to...whether it's our own struggle or that of a friend. If you have lost a loved one to suicide (I have as well), I am so sorry and pray God wraps His loving arms around you.

I have a connection that is quite personal, but it's something I didn't want to acknowledge for years. Sixteen years ago this month, I was on the verge of taking my own life. Looking back I know I started slipping into the pit of depression in my teens and I fell deeper in college. Just over a year into life in the "real world" I was ready for it all to be over.

Lonely. Empty. Defeated. Hopeless. That was me, but if you knew me, chances are you wouldn't have known it. I put on the happy face and played the "I'm fine" game. There were moments, even days, when life was good and the smile was genuine, but there were others when life was hard and it really seemed pointless.

As I fell deeper into the hole of depression those bad days become more frequent and eventually seemed constant. The girl who wanted to change the world and make a difference became one who felt she didn't matter and longed to leave it all behind. One too many down days in a row left me thinking there was no point, so I devised a plan and prepared to take my life.

Those statistics I mentioned earlier? It could have been me...it pains me to think about what might have been. As I share this story once again, I'm reminded of what God did - He intervened and saved me from myself. He worked in ways only He can to stop me from the unthinkable, to help me from what seemed unbearable and to change me in ways that I thought were impossible.

Opening up to my parents and a few friends helped as did medicine for clinical depression, but the true healing came via a saving relationship with Christ. I was the girl who wanted to die and in a way, I did. As I learned about Jesus and read my Bible I realized I had to die to myself and be born again. Going to church and believing in God wasn't enough. I had to accept Christ as Lord and Savior, Jesus wanted me to live for Him. I'd heard about grace and sang about God's "Amazing Grace" for years, but I finally received the gift God offers!

Sixteen years have passed and I'm still learning how to do this...walking in faith is a journey and a process. It's something that takes time. I still mess up, fall down and have hard days. There are even moments I wonder if what I'm doing really matters - what Mom doesn't think that?!? Those thoughts, lies and doubts still enter my mind and those feelings, the hard ones we don't like to talk about, are ones I still experience at times, but now, now I know what to do and I know where to go.

2 Corinthians 10:5 tells us, "We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ." While Philippians 4:8 says, "Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable-if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things." Friends, we must practice self-control (and it's a fruit of the Spirit, so it is possible) when it comes to the thoughts in our heads. This is much easier said than done, I know, but it's what we need to do.

It's not enough to know what we need to do with our thoughts, but we also must remember where to take them. Like I said, for years I didn't want anyone to know I had contemplated suicide and for awhile there was even shame when I conversed with God about it. So if that's you, know this - God knows and His Word says, "'Come now, and let us reason together,' says the Lord, 'Though you sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool. If you consent and obey, you will eat the best of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.' Truly the mouth of the Lord has spoken." (Isaiah 1:18-20)

Friend, God doesn't just want us to come to Him, He longs for us to confess and receive forgiveness. He created us to listen and obey. This applies to countless areas in our lives, including the thoughts we have, feelings we experience and pain we encounter.

Depression is real. The pits we can fall in are deep and the darkness that sets in can seem overwhelming. But, God is real. The power He has can lift us no matter how far we fall and Jesus, the light of the world, can shield us from the darkness.

The fact that I could have been a statistic is something I no longer want to hide, instead I know it's a story God has given me to tell. This world is broken, our lives are hard and people are hurting. Many are where I once was...lonely, empty and without hope, perhaps even on the verge of suicide. I want them, perhaps even you, to know that's not how it has to be.

God has the power to change things...it may not be your circumstances or even the pain, but He can change your perspective. He has a plan...it may not look the way you want or would be the one you'd choose, but it's for good and for your future. Finally, He has a purpose. He created you, me and all of humanity in His image and for His glory. (Genesis 1:27 and Isaiah 43:7)

A few months ago I was preparing to speak and share my testimony...I've done this before, but this time it was different - Joy, my 10 year old daughter wanted to go with me. I was grateful - my prayer is God would use my ministry to unite our family, not divide it, but at the same time I knew I had to tell her. I had to tell her my story. She knew what suicide was and in every discussion we'd ever had she couldn't understand why someone would want to do that. She knew I didn't accept Christ as Lord until later in life, but she didn't know what brought me to that place. As I shared, tears filled my eyes and emotion filled my heart. My girl leaned in and listened, God's girl (me) leaned in and listened to. My daughter heard my story, but I saw God's work.

Friends, it could have been me. My life would have ended, but it wouldn't have been the only one affected. The things you do, they matter. Who you are, it matters. Keep pressing on...don't become a statistic. Help is available and change is possible. Join me next week as I share a bit about what to do when depression hits...because sometimes it does. If you haven't walked this road, thank God now, but if you know someone who has, please join me because I pray the insight will help the depressed and their friends too.

I waited patiently for the Lord;

    he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
    out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
    and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth,
    a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear the Lord
    and put their trust in him.
Psalms 40:1-3

Monday, September 7, 2015

Thinking about clay...

"But I am only clay and clay doesn't get to choose..." a line from a song that caught my attention, stirred my memory and ignited my thoughts. Five years ago this fall, God gave me a motto for life - "Have Faith and Be Clay". At the time we were expecting our 5th child and I was overwhelmed. Overwhelmed with the how's, the what if's, really the worries. I shared my thoughts with my husband and he responded, "Are you going to say you have faith or are you going to live it?" It was one of those, I know you are right moments, but...

That whole situation led me deeper into God's word to study faith and then to get a better understanding of clay. I'm not talking about the soil type or stuff you played with in art class, but instead of what we are - clay in the Potter's hands. Isaiah 64:8 says, "Yet You, LORD, are our Father. We are the clay, You are the potter; we are all the work of Your hand."

I was reminded that I was not in control and things don't always go as I plan, but God is the One in control and He has a perfect plan. Now I can't imagine my life and our family without our Jesse Clay...the little man who brings joy and laughs to our home every day. I also know my past would look quite different if I hadn't tried to have faith and be clay in the days that have passed.

God has molded me and strengthened my faith, but as I listened to this song the other day I was reminded the Potter's work is not yet done. The song I heard was titled, "What If Your Best" by FFH and another line says, "I want your best, but what if your best is brokenness?"

I've been walking with Christ for nearly 16 years and I'd have to say through the years I've easily agreed with the opening phrase...I want God's best. I'd almost guess you do too! Those are easy words to say and on the surface can be fun ones to think about from a human, worldly perspective. From our mindset, best often means the top, health, good relationships and the list goes on. It's good stuff, something we want!

But the last phrase of the question stopped my thoughts in their tracks - "What if your best is brokenness?" Friend, I don't want to be broken and if I had to go out on a limb I'd guess you don't long for it much either. Broken just sounds bad. Think for a minute what do you do with broken things in your home - throw them away, pay to fix them or replace them? When a bone is broken there is pain and change that results from it.

Not too many willingly sign up to be broken, but if that's God's best for you, would you want it? That too can be a question that Christians are sometimes quick to say "yes" to. It's a lot easier to say that's what we want, than actually live it out. I've been reminded of this as I think about my sister-in-law and brother-in-law let go of their daughter, Grace. They are broken and to think about this being God's best, well honestly it makes my head spin. Losing a child has to be the hardest thing for any parent to experience, but yet we know God is working.

A few weeks back, shortly after Grace's death, I remember singing "I Surrender All" - a song I'd sung countless times, but this time I caught myself hesitating to voice those words. I've surrendered things to Christ, but that word "All" it grabbed my attention. All means all...my hopes, my plans, my dreams, my husband, my children. There are somethings, some people I hold on to. How about you?

Which takes me back to the opening line of this post, "But I am only clay and clay doesn't get to choose..." Friend, you and I must understand what the Bible says about us - "Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel." (Jeremiah 18:6b) Knowing is not enough though, we must believe it and then live like we believe it!

 Friend, we are clay in the Potter's hands and as I think about that I think about my little boy with the middle name of Clay. Tonight he didn't want to eat what I made for supper, but yet he didn't have any other options, so he ate it and by the time the meal was over he was actually enjoying it. In a similar way, we may not want what God has to offer, appreciate the plan of His that unfolds or like the way He molds us, but yet He is the Potter...the one with the perfect plan, the one with complete control and the one who works all together for good of those who love Him.

Oh to trust Him more, truly surrender all and purely long for His best. It is a journey, but one we walk with Him. Friend, today will you join me in "Having Faith and Being Clay"? It's not easy and it's not always fun, but the Potter is gentle, gracious and good!

Here's FFH singing about God's best...

And if you have time for one more song, here's Addison Road with "What Do I Know of Holy?" It's a good one! A reminder that there is much we don't know and gives some insight into what we need to do if we truly want God's best and long to be more holy!