Fiction… Wisdom for Living

Benefits of Reading Fiction

Research shows that regularly reading fiction brings tremendous benefit. Those include…

  • Improved vocabulary
  • Reduced loneliness
  • Better understanding of self
  • Learning factual information
  • Increased brain activity
  • Slower memory decline
  • Increased empathy
  • Better listening skills
  • Increased focus & concentration
  • Improved communication skills

If those benefits aren’t enough to convince someone about the power of reading fiction, there’s more. And this more connects with our faith walk as Christians in an interesting way.

Wisdom for Living

“The best stories and novels contain wisdom for living that cannot be captured in any other way.” (Why Read Fiction?)

Fiction helps us see human nature in ways we sometimes fail to through history, nonfiction reading and even through our own observations and experiences. Maybe that’s because fiction helps us see truth from a safe distance. Or, maybe it’s because fiction isn’t really 100% made up anyway.

Look closely, and you’ll realize that the best stories are based on layers of reality within made up elements. For example…

Good fiction helps us view the complex layers of human nature in ways that benefit us psychologically and socially. Some of those benefits are obvious and applicable to all, and some are individualized. And some are so painful that we’ll only hear them through the lens of the fictitious.

Fiction in Scripture

Consider that Jesus made up stories — fiction — for these very reasons.

In telling these stories, Jesus got at some tough cultural and socially taboo issues. He addressed what might not have been otherwise received by direct teaching.

What are the issues and lessons in the stories Jesus used? Let me encourage you to investigate those familiar stories once again to find out. Only this time, push yourself to go a bit deeper. To help you get started, check out how GotQuestions.org discussed each of these stories.

Not Just for Entertainment

I love to read fiction, and much of my motivation is purely for entertainment and relaxation. At the same time, I’m mostly drawn to stories with depth because of the benefits they bring to my personal growth.

When I realized that Jesus used stories with layered meaning and understanding as a tool in much the same way that happens in the books I most like to read, my appreciation of and draw toward good fiction only grew.

I encourage you to find good fiction that stimulates you in ways beyond entertainment and relaxation. In addition to the books listed above, here are some of my other very favorite works of fiction to help you get started.

Invisible?

 

Do you ever feel invisible?

I’m not talking literally, like superhero-ring-of-power-invisibility-cloak type of invisible. I’m talking the type of invisible you feel when others fail to notice you in some way.

This happens when you’re driving, and someone pulls in front of you as if you aren’t even on the road in your vehicle. It happens when you’re at the grocery store and people walk in front of you as you’re walking down the aisle, and you have to stop abruptly to prevent yourself from running into them.

Worst of all, though, is when someone you are talking with suddenly starts having a conversation with someone else. Sometimes, it’s when two or more people you were talking to suddenly only talk to each other and make it quite obvious that you are not a part of that conversation.

Another type of invisibility involves your contributions. This happens when you consistently and faithfully go about your commitments, and no one really says anything. Until you make a mistake. Then they say something.

Ever had any of these happen?

Feeling invisible in these ways frustrates me and is one of the quickest routes to a bad mood that I find difficult to shake. I mean, I’m sure all of these people overlooked me on purpose.

Do you ever wish you were invisible?

Now I AM talking about the superhero-ring-of-power-invisibility-cloak type of invisible. (As an aside, scientists have discovered how to actually make something invisible See the video here.)

Where would you go? What would you do?

Maybe you would listen in on conversations to find out what people really think of you. Think about it. You could get someone all riled up, leave the room to put on whatever it is that makes you invisible, and then follow that person to find out if you become the topic of a conversation.

Or maybe you would start messing with people. You could blow in someone’s ear, throw sunflower seeds at someone or even follow them around until they get the feeling that they are being watched.

The Invisible God

Really, much of what significantly impacts our lives is invisible. Sound waves. Heat waves. Wind. Oxygen. You see the impact, sure, but not the element itself. Actually, we could not continue to function or even exist without the invisible.

Interesting that the idea of invisibility, whether in fiction or real life and depending on its various forms and conditions, can both benefit as well as negatively impact our lives.

Take this beyond the scientific and into the spiritual, and consider that God – the creator of the universe… of sound, heat, wind & oxygen – is also invisible (1 Timothy 1:17 & Colossians 1:15). We also know our faith is based on what is yet unseen.

“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. (Hebrews 11:1)”

Our faith and our hope are all based on the invisible. Even our true struggles take place in the unseen.

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12)

In then follows that our focus should be more on the invisible.

“For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18)

We can choose to overlook the invisible God and the unseen forces that battle around us, and we can choose to not focus on that intangible unseen force of love. Or, we can choose to take in the reality of what the invisible means for our lives and let it become a part of our reality.

How do we do this?

  1. Realize that troubles are opportunities that help us look beyond this life and to place our hope in the eternal God.
  2. Understand that our ultimate hope is that this life is not all there is and that there is life beyond what we can see.
  3. Believe that we will live with God in eternity to help us live above the pain of the present.
  4. Be directed by God’s Holy Spirit within us and protected by His armor around us. (Ephesians 6:11-17)

Would you be invisible if you could?

My boys and I periodically talk about what kind of mythical beings we would be and what powers or abilities we would have if we could. Invisibility is not one of my choices. (In case you’re curious, I would be a Jedi Elf. Think Obi Wan morphed with Legolas.) I have felt invisible before and hated it. Even more than my personal feelings, I just feel that the invisible really exists for that which is much higher than myself.

Ultimately for now, the unseen exists as a matter of faith. Without doubt — being completely sure — faith would have no place in my life. For that reason, I choose to believe in an invisible God. I choose to focus on the unseen force of love and to bank my soul on the reality of an eternity in Heaven. In that way, really, the invisible directs me and exists as more of a reality than anything tangible I can verify with my five senses.

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5 Ways to Strengthen Your Prayer Life

A Common Concern

A common spiritual concern I hear goes something like,

“How do I get better at praying?”

Sure, it’s worded slightly different from person to person. It also sometimes comes in the form of a statement such as,

“I’m just not very good at praying.”

My response varies in detail and length depending on time constraints the person’s receptivity. As a whole, though, addressing this concern usually contains all or part of 5 recommendations.

5 Ways to Strengthen Your Prayer Life

These 5 recommendations, simply come from my own experience with answering the question for myself.

1. Pray Scripture

Though there are lots more, look at Ephesians 1:15-23, 3:14-19 & 4:14-19 as well as Colossians 1:9-14 for content to include in your own prayers. I actually have these marked in my Bible for this purpose. Be on the look out for other Scripture that you can use for your own prayers, whether the structure, content or both.

2. Read Scripture

Christians need a steady diet of God’s Word. A daily habit. This is sort of like eating regular meals and having a regular sleep schedule for maintaining a baseline of physical health. Reading the Bible daily maintains a baseline of spiritual health on which you can grow. Reading Scripture keeps you in tune with God’s heart and mind, like a healthy diet maintains physical homeostasis.

3. Study Scripture

This point gets at having a broader approach to studying the Bible as a whole. It involves regular, systematic Bible study. This can be doing a Bible study someone else wrote, or it can simply mean studying a book of the Bible in a structured way. Studying Scripture is in addition to daily reading of Scripture, though they can be combined. Systematic Bible study is how you grow spiritually.

Think of the health of your various relationships. How close you are to another person and how much a particular relationship deepens depends on the amount of quality time you spend together. Your relationship with God is no different. If you want your discussions with him (your prayer life) to grow and become stronger, then you have to consistently spend time with him.

4. Study Prayer

This gets at the idea of doing an intense look at the topic of prayer in the Bible. Studying prayer means looking up all the stories/verses that specifically mention prayer in some way to gain an understanding of the big picture regarding prayer. You can do this with any topic in the Bible, and it will help you tune into God’s heart and mind on that particular topic.

You can even do this on a smaller scale if you want. Take what is known as The Lord’s Prayer for example. Understanding that Jesus provided this as an example of how to pattern our prayers can really help transform your prayer life. See what I mean by checking out The Lords Prayer — An Outline for All of Our Prayers.

5. Be Led

Ask the Holy Spirit to lead you in progressing in your prayer life. Then, allow yourself to be led. In other words, be obedient to his leading. Don’t resist. This means making a habit of listening. So often, we pray to God but fail to listen for his response.

God responds in so many ways, from promptings through the Holy Spirit and insight gained as we read and study the Bible. God sometimes works through other people too, so be open to hearing from others through what other people say and do. Get in the habit of listening FOR God’s response at least as much as God listens to what you have to say.

Tools are Secondary

There are a lot of books and other tools (web sites, apps, etc.) about prayer available too. But, they are secondary to Scripture. If you’re not doing the above, then any tool you use or book you read will have minimal impact on your spiritual growth.

However, if you’re regularly reading and studying God’s Word, then additional tools can supplement those habits. For example, I regularly use a prayer journal or list to help me stay focused in my daily prayers. What I write in/on these often flows out of what I read in the Bible and how that connects with what’s going on in my life.

There are certainly a lot of good books on prayer as well as many terrific articles on the Internet. They can certainly help us see prayer from different perspectives and applications. However, avoid letting what others say about anything in the Bible be your first and primary source of what God has to say. In other words, make sure God’s Word — the Bible — is your primary source of what God has to say.

Progress Over Perfection

As with anything spiritual, remember that the goal is progress over perfection. So, keep taking steps of progress. Along the way, rejoice in how God is faithfully maturing you. Then give him the glory for what he’s doing in your life.

Life Themes, Part 2

Life Themes

This is a long post. Evaluating a year should take some time. Does for me anyway.

Not only do I need to go through this process for myself, I want to help others in their processes too. I found mine through trial and error. I read a lot about what others did and tried. I kept what worked and threw out what didn’t. My prayer is to inspire you to do the same.

Rather than looking at goal setting, though I do set goals, my focus for making progress revolves around Life Themes instead. Over the years, five themes have emerged and infiltrated my life. I use them to continually evaluate my progress and reset my focus.

These themes serve to help me understand where I’ve been and what I’ve come through in a way that builds toward progress. They help me see my struggles in ways that allow me to focus on victories. These themes also help motivate me to continue moving forward.

Year In Review

Looking regularly at these life themes helps me review my life in a way that sort of hits a reset button on my focus. I don’t believe a true reset is possible in a person’s life. At least, not in the way one can reset a smart phone. It’s impossible for life to start over from a factory default state. A new start, sure, but not a complete do-over.

However, resetting one’s focus is possible. Life themes help me do this. I look at how I’ve applied them in the past, how active they are presently, and how they’re directing  where I’m going.

While I do this periodically throughout the year, I usually look at them more intimately at the beginning of every new calendar year. What follows is a large part of that process.

Life Theme Application

Allow me to share these life themes with some detail and to attempt to provide application points. Use them as motivation for considering your own life themes, whether or not they exist and if you want to adopt any new ones or simply modify the ones you have.

1.) Focus determines reality.

Midlife and empty nest both descended on me this past year. Too often and for too long, I focused on what I was losing. When I reset my focus, I again became grateful for all that I’ve done and experienced.

I’m reminded of the importance of my focus often. Sometimes it’s simply in the movies I watch and books I read, two of my favorite pastimes. Continually, the Holy Spirit whispers this truth back into my life in many creative ways.

No area of life escapes this truth. Where we choose to focus determines the reality of our lives. And, we all get to choose that focus — the place where thoughts dwell and motivations begin. No matter the circumstances, we can always decide to focus on progress over perfection, blessings over trials and protection over limits.

2.) Refuse to quit.

Physically, my body cannot do what it used to do. Take running, for example. No matter how much I decide to do it, my body simply says, “Uh uh.” At least, I can’t do even close to the extent I used to or that I see others my age still doing. I wanted to just stop trying many times. Instead, I adapted. I turned to other types of exercises, lots of different ones. I refuse to quit pursuing physical health.

I wanted to quit in other areas many times too. When a loved one broke trust to a point I thought beyond repair, I verbally said, “I give up.” Multiple times. But, I didn’t follow through. I kept moving. Backwards then nothing for a while, then finally progress with still lots of back and forth. Not the same as before, but I’m finally glad I didn’t follow through on what my feelings directed me toward far too many times.

Perseverance becomes more natural when fueled by obedience to God’s will. Quitting ceases to exist as an option. I wear reminders of these truths daily. Literally, my necklace has two charms: “Persevere.” “Never give up.” Living this has kept me alive more than once, and it’s kept relationships alive too. It overrides feelings and gets me through the afternoon slumps that even now taunt me toward the couch.

When the struggle gets to be too much, I cry out to God to “Help!” I should cry out before this point, I know. His reminder is the same every time: “Don’t quit. Don’t give up. Keep moving. Refuse to quit.” I hear the words over and over in my head. They push me forward, and I’m always glad I listen, especially when progress finally appears. And it always does.

3.) Take small steps.

Progress frustrates me. A lot. It does so because I too often don’t see it until I’m ready to give up. Also because I usually don’t see any progress until all of a sudden… there it is! Progress happens in such small increments that I just don’t usually see it right away. Most progress in my life, perhaps all, has happened this way. I simply need to remind myself of this often so the frustration doesn’t completely derail me.

This is where I find traditional goal setting most comes into play. Yes, it fits in the other life themes also, but the idea of small steps creating progress are what I need to often remember when I’m working toward a goal. Weight loss. Raising my IQ. Both goals of mine this year. Both will only happen with small steps taken consistently.

Regardless of the specific goal, educate yourself on the steps needed for its accomplishment. Then, keep taking them. Even if you don’t see or feel progress. Keep taking them. Even if you go backwards. Keep taking them. Pull in the other themes… stay focused and refuse to quit. You will make progress. I’ve experienced this truth enough that reminding myself of it convinces me to take the next step every time. The same will happen for you too.

4.) Keep it simple.

I was once an expert at complicating my life. Over-thinking. Over-committing. Over-emotionalizing. I was so good at this that it still often creeps back in unnoticed until it’s so glaringly obvious that I have to pay attention and do something about it.

Almost every time I start a new project, I venture toward the complex in the beginning. Actually, I do so throughout too and have to reset a simple focus periodically until the project is complete.

Whenever a problem arises in a relationship, I often make it worse than it really is too. Or, I create problems that don’t exist. I’m very creative, you see. I can imagine a lot about a person or situation and make things horribly complex all by myself.

Opportunity falls by the wayside when my life is complicated. I lose focus on Christ when I venture away from simplicity. I cannot keep on track with any of my life themes or goals when I complicate life. Neither can you. No one can.

Simplicity creates a better way to use our energy. It allows for maintaining focus more consistently. Keeping life as simple as possible results in increased productivity. This is true for all of us.

At the same time, simplicity is relative. What’s simple for me may seem boring to you. What’s complicated to me may be your best focus zone. Knowing what simplicity looks like for you and then not comparing it to how others live is key.

5.) Wait on God.

When I push for something I think I want to happen before I know for sure it’s right for me, my life gets complicated. Every time. I’ve done it enough to know it will happen. But I still do it sometimes. Okay, often. But, I don’t get as far as I used to before I hear “Stop. Wait.” And I’m pretty good at actually listening, especially if I do so sooner rather than later before emotions hijack my decision-making ability.

When I don’t wait and instead rush ahead based on emotions or superficial information or even what others think I should do, I end up with regrets. Like, every time. I also get overwhelmed and over-committed along with losing my focus.

When I wait, that means I’m trusting God’s timing. I’m believing He will make clear when I should take a certain step or make a commitment. It means I’m exercising patience, knowing His timing keeps me from overwhelm and overload. At least, the type of overwhelm and overload that runs me down and ushers in depression.

Waiting on God instead allows for the overwhelm that comes with realizing He cares for me more than I can even imagine. It brings me to a place where I am overloaded with His blessings in a way where I cannot out give Him. That’s a great place to be, by the way. That’s the place I seek and aim for every day.

Where Themes Meet Goals

The best way I’ve discovered to tell how I’m doing in any one area is by looking at how all of them are doing individually and how they’re interacting with one another. In other words, if I’m keeping my life simple, I’m better able to consistently wait on God and keep my focus. If I’m strong in my determination to not quit, I’m likely making solid progress with the small steps that I’m taking. Each life focus is intimately intertwined with the others.

What’s more, progress with more traditional type goals tells me how I’m doing with these life themes too. If I’m steadily working toward weight loss as well as toward raising my IQ, for example, I know I’m likely staying focused on my life themes too.

This whole idea of how themes and goals work in my life makes sense to me. It may not to you. If you’ve read this far, though, you’re probably looking for something — anything — that will work for you too. Let me encourage you to simply keep trying different approaches.

Read more about what has worked for others. Try those. Throw out what doesn’t work for you, and keep what does work. Above all, let the Holy Spirit guide this search and lead you to a place where you feel you are making progress too. That place is out there for you. I promise.

Dealing With Stress

This text began a multi-day conversation with my son, a college freshman, as he attempted to prepare for his first round of college finals. This discussion not only stirred memories of my own college days over 20 years ago but also brought fresh ones to back mind from when I took my GRE a couple of weeks ago.

Because of this discussion, I began thinking about how I’ve dealt with stressful situations and seasons in my life. I realized that I’ve progressed in how I handle them and even in being able to mitigate their impact by the way I live life as well as by the mindset I choose before, during and after trials.

A Part of Life

Every person deals with stressful situations. You’re either going through one right now, have just gone through one or seem to be having an endless string of them. They are just a part of life.

Instead of expending energy to avoid them, the better approach is to expect them and be prepared for them as best we can. Realizing that the situation my son was going through was just a part of his lifelong development of learning and growing, I sought to help him not only get through his current tests but to learn an approach that would benefit him in the future as well.

The approach is nothing new, and many people will pass off this information as simply a “good reminder.” While we do need reminders since in the emotions that accompany stress we often forget how to best deal with it, we also need to realize that we are still learning and growing and adapting with each stressful situation we face. This never stops, and neither should our intention to improve how we move through life’s stressful situations.

Not IF But WHEN

We also have to remember that it’s not a question of IF we’ll go through trials and tests (stressful situations), it’s a matter of WHEN they’re going to happen. Knowing this, we can continually work on how we handle the load stress places on us. 

There are 5 areas that need continually addressed and maintained in order to ensure that we’re dealing with life’s stress to the best of our ability.

1.) Physical

Staying properly fueled, hydrated and rested are minimum requirements. Not doing these almost negates the other items we’ll discuss. In addition, stretching and exercising regularly will help us stay as ready as we can physically for the stresses of life. They’ll also help relieve tension in the midst of stress. We need to be sure to do what we can to head into any stress from a place of physical strength.

2.) Mental

Stress and burnout don’t come as much from what’s actually going on, from the situation itself, as they do from our thoughts about the situation. This is why we must continually renew our thoughts (Romans 12:2). It’s also why we have to remember that worry is distracting and mentally exhausting. Ask, “What would I tell someone in my shoes?” to gain an outside-looking-in perspective. Both of these approaches have served me well for strengthening my mental approach to life’s stresses.

3.) Spiritual

Addressing the spiritual aspect involves regularly making time for God through daily Bible study and prayer as well as through weekly church attendance. Also, staying grateful for blessings helps more than I can ever express. In my son’s situation, for example, him being grateful for the ability and the opportunity to learn and study at a quality university helped him realize how much he’s blessed to be where he is right now. My spiritual state is also immensely healthier as I listen to the Holy Spirit guiding and comforting me. The spiritual aspect of my life is essentially the glue that holds all the others together. Without strength here, nothing else will stay strong for the long term.

4.) Relational

Feeling alone infects any other positive going on in life. This can be especially true during heightened times of stress and burnout. It’s also why staying connected to others is so very important. This also involves asking for help and not stubbornly trying to do it all on your own. I’m grateful my son knows the truth of this and regularly connects with myself or my husband when stress begins to build and often before it gets too weighty for him. He’s great at listening then, too, which is essential in staying connected and warding off feelings of loneliness. And finally, laugh often too. My son is terrific at this. Actually, he’s often the source of this for me. Being strong relationally and refusing to be lonely is essential for living victoriously through the stress and burnout life tends to dole out.

5.) Situational

Making sure this area is working well involves doing what you can and not trying to control what you can’t control. In other words, prepare based on the information you have. Do your best. Simplify where possible. Refuse to dwell in areas you cannot control. Don’t let yourself become overwhelmed with what others are or are not doing since you have no control over them. For my son, that meant studying as best he knew how, and it meant not letting his imagination for what could go wrong get away from him. We all have made a situation worse by getting outside of the facts and what we control, so we all understand the need to limit doing so again in the future.

A Pattern of Life

Life is a pattern of ups and downs. The details differ from one person to the next, but the pattern exists for everyone. Look back on your own life, and you’ll see this to be true if you haven’t discovered it already.

As we learn from these seasons, we realize that the areas discussed above work together to either bring us victoriously through stressful times, or they make us feel like we just can’t win. Fortunately, we have a lot of control over what happens.

I’ve stopped trying to keep stressful times from existing in my life. First because it’s not possible. Secondly because the stressful times, really more than the good ones, help me learn and grow in ways I wouldn’t otherwise.

Don’t you find this to be true as well?

Ordinary to Extraordinary

In His Majesty’s Secret Service

Mention of the British Secret Service brings to mind images of James Bond. Age probably determines exactly who Bond looks like… Sean Connery, Pierce Brosnan, Daniel Craig, etc. Regardless, Bond is always well-dressed, has cool cars, gets to use cool gadgets, and even has cool enemies.

In all likelihood, picturing a British Secret Service agent does not generate an image of C.S. Lewis. This is why fans of Lewis’ — whose most well-known works include The Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity — are surprised to find out that Lewis actually was part of the British Secret Service during WWII.

WWII Turning Point

The details of Lewis’ recruitment to the British Secret Service remain a mystery. However, some interesting facts exist regarding the unique role he played.

  • Lewis’ public speaking prowess made him better-suited for his assignment than his contemporary J.R.R. Tolkien, who actually had a better knowledge base for the job than Lewis.
  • Lewis was tasked to “help win the hearts of the Icelandic people” and thus secure Britain’s presence in Iceland for the remainder of WWII.
  • With a speech to the Icelandic people, Lewis “provided a touchstone between the Norse people and the English” that essentially accomplished this goal.

Knowing a little background about Iceland’s role in WWII is helpful in realizing the significance of what Lewis did as a Secret Service agent.

  • April 1940 — Germans invaded Norway and Denmark. British troops counter the Germans in Norway but were too late to do so in Denmark.
  • May 1940 — Germans invaded the Netherlands, Belgium and France.
  • May 1940 (Same morning of above invasion) — British troops invaded Iceland, a strategic location for a naval and air base in the Atlantic region.

The British needed to remain in Iceland in order to help defeat the Germans, but they needed the cooperation of the Icelandic people to accomplish this.

“Though British control of Iceland was critical, Britain could not afford to deploy its troops to hold the island when greater battles loomed elsewhere, beginning with the struggle for North Africa. Holding Iceland depended on the goodwill of the people of Iceland who never had asked to be invaded by the British. If Britain retained Icelandic goodwill, then Churchill could occupy the island with reserve troops rather than his best fighting forces.” (C.S. Lewis Was a Secret Government Agent)

Lewis’ speech, “The Norse Spirit in English Literature,” to the Icelandic people helped turn the tide of war. Britain won their favor and were able to remain in Iceland. This presence was critical to winning the war.

Unexpected Service

Personally, I love the idea of this great literary scholar and lay theologian — and one of my favorite authors — also being an agent for the British Secret Service. Not only does it make for great conversation, it also provides a terrific illustration of Scripture.

“A man’s gift makes room for him and brings him before great men.” (Proverbs 18:16)

“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” (1 Peter 4:10)

“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them.” (1 Corinthians 12:4)

“Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly.” (Romans 12:6)

Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30)

Lewis put his literary talents to work in an unexpected way and ended playing a major role in defeating the Germans in WWII. Yet, Lewis never touted this involvement that we know of. It appears he simply allowed himself to serve the greater good.

The work Lewis was given to do as a Secret Service agent, was directly in tune with his talents and abilities. In fact, his well-known voice is once of the reason he was likely chosen for the task since it would increase the likelihood of the Icelandic people listening to the message.

Uniquely Crafted

Learning that C.S. Lewis was a British Secret Service agent encourages me. It tells me that God can and does use the talents and abilities He gives us in obvious as well as unexpected ways. On the days when I wonder about my own usefulness, stories like these remind me to always be ready for any type of service.

Stories like this one also remind me that God uniquely crafts and genuinely calls every person. Like Lewis, I get to spend my days applying the gifts and abilities God gave me and at the same time staying ready for a call out of my ordinary and into the extraordinary.

Living Sacrifice

As Living Stones, we are a holy priesthood. When Jesus died on the cross for our sins and came to life again in defeat of sin, death and the devil, he abolished the old system of sacrifice to atone for sin.

Now, Christians can offer spiritual sacrifices out of love and gratitude for the One who gave everything for their benefit.

The spiritual sacrifices we make do not die (as with the old system) when we offer them. Instead, each living sacrifice we make can become…

“…a sweet-smelling aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God.” (Philippians 4:18)

A living sacrifice first and foremost comes from the heart of a believer. It requires taking responsibility for your own sacrifice. No one can do it for you.

Most importantly, Jesus must be the number one priority before an acceptable spiritual sacrifice can even be made. Once that life-changing decision takes place, continue in the journey toward holiness, toward being set apart.

What does God look for our sacrifices?

Consider the following 5 elements when evaluating your sacrifices.

  1. Attitude. God calls everyone to be a living sacrifice in whatever they do in life, yet activity means nothing when offered with the wrong attitude. We must follow Abel’s example and avoid Cain’s. One sacrificed with the right attitude, and one did not. One’s sacrifice was accepted, and the other’s was not. (Genesis 4:3-7) (See The Aroma of your Heart for a related Bible study.)
  2. Love. Loving some people takes little to no effort. Yet, there are those who make loving them difficult and sometimes seemingly impossible. (If we’re honest, we’ve all been difficult to love at some point.) When a person gives nothing in return, loving them becomes a struggle. As living sacrifices, we choose to give expecting nothing in return. After all, isn’t this what Christ did for each one of us?
  3. Balance. Holiness happens in partnership with the Holy Spirit. Every Christian does his or her part through the deliberate and intentional choice to live out God’s will by becoming a living sacrifice. The Holy Spirit is a “helper” who comes alongside us. This is why He was sent to us. (John 14:16, 17, 26)
  4. Discomfort. Convenience often defines us. Yet, sacrifice requires inconvenience and discomfort. We must learn to orient our taste buds toward desiring long-term (eternal) benefit. Doing so allows for intimacy with God, which occurs when we make an acceptable sacrifice. Sweet-tasting convenience is the enemy for an acceptable sacrifice. We must become comfortable with being uncomfortable.
  5. Teachability. A living sacrifice comes from a person willing to learn, grow and change at the prompting of the Holy Spirit. God always provides the appropriate measure of time, talent and treasure to do His will. We hold responsibility for offering ourselves to Him through what He enables and gives us to accomplish.

What’s your heart condition?

An acceptable sacrifice comes through a contrite heart. A sincere and broken heart comes when we spend time at the altar prior to offering our living sacrifices. It comes when we let the Holy Spirit lead us through an attitude upgrade. Submitting ourselves in this way, allows us to…

“…present [our] bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is [our] reasonable service.” (Romans 12:1)

What role does submission play?

Submission begins by evaluating the status of the heart and asking tough questions.

  • Are you doing good?
  • Does your life involve sharing?
  • What sacrifices are you making for God?
  • Are you too comfortable?

Submission continues as we listen to the answers God gives us to these questions.

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Successful Transitions

Essential Transitions

In writing, transitions help establish logical connections between sentences, paragraphs and ideas. They go a long way in helping create a piece of writing that flows. Unfortunately, many writers neglect spending much time on transitions.

“Often, writers work on scenes but neglect transitions.” (10 Steps to Perfecting Your Writing Style)

Transitions in our lives really aren’t much different from transitions in writing. They help us handle change by connecting one area of life to another. Transitions help us move along and make progress rather than living a stuck life. They serve to create a unified whole.

When I relate how scenes in a story work as related to life, I think of the seasons of life and how I expect or picture them to play out. Those scenes get my focus, and I often forget that my mind, body and spirit need time to adjust from one season to the next.

Without proper transitions, I resist the change that comes with every new season even when it’s expected. When embraced, transitions help me adjust as life’s seasons move from one into another. They help me learn and grow within and through the change.

Transitions do this by drawing me into the wisdom necessary to navigate the progression of life’s changing seasons. They increasingly connect me with God and His plans for every season of my life.

Successful Transitions

Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann describes change and transition as a process where we go from being orientated where we feel secure to being disoriented and in a state of insecurity. As we successfully transition and let Jesus anchor us and give us meaning, we become secure again and find a state of new orientation.

Successful transitions require that we take steps to get and stay anchored in Christ even as the change around us makes the seas of life choppy and overwhelming. Those include…

  1. Waiting. Letting God work out the details and orchestrate the transition.
  2. Praying. Talking out struggles with God and listening for His wisdom.
  3. Focusing. Reading about hope as detailed in Scripture.
  4. Praising. Staying thankful and grateful regardless of surrounding circumstances.
  5. Preparing. Waiting in the activity God gives us to do during the transition.

Transition can be thought of as a state of progress toward perfection. We won’t be perfect until heaven, but the seasons of change in our lives are the path in our journey toward that final destination.

Neglecting Transitions

A life of forward progress requires that we realize change is inevitable and the key to growing through it lies within the transitions. Neglecting the transitions in our lives usually means a resistance to change, which exists because transitions are often difficult and uncomfortable.

Neglecting transitions skips over that which is necessary for us to connect with God and to embrace the changing seasons as He has made them. Without transitions, we find ourselves overwhelmed by change. Eventually, if we fail to transition, we end up living life like we’re drowning in a sea of change that’s is swallowing us up. And at some point, we’ve simply given up trying to swim.

That’s no way to live. What’s more, we’re not meant to live that way. God has a better way.

“A man’s mind plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” (Proverbs 16:9)

Faithfulness & Mercy

Bike Rides

My favorite routes for long bike rides are on the country roads jutting north and east from where I live. Though I must contend with the occasional dog chasing me down the road and irrigation spray going over the road, the rides are mostly peaceful with little traffic.

Bike rides give me space from activity and the world, and I purposefully do not listen to music or podcasts when riding for this reason. I want my thoughts to flow freely. More specifically, I want them directed by the Holy Spirit without distraction.

Rainbows

Not long into a recent ride, a particular person came to mind. My thoughts revolved around significant concern for his future. I expressed substantial fear and a fair amount of trepidation too.

When I finished my prayers for this person, I looked up from the road in front of me and at an irrigation system in the field beside me. The rainbow in the spray focused my thoughts immediately on God’s promises. It reminded me that He alone is faithful and to trust His work in that person.

I thanked God for assuaging my disquietude. He took my focused uneasiness and replaced it with his unexplainable peace.

Later in the ride after my mind had moved on to another topic, I passed another irrigation system. This time, a rainbow moved along the spray as I rode by.

As I watched the rainbow move, I realized the Holy Spirit had more to say me about God’s faithfulness and his mercy. That more struck me in a powerful but simple way.

Irrigation

A rainbow’s natural habitat is usually in the sky. Twice on that ride, though, it lived in a man-made device. This location change provided a much-needed perspective change for me.

The rainbows in those irrigation systems helped me understand that sometimes, quite often actually, God’s faithfulness and mercy show through people. More specifically, He wants these qualities to show more through me.

I cannot show them in perfection as they appear when looking directly at God himself. However, His faithfulness and mercy can show to others in my attitudes, actions and words. As I lean on God’s perfect faithfulness and his unending mercy, I am more faithful. I also show mercy more than I could without Him.

In fact, without leaning on those qualities in him, I am incapable of showing faithfulness and being merciful most of the time. Instead, I’m ready to give up when someone fails, and I want to disconnect when they refuse to change like I think they should.

The rainbows on my bike ride reminded me about the faithfulness and mercy of God and how receiving them should impact my interactions with others. But the Holy Spirit had more for me. I needed to grasp yet another point.

Focus

Remember the person I began the ride praying for? God wanted me to remember that he was directly showing that person faithfulness and mercy too.

Even though I often feel hopelessness for that person, God never stops pursuing him. Even when I want to give up and walk away, to not forgive again, God rushes in. He shows His presence and gently enlarges that person’s capacity until he finally lets God in even more.

I saw this happen recently, yet I failed to focus on the activity of God in that person’s life. I kept focusing on that person’s past mistakes instead of God’s current work in him.

I knew God had moved in this person’s life, and I still let concern, fear and trepidation flood my thoughts. I knew God had gotten to him in some compelling ways. Yet, I still allowed past mistakes to infect future potential. Through the irrigation rainbows, God reminded me of the work He was doing. He clearly showed His promise of faithfulness and mercy at work in that person.

Reminders

Regardless of what our culture has done with the rainbow, Scripture stands clear on what it means. It assures us of why God allows its colors to display His majesty. It remains a powerful reminder of who He is.

“And God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.’ So God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.’” (Genesis 9:12-17)

God doesn’t need reminding. He gives rainbows to remind us, to again emphasize His faithfulness and mercy despite the activity of mankind.

God keeps his promises. He is merciful and faithful. What he says he will or won’t do, you can be assured of without a doubt. We cannot say that about anyone else. So when I struggle with human failure, my own or others, I focus again on these reminders of God’s faithfulness and mercy.

Digging In to Scripture

The Value of Research

As a writer, I fully understand the value of research and knowing my topic well. Regardless of length or type of work, research allows me to better know my writing topic.  When I struggle at any point in a writing project, research always produces the breakthrough I need to move forward.

This same approach plays a significant role in my faith walk too. Regardless of the struggle or challenge, seeking God’s will by digging into scripture always strengthens my faith.

I’m referring to going beyond daily devotions. I’m getting at digging into all the scripture related to the struggle or challenge and refusing to stop until your faith revitalizes. It may take several hours, days or even longer, but the time spent won’t be in vain.

If you refuse to quit and push through, you’ll come through the stronger because you’ll know God and his will better than ever before.

Steps for Digging In to Scripture

Below are my basic steps specific to digging in to scripture. Take them and make them your own!

  1. Make a list of related scripture and read through them. Make note of the ones that most connect with your struggle. I usually find them with the concordance in my Bible or by doing a Google search. If doing a Google search, only look at Scripture at this point. Stay away from any articles or commentaries. Just you and God for now.
  2. Write out the scripture that stood out to you. Don’t question why some click while others don’t. Just go with it. It’s the Holy Spirit working.
  3. Make bullet points for each scripture. Write down any thought or connection you make with the reference. No editing. Just record what comes to mind.
  4. Meditate on each Scripture. I often take walks or go for bike rides or even take a nap where I fall asleep thinking about the Scripture as related to my struggle or topic. Just spend time directing your thoughts toward the Scripture you’re studying.
  5. Read through the Scripture and your notes again. Make note of additional thoughts and revelations.
  6. Pray using the Scripture and your notes. Talk to God about what you’re studying. You may have more notes to take during this step.
  7. Listen for God to speak to you. Again, go for a walk or bike ride, but this time just listen for God’s whisper in your mind. Don’t make yourself think anything.
  8. Seek outside sources. Only do this after you’ve spent significant one-on-one time with God. These sources include commentaries, sermons and articles about the scripture and topic you’re studying.
  9. Talk out what you’re studying. Again, only do this after lots of one-on-one time. Find a good listener and share what you’ve discovered. Then, let that person give you some input.
  10. Consider journaling. This works best if you do it throughout the process. I actually do these steps in my journal.

The key in this process lies with refusing to quit. Keep reading through the scripture, and keep meditating on them too. Push through and continue digging in even if you don’t feel or hear anything at first. God will speak to you. Expect it to happen.

“Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.” (James 4:8)