Book Review: “When God’s Ways Make No Sense”

This review is sponsored by Baker Books, who provided me with the book for the purpose of reviewing. There is an affiliate link by which, if you click through and make a purchase, I will earn a small commission (at no cost to you).

I’ve been a Christian my whole life.  I “prayed the prayer” accepting Jesus Christ as my Savior, the first time, when I was four years old.  At different points throughout my life my understanding of salvation changed and evolved and now, at nearly half-a-century of living, I understand this:

I KNOW NOTHING.

I can echo with Paul that the things I want to do (live and love like Christ) I don’t do, and the things I despise (living in fear and judgement and overall human nastiness) I do.  Once a preacher and a youth pastor, at times a music minister and and a women’s leader, once a speaker-into-the-lives-of-others and a teacher and an inspirational writer…now just a middle-aged broad who realizes just how horribly imperfect she is and how much damage she’s capable of.

I have no right to speak to anyone. I can’t even get my own crap together.

I think Dr. Larry Crabb has been in the same place. Well, not the woman part, but everything else.

I think that because, in his newly published When God’s Ways Make No Sense, he asks the question that drives us all crazy, the question that has even driven some people away from Christ:

“If God is good, then what is He good for?”

And with that question he dives into the heart of the matter. If God isn’t bent on punishing the wicked and causing His people to do the right thing – just LOOK at the world, LOOK at those who call themselves “the Church”, LOOK! God! It’s disgusting out there! – what is He bent on? Is He even there?

With this review, I could outline how three biblical characters – Jonah, Saul of Tarsus, and Habbakuk – are compared and contrasted. I could look at the different thoughts about God’s sovereignty are examined and evaluated.

But I won’t.

Instead, I will share with you the statement that put a lifetime of walking and falling and sinning and failing and wondering if I would ever live up to God’s expectations of me into eternal perspective:

“Let me try to express the inexpressible good purpose toward which God is faithfully moving us: His Spirit is overwhelming the fallen power of self-centeredness so deeply imbedded [sic] within us with the thirst always stirring in even deeper places within us, a thirst to delight God by trusting His goodness in the worst of times.  That overwhelming thirst frees us to relate in the divine energy of other-centeredness. And when we fail, as we surely will, we trust that God’s love is not weakened and that His good purpose in us will yet be accomplished.” (emphasis added)

This book has renewed my faith in a God I don’t always – or ever – understand.  Before walking away in despair and discouragement and disbelief, read this book.

I Have More Power than I Ever Thought I Had…Some Thoughts on FAITH

I very nearly to forgot write this post.  I’ve done super well, faithfully following through on my New Year’s intention to post something every week…

…TWO WEEKS.  Not until Week 3 did I falter.  Technically, we’re right at the beginning of Week 4 and I really did miss Week 3, but I’ll treat myself with some grace and lump both weekend days into Week 3, ‘kay?

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Truth is, I didn’t even know what I wanted to write about.  This week has been so busy – conference last weekend, catapulted into a shortened school week due to a holiday and the end of semester, all in one week, started a new graduate program so all my spare time is spent on homework assignments (God, is three master’s degrees enough? Can this be the last? Why I’m working on #3 is, of course, fodder for yet another blog post…). And this afternoon, we welcomed into our home an exchange student from Thailand.  Busy, busy, busy!  Not enough room in my mid-life brain to percolate some fresh inspiration…

Even my Scripture study habit has suffered.  So today, after looking at my schedule of reading and determining just how much I needed to catch up on, I settled into my cushy chair by the fireplace and began reading…

…over and over again, I came across the connection between FAITH and MIRACLES.

faith 1

I know, I’m about to get a “You freakin’ Joel Osteen parrot!” from a lot of you, but regardless of some folks’ use of the word “faith” to turn God into a divine vending machine/ATM/barista, Scripture says it – quite clearly:

  • In Mark 6, Jesus couldn’t perform miracles because of the people’s lack of faith.

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  • In Numbers 21, those who had faith in God’s directive to look at the bronze serpent were healed; those who didn’t, died.

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  • In Acts 3, Peter and John clearly state that the crippled man’s faith is what healed him.

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Please understand – I am absolutely not a name-it-and-claim-it thinker.  I am a dyed-in-the-wool, choices-bring-consequences, you-made-your-bed-now-get-comfortable, and God-gave-you-brains-and-brawn-so-use-them sort of person.  Very independent, and very prone to kicking myself when I make a poor choice or exert less than perfect wisdom in any given situation.

It hasn’t been like me to ask for miracles. Historically, I’ve found that rather embarrassing…a miracle was evidence that I needed God to cover my backside (which, granted, He has done more than once).

There was a time when I no longer believed in miracles, or in God, for that matter. It wasn’t so long ago, and I found myself swimming in a sea of doubt, and despair, and darkness.  And I realized that although I didn’t know if God existed, and if He did, I didn’t know if He was listening to little-ol’-me…

…but I wanted to believe He was, and I wanted Him to hear me.

In my mind, I could see myself as that little lost lamb Jesus told us about, and I wanted a Good Shepherd to rescue me before I fell of the cliff (or, rather, catch me in mid-air because I was already falling).

good shepherd

I remember talking with a friend about this, a friend who was acquainted with my extensive background in a variety of religions, and he directed me to Scripture.  Mind you, this was at a time in my life when the Bible, the Baghavagita, the Book of Mormon, the daily newspaper horoscope, the Wiccan Rede, fortune cookies…they were all about the same to me.  I had great respect for all expressions of faith and religion, but believed none of it.  My life had led me to a place where I hoped everyone could find something that would help them become a better person and leave the world a better place, but I certainly could not speak to the supremacy of Jesus Christ, the Savior.

I’d been reading Scripture about the Savior.  At every turn, my heart and my mind were being confronted by Jesus Christ – His words, His actions, His love.  And my friend asked me, “Do you believe this is true?”

I didn’t know.  Like Pilate, I asked myself, “What is truth?”

But maybe the darkness in my life made the light all that much brighter, because it was different than it was when I was growing up and first learning about Him.  There was a power in these Scripture encounters that I’d never experienced before, an urgency, a texture and resonance that was new to me.  What I was reading was no longer merely cerebral, but three-dimensional and REAL.  I could feel the person living inside the earthly tabernacle being sculpted, shaped, literally remodeled. It was almost – heck, maybe it was – physical.

My answer was paltry. “I-I-I [I’m not a stutterer; I was in that moment] think so.”

He said, “Good enough…good enough.”

And you know what?

It was good enough.

The tiny little mustard seed – the desire for the tiny little mustard seed – started a chain reaction of miracles in my life that steered me to a completely unexpected and only-dreamed-of-place.

Where I wanted to run away from my life, I settled in.

The marriage that was failing faster than I could keep it together was healed…because I was healed.

Out of the blue, the opportunity to leave a career that was leaving me withering and lifeless and start a career in music (those of you who know me know how significant that is) presented itself.

And religion (yes, I love that word now) became for me not a trite observance of Sunday ceremony and ritual, but a binding of myself to the God who loves me and makes me able to love, and that love continues to re-create me, every day.  My experience with Jesus Christ is as tangible to me as my experience with my husband or my friends or my colleagues.  He’s right there, just a prayer or thought or funny comment away (yes, we joke with each other now and again…).

But I had to ask myself today – was it really my faith that made those things happen? Because here’s another thought, no less powerful, but one that looks at this issue from a different perspective.

In C.S. Lewis’ book Prince Caspian, part of The Chronicles of Narnia, we run into a Dwarf named Nikabrik. He’s quite the surly fellow and absolutely does not believe in Aslan.  As they’re holed up in a bunker and feeling quite hungry, he quips that, if Aslan (who was standing right there) was real, he’d produce a feast for them.

Well, what do you know? Poof! A feast! And everyone digs in. Roast, apples, potatoes, pie, you name it…

…but all Nikabrik seems to experience is a few moldy turnips and rutabagas (both of which are fantastic – less the moldy bits, of course – in a nice beef stew).

Ultimately, Nikabrik didn’t want to believe, so Aslan was powerless to do anything for him.  He chose to remain in blindness, and so he couldn’t experience the miracle that was happening around him.  No faith, no miracle…or no experiencing of the miracle.  Where everyone around him was rejoicing and delighting in the hand of providence, not only did Nikabrik not experience it, but he couldn’t understand why everyone else was so thrilled with moldy turnips and rutabagas.

So does my faith – little and paltry and weak though it might be – actually produce miracles, or does it enable my ability to participate in and experience them?  Does my faith in God move God’s hand or place me in God’s hand?  Does prayer change things…or me?

C.S. Lewis had a very clear thought on this matter:

prayer-changes-me

Jesus said, “Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and ye shal find; knock, and it whall be opened unto you: for every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8, KJV).

All it takes is to ask.  But if one doesn’t believe, one won’t ask, and so the miracle remains elusive, out-of-reach, and, for all intents and purposes, non-existent.

After pondering all of this, I don’t think that our faith is like a supernatural power-up for God.  God’s gonna do what God’s gonna do…and fortunately, Scripture is pretty clear about His direction, so we don’t have to worry about God being flaky or unpredictable. My experience, however, does indicate that our faith is a supernatural power-up for us, because it gives us the power to move into a place where we can see and hear and experience and partner with everything God is doing.

And that, my friends, is the greatest miracle of all.

You should try it.

 

If We Could See Ahead…We’d Run the Other Way

Have you seen this meme? Every time it pops up on Facebook, I laugh and say, “That is SO my life!”

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I was chatting with a friend last night, and we were talking about goals and priorities and where I wanted to be in the next few years. I’d been thinking about that recently, and, in fact, I KNOW where I want to be and what I want to be doing…at least I think I do.

Because I think like that top picture. I’m all about goal-setting and proactivity and action steps. Here’s my goal, my desired destination, and here’s the straightest path there. BAM! Seems easy.

But that’s not really reality. As I sit here, typing away, I have to reflect and realize (not a new realization, trust me), that NOTHING in my life has turned out like I’d planned. Not family, not career, not even my spiritual life has been at all predictable. In fact, as my girlfriend and I were chatting, we both agreed that, if we knew what the future held, we’d probably pull a 180 and run pell-mell away from it.

But I don’t really like that. I’m such a Type A personality:

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For the more linear folks:

typeApersonality

Here’s how it flushes out in my everyday, well-planned, ordered, and theoretically executed life:

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Sometimes my prayers sound a lot like this.

Highly driven and focused. Proactive, self-motivated, and always thinking about what needs to happen to get closer to the goal. And sometimes I get a little worked-up (since I refuse to use vulgarity here!) with others about it…

And I get a bit worked-up with God when he changes my destination…or, when I get there, says, “This was just a rest stop…movin’ on!”

In my 48 years on this planet, I have had at least five career paths. Ministry (in a variety of churches), music performance, music education, social worker, and a short stint as a Mary Kay lady (never could achieve that cat-eye look with the shadow, though). And in the midst of each different life chapter, I threw everything I had into it, convinced that THIS was what my life was supposed to be about.

And then CHANGE. Divinely ordained change.

According to change experts (yes, they’re a thing), change should be prepared for and eased into and processed while it’s happening – ask any management guru about what happens when change is thrust upon an organization. Better yet, ask the employees. They’ll give you an earful.

I don’t think God has consulted with the experts or the gurus.

Each time change has come to my life, it has come with little warning and no time to prepare…probably because if I had warning and time to prepare, I would absolutely pack my bags, pull a Jonah, and catch the next train to Joppa.

In her devotional book, Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence, (and no, I don’t get a cut for advertising…I just really like this book!), Sarah Young writes:

You would like to see a map, showing all the twists and turns of your journey. You’d feel more prepared if you could somehow visualize what is on the road ahead…I will not show you what is on the road ahead, but I will thoroughly equip you for the journey. (Entry for January 12)

As I look back on the multiple times God has quite literally pulled the rug out from under my feet, I see one common thread. Each time, I have been forced to rely on God’s grace direction and have had to obey not out of pious desire, but out of sheer need to survive the rocking of the boat and the shaking of the foundation. And each time, I can identify the hand of my Heavenly Father orchestrating the whole darn thing.

And it’s not like I was ever being disobedient to be where I was. Oddly enough, as I reflect, each different chapter of my life was, in fact, exactly where I needed to be at that moment.

I learned skills and lessons and evolved as a person. I learned to recognize different facets of Heavenly Father’s character and personality and grew closer to Him. I became more attuned to His voice, more able to recognize Him in the midst of the chaos.

And I rather like me at this point in life.

Furthermore…

I wouldn’t trade any of it.

So here we are. 2018 is still in its infancy. I know where I’d like to be and where I’d like life to go in the next 11-1/2 months, but really, all I know is that God is taking me somewhere.

I can either go all Type A, demand to see the map (and since He won’t show me, it would be making up the map in my little brain) and wrest the steering wheel away from him, or I can learn to be more Type B and relax, enjoy the scenery, and trust that He knows where we’re going.

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It really is a tender mercy that He doesn’t give us the whole plan at once. He really does have our happiness in mind. I can trust that.

Starting Off With Thanksgiving

It’s funny how, as a North American culture, we don’t get around to celebrating Thanksgiving until the end of the year: November for the United States, and October for our cousins in Canada.  And what’s even funnier is how, after we’ve gone around the table and given thanks for whatever pops into our head and stuffed ourselves senseless on enough food to feed a third world country, we start bidding the current year goodbye and begging the new one to hurry up and come and please be better than the last.

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When I was reviewing 2017 in my own life, I decided to look for great things that happened instead of focusing on crap that came my way, annoying people who wouldn’t leave, or, God have mercy, politics.  And what I found was that, by-in-large, 2017 was AMAZING!

  • I made it through a very difficult year of teaching – what a victory!
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    Completing a teaching credential at the same time as taking over a secondary level choral program and only being there half the time because of grad program demands was crazy-making for not just me, but all the students who needed and deserved my full attention. But we all made it, even if by the skin of our teeth…

    I finished a graduate program.

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    Master’s degree Number Two.
  • I lost 53 pounds (there’s a 2017 resolution checked off!).
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    After a lifetime of struggle, I finally found a program that works!  Feeling great these days!
  • We celebrated TWENTY YEARS of marriage!
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    I can’t think of anyone I’d rather spend life with – life here and now and life there and then! I’m so grateful that God has brought us this far!
  • And we welcomed a new puppy into our home (yes, we are staying positive on that one).
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Boudicca, Destroyer of Worlds and Fartmonster Extraordinaire. Our 5-month old Rottweiler who is, regardless of what she chews or where she poos, a sweet little bundle of blessing…I will keep saying that…

So I decided to approach this year differently – starting with gratitude.  And, after all, that’s why I blog – to keep track of all God’s tender mercies that He just showers on me, day after day, month after month, year after year.

It’s so easy to get bogged down with the daily grind, isn’t it? And that grind sometimes grinds a little harder than we’d like it to.  And, for whatever reason, the negatives stick in our minds and hearts far more easily and for a lot longer than the positives.  But if we can make a habit of being consciously mindful of the wonderful things that cross our paths, it really will make our lives better.

But don’t take my word for it…you’ll listen to Huffington Post, won’t you?

“Negative attitudes are bad for you. And gratitude, it turns out, makes you happier and healthier. If you invest in a way of seeing the world that is mean and frustrated, you’re going to get a world that is, well, more mean and frustrating. But if you can find any authentic reason to give thanks, anything that is going right with the world or your life, and put your attention there, then statistics say you’re going to be better off” (from The Neuroscience of Why Gratitude Makes Us Healthier).

Now, habitual gratitude can be tricky to develop, so I decided to actually use one of those awesome Pinterest projects I perpetually pin; I made my very own Gratitude Jar!  I put some serious effort into this jar – we’re talking paper tearing, Mod Podge (gosh, I LOVE that stuff, and the smell…I know, totally weird…), hand lettering even.  Then I set up a little thanksgiving station in our dining room.  It’s very obvious and we will always be prompted to take a moment, write down what we’re thankful for, and drop it in the jar. I think it turned out rather well!

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Then, when New Year’s Eve rolls around again, we can spend the evening doing more than binging on Netflix and hoping the crazies won’t crash outside our house and wake us up (because we’re now old and we like to sleep in, rather than party in, the new year). We can go through each little moment of gratitude we’ve deposited and reflect on the amazing tender mercies of God as they’ve been bestowed throughout 2018.

And I daresay that, while we’re doing this, our overall outlook will be transformed.  It is, after all, our mental life that determines how we interpret our outer life.  The state of our mind is what primes us to recognize God at work, and also what primes us to miss His hand in our lives.   Paul tells us this in Romans 12:

Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. (Romans 12:2, KJV)

I am determined to grow my faith in the Savior’s guidance, and am utterly convinced that cultivating an eye for what He’s doing and a heart of gratitude for it will do just that.  And, as I recognize and give Him thanks for the small things, I will find bigger things to marvel in and bless Him for.

Have a simply BEAUTIFUL 2018!

Fresh Starts

This is not the post I meant to write.

The post I meant to write is one I’ve been chewing on for weeks.  That one’s about patience, about the bite of patience, the burden of patience, and the blessing of patience.(Alliteration is so fun!)  Very serious and contemplative and deep stuff.

Keep your eyes open for that one – it’s gonna be AWESOME.

This one, on the other hand, is one I’m just dashing off because…because of THIS:

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I thought I’d go with this cool Celtic design, being 22% Irish and all…

Yes, you’re right! It’s a new journal!

Not everyone is a journaler (I don’t know if that’s a word!), but I have been since I was a freshman in college.  I would journal faithfully, every day, logging events and emotions and story ideas and frustrations and spiritual insights…I LOVED my journals, and eagerly anticipated reaching the end of one so I could crack open a brand new one.  My “hope” chest is crammed full of volume after volume after volume…

And then came marriage. And children. And financial worries and woes. And stress. And packing. And moving. And again. And self-care (of which journaling is most certainly a part) went out the window for years…

But just over two years ago, right when my personal story was getting super dramatic and the growing crisis was reaching a boiling-over-point, I picked up my pen and a half-used journal and started there.

In the last 2 years, as I’ve made a habit of penning my thoughts and feelings and insights and questions (no, not daily- still married, still parenting, still sorting out finances and dealing with stress…fortunately NOT moving, at least not anytime soon!), I’ve found a sense of stability and release and have re-claimed the ability to look at what I’ve written and receive insight on how to manage it.  Once it’s on paper, everything is so much less threatening.

And a new journal – ohmygoodnessitsafreshstartanewchapterawholenewworld!

Congratulations if you could read that the first time.

But it’s true, isn’t it?

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Just look at that pretty blank page!

Something about a blank journal page is so promising and hopeful and exciting!  As much as I loved writing in the last one, I couldn’t help but quiver in anticipation as I saw that last page getting closer and closer, knowing that, when I close the back cover of that volume, it’s all history! Sure, I can go back and read and ponder (and I do frequently), but that new volume gets all my creative juices flowing and reminds me that I can write my life however I want to.  The last chapter has ended, the new has begun.

It’s a lot like New Year.

And it also reminds me of our Heavenly Father – the grandest Writer and Architect and Composer ever.  I am a master of mucking things up (explaining the crisis I found myself in 2 years ago), but He?  He is the Author of fresh starts, new chapters, blank pages.  That He can walk into a life and re-boot it, wipe away all the mistakes and the wrong turns and the poor decisions and say, “Here’s a new book – try again!” is, by far, a tender mercy beyond compare.

In 1993, I wrote a sonnet.  Yes, a sonnet.  One of those Shakespearean language nightmares.  It was never accepted for publication, but perhaps that was meant to be because now I get to share it. Looking at that new journal, that fresh start, that steppingstone towards greater things, brought it to my memory, and it’s so perfect for this moment:

WRITER

With pen in hand, I’m poised to make a mark

Upon a brand new page, so clean and white.

The words reflect my thoughts: confused and dark

And jumbled; nothing that I scrawl sounds right.

I dash and scribble, frantically erase

Mistakes that mar the beauty of my piece;

I sweat and toil and gasp for words of grace

And elegance – the struggle does not cease!

The piles of crumpled paper on the floor

Are proof that untried words may have no part;

But patience soon prevails…my eyes, strained sore,

Behold the finished work of priceless art.

The Writer of my life, with no less care

Inscribes in me a text of radiance rare.

God can, and will, rewrite your life. It is His joy to “give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he might be glorified” (Isaiah 61:3).

 

Following Jesus

This is not a whine, or complaint.

It is, however, a statement of what is.

25 years ago, this weekend, I was commissioned (ordained) as a Salvation Army officer (minister), alongside 51 other people with whom I ate, studied, played, prayed, preached, and traveled in ministry.  We were – are – the “Followers of Jesus”.

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Our session flag.

I did so not out of a strong sense of divine calling (in fact, the night we signed our covenants to serve as Blood and Fire officers in The Salvation Army for the rest of our lives, I felt a nearly overpowering urge within me to not sign, a voice, almost, saying this is not for you…), but out of not knowing what else to do.

I was born and bred to serve.

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My very first covenant with God – signed the day after my 7th birthday, when all children in The Salvation Army can make this promise.  Big promises for a 2nd-grader…

I knew no other expression of Christianity than that which wore navy blue uniforms, called each other by rank, and populated those ranks with souls rescued from abuse, addiction, and overall life trauma.

I was young – 22 – and I wanted to make my parents proud.  This was the natural progression for a young lady who rose through the ranks as a Junior Soldier, Sunbeam, Girl Guard, Senior Soldier, and Graduate Corps Cadet.  “Officer” was next.

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Cadet Berko (we had no first names) – 22, genuinely bright-eyed and bushy-tailed!

After being commissioned, I lasted two-and-a-half years, miserable every day, knowing that my path had to be different, because the path within The Army could not possibly reflect the joy and peace of God promised me.

Not one day of joy, not one day of peace…just longing for something else.

I was 25 when I walked away.  After much prayer, and fasting, and more prayer and fasting, I resigned my commission and followed Jesus on faith alone.

Against the counsel of leaders, I walked away and followed Jesus.

Even though it broke my mother’s heart, I walked away and followed Jesus.

Not looking back to answer the questions of others and address many raised eyebrows, I walked away and followed Jesus.

The road hasn’t been easy, but along that road I have discovered the love of God in so many different ways, in so many different places, and with so many different people.

I’ve made plenty of mistakes – or what I thought were mistakes. There have been dark spots…places where this sheep was truly lost and could no longer hear or see the Shepherd…

…but it was in those times that I discovered just how creative and out-of-the box He is when He comes to the rescue.

Mistakes? Maybe. Wasted time and life? Not at all.

I do not regret my choice.

I have returned twice to lay service in The Army, and every time, it brought out the worst in me and ended badly – very badly.  No one can say I didn’t try to find a place within their ranks – I most certainly did.

That this worldwide, beloved-by-many Christian church, known for its selfless service to the indigent, the poor, the ignored and oppressed, is not my place is no longer in question.

I have found my place. After a long journey through many denominations and experience gathered from countless forms of vocational and avocational ministry, I have found my place. A quieter, more isolated and solitary place, one that relies on secret prayer, unspoken devotion, and receives no great attention.  No banners, no bands, no flags and drums.  And I continue to follow Jesus Christ with joy, just as do those of my dear friends whose place remains in that band of spiritual soldiers.  Perhaps because it was woven into my very DNA, I continue to love the unloved, never reckoning the cost…and I am happy.  I am at peace.

But.

On the 25th anniversary of that momentous event, I can’t help but miss the relationships, the camaraderie, the sense of unity and purpose and direction – almost a “lockstep” with companions that a more solitary walk with Christ just doesn’t have.  I miss the late night, post-service “afterglows”, the common stories, and the wordless glances where volumes are communicated in an instant.  I miss a common paradigm for life and service. I miss the music…how I miss the music…

commissioning music
Music was always my passion – sung, played, composed…on top, the Followers sing our session song.  I don’t know what we, the band, were playing…maybe it Leslie Condon’s march, “Celebration”, which we did play rather frequently and is my all time favorite…check it out here: https://youtu.be/Ta1q8zswza0)

It is a family – a family within the family of God.

As I look at pictures posted on Facebook of my sessionmates celebrating the 25th anniversary of our commissioning, watching many of their children celebrate that same, powerful event, a solitary tear is trickling down my cheek.  Not one of regret, or even sadness.  It is a tear of nostalgia, a tear of contemplation as I reflect on just how unique the journey for each individual follower of Jesus is.  Unique and tailored to most fully develop the image of our Savior in each one of us.

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Can’t believe it’s been 25 years…and Nancy still has her session jacket! Wow!

The day I walked across the stage at the Scottish Rite Auditorium in Long Beach, California, to receive my commission and my first appointment, General Paul A. Rader spoke this Scripture to me, and it has echoed in my soul for the last quarter century:

For the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to shew himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him.  (2 Chronicles 16:9)

Even though my path has been different, and life has taken turns and detours I never even imagined, the Lord has shown Himself strong on my behalf – so many times, and in so many ways.

His tender mercies have flanked me behind and before, and He is acquainted with all my ways (go read Psalm 139!).

I am still, in every way and now more than ever, a Follower of Jesus.

I Wait For You

 “Oh, that I might have my request, and that God would grant me the thing that I long for.”                                                                                                                                     –Job 6:8

I used to write a lot of poetry.  Back when I was young, and single, and unfettered by daily cares, my prayers often took the form of verse. Some were even fitted to music.

I don’t often feel the poetic muse anymore.

But today, as I read Job, and considered how God has worked in my life over the last few years, the muse struck.  It struck rather hard.  Portland has some lovely, secluded spots just asking for deep contemplation and prayer…

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I wait for You, so quietly,

Amid the babbling brooks and rustling trees.

The air is still, the sun is calm,

And in this place I know You’ll come

And offer balm that heals my weary soul

And speak the words that mend and make my spirit whole…

I wait for You and know that soon

My wait will end and You will meet with me again.

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I wait for You, and in my heart

Your precious words of love, they do their part

To calm the storms of life outside,

To reassure that I will ever be Thy bride;

And even though I know not when You’ll come

And greet me as Your friend…

I wait for You and know that soon

My wait will end and You will meet with me again.

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Oh, there are times the wait is hard,

And I feel ready just to leave it be,

But then Your Voice, so calm and clear calls

“My Beloved, come and sit and sup with Me.”

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I wait for You, and as I wait,

I sing the song that Love has given me,

Redeeming Love has changed my heart,

And placed Thy holy image within me.

So if the wait should seem too long,

I will go back and sing that lovely song…

I wait for You and know that soon

My wait will end and You will meet with me again.

 

 

Turning the Heart – A Mother’s Day Reflection


It’s that time of year again…that time when mothers are celebrated and gushed over and sent flowers and chocolates and cards and Facebook GIFs and, if they’re lucky, get breakfast in bed and have the house cleaned for them by someone else.

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I generally don’t get any of those; I am one of the non-traditional, alternative-type mothers: step- of three…

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Three awesome stepchildren and their spouses and the grandkiddos they’ve brought into the world…how we got all of us in a selfie I just don’t know…

…adoptive- of one (who was a senior in high school when he joined our family)…

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Who knew that, when he moved here from Thailand at age 4, that our lives were bound to collide?  Apparently we have the same eyes…

…and foster, for a brief time, to my nephew.

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Foster parenting: the hardest thing in the world.  My heart was never the same.

I haven’t birthed any babies; in fact, if I had to accurately describe myself, it would be like, “I’m not really the ‘mom’ type”. Not that I don’t nurture and love and get all gooey over babies and children…I just prefer that said babies and children belong to someone else.  I actually love kids! It possibly explains my draw to helping children in other ways; I’ve been a youth pastor and a social worker, and am still in contact with many of my former church and foster youth.  Now I’m a teacher.  No one can tell me that teaching isn’t a maternal sort of vocation…

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Teacher Appreciation Week 2017

And I’m a granny now, too…I see my my grandkids, who live about 2 hours away, a few times a year, and that’s pretty sufficient to get my quota of hugs and kisses and then they go home and I have my house back.  It works.

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I’m definitely a C&E (Christmas and Easter) grandparent…love those holidays!

Now, with that lengthy introduction, I have to say that this post is NOT about why I’m as much of a mother as any other mother; I resolved that issue years ago and am quite comfortable with how my journey has turned out.  I don’t get weepy on Mother’s Day and wish for cards and chocolates and breakfast in bed.

This post is about this daughter and her mother.

My mom and I have struggled over the years.  Really struggled.  I come from a long line of abuse; not intentional abuse, but abuse that happens when people get damaged, and thus marry damaged people, and thus create damaged people.  I was very damaged growing up, and we didn’t talk about it.  Talking about it might incur blame on someone, and there’s no way anyone was healthy enough to accept responsibility for the dysfunction enough to make conscious changes.

That damage leaked into my own marriage and my own attempts at parenting (already challenged by the step- issue).

That damage has impacted and shaped every decision and every turn I have made in my life.

That damage has caused, among other things, a long personal history of never really feeling connected to anyone or anything, a feeling of being rather “tribeless”.  As a kid, I never felt like I belonged in my family.  Holiday meals where my mom and her sisters and my grandparents and all the cousins gathered? I dreaded them, and tried really hard to hide in a corner with a book.

I left my hometown when I was 20 and didn’t look back.  I’ve been back to Yakima, Washington, enough times to count on one hand since then.

I don’t have close sibling relationships.  I haven’t seen my brother in 11 years.  I hadn’t seen my sister in 8 years; we did, finally, meet for lunch last year.  And contact with my mother has been rare and occasional since 2006.

I chat with one cousin, occasionally, on Facebook.

I’ve struggled with that lack of connection with my husband and his family; the fact that I’ve remained married for nearly 20 years is absolutely miraculous; it must be a God thing.

About a year-and-a-half ago, as I was undergoing intense spiritual work, I felt a deep urging, though, to make peace with my mother.  To my clinically trained mind, that meant arranging long, therapeutic conversations about wrongs experienced, boundaries being laid out, and forcing the revisiting of things long past.  It made sense to me; one can’t forgive unless the offending party admits guilt, right?  And I felt there were so many things that needed to be redressed.

I had the opportunity to go to Portland for a conference last summer.  My mom drove 5 hours just to have lunch with me.  As I was driving to the restaurant, I started rehearsing everything I was going to say, and my anxiety grew and grew and grew.  Then, right before I got out of the car, the Holy Spirit spoke, loud and clear:

“Just LOVE her.”

That was the first time I’d seen my mom in several years, and I nearly cried when we met.  I was nervous, and felt awkward, but I started seeing her through new eyes that day.

June 2016
First mother-daughter pic in many, many years…in fact, I don’t have any others.

This was a woman who had survived – a lot.  My dad was mentally ill and terribly unstable; she kept their marriage together until he died and functioned very much like a single parent, before and after his death.

This was a woman who had sacrificed – a lot.  One example: for five years she squirreled away grocery money so that she could finally buy me a piano when I was 14.  That gift changed my life and really set me on my path towards discovering my purpose.

This was the woman who had successfully brought me, and two others, into this world, and had done her very best to guide us into adulthood.

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June 1987 – my high school graduation trip to Disneyland.  Mom, Ron, Beth, and me.

This was the woman who introduced me to my Heavenly Father, and who taught me from before birth to love His Son, my Savior, Jesus Christ, and to follow Him no matter what.  When I was away at summer camp, and after I left home, her letters to me always ended with, “Remember who you are, and whose you are.”

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Major Glenda Berko – a lifetime Salvationist (member of The Salvation Army).  I miss bedtime devotions with her.

As I looked through that new lens, all the wrongs – wrongs not imagined, wrongs very much real and visited multiple times in multiple therapy sessions – suddenly became not so important.  And that burden, the burden of finding my own sense of justice – fell off my shoulders.  Forgiveness happened.  I haven’t picked up that burden again, but keep working towards increased peacemaking and relationship-building; not just with Mom, but with my brother and sister.

But even so, connection with my family has been difficult.  The feeling of being on the outside, looking in, has remained so very strong.

Over the last year, I’ve spent many hours on Ancestry.com, researching my lineage.  Sent my DNA off to be analyzed and everything.

DNA
It’s amazing what stories can be told by a vial full of spit!

I started with my father’s side; I always felt more like a “Berko” than an “Ozanne”, so it was a natural place to start.  I had a great time seeing pictures of relatives of whom I’d heard brief mentions growing up, and seeing pictures of the grandmothers whose resemblance I bear.  Lithuanian (not Hungarian, like I’d thought) women are beautiful.

I went as back as far as I could.  The records stopped in the late 19th century, probably due to the Jewish pogroms in Eastern Europe.  I’d figured as much.

Then it was time to do my mom’s side.

I waited.

Then I dove in…

…so far, I’ve made it clear back to 1801, to the Channel Islands between England and France.  I don’t know any of the people that I’m finding…but they’re my people.  One entry discussed my mother’s maiden name; the very surname Ozanne, given in the 15th century, from the Hebrew word, “Hosanna”, denotes a family history of being Christ-followers.

More recently?  Quakers.  I come from a lineage of people who took a personal, intimate relationship with Jesus Christ very seriously.

The more I discovered, the more names that kept popping up, names and dates and births and marriages and migrations…the more I felt that sense of connection, of history, of belonging.  These are my people, and I love them. I can’t wait to keep searching.

And as that sense of connection grew, my heart – so separated from and often cold towards my mother’s family – has started to warm, and I have realized that my mom, her mom, her grandmother and great-grandmother (and the paternal side, too, but this is about Mother’s Day), are part of a story that is so much greater than any one of us.  A story so great that it makes miniscule the imperfections and slights that have plagued my own life.

For the first time in my life, not even knowing the particulars of that story, I feel proud to be part of it.

This is a work of God.

Malachi 4:6 says:

“…and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers…”

The heart of this daughter has been turned back to her mother.

It is prelude of greater things to come, a magnificent healing in our family.  I know it.

Thanks be to God.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

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My mom.  Glenda Jean Ozanne Berko, from a long line of strong, persevering women of faith.

 

Green Pastures? This? YES.

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday!  And what is Good Shepherd Sunday? Well, from that fount of all contemporary knowledge (no, you weren’t mistaken, that was sarcastic), Wikipedia, here is a fairly accurate definition:

Good Shepherd Sunday occurs on the third or fourth Sunday in the Easter Season. The name derives from the gospel reading for the day, which is taken from the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel. In this reading Christ is described as the “Good Shepherd” who lays down his life for his sheep.(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Good_Shepherd_Sunday)

In the Episcopal, and many other “liturgical” churches, the Scripture lessons are predetermined by the lectionary, or the established schedule of Scripture readings over the course of three years.  Apparently, it’s set up so that, if you follow it daily, you will read the Old and New Testaments (additional, alternative Scriptures not included, although on occasion they do sneak in some of the Apocrypha) over the course of three years.  There’s an Old Testament reading, a Psalm or other poetry/wisdom passage, a selection from one of the Epistles, and, last but certainly not least, a reading from the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.  The one that gets the most attention, with lots of pomp and procession as THE BOOK is carried into the midst of the congregation who are all standing in reverence, of course, is the Gospel reading.  The one that gets the least attention and is even sometimes skipped, is the Psalm.  But it’s the Psalm that got my attention today, because it’s what’s been getting my attention all week.  Fitting, I suppose.

On Good Shepherd Sunday, what do you think a suitable psalm would be?  It’s kind of a no-brainer: “The Lord is my shepherd” immediately comes to mind, and you’re right.  Today’s Psalm, dutifully read in responsive fashion, was Psalm 23.

I have warm, fond memories of Psalm 23, hearkening back to my nearly-faded-from-memory toddler years.  Psalm 23 was very important to me, because, in Sunday School, if we could memorize and recite 50 scripture verses, we would win our VERY OWN New Testament.  Not that my home didn’t have shelves upon shelves full of Bibles, but this New Testament spoke to me, called my name: “Han-nah, you want me!”.  It had a little girl and boy with Jesus on the cover and by golly, I was gonna get it.

And I did.  I memorized 50 scripture verses, straight from the hallowed pages of the AUTHORIZED King James Version.  (On a completely unrelated side note, I didn’t deviate from that narrow path until I was 18,  when I gave in and went New International.  I have since returned to my King James home.  I once had a sweet Baptist friend who called the NIV the “Nearly Inspired Version”…my apologies to those of you love it…really. Whatever floats your boat.)  Those 50 verses included the standard John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son, that whosever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  It included Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned, and have fallen short of the glory of God”, as well as the rest of that evangelical super-highway, “The Romans Road” (Billy Graham, eat your heart out).  I don’t know what else it included, except for this: Psalm 23.

psalm 23
Thanks to the designer, To Such As These.  For some great Scripture art for your home, please visit their Etsy shop at https://www.etsy.com/shop/ToSuchAsTheseDesigns

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”  I could recite it, but I couldn’t quite understand it.  To my little 3-year old brain (and this 3-year old knew exactly who Jesus was), it didn’t make any sense that I should not want the Shepherd.  That’s what I heard every time I repeated it: “The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want.”  Of course I wanted the Shepherd!  Who wouldn’t want the Shepherd, what with all the green pastures and still waters and tables placed and oil running over and dwelling in the house of the Lord forever!  Who wouldn’t want that?

Nonetheless, 50 scripture verses later, I got that New Testament.

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I loved it well.  I made sure I would always remember why I got it,

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practiced writing my name in it, and, as any 3-year old girl would, promptly fell in love with the handsome shepherd boy depicted there.

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But it it took me a long time to really understand what Psalm 23 meant.  I certainly missed what I now know really is the message of that Psalm…by the time I could really read the Living paraphrase of that psalm on the back cover, I’d moved on to my first King James Bible, an 8th-birthday present; it was white bonded leather with GOLD LETTERING ON THE COVER and a ZIPPER!  I don’t have that white Bible any more; somehow part of the Noah and the Ark story went missing and I stopped using it, but I still have this very loved and worn Living New Testament; it’s been with me for just over 44 years now and sits in my living room with my collection of Bibles in multiple translations.  When I look at it, I feel immense gratitude for being taught to love the Savior at such a young age.

And, those same 44 years later, I am reminded that, still, I sometimes don’t know what that Psalm really means.  Life gets hard.  As we follow Jesus Christ, we often forget that He warned us, basically, “If you follow me, you’ll get what I got.  It ain’t a rose garden; in fact, it’s usually more thorns than roses on any given day.”  We like to skip to exaltation and glory without putting in our slow-going, right choosing, intentionally-placed-there, seemingly unending wilderness time, much like my piano students want to skip to being awesome without putting in the requisite thousands of hours of slow, correct, intentional, and seemingly unending practice.  And we whine, and pray for deliverance, and wonder just when the wilderness will end.

Some people desert the Shepherd in the middle of the wilderness: “The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want [anymore]”.  It reminds me of the account given by John, in his gospel.  John 6 has Jesus feeding the 5,000 off of a few tuna sandwiches – now we’re talking green pastures!  The crowds followed Him willingly.  But when tuna sandwiches turned into the idea of true loyalty to Jesus Christ (who was starting to suggest that He, Himself, was the Messiah), and the difficulty that following Him often entails, the change of heart and mind and walking away from what we think we know and understand…well then, we have 6:68: “From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.”  When the green pastures turn into rocky cliffs, many turn back.  “We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick: but now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes” (Numbers 11:5-6).

(Another side note: how many remember Keith Green?  Can’t continue without leaving this; he really nails it.)

As I was considering my own personal wilderness (and we each have our own, tailor-made, in fact), which happened to coincide with a mindless browse through my Facebook news feed post, this popped up.  I’m sure it was just a coincidence…(yes, more sarcasm).  Take five minutes out of your life and watch it; it’s really good:

Belly deep alfalfa.  I love how Mr. vander Laan depicts our understanding of “green pastures”, and how he shows, so clearly, what this psalm is talking about.  The Living paraphrase nails it: “The Lord is my Shepherd; I have everything I need.”  How would my life have been different if, at the age of three, I had absorbed that, instead of the images of belly deep alfalfa in my spiritual life?  And for sheep in Israel, there is never belly deep alfalfa, only the sparsely scattered tufts of grass, just enough for them to keep going.

Mary Poppins is another fount of all wisdom…probably more reliable than Wikipedia!  In that scene where she’s giving the kids some cough syrup (that magically tastes like their favorite treats, which are different from person to person…wonder if she went to Hogwarts?), Michael starts begging for more, to which she replies:

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My dad used to, at holiday gatherings (usually at my mom’s folks’ house with her family), stand up and, in his booming New York accented voice, declare, “Thou hast prepared a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.”  Yes, there’s a double entendre there…but he generally meant that he was grateful for the immense amount of food he was about to pack into his belly (which was sizable).  As disciples of Christ, we so often are deluded to think that God’s provision – materially or spiritually – means that we will never want for anything, that said table prepared for us in the presence of our enemies means that we are feasting as gluttons while they starve.

But that’s not what scripture says.  It says that, as we follow the Shepherd, who leads us into those green pastures (which look an awful lot like rocky wildernesses!), we will have everything we need.  If we don’t have it, we obviously don’t need it but, like children, we often think that we need many things we don’t.  Nonetheless, our Shepherd, our Savior, knows exactly what we need, and He delivers all our needs right when we need them the most, just enough to get us over that next rise, where our next need will be fulfilled.  And He does this, truly, to the amazement and often conversion of onlookers, and He does this to bring glory to His, and our, Heavenly Father, as He brings many, many children of God to glory.

It really reframed how I look at what has been a very long journey, or what I think has been a long journey, through the wilderness.  But, in the distance, I can smell the water, I can see a slightly more abundant patch of grass.  We’ll get there.  He won’t leave me, and I truly do, and will, have all that I need, in this life, and in the next.

Because the Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need…Your goodness and failing kindness shall be with me all of my life, and afterwards I will live with You forever in Your home. (Psalm 23:1,6 – The Living Bible)

Happy Good Shepherd Sunday!

Be Not Afraid…

I have a confession to make: five nights ago (April 3) will mark the first time I cracked open my Scriptures since MARCH 7.  My resolution to read through the entire Old and New Testaments has been seriously challenged as of late.  Oh, I could cite so many valid (to me) reasons for this: grad school end-of-term chaos, getting my grades caught up and posted for mid-term progress reports in my day job, utter exhaustion from just having way too much on my plate…but really?  Here’s the actual reason:

2 KINGS.

Yes, I made it through Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, surprisingly.  I made it through the Israelites’ conquest of Canaan and all the judges, the exciting history of Israel’s first monarchy, the ups and downs of David’s reign, and the aftermath of his egregious sin with Bathsheba.  But by 2 Kings?  My brain just couldn’t take anymore long names!  And one night of being “too tired” to crack open those five chapters was enough to arrest it indefinitely.

 

I don’t know what it was that inspired me to pick up my Bible before bed and pick up reading, but I did.  (Well, yeah, there’s the Holy Spirit.  Touche.) Right where I left off in the middle of horrible Israelite rulers, people who couldn’t remain faithful to their covenant with God, and invading armies that never gave them any peace.  The same stuff that rather made me zone out and abandon my plan before…but I kept reading, all the way to the story of King Hezekiah.  One of the few decent rulers who at least attempted to follow the Lord, he himself struggled with similar issues as I.  Specifically, when he was facing the armies of the Assyrian king, Shalmeneser, he was dumbstruck as one of the enemy’s spokesmen came with this message (roughly translated for you, the modern reader):

“Yo, Hezekiah! Just who do you think you believe in? I’ve conquered the WHOLE WORLD – where is this god you put your trust in?”

And Hezekiah wilted.

I often wilt. I wilt when people – especially people I love – attack and ridicule my belief in and love for God, when they attribute all of what I consider absolute proof of His existence and love for me (and everyone else, for that matter) coincidence, fantasy, brainwashing, mental instability, yada yada yada… it just makes me quake in my shoes and ties my tongue.  Eyes get pretty damp, too.  I’ll bet Hezekiah was feeling pretty damp…

After he wilted, though, he consulted the prophet.  Not just any prophet, the prophet of prophets.  The overly-eloquent, poetry-addicted, succintness-is-not-my-style prophet, the prophet who’s words continue to shake hearers to their souls (although we don’t always understand why…):

ISAIAH.

Actually, you should say his name like this: “I-SAI-ah!”  Use your best James Earl Jones voice for it.  There, you got it.

And here’s what I-SAI-ah! said:

Thus saith the Lord, Be not afraid of the words which thou hast heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have blasphemed me.

Don’t be afraid.

What?  This loudmouthed, arrogant, know-it-all Assyrian king is mouthing off all over the place, roaring like a rabid hyena and causing all sorts of bedlam and distress, and all God has to say is “Don’t be afraid?”

It kind of reminds me of that Disney cartoon, The Three Little Pigs, with the wolf hollering: “I’m gonna huff and puff and blow your house in!”

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And all Hezekiah got was a “Do not be afraid.”

Then I guess that’s the answer: do not be afraid.  So there are those who don’t believe and holler and bluster and call you addled? Do not be afraid.  So you don’t always have a witty answer that will shut their mouths and give you the last word of victory? Do not be afraid.  And if you keep reading, you’ll see that God assures Hezekiah that Shalmeneser will get his.  And history tells us that, although he was successful in sacking Samaria and exiling those in the Northern Kingdom, he did not succeed in taking down Jerusalem. In fact, the prophecy that “I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land” was fulfilled in 722 AD when his brother killed him and seized the crown.

So, be not afraid. Haters are gonna hate.  Be not afraid. God has my back, as He has the backs of all who put their trust in Him.

Here’s one of my favorite songs I listen to when that fear and anxiety threatens to overwhelm me; thank you, David Haas:

 

Be not afraid. He will bring you Home. He loves you and you are His. Be not afraid.

Oh, and get back to the Scriptures…who knows what the next chapter has?