Strangers in a Strange Land

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We went to my sister’s house a few weekends ago for my nephew’s birthday party. First of all, I love my nephew dearly – he is very sweet, and shares the same sense of humor as so many in our family. He reminds me so much of my sister as a kid growing up, and of my dad – the eternal prankster.

Anyway, my sister lives in a big city in southeast Texas – on the coast. Our family lives about 20 miles out of our small town. Let me add a little more detail – just to be sure this post makes sense!

The town I live in…to be more exact, live outside of, has only one Super WalMart. We have one Bealls, a Brookshire Brothers grocery store, a feed store, Tractor Supply, Lowes, and two vets. There are of course several smaller businesses there as well, but we are still a relatively small town of about 8247 people. This is also in deep east Texas, where the people are hard-workers (for the most part), laid back, and lead simple, quiet lives.

The town my sister lives in has, on one corner, a WalMart, Walgreens, Target, Home Depot, nail salons, etc. And that’s just the ones I can remember. My town has no mall….to get to one we have to drive 1 ½ hours south or 1 hour north. For my sister to get to a mall, she has to drive about 15 minutes, and that’s due to traffic.

So, here’s where the meat of this post comes in:

I needed some jeans while I was there (and got to buy TWO sizes smaller than the last pair I bought!!!), and wanted something other than WalMart jeans this time, so she and I went to the mall. (OK, to be honest, we went to the mall to pick up my favorite brother-in-law’s cookie cake because it was his birthday, too.) Anyway, we were starving so we grabbed a bite to eat in the food court before we made our rounds. As I looked around, I actually told my sister, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore!”

Now, I grew up in the city (albeit not one as big as where she lives), and have lived in or very near large cities most of my life. But for the past 2 ½ years, we have lived here in the country. And, I must admit, I was not prepared for how much it has changed me.

The mall itself seemed like something out of Star Trek. Even the malls we do have nearby are no comparison. After people-watching during our Arby’s meal, we made our way to the store I would buy my new (smaller!) jeans in. I picked ‘em out, tried ‘em on, and went to pay…the cashier took my payment, and this is the part that I had to laugh at: she wrapped my blue jeans in tissue paper and put them in a brown shopping bag and tied it with a bow! My sister jokingly said, “You don’t get service like that at home, do you?!” Nope. We get WalMart bags!

I did a little more shopping, and we headed back to the house. I really was amazed at how much different the city seemed to me now that I had lived in the country for a while. I was, in fact, uncomfortable there. I felt terribly out of place – like people could look at me and tell that I didn’t belong.

But you know what? I didn’t mind a bit. Because that’s what Christians do, anyway. We experience that out-of-place feeling daily in our lives, regardless of where we are. We can be at the convenience store around the corner or the post office.

Wherever we are, we are out of place. We are strangers in a strange land, because our home is not here. Our home is in Heaven and the moment we feel too comfortable here, we have lost the focus on what is important. Sin abounds in this earthly residence, but in Heaven our citizenship is secure and wonderful.

Jesus promised us that this world would hate us, because it hated Him. But we are not to fear – for HE HAS OVERCOME THE WORLD!

So, today I want to remind you that if you feel completely out of place in the world, don’t fear. Rejoice! This is NOT your place! You are designed for far greater things than this old world! God made you to enjoy the Heavenly home He created just for you!

 

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Everything happens for a reason….but whose reason is it?

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I know someone who is very fond of saying, “Everything happens for a reason,” meaning that everything that happens is supposed  to happen.   It’s actually a fatalistic view of the world, of course – depending on who says it.

You see, when a Christian says, “Everything happens for a reason,” what he or she means is that the Lord can use anything for the good of His Kingdom.  However, the actual statement, is somewhat faulty.  Let’s examine.

God is in complete control – period.  However, BECAUSE He allows us free will, things happen everyday that are outside the will of God.  For instance:  adultery, murder, homosexuality, unwed mothers, theft, idolatry, gossip, etc., are ALL outside the will of God.   God CAN use those experiences for good, but that is because He can REDEEM a situation – NOT because He condones it.

The things that happened in my past – wait, let me rephrase – the things that I did in my past are there because I chose to do them – NOT because God wanted me to do them, or to have those experiences.  Quite the contrary – had I lived within His will for my whole life, I would have been spared much of the pain of the guilt of sin.  But, I chose my own way for a season.  Some would say, “Everything happens for a reason.”  But, whose reason is it?

The truth is, the things that happened in my past happened for my reasons.  They were what I wanted.  They were not what God had planned for my life.  He knew it would happen.  He allowed it to happen.  And in his infinite grace and wisdom, He chose to REDEEM my life IN SPITE OF WHAT I DID.

That’s the key – in spite of me.  God redeemed my life, saved my soul, and gave me hope not because of me, but in spite of me

God calls us to obedience, and through obedience, He can bless us.  But when we are disobedient, He sometimes allows us to feel the sting of the consequences of our actions so that we can learn a lesson for next time. 

Regardless, we serve a God who is in the Miracle Making Business.  In fact, He has a monopoly on the market.  So, when the world condemns a situation, God can redeem it for His purposes.  This is evidenced by Romans 8:28 which says, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose.”  In my KJV Bible, the word His is italicized.  Emphasized.  Special.  It is THE word to take note of in this verse – HIS purpose. 

So, yes, in a sense, I guess everything happens for a reason.  But, we need to be very careful in placing the blame of reason where it rightly belongs.  Did it happen because God supernaturally caused it to happen (and He can!)?  Or, did it happen because we were living outside the will of God and ignored His laws and precepts?

Hope you had a fabulous, blessed and peaceful Christmas!

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I know we had a great one!  The Christmas season seems to pass by so quickly within the worldly scheme of things.  And yet, we know, that Christmas, as our teacher said yesterday at church, is not simply a “winter event.”  Christmas is a miraculous, wonderful, blessed encounter with the Incarnate Christ!  Immanuel!  Let’s remember that throughout the year – as well as reminding others of the miracle of His birth, His death on the cross, and His resurrection.  As our teacher pointed out, again, these are the very pillars of our faith.  (Ok, he pointed us to Paul, who pointed that out.)  It was an awesome sermon/teaching session.  I think our teachers/church leaders always do a fantastic job, and yesterday they did not deviate from their goal of providing excellent “meat” for us to chew, and making sure they were in line with the Word.

May we Christians spend the entire year being true to the Word – not watering down the Gospel as we present it to the lost world.

Have  a blessed New Year…..and don’t forget to share a few of your New Year’s Goals with us!

Blessings,

Toni

Will you accept my challenge this year?

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I have been feeling a need to do this, so here it is:

I am issuing a challenge to each and every one of you – EVERYONE that reads this blog!

The challenge is this:

Read through your Bible in one year with us!

Now, if you have done it before, GREAT!  Do it again!  And if you haven’t, PERFECT!  Do it now!

Here’s how it will work:

I will post a reading schedule at the beginning of each week.  It will list the daily readings for the week, and be the catalyst for comments during the week on the readings we are doing.  I plan to have some free goodies for those of you who participate (by participate, I mean, leave at least one comment per week on that week’s readings!).  And, there is a distinct possibility of having a drawing mid-way through and at the end of the year….if not quarterly!

So, join with us today….we begin on January 1st!

Leave a comment on this posting if you will be taking up the challenge to Sharpen Your Sword all year long!

Preparing for Battle,

Toni

Christmas Trees

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Have you ever noticed the differences in Christmas trees?

Some are simple – others are ornate.  Some are flocked – others are a beautiful evergreen.  Some are real – some are artificial.

It seems Christmas trees are a very personal thing in our country.  One person may have a designer tree full of gorgeous department store ornaments, ornate ribbons, and hundreds of lights.  Truly a sight to see.

Others may prefer a simpler decoration – perhaps just lights and some tinsel.  Or maybe all homemade decorations.  There are trees with ornaments depicting our hobbies and memorializing our deceased loved ones.  Some of us use garland, others use ribbons, some tinsel, and others pinecones.  Trees run the gamut from truly country-style to high-end upscale fashion.

Yes, Christmas trees are a personal expression of ourselves.  For us, our tree this year is one with multi-colored lights (I generally prefer clear, but am outnumbered by 3!) and decorations of all kinds.  There are the beautiful ones my Mom bought for my sister and I a couple of years ago.  There are ones the girls have made with no help from anyone.  A few were purchased at the girls’ first or second Christmases.  One is a photo ornament of my late father-in-law given to us by my sister-in-law last year.  Perhaps the most sentimental to me are the ones that John has chosen for the girls each year.  It is a special gift from him each year to his girls, and they all look forward to the tradition.  There are puffs of white tulle in various places on the tree (my attempt at simulating “snow” – actually very cute!), wonderful large ribbons of varying colors and types of ribbon – all made from bows received on ornately-wrapped gifts in the past.  Tucked in the tree in a few cozy spots are small teddy bears – remnants from a set of 12 we bought for Alexis when she was a toddler.  She insisted on using the red beaded garland, so that encircles the tree, as well as a 4′ length of cranberry garland she made this year.  With the exception of ONE – every ornament we have, I believe, is on the tree this year!  And, to top it off, they are all on the front 2/3 of the tree!  LOL….When I asked the girls if I could move a few to the back and rearrange a little – they both said, “NO!”  So, the tree remains a little “front heavy.”  Hopefully it will stand straight until Christmas!

The night our tree goes up, I always like to stay up after everyone goes to bed with the lights out and only the tree lit.  It somehow really helps to put me in the Christmas spirit.  This year was no different, and while I sat, God gave me this thought:

We (God’s children) are like Christmas trees. 

How?  Easy.  We are all different.  No two of us are exactly alike – we all come with different experiences (ornaments) and backgrounds (the tree itself).  The tree itself represents the whole of our lives, and the lights reveal His presence.  Like our individual Christmas trees are to us, we are all very special to Him, indeed. 

He sees the absolute beauty in each ornament as it adds something unique to our lives that no one else has.  He put it there!  The ornaments of our lives are used by the Lord to shape our hearts and bring us closer to Him, while showing an outward sign of what He has done for us, and can do for others.  The ornaments are one way for us to show the love of Christ.

He is the Light that illuminates our trees and shines so that the holes where ornaments are missing, or broken ornaments are placed, can be seen.  Clear or multi, the lights reveal empty spaces and magnify mistakes.  The Light of Christ reveals unrepented sin, and therefore, the lights are the most important of all the elements.

The tree itself was grown and handpicked specifically for us – God knew the exact tree:  shape, size, type, flocked or not – and He knows why that tree was chosen.  Sometimes we are disappointed in His choice of trees, but we shouldn’t be – #1 – we can’t change it.  Our past is our past and our background is what made us who we are today.  And #2, God has reasons far beyond our comprehension for choosing the background we have had.  He can and does use any circumstance for good, and for His purposes.

So, you see, your Christmas tree can remind you of more than the birth of Christ this year, although I am in no way taking that away.  I merely want to add that your Christmas tree can remind you, if you allow God to use it that way, of what He has brought you in your life.  Of what He has brought you out of in your life.  And when you look at the top of the tree – the star, the angel – let that be a reminder to know where He is taking you in your life.

I hope that after reading this, you look at your Christmas tree a little differently.  And I hope that you spend a little time in the Light of your tree, looking to the One who decorated it so beautifully.

Merry Christmas everyone.

When you look back

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It’s not plagiarism if I give credit:

Last night at Bible study, a wonderful lady in our class said this:

“I can’t see what God is doing while He’s doing it.  It’s when I look back that I can see what He did.”

How true that is.  How often do we pray and pray, thinking that nothing is happening, when all of a sudden it becomes apparent that God has indeed been very busy?

There are so many times that I get myself all worked up over something, something that may not have even happened yet, and when I look back, I can see that God was there all along.

Or what about the times when you are really struggling?  You know, the storms of life when every ounce of faith you have is being tested and tried and stretched.  Personally, its often just after one of those times that I can look back, and see beyond the shadow of a doubt, what God was doing.

And He always does it bigger and better, and more thoroughly  than I could have imagined.  And often, its at the end of those storms when I learn the greatest lessons.  The ones that bring me closer to my Savior than ever before.

The truth is, we humans need a rest – once every 24 hours.  God, however, doesn’t sleep.  In our finite minds we cannot really comprehend that fact.  He never stops working;  He never forwards incoming prayers to an answering service.  His office hours are Beginning – End, Eternity – Eternity.  No holidays, no vacations, and certainly no retirement! 

So, whatever storm you’re passing through – whether its a little sprinkle or a downpour, remember to keep looking up.  Even if you can’t see Him, He’s there and He’s working.  And when the storm is over, the clouds part and the sun is shining again, you’ll be able to look back at where you’ve been, and see the wonderful things He has done.

Written in Anger…

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I just finished listening to Adventures in Odyssey with my two girls. We listen every night, and it is a time that our whole family looks forward to. We watch the clock, and just before 6:30pm every weeknight, we turn on the radio (if it happens to be off!) and tune in to the show.

Odyssey is a radio program geared to kids, yet has lessons for all ages. Tonight’s episode was no different.

It was about a little girl and her family struggling to make friends, find jobs, and discover happiness in the Christmas season. The little girl’s father was in prison, and her mother was barely, if that, able to make ends meet. Connie, Whit, and Tom Riley pitched in using the Angel Tree and presented the family with gifts for each, plus something special from their father. Their father had been studying in Tom’s Bible Study group at the prison, and had become a believer. He wrote a stirring, heart-wrenching letter to his wife and children asking their forgiveness, and I must admit, I was in tears at the end of this “kids’ show.”

Now, I’m not writing about Adventures in Odyssey to offer a plug for the show (although, if you haven’t, I HIGHLY recommend you check it out), but rather to use as an introduction to this post. It deals with Christian generosity.

Bear with me for a minute or two, as it will seem as though I am getting off topic – I promise to come full circle.

How much money should a church keep? Enough to create a “cushion” for use in rough times? Or just enough to cover necessary expenses, then trust God to provide when rough times hit? Should there be 20 different funds within the church’s account to use for different things? Or should the money be available to use for those in need without concern over which fund it comes from? (And I’m not suggesting spending frivolously, either.) 

Now, I am ALL for budgets! I think if the companies we are spending billions on were running on a budget like mine (thanks, Lois!), we wouldn’t be spending billions…but that’s another topic. I think that churches should have a budget – something that tells what their monthly and yearly expenses are, and should plan accordingly. But, and here’s where most of your comments will come, I’m sure, I think the money received over and above that should be used to care for the needy in the church and in the community. I think the church’s job is ministry, and that if we sit on hundreds or thousands of dollars in the name of “creating a cushion” that we can’t do that.  I think that when a church is sitting on a “cushion” of thousands of dollars and a single mom calls asking for help with her electric bill, the answer should be a resounding, “YES!”  The answer should NOT be, “Well, I think we only have $50 in that fund.”

Now, what do I mean by caring for the needy? I mean, when there is a widow in need, we provide food, or pay her bills for a month, or help get her to a doctor appointment, buy her medication, help repair her car, help with medical bills, etc. For the children, we provide them with clothes, a Christmas or birthday gift, RELATIONSHIPS, school supplies, needed medical/dental work, etc. We take the man of the house on a job search and help him find and purchase a bicycle or car, if feasible, to get back and forth to that job. We make a monthly habit (or more) of holding a church soup kitchen – providing food, warmth, and a friendly face to the homeless and downtrodden of society.  (Remember, there but for the grace of God, go I.)

Guess what? In every one of these instances, we have the chance to show the love of Christ and present the gospel to them! Jesus said in Matthew 25:40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. The least of these!!  And instead, we have become the church that turns its nose up when a beggar walks into our pristine chapel.

So, why then is it so hard for some people, who call themselves Christians, to give the money that is in God’s house anyway? Why is it so hard for us to give of our time, our services, ourselves? Aren’t we supposed to love our neighbor as ourselves? Do we despise ourselves so much that we would ask others to treat us as we do them? And, why on earth, when we behave so badly, do we wonder why so many claim they stay away from church, and many times Christianity completely, because the church is full of hypocrites? Are they really so wrong? All too often the answer is no. They’re entirely too right.

I apologize for sounding so angry….no, actually, I don’t apologize.  I’m not sorry for being angry, and I think its justified in this case. It makes me furious (not to mention shamed and embarrassed) when we preach generosity and love to all, then refuse to back it up with action and actual giving of our time, resources, and ourselves.

I’m going to close this post with this: I am not advocating that churches (or individuals) refuse responsibility for their financial obligations. But churches are not there to make a profit or have the biggest plasma TV money can buy or brand new hymnals because the ones we have are a little old and have yellowing pages. Make improvements where needed, keeping in mind that God has not blessed churches with that money to be able to buy a gold-plated collection plate to collect more money to hoard. And I think that if there is a choice between helping someone in need and buying new pew cushions, the choice should be obvious.

Still seething yet trying to give it up to God,

Toni