Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Joy and Grace - There is a Connection

December 29th...an important day in our house - the birthday of our oldest daughter. Today we celebrate Joy's 11th birthday...my little girl is growing up. Though this is a day of joy and celebration it is also a day that marks another anniversary. On July 29th, our niece, Grace was killed in an accident, so today we've been grieving her loss for 5 months.

I'm grateful God has blessed Joy with another year of life, but we still don't understand why it seems Grace's life was cut short. I know Scripture tells us God knows the number of our days (Psalm 139:16) and I believe that to be true, but in the grieving process we do wonder why. I trust that's why Scripture also tells us to lean not on our own understanding, but to trust God with all of our heart. (Proverbs 3:5)

It's obvious there are many things in this life we don't and won't understand, but as I think about Joy and Grace today I'm reminded of something I've been learning.

The night of Grace's funeral I remember Joy saying to me, "Mom, Grace was like a big sister I never had. I want to play basketball like her. I want to love people like she did. I want to tell them about Jesus like she did."

Death is hard...grieving is a process. And when you're a mom something is added to this - pain for your personal loss and hurt for your kids as they grieve. Joy was 10 and Grace 20 at the time of her accident and Joy did look up to her, enjoyed being with her and liked laughing with her. Grace was a role model, who took the job seriously and included little people in her life. She shared grace and brought joy.

Awhile back as our pastor preached from Philippians, he made this statement, "Joy and Grace aren't cousins. Joy is a sister to grace." He was not talking about two people in my life, but about things you and I both need.

He came to this conclusion by studying the words in original language. In the Greek, the word for grace is "charis" which means grace, favor and kindness. In the same language, we see the word for joy is "chara", which means joy or gladness.

I'm no scholar, but I've dug into this a bit deeper...do you see how similar these two words are in the old, original language? There is a connection between the two and it's more than a base word or similar spelling. One commentator kept it pretty simple - joy is grace recognized, while another explained joy is being properly aware of God's grace. Ultimately they both come from Him.

Friend, I know death can diminish our joy and Satan will try to steal it, but when we remember God's grace nothing can destroy it. This isn't some superficial, happy all the time joy, but a fruit of the spirit. A joy the world can't offer and doesn't understand. A joy that still sheds tears and experiences all kind of emotions. A joy that comes from the Lord because of God's grace.

Today, on the 29th of December, I remember Grace with Joy. She's a girl we all loved and now miss. We remember gifts she gave and things she said. Joy dreams of doing things she did and living a legacy like hers too. I also remember Grace with joy. Because of God's grace, our Grace is with Him today and one day we'll all celebrate together again.

Until then, I pray God will continue to pour out His grace on us. As we receive it, experience it and share it, I hope we will be filled with joy because of it. Today, we'll celebrate Joy and remember Grace, but I pray all of us embrace God's grace and experience His joy!

"So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy." (Jesus' words in John 16:22)

"Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance." (James 1:2-3)

"May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit." (Romans 15:13)

Monday, December 21, 2015

Eyes Up!

Welcome to those of you joining me from the Encouragement Cafe today! Serving you with words is so much easier than serving you food, so I pray my devotional "Choices at Christmas" fed your soul.

These are words I wrote awhile back, but as I reflect on them now I find myself thinking about decisions. I am not very decisive...just ask my husband. Growing up I often used the line, "My decision is choosing not to decide." That statement may have worked when my parents asked where I wanted to eat or friends asked what I wanted to do, but when it comes to life as an adult it doesn't lead to good results. 

The last couple of weeks life has reminded me I need to decide where my mind will go and choose not to give my feelings too much power. As Christmas approaches I've found myself revisiting much grief from the past year...in just over 6 months I've lost a college classmate and two of his young children, a first cousin just a year older than me, a 20 year old niece and an uncle. 

Loss is hard - we grieve for our own personal loss, but we also hurt for loved ones too. My heart hurts as I think of loved ones missing their husband, children, mom, sister, daughter, dad, grandpa, brother. Christmas is typically a time we look forward to, but when loss impacts the tradition the holiday is also hard. 

The other day as I battled with thoughts of sadness and feelings that accompany grief, my mind quickly jumped to basketball practice. This was kind of an odd shift of thinking, but I believe it was God answering my prayer. You know, the help me take my thoughts captive one? 

In my mind I saw the previous night's practice I'd had with my elementary girls...they were doing dribble lines and I was saying, "Eyes up. Don't watch the ball, look at me. Head up." God used that picture from practice to speak to my heart. 

Friend, our Heavenly Father, our life coach wants you and me to follow the same advice. We must keep our eyes up. He doesn't want us to focus on our problems or feelings, He created us to look at Him. This instruction can be hard for my future Wildcats, but if they want to improve as a player it's something they must do. If we want to grow and mature in our faith, we must do the same.  

When a player chooses to keep her eyes up it could lead to an easy shot for her teammate or it might prevent a turnover. Spiritually when we decide to keep our eyes up, we're more likely to see Satan's attack and we are able to focus on God's Truth. This strategy helps an athlete see the court and it allows a Christian to view life from God's perspective. 

Hebrews 12:2 tells us, "Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." When we look at Jesus, our perspective changes and we remember the power God has. 

Psalm 16:8 states, "I keep my eyes always on the LORD. With Him at my right hand, I will not be shaken." If our eyes are up and we're looking to the Lord, we remember we are not alone...God is with us. 

As I bring this post to a close, my mind again envisions basketball practice and I see balls bouncing off feet and girls looking down. Friend if you've ever been in a gym with 10-12 year old girls, you know it's a challenge for most of them to dribble without looking at the ball. The same is true for me when it comes to walking through life while looking up...it's not my natural response. I too need reminders and encouragement. I try not to be a coach with unrealistic expectations and a lack of patience...I want my girls to try and not fear failure. God wants the same and He instructs us perfectly! 

The decision to keep our eyes up won't always be easy and sometimes we'll forget. There are times it will be hard and require putting our feelings aside, but it's a choice that will be worth it and an effort that God will reward! 

Friend, I don't know what choices you have yet to make this Christmas, but I pray you will join me in making an effort to keep your eyes up! If we choose to look to God, He will provide what we need and enable us to do what needs to be done. Focusing on our Father will also remind us of the GIFT He's already given! 

Today, I pray for you and me...Heavenly Father, Lord we know Christmas is a wonderful time of the year, but we also know it can be hard. Regardless of how we are struggling today whether the battle is grief, financial, relational or lies from the enemy, I ask You to help us keep our eyes up. Rather than our problems or pain, help us look at You and look into Your Word. Give us your perspective Father and fill us with Your Spirit. This Christmas may we choose to receive the gift you offer and then help us share that gift with others. Lord, thank you for the gift that puts all others in perspective. We love you Lord and want to keep our eyes on YOU. In Jesus' Name, Amen

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Studying the Shepherds

The Christmas story, one full of characters, emotion and Truth. A story that brings joy and makes me think. Each year as I read, it seems a different person or group of people stick out. I believe this happens because God has a lesson He knows I need to learn or revisit. This December I've found myself studying the shepherds and realize there is much we can learn from them.

The first thing that comes to my mind is they are the ones sometimes overlooked or forgotten in this story. I look at our Sunday School kids practicing for the program and shepherds are not typically the part kids ask for - they long to be Mary or Joseph, the wise men or the angels. Of the cast of characters, shepherds are the ones we probably best relate to, yet it's not a role many strive for.

That last line is key in the lesson I've been learning...shepherds were poor, overlooked and even looked down upon during Jesus' time. They lived in tents and did their work. They were the ones who raised and supplied the lamb for the sacrifice and now they were invited to see the Lamb God sent as the ultimate sacrifice.

Friend, the shepherds are not the ones the world would expect to be visited by angels and some of the first to see the Christ child, but God favored them. Those who had innocent employment and an honest calling just like the patriarchs Moses and David. Ones who were awake and aware. I study them and wonder, "Am I like the shepherds?"

Before you or I answer that question, let's learn a bit more about them. We find their story in Luke 2:8-20. In verse 9 we read, "And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terribly frightened."

Recently my eyes have been opened to a fear I'm struggling with and as I read this verse I had peace, which was quickly followed by encouragement. Did you see the shepherds initial reaction? They were frightened. I'll admit I've never been in their shoes with an angel standing before me, but I've been a bit scared of what God has said and the directions He's given. This story reminds me I'm not alone in that reaction, but it also encourages me not to stay there.

The shepherds listened to the angels and some commentators suggest they joined the angels in praising God. (Verse 14) Following this, they responded rightly - "When the angles had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, 'Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.'"

Friend, the shepherds were willing to go. They eagerly obeyed. Can you and I say the same? The Lord had made something known to them and they wanted to see. Let me ask, "What has He made known to you?" Do you have a desire to see this or doing something because of it?

The story continues - "So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger." (16) God rewarded their seeking, blessed their obedience and was faithful to His promises. Friend, the next time He speaks to and calls you and me, ordinary women the world may overlook, let us remember His response to the shepherds.

The end of the story is just as important as the beginning..."When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart. The shepherds went back glorifying and praising God for all that they heard and seen, just as had been told them." (18-20)

The shepherds found what they were looking for, but they didn't stop there. They shared what God had told them, which solidified the story in their hearts and built faith in others. It resulted in public praise and private meditation. The event impacted the shepherds - they saw God's Word honored, which led them to testify about His work.

Though you may have never volunteered to be a shepherd in the Christmas program, I pray you will consider following their example as you walk through life. May we be individuals who hear, go, see and tell.

If you'd like insight into other members of the Christmas story, click on the following links -
Jesus - A Baby Born to Die
Me, Mary?
A Look at the Wise Men

Monday, December 7, 2015

Stocking Stuffers

Christmas is getting closer every day...my little guys remind me of this every time they remove a ring from their chain and put an X on the calendar. They are getting excited and thankfully, I'm not getting stressed. Though it may happen, I've found myself filled with peace as I think about our traditional stocking stuffer.

So this tradition is only on its third year, but I know it's one that won't grow old. It won't be the wrong size, the batteries won't die and it's not something that will go out of style. It's also not loaded with sugar and it doesn't cost a dime. What is this perfect gift you ask - it's what I've called, "Stocking Scriptures".

A few years back I was doing a Bible study about praying Scripture. I really hadn't intentionally done that, but this study taught me how powerful it was. Friend, "God's Word is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow, it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart." (Hebrews 4:12)

Isaiah 55:11 tells us this, "So is my word that goes out from my mouth: it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it."

Finally another important verse about Scripture - "This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the Word of God." (Luke 8:11) Jesus says this as He explains the parable of the four soils. God's Word is a seed that can take root in our hearts and produce a crop. Now granted the soil needs to be good and hearts need to be pure for it to grow, but if a seed is never planted the crop will not be harvested.

This study really prompted me to pray Scripture seriously and the timing of it led me to give it as a gift. Now as the month of December unfolds, I find myself reflecting on the year and thinking about where I want my kids, husband and self to be in the year to come. I think about the fruit I'd like to see and know God is able to grow, then I study God's Word to see if there is a Scripture that speaks to that quality or character trait.

Once I find a verse or passage for each of us, I type them up or write them out, and put them in our stockings. For example, my daughter struggled with pleasing people and being over-concerned with what others thought, so I prayed, "Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe." Proverbs 29:25

Another child was struggling with fear, so 2 Timothy 1:7 was a natural choice, "For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and discipline."

And for the child who has yet to confess Christ as Lord and Savior, "Therefore He is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them." (Hebrews 7:25)

For my mom friends, be prepared - your little people are not very excited about a piece of paper when they compare it to the other goodies, but we know the value it has. And as they grow, they will understand as well. My older daughter still has her first 2 cards and each time she reads them, I believe good seeds are being planted.

I not only put the verses in the stockings, but I also print a couple of copies for myself...one's in my Bible and another posted by my treadmill. As I read the verses, I pray them and also hide them in my heart. It's a gift that keeps on giving!

This Christmas if you're struggling with what to give, I encourage you to pray about incorporating "Stocking Scriptures" into your holiday routine. It will bless those who receive and the one who gives!!