Grace Falls Like Rain

The sky opened up;

grace fell like rain.

In a moment of love,

God washed away my pain.

Grace fell like rain.

He whispered like a gentle breeze.

God washed away my pain

and filled my heart with promises – He would keep.

He whispered like a gentle breeze

and broke away the rusty chains.

My heart was filled with promises – He would keep

after walking through the flames.

He broke away the rusty chains

and gave me a new life

after walking through the flames

of heartache, misery, and strife.

He gave me a new life,

but my story isn’t complete.

Without heartache, misery, and strife,

He makes me feel unique.

My story isn’t complete,

but my past is forgiven.

He makes me feel unique

in the light of Christ, who is risen.

I know my past is forgiven.

Looking up to the sky, with arms outstretched,

in the light of Christ, who is risen,

my heart is refreshed.

Singing Praises to God

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1, ESV, emphasis mine). ESV Study Bible notes: The skies bear witness to the Maker.

As the sun of our Glorious Creator rises with new mercies each day (Lamentations 3:22-24, ESV) and sets each evening, offering spectacular views like this one, we can reflect on His faithfulness throughout the day, no matter what we face. What better way to begin and end our day than singing praises to our Lord and Savior – Jesus Christ! “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night” (Ps. 92:1-2, ESV, emphasis mine). Giving thanks every day will change our attitude.

There are 150 Psalms, about half of which were written by David, poems that express a wide variety of emotions. With many reasons to read the Psalms, we can turn to them for comfort in times of pain or grief or when we feel alone, to name a few. As the Chronological Life Application Study Bible suggests, “They put into words our deepest longings, thoughts, and prayers.” This is because they were written by people experiencing all of life’s highs and lows, just like us. If we compare these praises, prayers, and sometimes pleas for help or mercy to the events in David’s life, we can see how they fit and offer the same grace to us today that he received then.

The Greek name for the book means “song” and was already established by the time of the New Testament. The Hebrew name Tehillim means “praises,” – which points to the use of the Psalms as songs of praises offered to God in public worship (ESV Study Bible). The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary calls it the “hymnbook of Israel” and a source of instruction, comfort, and blessing for the people of God by teaching His people how to worship, serve, and glorify God forever. But the book’s focus, along with the entire Bible, is on the Messiah as our hope and the fulfillment of God’s promises.

Next time you feel alone, read 27 and 40. Comfort: 23; to learn a new prayer:136; to learn a new song: 92; forgiveness: 51; hope: 16; 17; 18; 23; 27; decisions or to understand why we should read the Bible: 119; and I could go on and on. When we learn to praise God in all circumstances, our attitudes will not be the only thing that changes.

“May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord” (2 Peter 1:2, ESV, emphasis mine).

Brand, C., ed., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, (Nashville: B & H Publishing, 2015).

Getting Outside My Bubble

Nothing like being gone for a few days to make me appreciate being home. Not that I don’t enjoy the scenery in a new place, the opportunity to capture our Creator’s artwork in a new area, or visiting my family. It’s just that I enjoy being home too.

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit my brother and sister-in-law in Alabama, an eleven-hour drive. Like many others, it had been three years since I traveled this distance.

Did I feel a little anxious about traveling again? Yes. Did every muscle in my body tense up as I gripped the steering wheel and leaned in as if that would help when I drove through Nashville? Yes. Did I do it anyway? Yes. Why? Because I knew I needed to get outside my bubble, and I probably will not have another chance all year due to my schedule. Granted, it may be a while before I do it again, but I am happy I did not give in to the anxious thoughts.

As I drove through several lanes of traffic with my white knuckles, I realized, in a more profound way, why my dad did not like to travel. He also did not like being away from home after dark. Like me, he enjoyed the comfort of his bubble a little too much.

As the Great Commission summons us to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, I sometimes find it easier to stay inside my bubble. Unless I am intentional about going, seeing, listening, and even finding others to share it with, I tend not to do it as often as I should. I get too comfortable, too busy, too anxious, and so forth. But when I go, take a step of faith which sometimes feels like a giant leap, I am the one who is blessed the most.

Our challenge is to avoid getting too comfortable inside our bubbles and be intentional about loving others in a more profound way that sometimes requires us to go and share in person. To see, pay attention, and listen.

“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns” (Is. 52:7, ESV).

(Watch for one of God’s many amazing sunsets over the waters of Fairhope next week)

Tin Star

Do you know who you are? More importantly, do you know whose you are? Paul wrote in Romans 8:14 that all those led by the Spirit of God are sons (and daughters) of God. Only Jesus Christ defines who we are. Our identity was carved out at the foot of the cross by our loving Savior. He has scars on his hands to prove His love for us. We are a chosen people (I Peter 2:9, ESV).

Once we figure out whose we are, the Holy Spirit begins to form our character and shape us into the image of whom we were created to be like, Jesus Christ. We may need new friends when our character changes since bad company ruins good morals (I Cor. 15:33, ESV).

It matters whom we hang out with, whom we cultivate friendships with, and whom we forge partnerships with. Our close-knit friends influence who we are, whether we realize it or not. Jesus ate with and socialized with those with questionable character, but He also had an inner circle of close friends. Peter, James, and John were among them, as were Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.

It matters whom we follow. Anyone can pin on a tin star and pretend to lead us in the right direction. But a genuine leader will shine from within. We can recognize them by their Jesus qualities and character.

We are called to love everyone and cast a wide net to be “fishers for men” (Matt. 4:19, ESV). We are to share the Good News about Jesus Christ with those we meet, especially the lost and sometimes undesirable characters, but at the end of the day, we still need that one person or group of friends who we know has our back, holds us accountable, and whose character will not change with the culture; rooted and grounded in love (Eph. 3:17, ESV). Trustworthy enough to keep us sharp (Prov. 27:17, EV). Someone who won’t take offense when we speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15, ESV). Someone who will pray with us and for us.

We may not have too many friends like that, if at all. The challenge is intentionally building those kinds of relationships and sticking them out when it gets complicated. Because it will; relationships are messy, and people are complex. Remember- you always have a friend in Jesus (John 15:15, ESV). He is an actual model to adore and learn from. If we keep Him close and imitate His actions, soon we will be more like the friend(s) we look for. We must first be trustworthy people to attract faithful friends.

For further reading: Gal. 6:2, Prov. 18:24, Prov. 13:20, Eccl. 4:9-12, Heb. 10:24, James 5:19, I John 1:7, 2 Cor. 6:14.

The Sweet Presence of God

Most nights, I don’t have any trouble sleeping. Although I do wake up earlier than most, I enjoy starting my day in quiet reflection. I haven’t used an alarm clock in years. My internal clock naturally wakes me when it is time to get up, which is much more pleasing than a loud noise.

Occasionally, it is harder to fall asleep, especially if thoughts from my day are still roaming around like a night owl. It is usually only when I have not had a chance to calm down and get sleepy before bed. If I don’t doze off in the living room first, I might as well not even try to go to bed.

Sometimes I wake up extremely early, even for me, and can’t go back to sleep. In the past, those times frustrated me because I knew I had to work the next day and that it would be difficult to get past three o’clock without being exhausted (I call these the three o’clock yawns). But recently, when those times have occurred, I am more prone to think that God is waking me up to bless me with His presence because I have learned to use the time to communicate with Him instead of worrying and watching the clock, which never helps.

Sometimes, I pray about what was on my mind when I fell asleep or what suddenly shows up once I am awake. Other times, I meditate on something in His Word that I read that day or take the opportunity to communicate with Him through praise and thankfulness as I lay there in the dark. It is also an excellent time to talk out any potential worries that come up so I can give them to Him instead of letting them linger too long.

During these wee morning hours, God shows up in all His sweetness and gently reminds me that He is in control and I have nothing to fear. I consider any time spent with God in the quietness of these moments a sacred space that the Holy Spirit fills with sweet peace and joy, a blessing, even if I think I should be asleep. This has given me a new perspective and allowed me not to see these times as frustrating but as a gift from a Father who lovingly holds me in His hands and sometimes even redeems any sleep loss with a glorious nap later in the day, which is another gift.

There is such a sweetness about the presence of God that brings joy to our hearts no matter the circumstances and melts away all fear and worry, knowing He will provide.

“Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing!” (Ps. 100:2, ESV Emphasis mine).

For you make him most blessed forever; you make him glad with the joy of your presence” (Ps. 21:6, ESV Emphasis mine).

Accidental Billionaire

Are you familiar with the clothing brand Patagonia? I had heard of it but didn’t know much about it or the owner until recently. Yvon Chouinard founded the company in 1973, but not intentionally. He doesn’t like to be called a businessman. He was an avid rock climber and environmental activist who began making climbing spikes for himself and his friends. Many stories are circulating about him right now, so if you are interested in learning more about him or his business, it is easy to find. Here is a link to one of them, where I retrieved some information for this blog.

He went from metal spikes into outdoor clothing with great success. He always gave back part of his millions of dollars in profits to charities throughout the company’s history to combat climate change. But he has been making the headlines the last few months because he recently gave the company away, with exceptional circumstances.

He created a charitable trust and a partnership with a non-profit that will receive all the future profits, over a million a year, to be exact, to help combat climate change and protect undeveloped land. It is almost unheard of that anyone would give away their fortune these days and take measures to ensure future profits are secure for a cause instead of leaving them to his family. They didn’t want it either.

I don’t know much about him or his beliefs, but this reminded me of the story about the rich young man who met Jesus and asked what he could do to inherit eternal life. Jesus recites many commandments and tells him he will inherit the kingdom if he does well. The rich man confirms that he has kept all of them. From the human perspective, his answer is believable. But the man went away sorrowfully when Jesus asked him to sell all his possessions and give them to the poor. Jesus pointed out that the rich man lacked that one thing. He had replaced trust in God and treasure in heaven with earthly riches (Mark 10:17-31, ESV).

This does not mean everyone must sell all they have to follow Jesus and inherit the kingdom. Instead, our hearts must be focused on God, and everything we own must be surrendered to Him and handled properly as a good steward of the gifts God has given us. Everything we have is God’s. He generously entrusted them to us. It is our responsibility to honor Him with everything.

The man was sad, but he didn’t repent or make changes. He just left Jesus’ side to keep his earthly possessions intact. Jesus describes how difficult it is for those with material possessions to enter the kingdom of God because it reinforces self-sufficiency instead of dependency on God. They are relying on themselves, which is a dangerous stance to take. He is opposed to submitting to God’s will. Anyone who trusts in riches as an idolatrous replacement for God cannot enter the kingdom of God.

The camel fitting through the eye of a needle stresses that it is humanly impossible, but with God, anything is possible (Mark 10:27, ESV Emphasis mine). I am so glad my salvation and entry into heaven don’t depend on my efforts and ability to achieve it. I’m putting my money on Christ, and hopefully, the owner of Patagonia is too.

“We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf” (Hebrews 6:19-20, ESV).

Love In Action

“Your actions speak so loud; I can’t hear what you say.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Have you ever been in a relationship where this quote fits the situation perfectly? I hope you haven’t, but unfortunately, most of us have probably experienced this on some level with someone we thought loved us.

We often long for someone to love us better than they can. That doesn’t excuse abusive behavior, so for the sake of this message, let’s put that aside for the moment, even though this quote takes me back to that place.

“We love because He first loved us” (I John 4:19, ESV). To understand love in its true sense, we must turn to Jesus’ actions on the cross. This is the ultimate form of love shown to us when we least deserve it. This is quite the opposite of the quote above. Love is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22, ESV). Love is a gift from God proven supremely on the cross (Rom. 5:8, ESV). Love is a choice. How well we love depends mainly on our relationship with Christ, who models love for us.

We are broken and messed up in the love department. God redeems us and makes our hearts capable of loving and being loved. There is hope in the healing. “Perfect love casts out fear” (I John 4:18, ESV). Our trust and obedience to God come through love; we can love each other better when we get our priorities right.

Paul says that without love, we are just a noisy gong (I Cor. 13:1, ESV). The Emerson quote may be related to this verse. We can’t expect the kind of love the depths of our souls long for to come from anyone except God. God is the only one capable of filling that size crevice in our lives. But once Christ is our first love, we have hope of experiencing the mutual love of Christ within our relationships, the way God designed and commanded. Love is a gift to be received and a command to be given (Mark 12:28-31; Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18.34, ESV). Jesus takes it further and says we are to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44, ESV).

But this kind of love is only possible with Christ at the center of our hearts. That is the closest we come to experiencing that kind of love on this Earth, to experience the type of love Jesus showed us at the cross. It is like a rare gem and the exquisite perfume found in the alabaster box, a symbol of Jesus’ body that was broken and the blood poured out for us. The woman was ridiculed for anointing Jesus with it (Matt. 26:7, ESV). To assume a servant’s position is ultimate love, and Jesus was our best teacher.

The Bible supplies a filter for love in I Cor. 13:4-8. I recommend reading it often. Just as our gifts are meant to be used on Earth, love is meant to be shared while we await Jesus’ return. Vertically, towards God in complete abandonment. Horizontally, towards others to help each other grow in grace. May we shine brightly into the lives of others who need a glimmer of hope; it may be the only reflection of Jesus they see today. There is hope for everyone.

“Anyone who does not have love does not know God, because God is love” (I John 4:8, ESV).

Jesus Sighed

The greatness of God is in the everyday little things we sometimes miss because we are waiting for Him to do something big in our lives. One thing that stood out in my study of Elijah’s life was that God is primarily found in a humble heart’s gentle whispering and quietness. Our small, faithful steps lead to great miracles through our obedience. The notes in the ESV Study Bible for I Kings 17:13-16, where God uses Elijah to perform a miracle for the widow, say that faith is the step between promise and assurance. We may only see the solution once we take the first step of faith.

We can sometimes allow our fear to keep us from stepping out in faith; I know I have been guilty of that. But I began to realize that every hero in the Bible is a regular person, just like you and me, fears and all. You might say that heroes are everyday people with courage. They fear, but they don’t let it stop them. God supplies the courage in their obedience.

Hebrews 11 lists the heroes of faith. If we re-read each of their stories, the common denominator is faith in God, even if it initially took some convincing. They did not start with confidence but were tested, and their faith grew. Under God’s instructions, Joshua led a group of people around Jericho until the walls fell. Do you think they understood the purpose of circling it in that precise manner or just trusted God with the outcome?

And what about Moses? He did not want to be God’s mouthpiece. He pleaded for God not to send him because he was not a man of eloquent speech. God allowed his brother Aaron to speak for him, but he still sent Moses (Ex. 4:10-11, ESV).

We can see through the Gospels that the twelve disciples did not have it all together from the beginning and did not always understand what Jesus was doing. We are given stories showing their unbelief in many situations, even after Jesus performed miracles. In the Gospel of Mark, he records at least two times that Jesus sighed because of the suspicions and hardheartedness of people due to the Fall. In one instance, Jesus looked to heaven and sighed as He healed a deaf man (Mark 7:34, ESV). And again, when the Pharisees demanded a sign, he sighed deeply in His spirit (Mark 8:12, ESV). I can only imagine how many times I make Jesus sigh. But as with the disciples in those days, Jesus continually teaches me to trust Him more, strengthening my faith through tests and trials. We must go through the valley to get to the mountaintop. But, oh, the view once we arrive! In my experience, I appreciate the mountaintops more after going through some valleys.

When the father of a boy possessed with an unclean spirit said to Jesus, “if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us” (Mark 9:22, ESV). Jesus replied, “If I can! All things are possible for one who believes” (9:23, Emphasis mine). The boy’s father then asks Jesus to give him a heart that believes more firmly, “help my unbelief” (9:24, ESV).

Jesus expressed emotions because He was fully human. As God, He sincerely wanted His people to believe and trust Him without requiring a sign every time. We often get caught up in figuring out what God is doing, and we forget that it is the being that matters. Being with God is what He wants most from us. As we crave time with God, wherever we are, whatever circumstance we are in, we can experience peace because the Great I AM is with us.                                                                                                                                                                                   

The speed bumps in life force us to slow down, pay attention, and appreciate what God is doing in our lives right now. We can also be so caught up in doing things for God that we can miss the importance of being with God. Each moment of every day is a gift, don’t waste it worrying about what will happen tomorrow. I am the one who needs this advice the most. Some days my longing to serve in other ways and figure out where God is leading me in the future may be keeping me from serving where I am today; in those times, I may miss the blessings right in front of me. I know you have probably heard the phrase ‘bloom where you are planted’ before,but I think it is worth repeating as a reminder and a prayer. Our faith is shown in our actions, but we won’t know what to do if we are not intentionally making time to be with God.

Peace, I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27, ESV Emphasis mine).

The Source of the Pain

A few years ago, I decided to drive to Angel Fire, NM, for a hot air balloon festival because riding in a hot air balloon was on my bucket list. Now mind you, I have always been afraid of heights. But I didn’t let that stop me. At least not this time. As a photographer, capturing images of God’s landscape from the air was the most appealing aspect of the adventure. I chose Angel Fire because of the name and didn’t let it deter me that I had a long drive ahead. I selected my route carefully to make stopping points of great interest.

Little did I know that I would experience excruciating pain on this trip (of course, it takes a backseat, hands down, to the tragic accident in northern California, but that’s a tale for another day for those of you who haven’t already heard it).

When I arrived, weary from my travels, I took some Aleve and went to bed. I had never taken Aleve before, but I had picked it up for the trip and stuck it in my travel bag. The following day, bright and early, I headed out for my usual run. I quickly learned about the altitude in New Mexico and returned to the cabin. I noticed that I had gotten some unusual red spots on my face, but I didn’t put too much thought into it before heading off for breakfast.

The spots and my aches seemed to worsen, so I returned to my cabin to take more Aleve and lay down. To spare you the details, let’s put this phrase on repeat….repeat…repeat…over the course of the next few days until the inside of my mouth was so sore, I could hardly eat or drink, my body had gotten the same red blotches as my face, and my lips were slightly swollen and tingling.

You may be ahead of me at this point and have realized that I am allergic to Aleve. On the other hand, I did not figure that out until a year later when I retook it because my doctor diagnosed it as a strange virus and bug bites.

I did not know that these painkillers were the source of the pain. I kept returning to it and repeating the same patterns. I think this is symbolic of our sinful ways. We can keep returning to unhealthy relationships or sinful behaviors to fill the gaps in our past pains when we don’t realize they are causing it and only making it worse. When we don’t know Christ as the answer, we search for the wrong things. It can be as painful as hives in your mouth, if not more.  

Only One person can fill those gaps and help us heal: Jesus Christ. When we choose Him over our sinful behaviors and stay rooted and grounded in His love, He can help take away the pain of our past. “Whoever pursues righteousness and unfailing love will find life, righteousness, and honor” (Prov. 21:21, ESV).

The Bible says if we know the truth of Christ and then still return to our sinful patterns, we are even worse off. Peter quotes Proverbs to give us a vivid image of what that is like, “For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. What the true proverb says has happened to them: ‘The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire’ ” (2 Peter 26:21-22, ESV). This likely refers to those who appear to be Christians but were never truly regenerated. God promises that a person who truly knows Him is saved by His grace, never to fall away.

Once we know Christ as our Savior, and He redeems us from our sinful behaviors, we won’t want to return. There may still be temptations, but God helps us overcome them (I Cor. 10:13, ESV). The key ingredients to knowing what God wants for us are to be still, listen, ask Him, and meditate on and read His Word daily. Then and only then will we stop returning to the source of our pain and receive God’s grace and healing.

I made the drive home, but not without considering selling my car and flying back. A shot of steroids from the clinic at the base of the mountain did the trick, and when I arrived home, I stopped taking the Aleve and returned to my ordinary painkillers. A year later, I found them in my travel bag at the same time as a toothache, and I popped a couple and went to bed….the next morning, ‘that strange virus and bug bites returned.’

“As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God” (Psalm 42:1, ESV. Emphasis mine).

Zealous For God

At the beginning of each year, I choose a word to focus on, or most of the time, the word finds me. What I mean is that I pray for God to show me what word I need to focus on that year, and when I think I know the word, I am surprised to find out I was wrong. God showed me a brand-new word I hadn’t even considered, which is what happened this year.

The word zealous has served me well this year as my desire for a more profound love for God has increased seven-fold and then some. I had no idea I had so much more room in my heart for Him, but I did and still do. It is a continual process of inviting God into my heart and asking Him to deepen my love for Him in ways I didn’t know were possible.

I began to think about the word zeal when studying the armor of God and seeing that God put on zeal as a cloak (Is. 59:17, ESV). I incorporated this into my daily prayers along with the armor as I fight spiritual warfare, not only for myself but for others. It is a necessary form of protection that arms me with the weapons I need for battle.

My zeal for God has increased, but it still does not come close to how much God loves me (and you).  Have you thought much about how much God loves you or asked God to show you the depth of His love? I did recently and was amazed at His answers.

The oceans are too shallow, the sky too narrow, the desert too small, and the universe is not vast enough. There is nothing on this earth that compares. The expanse of the heavens is more than you can imagine- but someday, you will understand. WOW!

Then I asked if there was something in the Bible God could point me to– “The Glory of the Lord filled the temple” (Ezekiel 43:5, ESV) came to mind, as well as “For our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29, ESV). These are glorious images of how God entirely and reverently fills space in ways we cannot fathom. God’s love for us is so deep and massive that it is hard to compare it to anything we can understand.

Paul gives a glimpse of it in Ephesians 3:16-19, “that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through the Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith – that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have the strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Emphasis mine)

My zeal for God, on the other hand, is the size of Australia. Although it is the largest country by area, it in no way compares to the depth of God’s love for me (and you). And absolutely nothing can change that or separate God’s love from us. That is one of God’s sweet promises to His children.

“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39, ESV). (Emphasis mine)