Earn This – Oh Wait, You Can’t!

In the epic World War II film “Saving Private Ryan,” there’s a moving scene (among many) in which Captain Miller (Tom Hanks’ character), who is about to pass into eternity as one of many men who sacrificed their lives to (you guessed it) save Private Ryan (Matt Damon’s character). Right before Miller dies, though, he asks Ryan to come close so he can impart his final words. He says to the young soldier, “Earn this…earn it.” Here’s that clip, in case you haven’t seen the movie (or to refresh your memory):

This morphs into the final scene of the movie, in which we see the elder Ryan standing over Miller’s grave in the National Cemetary. It becomes clear that he has lived his life trying to earn the sacrifice of Miller and so many others when he says to Miller’s grave, “I hope that, at least in your eyes, I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.” Then he turns to his wife and says, “Tell me I’ve led a good life…tell me I’m a good man.”

This is a moving couple of scenes because it’s gratifying to see that Private Ryan did everything he could to follow Captain Miller’s final order–to live in a way that made his sacrifice worthwhile. But, touching as it may be, it’s a work of fiction.

In the real world, there’s someone who, along with his own band of brothers, also made the ultimate sacrifice. He did this for me. And he also did it for you.

But here’s the thing. His last words to us were not, “Earn this.” In fact, if he were going to say anything like this, it would have been, “You can’t earn this.”

But the secular world has gotten this all wrong. Even a lot of religious people have bought into Satan’s lie. There’s a commonly accepted notion that by behaving well enough, anyone can earn their way into heaven–that God will have no choice but to accept you because you are a good person. Conversely, the thinking goes that if you behave badly enough, that will disqualify you from ever getting into heaven.

One important thing that’s overlooked and clearly not well understood by people who hold this view is God’s grace.

The Apostle Paul explains this really well and with uncharacteristic simplicity in the second chapter of his letter to the Ephesians. He starts the chapter off by pointing out that everyone has lived in disobedient opposition to God. But, he says, because God is rich in mercy, and because He loves us so much, He didn’t just turn His back on us or banish us from heaven forever. Instead, He enabled us to get right with Him by offering up His Son, Jesus, to take the punishment we deserved for our disobedience. This is the gift of grace, which he explains like this:

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

Ephesians 2:8-9 (NIV, emphasis added)

When he says, “not by works,” he means that we can’t earn it. We are only saved by grace. The only thing we can–and must–do is to receive the gift of grace by placing our faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.

An analogy came to me as I was thinking through this article. We all live in darkness. But we know there’s a light switch that, if we could flip it, would enable us to live in the light. The trouble is, we can’t reach the switch to turn it on. We may think we can–we believe we can jump high enough (live well enough)–but in reality, we cannot. Only God can reach the switch. In fact, He has already turned it on, but we have covered our eyes. All we have to do now is trust Him enough to take our hands away from our faces.

Having pointed out that we can’t earn the gift of God’s salvation, I should also say that it is an entirely appropriate response to live into that–to live in such a way that shows gratitude to God for the grace He has given you. Because of God’s unbelievable gift to us, we should do the things He has asked us to do: feed the poor, show kindness to a neighbor, put others’ needs above our own, and so on.

A caution with this, though, is that if we aren’t careful, our thinking could once again devolve over time into believing that the gift of grace came after we lived well and not before it. In other words, we could return to the incorrect belief that we earned salvation, that we were such good people that God had no choice but to forgive us for our sins.

Why is this so important? For one thing, in order for us to relate correctly to God, it’s essential that we understand that our relationship with Him has everything to do with Him and nothing to do with us or what swell people we are. Also, in order for us to truly treat others the way God wants us to, we must realize that we are no better or no worse than each other. We all have screwed up. My mistakes are no better or worse than yours. Just like you, I would be living in darkness if God had not flipped the switch and helped me take my hands away from my eyes.

As Paul puts it in the next sentence in his letter to the Ephesians:

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Ephesians 2:10 (NIV)

Bottom line, even though we can’t earn God’s grace, we should live like we are trying!

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God’s Dominion Endures from Generation to Generation

The Next Generation

How great are his signs, how mighty his wonders! His kingdom is an eternal kingdom; his dominion endures from generation to generation.

Daniel 4:3 (NIV)

I mentioned recently that my daughter and son-in-law were getting ready to bring forth my first grandchild into the world, and they succeeded in doing that this week–my grandson, Hudson, was born on August 2. I’d forgotten what a blessing it is to hold a little tiny person in your arms.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations.

Psalms 90:1 (NIV)

The arrival of the next generation in my family tree has made me ponder a number of things, not the least of which is that the God who has walked with and guided me throughout my life (even when I wasn’t paying any attention to Him) is also walking with and guiding my daughter and her husband through their lives. This same God is also patiently waiting to guide my son and other daughter through their lives, as soon as they have eyes to see that He is there to help them. He is also waiting for Hudson to call upon His name, but in the meantime, I pray and trust that His shield of protection will protect this child.

Borrowed from YouVersion

It also occurred to me that thousands of generations of people have prayed similar prayers to that very same God over the centuries–and God has been there with them and for them throughout the ages. His love for us extends from one generation to the next. Ours is a good God. He loves us and wants what is best for us. He helps us if only we whisper His name.

What more could we ask for across the generations?

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Thankfulness on Not Thanksgiving

There is one day in a year here in the United States on which it is easy for people to remember to be thankful: Thanksgiving Day, of course. But each of us, if we think carefully about it, should be able to find many things to be thankful for every other day of the year. The trouble is, the evil one has so many tools at his disposal to steal joy and thankfulness from us–national news outlets, social media, and even our own tendency to focus more on the challenges in a day than the innumerable blessings God showers upon us, just to name a few.

But here’s the thing: the best antidote for lack of gratitude–as well as fear, anxiety, anger, frustration, impatience, sadness, and almost any other negative feeling–is to be thankful. This may seem both obvious and counterintuitive, but if you think honestly and creatively about anything, you should be able to come up with reasons to be thankful for that thing.

Hate your job? Try thanking God for it every day for a week. Thank Him for the abilities and opportunities He has given you that enable you to have that job. Thank Him for the way the job allows you to support yourself and others. See if this changes how you feel about your job, even just a little.

Impatient with a child? Thank God for that child and the time you have to spend with her or him. Remember that there are people who would like to have a child but are unable to do so. Others who had a child but lost them through tragic circumstances. Still others with children from whom they are separated. There are many ways your circumstance with your child could be worse and far more painful. Perhaps doing this every day for a week will help you be more patient with that child.

Anxious or fearful of what the future holds? Thank the One who holds the future, remembering to trust Him more than you trust yourself or your spouse or any company or country.

I could go on.

Here are a couple of other quick observations about being thankful.

First, thankfulness needs to be directed at someone. This is reflected in the more formal way of expressing gratitude: “thank you.” There’s a notion that seems to be gaining some traction these days of assuming a posture of gratitude. There is certainly nothing wrong with that, but the problem in our modern secular culture is that when people are grateful in general for the blessings in their lives, they tend to direct their gratitude toward things other than the One who gave them those blessings–“the universe”, various forms of a great life force, or even goodness (instead of God, as in substituting “thank goodness” for “thank God”). This is all nonsense. As the hymn suggests:

Praise God from whom all blessings flow!

From the hymn known as “Doxology”, by Thomas Ken, 1709 (emphasis added)

Second, it’s not just my idea to thank God every day. The Bible tells us that each of our prayers should be sent to God on the wings of gratitude (Philippians 4:6). It commands us to thank God in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18). It reminds us that God’s peace walks in lockstep with thankfulness (Colossians 3:15). It suggests that we enter into His presence with thanksgiving (Psalm 100:4). In short, we should always thank God for everything (Ephesians 5:18b-20).

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

Philippians 4:6 (NIV)
Borrowed from YouVersion

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.

Colossians 3:15 (NIV)
Borrowed from YouVersion

Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Ephesians 5:18b-20 (NIV)
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Pieces of Me

I was still growing up even as I was raising my own kids. In the process, I shattered on the floor into a million little pieces. My children picked up some of the pieces and fit them into themselves. Sometimes that’s a good thing; other times, not so much. I sometimes wish I could grab hold of those pieces, the not-good ones, and exchange them for something more desirable in me. Or better yet, to take those pieces from my wife instead of me.

But it doesn’t work that way.

They collected pieces of me, pieces of my wife, and we launched them into the world, little mosaics of our making. I have been thinking of this lately for a couple reasons.

First, my older daughter is 9 days away from having her first child (via scheduled C-section). My first grandchild. The first time a baby of mine will have a baby themself.

Pieces multiplied.

Which pieces of me that my daughter collected will she pass along to her child? What a legacy to leave to the world–something that I had a hand in its existence but I cannot control.

I am confident that my daughter collected far more of the good pieces of me and my wife than the ones I wish she had left alone. We added to the mix that she always knew (and continues to know) how much we loved her (and continue to love her). Another bonus for this child who is about to burst forth into our lives is that my son-in-law is also comprised mostly of the best pieces of his loving parents.

I am trusting them and trusting God that this new little person will make the world he is inheriting a better place, either in small ways, or maybe in great ways.

The second reason I have been thinking about pieces of me is that my younger daughter turned 22 on Friday. Laying my soul bare here, I have to admit that the last 3-4 years with her have been nothing less than an ultimate test of our (my wife and my) faith, patience, and forgiveness. Yet God has walked with us, strengthened us, encouraged us, given us the right words to say so that we could do the same for and with our daughter–it has been an extremely difficult time for her as well. She finally seems to have found her way back to a path that is more life-giving than life-taking, thanks be to God. Of course, we hope and pray that she continues on this good trajectory.

So this daughter and her boyfriend had a party to celebrate her birthday. One really cool thing is that in addition to all of her young friends, she invited us to come as well. Sometimes it works out well when you storm the gates of hell for your child and you drag them back. Thankfully, this was one of those times.

But maybe even more remarkable than that was that at the party, we had the chance to talk with a young woman who is probably our daughter’s longest-term friend. And here’s the thing: this young lady credits our daughter with saving her life because, well, she did. The story is not mine to tell, so I will summarize it by saying that our daughter had to make a very difficult decision to probably save her friend’s life at the risk of losing her friendship. And even amid the tremendous struggles our daughter was enduring (which turned out to be a precursor for her own life or death battle), she made the right decision for her friend.

Speaking with this young woman made me realize that our daughter must have collected more honorable and courageous pieces of us than was evident at the time. She did the right thing for her friend even when it was hard. And even when she wasn’t doing the right thing for herself very often.

This being an encouraging Christian blog, I need to add that these two situations made me reflect that there are probably elements here that are analogous to God’s relationship with us. Pieces of Him are scattered throughout the Bible. Jesus carried them with him in his own jar of clay, and showed us how to take those pieces and make them part of ourselves.

But we don’t do that perfectly. Sometimes we hang on to our own pieces instead of exchanging them for the better ones God offers us. And yet, He has launched us into the world, even with our messy pieces. He still intends for us to use the pieces of Him to help Him bring heaven here to earth. He doesn’t control us, but He does continue to encourage us to exchange our shabby, tarnished pieces for the sparkling jewels He offers us. He hopes that we have picked up enough good pieces from Him so that we will leave the world a better place than it was when we arrived.

Also, He suffers when we wander off the Path of Life. How often do we stretch His patience and forgiveness? And yet He stormed the gates of hell for us, and continues to do so, repeatedly, to drag us back onto that Path every time something life-taking captures our attention.

And He delights when we, in moments of clarity, reflect His Light in the darkness, even in spite of the darkness surrounding us. And in those moments, God may take our meager offering and use it to save someone. It is then that pieces of Him sparkle and shine through us, when even our own darkness cannot overcome His Light.

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Feelings Follow Faithfulness

At church this morning, they mentioned that the 21st Desperation Conference took place this past week, and they described how so many of the 2000 teenagers who attended had dedicated or rededicated their lives to Christ and left the conference on fire for Jesus. I have to admit that I secretly wished that I could have gotten my two adult children, who are not followers of Christ now, to attend that conference when they were teenagers. It could have altered their faith journies to the point where maybe they would be in the faith now and would be experiencing the peace they are so desperately seeking elsewhere (in all the wrong places) right now.

Anyway, the talk of this conference reminded me of my own “Damascus Road” conversion experience (Paul’s encounter with the resurrected Christ on his way to Damascus to persecute followers of Christ there, as recounted in Acts 9:1-22). when I was 16 years old. I’ve been on fire for Jesus ever since then, which is now a very long time ago. Over those years the flame has sometimes been very brightly ablaze, like it is for those teenagers right now. But I have to admit that sometimes, it has scaled back to nothing more than smoldering embers.

Speaking with a friend this week, an axiom came back to my mind that really applies to my whole life, meaning that it is not limited just to my faith journey. In my (many) years of experience, I’ve learned that feelings follow faithfulness. Meaning that even when the feelings aren’t there, if you are faithful in doing what you know in your heart is the right thing to do, the feelings will usually follow.

Allow me to explain (well, since this is a blog post and not a conversation, I’m going to explain without waiting for permission 😊). The best way to elaborate is with a couple of examples.

Since this blog is focused on myfaith journey (and all of our journies), I’ll start with an example close to home in that space. Over the years, there have been some times–all too many, I’m sad to admit–when I did not feel like going to church. I didn’t have the feelings I thought I needed for the proper worship of our Great and Loving God. Thankfully, though, most of the time I went to church anyway. And most of the time, a beautiful and magical thing would happen: in the midst of other believers worshipping, the feelings would come. I almost always leave church feeling like I have been swept up into God’s presence, pulled onto the holiest ground, generally referred to as heaven on earth.

God is working in and through and around us to bring His Kingdom to this planet. I know that if you watch the news or surf social media, it won’t really seem like this is happening. But in those moments where the feelings have followed my faithfulness, I have sensed that it is happening. God is near. He inhabits our praise. And He also walks with us in the brokenness we bring into church and that which we drag out with us.

For those many times this has happened, I am so thankful that my faithfulness led me to church so I could feel and enjoy the presence of God, which always reminds me that we know how this story ends. Spoiler alert: God wins. In the end, there will be no death or loss or pain or tears or divisiveness, or even dentists. It is good to be reminded of this, especially on those darker days when I don’t feel like going to church.

Photo © Copyright 2022 by David K. Carpenter Photography, all rights reserved

Let me shift now to a more secular example to add and further emphasize another point. These days, I hike or walk at least 4 miles every day, pretty much regardless of the weather. During that time, I listen to the Daily Audio Bible, other audiobooks, and praise music, and I pray (yes, with my eyes open, while hiking or walking). It is consistently the richest part of my day. I look forward to it and cherish it while I’m doing it. I feel out of sorts if I ever have to miss it.

But it hasn’t always been this way. Before it became part of who I am, it was the constant struggle that many of us are probably familiar with: I have to work out at some point. I should go exercise now. Some days I just didn’t feel like it. I was too busy or too tired. The weather was too hot or too cold. I could go on and on with excuses, and if you can relate, you could probably add some of your own.

Over time, however, I got better and better at making myself go exercise even when I didn’t feel like it. How did I do this? Sometimes I would offer myself a little reward if I would go–a nice dessert, for example (counter-productive, I know, but hey, until it becomes ingrained in you, you often have to deal in little trade-offs). Sometimes I would remind myself how good I will feel afterward–sunshine, fresh air, and exertion are a great team for relieving stress! Again, you probably can think of sample deals you have made with yourself to get yourself to the gym (or whatever form of exercise you prefer).

And here’s the cool thing: after so much struggle, after so many negotiations with myself, after so many times of going out for a run, walk, or hike even when I didn’t feel like it, it has now become something that adds joy to my life.

That leads me to another point: sometimes we must pass through obedience to reach joy.

Quote Copyright © 2022 by David K. Carpenter, all rights reserved. Photo by Jake Fagan on Unsplash

I trudged through many walks to get to where I enjoy them and anticipate them eagerly.

We can feel God’s pleasure flowing through us when we do what God wired us to do. He made us, among other things, to spend quality time with him, which I think is part of what brings me joy in my hikes or walks.

He also wired us to be good at some sort of vocation, which for most of us translates into our job and career. And although most days I don’t feel like getting out of bed to go to work, I do it anyway. I can think of many other things I would rather be doing, but I don’t do those things. Instead, I focus on the task at hand, serving in my job as though I were serving God, because I am serving Him. Working for a living isn’t a great source of joy, but I have to admit that when I use the skills and abilities God has blessed me with, I do feel the satisfaction that comes from God working through me to achieve things that nobody else could. And that satisfaction dances around the edges of joy, and occasionally even tiptoes over that line.

Here’s the bottom line: a lot of times, if you keep (or start) doing the things you should do, those things can often become something you want to do because of the joy you experience from doing them. This pertains to faith-related activities–like going to church or praying–as much as it does to secular life activities like exercising and going to work. It applies to relationships as well–if you are faithful to friends and loved ones, doing the right thing by those people even when you don’t feel like it, the feelings will follow and you’ll be reminded why that person holds a cherished place in your life.

So one path to joy can be as simple as this: remembering that feelings will follow faithfulness.

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The Climb

Last week, I wrote about the joy of the Lord. This week, I’d like to discuss it a bit more, but from a different perspective. Specifically, I’d like to invite us all to reflect on how we have a tendency to steal it from ourselves.

This morning, my wife and I (along with our dog, Happy) grappled with a spectacular but challenging hike. It was about 5.5 miles long, but what made it especially challenging was the fact that it was almost entirely uphill on the way out. And not only that, but we gained over 1500 feet in elevation. So it was tough, to say the least.

As I was leaning into the mountain to ascend it, I mostly had to watch my footing since the trail was decorated with many small and medium-sized boulders, some of which were loose, so it would be easy to take a potentially nasty tumble. So since my eyes were fixated mostly on the trail directly in front of me, much of my enjoyment needed to come from other senses. A stream whispered at first, beckoning us to find it. When we did, the symphony of water rushing over rocks reached straight into my soul. Soothing me, restoring me. The trail wound through a forest populated predominantly by various pine and spruce trees, so the scent of Christmas wafted through the July air.

I was cherishing this hike, to say the least.

However, every once in a while, I would look up to make sure we were still on the trail (some of the trails in the San Isabel National Forest aren’t well marked). When I did, a temptation began gnawing at the edge of my consciousness to get discouraged about how much more steep uphill still lay ahead of us.

There I was, thoroughly enjoying the hike, but then I nearly allowed discouragement to rob me of the joy I was experiencing.

That made me wonder how many times I–and all of us–allow concern for what lies ahead to steal the joy of the moment from us.

In order for the joy of the Lord to permeate us, we have to live in the current moment because that is where God meets us. He is timeless, not bound by time, but He made us so that we experience life as a stream of moments–seconds, minutes, hours, days flow by us. Once they are passed, we cannot get them back.

If we walk upstream, delving into our past, God is not there because we’re not really there, either. Although God can help us heal from the wounds of the past, He does not meet us there. And although He can see our future (since He is outside of time), He also does not meet us there, either. So when we let our worried minds wander downstream in moments not yet come, fretting about what might be, we go there without God.

I have a dear friend who is a devoted follower of Christ. But as hard as he tries, he frequently cannot stop himself from worrying about the future. I have reminded him that you cannot live tomorrow until it becomes today. Even though he has made that somewhat of a mantra for himself, he often still cannot resist the temptation. And in succumbing, he robs himself of the joy of the moment. I’ve watched it happen with him. We can be doing something that I know he enjoys, and at first, when he’s present in the moment, he really is feeling that pleasure. But at some point, because I know him so well, I can tell when he has left the moment to wander into the future, worrying about something that will probably not happen. It’s sad to watch, really, since he has given up some of the joy that God offered him. Wadded it up and thrown it in the trash can.

So here’s my thought for the week: don’t let the whole steep climb of life rob you of the rich possibilities for joy in the present moment. Don’t look up and wonder how you will ever make it to the top–keep your eyes only on the next step.

As I was pondering this during my uphill hike, God brought Psalm 121 to my mind (this is one of the ways God speaks to us in real-time, which is why it’s helpful to be familiar with Scripture):

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.

Psalm 121:1-2 (NIV)

God is waiting for us at the top of the mountain. Sometimes He’ll venture down to help us when we’re struggling, but other times He won’t, preferring to root for us and help us in other ways we can’t see. I don’t know why that is, but I think I’d like to ask Him when I meet him face-to-face.

In a secular context, I also thought of the song “The Climb“. This was sung by Miley Cyrus in 2009, before she, ironically, succumbed to the climb herself and became someone else entirely. My younger daughter introduced it to me back then, before she also stumbled off the path herself. Anyway, the song is worth a listen. The topic isn’t exactly the same, but it still offers some nibbles to ponder.

Whether you prefer to listen to God or to a young Miley Cyrus, the point is that none of us should let what lies ahead, no matter how steep it appears to be, steal the joy of the moment from us. Listen to the stream, allow its gentle whispers to fill you with peace and restore your soul. Inhale deeply when you stumble upon the scent of Christmas in the middle of July. Life can be full of wonder and joy, gifts from our Loving Creator, if you’ll only allow yourself to live in the moment so that you may find them and cherish them.

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The Joy of the Lord Comes from Hoping in Him

This weekend in America we are celebrating Independence Day, a time commemorating the birth of our nation. This got me thinking about joy. Joy is a gift from God, but one that is all too often overlooked. I get it, life is hard, and in the midst of difficult circumstances, joy is elusive.

But here’s the thing: joy is transcendent.

God gives it to us to experience regardless of what’s happening around us or to us or in us.

As followers of Christ, we are called to model our behavior after Jesus’s. But if someone who didn’t know Jesus were to try to guess what Jesus was like based on observing Christians, how do you think they would assess him? Joyful and loving? Sadly, probably not. More likely, they would guess that Jesus was dour and bitter, trying to keep everyone around him from having a good time.

This is tragic, because the Jesus I see in the Bible was brimming with joie de vivre, a great French phrase meaning “joy of life”, which really gets at the exuberant enjoyment of life. His first recorded miracle, for example, was to create top-quality wine from ordinary water to save the day at a wedding feast. He loved hanging out with kids and his buddies. He attended many dinner parties.

That doesn’t strike me as someone who was dour and bitter.

So why is it that followers of Christ have a reputation for looking like we just ate a lemon?

Here’s at least part of the reason: because we overlook and even reject God’s gift of joy.

But Dave, you don’t know what’s happening with my job / family / illness / bank account, you might say. Or what about what’s happening in our country and the world? How can I possibly be joyful in the middle of this mess?

Fair point.

But let’s look at Jesus’s life and what was going on in the world when he walked the earth. He was homeless. His own family mostly did not believe he was who he said he was until after his death and resurrection. He was a rabbi, but most people in his religious community rejected his message, to the point that they had him executed. His best friends abandoned him when he needed them most. His country had ceased to exist as its own entity since it had become just another occupied territory of the brutal government of Rome.

I think it’s a safe guess that none of our lives is as difficult as that.

And yet, despite all of the reasons why he should have been miserable, Jesus’s joie de vivre made people want to be around him.

How could that be?

There are many good answers, but I believe at least one of them is because of where he placed his hope, which was in God alone. What happened one day or the next didn’t rob him of his joy because he was absolutely convinced that God was in control of this world. He knew that waiting on the other side of these struggles was an eternity in paradise with God. And us. And all the good dogs who have ever lived.

This means that his ultimate hope did not hang on his job, his family, his health, or his bank account. It was not dependent on his country or government officials.

So why do we place so much of our hope in these things, and so little in God?

It’s a rhetorical question, and not one meant to make us all feel bad. Instead, I invite all of us to keep it in mind as we go into our weeks. Every time we feel something starting to take away the joy God has given to us, we should catch ourselves and think about where we might be misplacing our hope. Why is that outcome more important to us than the blessings God is giving us now or the ultimate blessing awaiting us at the end of days?

Let’s receive God’s gift of joy with open hands and open arms, with reckless abandon. Celebrate. Be thankful. Laugh at the dad jokes. Dance like Snoopy.

Borrowed from https://images.app.goo.gl/J4bMtWSpHNFHhvws6. Image may be subject to copyright.
Borrowed from YouVersion: https://my.bible.com/verse-of-the-day/NEH.8.10/10819?version=111

P.S. For anyone who was hoping for a more patriotic post for Independence Day, here’s the link to my blog from last year’s July 4th weekend.

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I’ve spent the last several days with my wife on a glorious hiking vacation in Glacier National Park in Montana. The natural beauty–the work of the ultimate creative Artist–was stunning. As a gardener who works hard to make my garden look good, I am constantly amazed by the wildflowers, trees, and shrubs that God so effortlessly arranges to form such spectacular scenery. Having said that, I also noticed that there were plenty of weeds scattered throughout the landscape as well.

The ongoing struggle between flowers and weeds, whether in my yard or a national park, makes me think of the constant battle between good and evil. God blesses our lives with many flowers, whether or not we have eyes to see them. But the evil one tries to pollute that beauty by sowing weeds of fear, entitlement, hate, and many other ills, into the gardens of our lives.

Even though God has not planted the weeds, the Great Gardener gently works on us and with us to help us see the weeds for what they are so we can pull them and eliminate them from our lives.

Sometimes the flowers vs. weeds analogy plays out at a national level as well, as it has this past week. The many weeds of political tension were already threatening to overrun the flower garden that is America, but the overturning of Roe v. Wade has only made that worse. Another weed–and a big one at that. I call it a weed not as commentary on how I feel about the decision (as I have mentioned before, I believe I am not to use this forum to talk about my political views), but rather to point out that the issue of abortion is yet another tool the evil one is using to try to disintegrate this country.

One big difference between weeds in our own lives and weeds in our country is that for personal weeds, God works in us to eliminate them, but for national weeds, God works through us to try to eradicate those. For example, if I have a weed in my life that might be labeled “discontentment”, God might chisel away at my heart to help me develop a posture of gratitude for the countless ways He has blessed me. But for a national weed like the divide over abortion, God might work through me by helping me not to engage in bitter discussions on the topic and by exhibiting Christ’s love even toward those who view this issue differently from me.

I say this as much to myself as to anyone reading this: hate and bitterness are favorite tools of Satan, so we must never take them up into our hands, no matter how tempting they may be. If we are to follow Christ, we can only ever use tools he used to deal with difficult people in difficult situations–coming alongside them, understanding their pain, and helping them carry their burdens. Caring for them. Loving them.

That’s how we can cooperate with God to pull the weeds threatening to overrun the garden of our great country.

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Happy Abba’s Day

Today is Father’s Day here in the USA, and in some other parts of the world as well. This got me thinking about how some people’s faith journey is impacted by their relationship with their earthly father. What I mean by that is there are people who were blessed with a loving, caring father, so they may have an easier time embracing the idea of a loving, caring Heavenly Father. On the other hand, people whose father was absent, distant, mean, or worse probably struggle to think of a Heavenly Father as a good thing.

As a father myself, though, I can’t help but think that no matter how hard I tried, there were myriad times and ways I failed to be the loving, caring father I wanted (and still want) to be. I’m not beating myself up here, but I’m saying this to point out that Jesus invited us to look past our shortcomings as fathers and those of our own fathers when he said:

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

Jesus, in Matthew 7:9-11

What this says to me is that each of us dads who really are trying our best still can’t measure up to how loving and caring our Heavenly Father is for each and every one of us, His children. I also believe Jesus is hinting at the idea that no matter how good or bad our earthly father is or was, we should not judge God as Father based on that standard since God is infinitely better than even the best earthly father, and His love and greatness can overcome even the most horrible father.

And this further got me thinking about how Jesus modeled for us how we should relate to our Heavenly Father. When speaking with God the Father, Jesus often did so out loud so we could catch a glimpse into their conversations–and that’s really what prayer is intended to be: a conversation with God. And in those conversations, Jesus did not use grandiose, inflated, “religious” language. Instead, he used intimate, loving words when talking with God. In fact, he didn’t generally use the formal term, “Father”. Instead, he favored the more colloquial Aramaic term, “Abba”, which is closer to what we would usually say as “Dad”.

Here’s the thing: Jesus is showing us that we don’t have a God that’s “out there somewhere” or aloof and living by Himself in an ivory cathedral, not wanting to be bothered by us. He’s demonstrating for us that God is with us, near enough to hear us whisper, “Dad,” even on the darkest of nights. Jesus is telling us that no matter how good a dad we try to be or how great a dad we have had, God is an infinitely better father. He wants what’s best for us even more than we hope that for our children. He loves us so much more than our earthly dads ever could, no matter how hard they try.

So on this Father’s Day, I wish all the dads out there a Happy Father’s Day, and I invite all of us to thank our Heavenly Dad for the countless ways He has loved us and cherished us and blessed us, far beyond even what we could ever ask or imagine.

Photo by Mohamed Awwam on Unsplash
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Not Seeing is Believing

In today’s culture, it is becoming increasingly common for people to believe in only what they can see. I always want to ask such free thinkers if they believe in the wind or love or hope or outer space, but that’s not nice, so I usually keep my thoughts to myself. And that’s not really the point of this post, so I’ll move on from that. Anyway, the point is that people like this tend to think that God is a made-up superstition because they cannot see Him.

But this must not be a new thing. Over 2000 years ago, the author of the letter to the Hebrews addressed it this way:

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.

Hebrews 11:1 (NIV)

He goes on to list many people from Old Testament times who exhibited great faith, in what has come to be known as the “Faith Hall of Fame”.

Yes, faith means that we are confident and assured about something we cannot see. But everyone puts their confidence in something. In secular societies like this one, people put their confidence in things they can see–things like the government or a particular leader. But history has shown–and the recent trajectory of our country continues to suggest–that the farther people walk away from God, the more brutal and violent they become.

Here’s one way to think of it. We are here in a place that may seem desirable until we catch a glimpse of God hanging out in a place of indescribable beauty, joy, and peace. Trouble is, there’s a great chasm between where we are and where He is. Faith is the bridge that spans the chasm, enabling us to get over to paradise. Anyone is free to cross the bridge. All you have to do is be confident and assured that the bridge will hold you, that it will support the weight of your life while you cross the chasm. It may be a bit challenging to have that confidence since you can’t see for sure that the bridge makes it to the other side.

Here is the alternative.

Since some people lack that confidence and assurance, there are many other bridges to choose from. They start off looking like they will also take you to paradise, but they always veer off in another direction. But it’s OK, people will tell you, because at least you see the entire bridge.

So, is it better to take the bridge that you can’t see the end of, but you know it takes you to the right place, or is it better to take one that you can see the end of, and you know it doesn’t take you where you want to go?

For me, it’s better to jump onto the bridge that Jesus is beckoning me to choose. It may be rickety at times, and it may take some twists and turns I hadn’t expected, but at least it ends up on the other side of the chasm. And Jesus will be there every step along the way, guarding me, guiding me, escorting me home.

Faith is the bridge across the chasm to God.

Photo by Jonathan Klok on Unsplash
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