Monday, January 31, 2011

Rejoice in the Lord Always

On a recent Thursday night in February, we experienced a winter storm. I tossed and turned all night, listening to the freezing rain and sleet drumming against the roof and windows. Finally, an hour and a half before the alarm went off, I got up in the pre-dawn dark to watch the weather. I learned an inch of ice and sleet had fallen during the night; according to the newscasters, travel was treacherous and should be avoided. When I looked out the window, I could see the street glistening. Soon the list of school closings appeared on the television screen. Every school district in the area was closed except one, mine.
Grudgingly, I prepared for the bitter cold weather and the icy commute. I had a long, cold day ahead of me after a restless night with little sleep. When I got to school, only one third of my students had come, so the entire day seemed pointless. School was in session, but little was accomplished because so few attended. I kept thinking about what I could have done at home. Frustrated, I fretted and complained all day about the wasted time. After school, I left earlier than usual in an effort to beat the afternoon traffic. Still grumbling and complaining, I scraped windows and warmed my car. As I pulled out of the parking lot, however, my attitude changed.
The low, winter, late afternoon sun shone through the ice-covered world, changing the landscape into a magical fairyland. The dried winter grasses in the roadside ditches sparkled in the sun. The squares of ice-coated wire on the roadside fences glimmered and gleamed. The trees sparkled like huge crystal sculptures. The whole world danced with light. Forgotten were my frustrations and complaints as I viewed this breathtakingly beautiful world! All I could do was thank God and marvel at His winter beauty.

Father, open my heart to view the beauty you have so graciously bestowed.

Philippians 4:4 (NIV) “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Winter in the Woods

Winter in the forest has a beauty all its own. Gone are the purple and yellow wildflowers that bloom in the spring. Gone are the deep green summertime leaves waving overhead in the breeze. Gone is the brilliant pallet of fall’s colors screaming for attention. Gone is the constant chorus of bird call, each looking for its mate. Instead I see all the neutral, muted browns and grays of winter. Stark in their bareness, the trees stand alone against the pale blue sky, streaked with wispy white clouds. Everything looks dull and dead.
I walk the meandering trails on this warm January day, listening to an occasional snap as a small animal rushes to its hiding place. Most of last week’s snow has melted, but in the shady bends along the path my feet crunch into patches of snow and sink in the mud. I walk in silence for over an hour, my feet cushioned by the sandy path, softened pine needles, and damp, brown, lifeless leaves.

As I walk I admire the shapes of the trees. Some stretch tall and straight, reaching their leafless branches to the winter sky. Some bend and twist, their branches overarching the path, providing a natural archway. Tangles of broken branches surround other trees, creating masses of interesting, angular shapes. Yes, winter in the forest has a beauty all its own.

If the leaves had still been clinging to the branches, I would not so easily have noticed the less colorful winter beauty in the shapes of the trees. I’m grateful for having eyes to see this barren beauty and weather nice enough to venture into the woods in January.

How often do we stop to see the beauty in the barren times of our lives? At times, like the trees, we are stripped bare of joy in our lives, burdened with pain and guilt. That’s when we most need to keep our spiritual eyes open to God’s beauty. That’s when we most need to enjoy long, quiet times with our Lord, trusting Him to reveal His beauty in the midst of our colorless world. It's then we learn to see the beauty in those barren times of our lives, for then, stripped of our finery, we more clearly see the glory of the Lord.

Father God, creator of all beauty, open my eyes to see Your beauty all around me.

Psalm 27:4 “One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.”

Monday, January 24, 2011

Driving at Dawn

I drive to work in the pre-dawn light. The landscape and the sky above are gray, devoid of color. Glancing into my rear-view mirror, I see headlights behind me. Rapidly eating up the roadway between us, the lights pursue me, threatening to capture me in their glare. Soon my eyes ache from the harsh lights shining in my mirror, obscuring my backward vision. I focus my gaze on the road ahead. The sky has changed from dingy gray to the palest of blues. Before the sun has shown its face, the clouds reflect its brilliance in shades of pink, purple, gold, and orange. Gradually, the sky brightens; the vivid greens of the landscape around me stand in bright contrast to the gray of moments before. Soon the sun rises, casting a golden glow on each blade of grass, where countless drops of dew reflect the sun’s light. The world is bathed in the soft, early morning light. Although the sun itself is far too bright for my eyes, its golden light casts a glow of peace and serenity on my small world. The headlights which only moments earlier blinded my eyes now pale in the sun’s brilliance.
The spiritual lights in our lives parallel the lights I view on my early morning drive to work. Satan’s “light” is like the headlights. Relentlessly pursuing, his harsh glare prevents me from seeing the road, from seeing the way I should travel. Satan’s temptations and ruses, like the headlights which blind us in the dark, seem so bright, but God’s light, like the rising sun, makes them pale. In the light of God’s brilliance, Satan’s lures are barely discernible. One hardly notices headlights on a brightly lit day.

Satan’s puny light is magnified in the darkness. My attitudes, when I exclude God, leave me in the darkness and make Satan’s lights appear brighter. In order to avoid blindness from Satan’s light, I must constantly walk in God’s more brilliant light. Constantly seeking God intensifies His light, obliterating Satan’s feeble imitations. Satan’s light pursues from behind, threateningly. God’s light beckons ahead, calling me to run to Him, causing me to seek His face, His glory. His brilliance is so great I cannot look at it, but I bask in the warmth and glow of His love.

O Father, keep my eyes constantly looking ahead toward the one true light that does not threaten to overtake, but softly beckons, “Come to me.”

Isaiah 42:16 “I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the smooth places rough. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them.”

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Ice Storm

On Tuesday, January 4, 2005, the worst ice storm in decades hit Wichita. Over three quarters of an inch of ice coated the area, downing power lines and plunging more than 60,000 homes and businesses into darkness. The icy outdoors created a surreal fantasy world, with homes, grass, trees, streets, and mailboxes painted with a clear, icy glaze.Trees bent over, their limbs dragging the ground under their heavy loads. Many, unable to bear the load, snapped, littering roofs, yards, sidewalks and streets with their crystal branches. By Saturday, the clouds cleared, and the sun on nature’s ice castles sparkled brilliantly, their prisms of ice flinging crystal colors everywhere.

By Saturday afternoon, feeling housebound, I ventured outdoors to watch the sun glisten off the icy trees. In my backyard, everything drooped under the weight of the ice—according to newscasters the ice was four times the weight of the trees it covered. The mulberry trees bent so far over from the weight of the ice, the tips of their branches brushed the snow-covered ground. I stood in the middle of the back yard and gazed at the trees surrounding me. The sun, striking the ice-covered branches, turned my back-yard world brilliant, but what really struck me were all the new sounds. As I stood there watching and listening, a whole chorus sang .The main melody: the constant drip, drip, drip of water falling from thousands of icicles. All around me I heard this constant dripping as the sun melted the ice. With the breeze, the click and clack of ice-covered branches brushing each other added to the tune. Plop! I turned and looked behind me at trembling tree branches, freed from their weight of ice. Every few seconds I heard another plop as chunks of ice tumbled to the ground. Occasionally a loud crashing resounded as a larger ice fragment hit the branch below and tumbled from branch to branch before landing on the softer earth. Looking at the ash tree by the corner of our vegetable garden, I witnessed hundreds of drops glistening in the late afternoon sun and plopping to the ground; the tree wept. Soon I noticed the lower branches of the mulberry tree no longer touched the ground. I wondered how long it would take before all the ice melted from the trees, and the branches, freed from their burden, and would once more reach heavenward.

How often do our souls become ice-coated? We are burdened and bent over, not with the weight of ice, but with the weight of our guilt and our sins. Heavy with guilt, we labor to lift our arms heavenward. Some, unable to bear this burden, snap and break. Others merely look down, unable to praise God. Fortunately, we can eliminate the burdens weighing us down. Like the sun shining on the ice-laden trees, God’s grace frees us from our burdens. When in repentance we sincerely beg God’s Son to shine his light of forgiveness, the hard shell of guilt begins to crack and stir. Soon, tears of gratitude flow, just like the weeping trees. Before long, the hard shells of ice coating our souls come crashing down. Soon we can once again raise our arms heavenward, look up and praise our maker
Father, thank you for taking away my heavy burden of guilt.

Psalm 38:4 “My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear.”

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Banquet

You enter a banquet hall; before you is a long, beautifully carved wooden table set with fine china, crystal goblets, polished silverware, and linen napkins. You may eat whatever you desire. Perhaps your first choice is a juicy steak, cooked to perfection. With it you may desire a baked potato, loaded with butter and sour cream, perhaps topped with bacon and green onion. A tossed salad, chock full of your favorite vegetables and topped with your favorite dressing, rounds out the meal. Perhaps instead of steak, you prefer a different dish? A crispy taco, filled with flavorful meat, shredded lettuce, tomato, and two kinds of cheese. Guacamole, chips, and salsa come with the dinner. Whatever your favorite meal, you may eat to your heart’s content. Next, of course, is dessert. Would you care for a chewy brownie, topped with creamy vanilla ice cream and hot fudge? Or perhaps a bowl of juicy, ripe red strawberries with a dollop of whipped cream?
Would the opportunity to eat your fill of your favorite dishes make you glad? Just looking at the delicious food and inhaling its wonderful odors would make most of us quite happy. Unfortunately for our waistlines and our pocketbooks, we cannot indulge in a feast like this, at least not very often.

Now it is easy to imagine joy in a feast of delicious food, but “joy and rejoicing of my heart” (Jeremiah 15:16) from eating God’s word? Do we desire the word of God as much as we desire delicious food? Is reading God’s word something we eagerly anticipate? Probably not, but this is a feast in which we can indulge. We need not fear gaining weight and depleting our wealth; we only fear gaining knowledge of God’s wisdom and love and depleting our sinfulness.

Oh God, creator of the entire universe, I desire delicious food more than I desire Your word. I don’t regard Your words as a sumptuous banquet for my soul. Forgive me. Change my heart, O God. Create in me a create in me a hunger to feast at the banquet of Your word.

Jeremiah 15:16 (NKJ) “Your words were found and I ate them, and Your word was to me the joy and rejoicing of my heart; for I am called by Your name, O Lord God of hosts.”

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Freshly Fallen Snow

Looking out my dining room patio windows, I marvel at the freshly fallen snow. Overnight a six inch covering of white has blanketed my yard. Only yesterday the grass was brown and brittle, to all appearances dead. In the garden, skeletons of summer’s flowers dance, ghostlike in the wintry winds. The dried grass and flowers are now coated with white, their sharp edges masked by the soft contours of the freshly fallen snow. The low winter sun glitters off the snow, as if some giant hand had strewn diamonds over the whiteness. All is clean and sparkling, a joy to behold.
Besides looking beautiful, the snow’s blanket absorbs sound. No longer do I hear the muffled roar of nearby traffic. The snow-coated world, hushed, wraps a quiet peace and security around my heart.

Tomorrow I will have to drive to work in the snow. The roadsides will quickly lose their pristine whiteness. All along the highways, the once pure white snow is quickly covered with grime. Exhaust fumes, microscopic particles from motorist’s tires, motor oil, sand and salt cover the snow’s beauty. What was once pure, freshly fallen snow has become an eyesore. What came softly from the heavens is now coated with earth’s grime.

The freshly fallen snow reminds me of a new-born baby. The baby is soft and innocent; a new untouched soul has entered the world. All marvel at its appearance. Unfortunately, like the snow that becomes covered in grime, the new-born soul, fresh from heaven, is rapidly covered with earth’s grime. How quickly the ways of mankind begin to coat the soul! Without seeking heavenly guidance, the soul blunders its way in the world. It learns customs from its neighbors, not from its maker. It sees the glamour of the world and is enticed by its false glitter. Soon the once pure soul is hardly recognizable. Just like the road-side snow, the soul has become covered with a thick coat of the world’s grime.

It is impossible to clean the filth from the roadside snow banks. Fortunately, it is possible to clean the filth from the soul. And how is this impossible task accomplished? “We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10b). Through his sacrifice we can be made clean. When he was crucified on the cross, he took the punishment for all our sins. All we need to do is believe and ask for his forgiveness. Then we are made holy; all the impurities are washed away and our souls become pure and white as snow. Then and only then can our sparkling white souls enter into the very presence of God.

Almighty God, my soul is dirty, covered with the world’s grime. I have become so accustomed to the dirt that I hardly even notice it any more. Reveal my impurities to me and wash my soul as white as snow. Make me pure enough to stand, unafraid, at the very foot of your heavenly throne.

Isaiah 1:18 verifies this. “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.”

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Anticipating New Life

As I prepared for Christmas this year, I wondered what thoughts ran through Mary’s mind as she anticipated the birth of her first child. Like all expectant mothers, she must have wondered what her child would look like, and what he would grow up to be. She must have marveled at her changing body and the new life growing and kicking in her womb. How amazed she was at the angel Gabriel’s words that her son would be great and would be called the “Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32b). She must have been curious to know more about this new life growing within her.

If you have ever anticipated the birth of a child, you can imagine what Mary was thinking, but can you imagine how all the heavenly host must have anticipated the birth of this child? All of heaven must have held their collective breath, because the birth of this child would signal the beginning of the defeat of Satan and the eventual victory over sin and death. The angels knew how this child would look, and they knew what he would grow up to be. They knew He would look with love and compassion on the men and women created in His image. They knew he would live a sinless life, that he would give up His earthly life on a Roman cross to defeat death and sin. They knew He would do all this for us, for sinful human beings.

Can you picture how God must see us? He can see beyond the exterior, those features that show in our photographs. He sees beyond the eyes, nose, mouth, hair, coloring, age, height, and weight. The picture he sees is deep within the heart, those things that motivate our actions, whether pure or selfish. He sees the love; he sees the hatred. He sees kindness; he sees cruelty. Others can only see the outward picture, yet we must always remember that God sees the inside picture.

Think for a moment about how God and all the angels might anticipate your new life after this one has ended. Will they eagerly await your arrival? Fortunately for us, God’s great plan of salvation enables us to do more than just a photographer’s touch up on the inside picture. His grace allows our inside picture of sin and its ugliness to be transformed into a heavenly picture of perfection. Once we accept this new interior, the angels in heaven rejoice at the new spiritual birth. Then we rejoice, knowing God anticipates our birth in heaven where we will dwell as beautiful, newly created beings.

Father, thank you for the amazing spiritual birth you offer us. Your grace is truly amazing.

II Corinthians 5:17 “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”

Thursday, January 6, 2011

One Little Bruise

One little bruise doesn’t hurt very much. In fact, it doesn’t hurt at all unless you put your finger on it and push. Pressing against a bruise causes pain, so we tend to avoid doing that, don’t we? Then the bruise is merely a small spot of discoloration that is quickly healed and gone. It is so insignificant we hardly even think about it until someone else notices that black and blue mark and asks about it. It’s just one little bruise.

Instead of one little bruise, can you imagine what it would be like to have thousands of little bruises? Even though each little injury would be minor, having thousands of them at the same time would surely cause a great deal of pain. Then, what if you constantly pressed on all these little bruises? The pain would be tremendous. What had been insignificant as just one little bruise would become significant.

This is how it is with our emotional pains One little word said by another might cause a small injury. Was it intended to be cruel, or did it just come out wrong? If we dwell on that little pain, it is the equivalent of pressing a bruise. Reliving the emotional pain only re-injures us, causing additional pain and bruising We tend to go over and over (press our fingers on) this intentional or unintentional slight, causing additional, unnecessary pain. All those little hurts accumulate, making us miserable. Soon, we lash out at someone for one little injury that should not hurt at all, but in our minds we have been pressing down on those little pains and reliving them, making ourselves miserable.

God understands the way we remember and relive our little hurts. He knows that we tend to make just one little bruise become many little bruises. We turn a small injury that doesn’t hurt into an injury that nearly paralyzes us. This is one reason He commands us to forgive. One little emotional bruise, when forgiven, stays one little bruise.

Our relationship with God is damaged when we are unwilling to forgive others. If we are not willing to forgive another for sinning against us, then our God is not willing to forgive us when we sin. Do we ever bruise others with our words or deeds? Do we ever injure someone else by our lack of words or deeds? Of course we do. None of us is perfect. Before God is willing to forgive us, we must first forgive those who have injured us. Christ forgives our sins; therefore, we must follow His example and forgive the sins of others. In this life we will suffer bruises and we will inflict bruises on others. Whether or not each of these injuries will remain just one little bruise is up to us.

Oh God, help us to forgive others and forget the injury.

Matthew 6:14, 15 “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”