The Bells and Whistles of the Greatest Gift

You might get everything you have ever wanted this Christmas.
But you probably won’t.
In fact, you will probably have a rather large disappointment to navigate by the end of the day today.

A host of unmet expectations, especially when it comes to gifts.
The reality is, all human gifts will fall short.
And even the best ones eventually fail.
The toy will break.
The jewelry will tarnish, go missing or not fit any more.
The car will have to be replaced.
The clothes will wear out.
The electronics will be obsolete when the next new thing comes along.

But God has given us the most incredible gift of all – the gift of a relationship with Him.
Those who have acknowledged their need for forgiveness and have placed their faith in the fact that Jesus died in their place are now in relationship with God.
In right standing.
Not by their own merit but simply through His grace.
That right there is a HUGE gift – the gift of eternal life.

But if that is you, a person who has chosen to accept the gift of salvation, here’s the question:

Have you explored everything that comes with that gift?
Have you checked out all the “bells and whistles” on it?

You have been given so much in that one gift!
The gift of salvation is not just “fire insurance” or a “get out of hell free” card.
It comes with so much more that God offers you.
And just like the gift of salvation, these “extras” that He offers are not based on your worthiness.
Instead, they are simply a part of the package deal, the benefits of being His kid.
It is His job to give them – and yours to believe them, to access them, to trust that they are real – and because they are real, to allow them to change how you live. How you think. And even how you feel.

Here is the list of what the Bible says is true about YOU and every other follower of Christ:

You are:

Created by God (Genesis 1)

Made in the image of God (Genesis 2)

Designed by God (Psalm 139:14)

Known intimately by God (Psalm 139:1-4)

Surrounded by God and therefore never alone (Psalm 139:5)

Knit together by God (Psalm 139:13-15)

Planned by God (Psalm 139:16; Jeremiah 29:11, I Peter 1:2)

Led by God’s hand (Psalm 23; Psalm 139:24)

God’s delight (Zephaniah 3:17)

Worth dying for (Romans 5:6-11)

Made right with God (Romans 5:1)

Not under any condemnation (Romans 8:1)

Bought with a high price (I Peter 1:18-20)

No longer a slave to sin (Romans 8)

Filled with God’s Spirit (Romans 8:10-11)

God’s child (Romans 8:15)

God’s heir, a joint-heir with Jesus
(Romans 8:17)

A Prince or Princess (Romans 8:17; Isaiah 9:6)

Seen by Him as complete, perfected (Hebrews 10:14)

Being made holy over time (Hebrews 10:14)

Prayed for by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:26-27)

Chosen by God (Romans 8:29-30; Ephesians 1:4; I Peter 1:2)

On God’s team (Romans 8:31)

Unable to be separated from God (Romans 8:38-39)

Gifted (Ephesians 4:7; I Peter 4:10)

Taken over by a new nature (Ephesians 4:21-24)

Sealed by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:14)

A royal priest or priestess (I Peter 2:9)

Blessed with every spiritual blessing (Ephesians 1:3)

Gifted with all you need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3)

United with Christ (Ephesians 1:3)

Adopted into God’s family (Ephesians 1:5)

Free (Ephesians 1:7)

Able to come boldly to God (Ephesians 3:12; Hebrews 4:16)

Precious to God (Isaiah 43:4)

Honored by God (Isaiah 43:4)

Loved by God (Isaiah 43:4; I John 4:19)

Pure (I Corinthians 1:30)

Cleansed (I Peter 1:2)

The owner of a priceless inheritance (I Peter 1:4)

Protected by God (I Peter 1:5)

Part of the family of God (I Peter 3:8)

A warrior (Ephesians 6:10-18)

Fully armed for battle (Ephesians 6:10-18)

Robed in righteousness (Isaiah 61:10; Revelation 7:9)

God’s temple (2 Corinthians 6:19)

Provided for by God himself (Matthew 6:25-34; Matthew 10:29-31; Luke 12:6-7)

 

Wow! As Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth, “thanks be to God for His indescribable gift [which is precious beyond words]!” (2 Corinthians 9:15, AMP)

So no matter what your physical circumstances are today, may it be a Merry Christmas, my friends. May you live out of the abundance of all of God’s good gifts today and throughout the coming year. And may you grow more and more in the knowledge of just how much you are loved.

The Ultimate “Designated Jeffery”

I saw the little red bar on the sign at the front of the train.
But I didn’t think much about it.
After all, it was late on a Sunday evening and the train that would take me one stop to my destination in Sengendai was pulling into the station as I arrived on the platform.
It has been a great evening – the English worship service at the church in Kasukabe and then out to Denny’s with my fellow ex-pats and a few Japanese friends.
And now it was time to head home so I could be ready to teach English the next day at the Japanese school where I worked.

Turned out that little red bar next to the Japanese characters I could not read was significant.
I realized it when we literally flew through my station – the very next stop.
And every stop after it.
Until we reached Tokyo, about 18 miles southwest of my bed.

I had inadvertently caught the express train.
At 10:30 at night.
And realized pretty quickly that only local trains go back out of Tokyo to the suburbs at that time of night. It was much, much later than 10:30 when I finally turned the key to my apartment.

After that I became much more aware of things like little red bars on signs – even though I still couldn’t read the characters. I paid closer attention to subtle differences in my world so that I wouldn’t mess up quite so badly again. Which meant I was always traveling on high alert everywhere I went.

Except when I didn’t have to be.
When I would go out with a group of friends, someone else would be in charge of knowing what train, what stop, what door, what direction.
And it was awesome.
Most of the time, that person was our friend Jeffery.
He was more fluent than most of us and is a leader by nature.
So when we were hanging out with him, I didn’t worry about the details. I just knew that if I stayed in step with him, I would safely arrive wherever we needed to be.

As a group we recognized the value of having Jeffery with us.
And so, if he couldn’t go on an excursion, we would quickly pick someone else to manage the details so the rest of us didn’t have to think about them. And that person – whoever they were – became known as the “Designated Jeffery”.
(And can I add, that person was rarely me? Thank God!)

I have traveled many places since my time of living in Japan. Sometimes I have been alone. But most of the time, I have been able to rely on guides. People who have a greater understanding, a more thorough vision, a deeper knowledge of the geography, language and culture of the places I am traveling through. And it has been awesome. I can enjoy the experiences – the night market in Chiang Mai, Thailand; the beautiful scenery between Guatemala City and Coban, Guatemala; the tour of Goroka, Papau New Guinea – without fear because of all these “Designated Jefferys” God has provided along the way.

But here’s the thing.
In ALL of my days, in all of my experiences – even when I am alone and even here on home soil – I was never once designed to do life without a “Designated Jeffery”.

I carry Him in my heart.
No – not Jeffery – or any other human being.
The Holy Spirit.

He is the Ultimate Guide.
He not only knows the geography, language and culture – He knows the motives of the people I meet. The events that will happen in the future. The dangers that are hidden from my eyes but are plain to Him.
I am never, ever alone.
And I was never, ever designed to live in fear, even when I am physically alone.

Paul wrote to his son in the faith, Timothy, that “God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power, and love and self-control”. (2 Timothy 1:7) That Spirit God has given – the one of power, love and self-control – is the Holy Spirit, who indwells every Christ-follower from the moment of salvation.

The question then becomes one of control.
He lives in me.
He is more than capable of guiding every part of my life.
I don’t ever have to be the one in charge.
But.
Will I yield to His control?
Will I trust Him to be the best guide?
Will I listen to His promptings?
Will I obey His still, small voice?

In all of my travels I have never once presumed to blow off the instructions of one of my guides.
I recognize their value, their experience, their expertise.
If they say something is safe, it is safe.
If they give a warning, I heed it.
If they say this is our stop, it is our stop.
And if they say we need to go, we go.

Why don’t I do the same thing with the Holy Spirit?
As much as I have appreciated the guides God has provided in all my travels, none of them are omnipotent. Omniscient. Or omnipresent. None of them have been perfect. And yet I tend to trust them more than I trust the Holy Spirit of the Living God.

Or, at least, that is what my actions say.

That is what I am saying when I choose worry over releasing the matter to God.
When I choose control over surrender.
When I choose to be ungrateful for all I do not have instead of overwhelmed by His goodness in all that I do have.
When I choose to move ahead before He gives the green light.
And when I choose to stay put when He has said, “Move.”
Every time I sin, I am telling God that He is not worthy of my trust.
He is not a good Guide.
And He does not know the best pathways for my life.

Ouch.

I am incredibly grateful for all the guides that God has provided for me over the years in my travels.
But I am even more grateful that He has never left me, never forsaken me, never allowed me to keep wandering in my own lost-ness for very long. He has never said, “That’s it, Katherine! You have one more chance to listen to my directions and if you do not, I am out of here!” Instead, He has patiently waited for me to get on board with Him, for me to surrender once more, for me to say once again, “Thy will be done.”

And can I say, life is so much better when the Ultimate “Designated Jeffery” is in charge?
He’s always willing to be – may I always choose to be willing to let Him.

And that’s my prayer for you as well, today and every day:
May we both have lives of wonderful adventures with God, filled with perfect peace and abundant joy because we are consistently allowing the Holy Spirit to be in control.

Lessons From Angela…

Angela’s body succumbed to cancer a few weeks ago after living for 54 years and battling the disease for the last two. Her fight was valiant, but in the end, the cancer was the vehicle God used to take her home to heaven.

And yes, I know for sure, as much as I can know anyone’s eternal destiny, that Angela is in heaven. I know she confessed with her mouth that she was trusting Christ and Christ alone to save her from her sin.  I saw evidence of God’s work in her life. I watched her live full out for Him and I watched her die so very well because of Him.

You might think that Angela and I were close friends. We were not. But we shared several common loves and common interests.

We are both passionate about God, loving having a relationship with Him. We are both followers of Christ, acknowledging our need for a Savior and believing that Jesus died to take our sin on Himself. (Those commonalities are in the present tense because I know both are still true about each of us today. They are by far the biggest bond we share. Before we are anything else, we are sisters in Christ.)

But we also shared a love for the craft of writing. We were both more on the extroverted and dramatic side of things. We both loved a good laugh and the company of great friends. And we also shared a love for South Potomac Church. Angela and her family found it long before I did, but we worshiped together there for the past 20 years. (Those commonalities are in the past tense because they are no longer a part of her day-to-day existence even though they are a part of our shared history.)

As I have been thinking about Angela and praying for those who are waiting to be reunited with her, I realized that there are several lessons she taught me through the years, even though we were not day-to-day friends. Sisters in Christ who enjoyed an occasional great conversation, yes. Facebook friends, sure. And two people who share a lot of friends in common, yes. But even from a distance, she taught me the following:

Lesson One:
No matter who you are or where you have come from, you have a voice. You can use it to complain or you can use it to promote change. It is up to you.

Angela was black. Her husband is white. They were married the day I graduated from high school back in 1988. Not an easy time to be a mixed-race couple. Angela could have used the negative experiences that came with being a black woman in our culture, both before and after marriage, to become bitter. She could have shut down or shut up. Or she could have shouted in rage and eviscerated her enemies with her tongue and her pen. But she didn’t. Instead, she used her voice to speak up for change. To promote racial reconciliation. To have the tough conversations with a loving heart. Angela had a voice that could have been ugly or could have been silenced, simply by what she could have allowed to fester in her heart. Instead, she used her voice to echo God’s heart, speaking the Truth in love every chance she got.

Lesson Two:
No matter who you are or where you come from, you have a message. It is your job to share it with the world using the gift set that God has given you.

I know this sounds a lot like lesson one. But with your voice comes a specific talent or gift set. Angela had a way with words and so became a writer. She even wrote the eulogy for her funeral – and it was great. Humorous, touching, truthful, well-written – these were the hallmarks of Angela’s writing. And we are blessed because she chose to nurture the gift God had given her to promote the message He had called her to share.

You have a message as well, if you are a follower of Christ. Your primary message is the story of how He called you out of darkness and into His glorious light. You also have a gift set that He has given you. It may not be writing. It may be cooking. Or organizing. Or building stuff with your hands. But wherever your gift set and your message meet, that is what He is calling you to do. To be. To share. Angela did it faithfully. Will you? Will I?

Lesson Three:
No matter your circumstances, you can make yourself feel better by taking your eyes off of you and focusing on others.

More than once in the 20 years I knew Angela here on earth, she sent me a note of encouragement from out of the blue. Well, actually, they were sent from out of HER blues. When she was down, she would choose to write someone else a note to lift them up. The last one she wrote me is one I will never forget. She hand-delivered it to me at the church office while she was off work because she was recovering from major surgery. She felt awful physically and emotionally that day, so she made a choice to use her limited energy to bless me. Where most of us would have wallowed, she chose to take her eyes off of herself. She wrote a note and hand-delivered it to me, exhorting me to continue in the good work God has called me to do. And in the process of delivering encouragement to me, she encouraged herself. How different our world would be if each of us chose to bless someone every time we felt down! They would be encouraged, we would be blessed, and our world would be changed one small act of kindness at a time.

Lesson Four:
No matter how you are dying, you can choose to live fully and die well.

This is probably the greatest legacy that Angela left for all of us who knew her. From the moment she received her very grim diagnosis she purposed in her heart to live – really live – the rest of her days on earth. She made plans, set goals and partied hard, in the very best sense of the word. She nurtured relationships as well as nurturing her faith. And she lived out her faith until the very last breath that she took, never allowing bitterness and anger to take root. She battled both by her own admission – but she fully trusted God, even to the end. In her eulogy she stated that she was grateful for the gift of cancer that God had given to her. And she lived that gratitude, even as the end of her days were full of suffering. There are so few Christ-followers who end their earthly days well. Far too many are derailed by sin or bitterness or doubt or fear. But not Angela. Was she perfect? No – she would be the first to laugh at that idea. But she faithfully lived out all the things she said she believed, even as her body failed and her prayers for earthly healing were met with a “no” from the God she adores. For this example, this legacy of ending well, I will always be grateful. It is rare – and it is a gift that Angela gave to everyone who loves her.

Angela’s earthly existence was a gift that came with lessons we all need to learn. How she lived and how she died are a legacy of faithfulness, “a long obedience in the same direction” as Eugene Peterson put it. I am sure she heard, “Well done, good and faithful servant” when she saw her Savior face to face. I am looking forward to chatting with her again in the not too distant future. And in the meantime, I hope I will remember to live the legacy of faith that she left behind.

Angela, thank you for all you taught me. Looking forward to seeing you again soon…

On Kingdom Stink…

Do you love cilantro?
Or do you hate it?
There is usually no middle ground with that question.
Very few people can “take it or leave it” when it comes to that particular herb.
It’s because of genetics. To some people, cilantro tastes amazing. But to others, it tastes exactly like chewing soap.

I am genetically very similar to my Mom in a lot of ways. Hair color, eye color, skin color, mannerisms – we are very much alike. But, thankfully, I did not get her “cilantro tastes like soap” gene. I think it’s delicious while she finds it repulsive.

But the fact that the exact same thing can be delicious to me and repulsive to her reminds me of something Paul wrote to the church in Corinth.
He said they stunk.
In fact, he said we all stink. Well, all of us who are Christ-followers stink.
He said we are all constantly releasing an aroma.
And depending on who smells you – their genetic code, so to speak – you either smell like something delicious or something repulsive.

Paul puts it this way in his letter:
“But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us spreads and makes evident everywhere the sweet fragrance of the knowledge of Him. For we are the sweet fragrance of Christ [which ascends] to God, [discernible both] among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the latter one an aroma from death to death [a fatal, offensive odor], but to the other an aroma from life to life [a vital fragrance, living and fresh].” (2 Corinthians 2:14-16a, AMP)

Did you catch that? Paul said that everyone can smell something wafting off of the life of a true Christ-follower. To the person who also knows Jesus as Savior, that aroma is awesome, life-giving, and fresh. But to the person who does not know Him, you stink. Or, rather, He stinks in you.
Same odor. Different reactions.

Why? Because what they are smelling from you is convicting in one way or the other. When a fellow Christ-follower meets you and you begin to interact, you can usually sense the Holy Spirit in each other within a few minutes of conversation. There is a recognition in your spirit that says, “Hey, they are part of the family, too!” And it is encouraging. Affirming. Life-giving. You are (hopefully) on the same page in the major stuff – who God is and how you get to heaven – so it (hopefully) makes everything else easier to deal with, even when it is tough stuff like racial reconciliation or politics. You share a common ground that provides a bridge of communication and mutual affection, even though you hardly know one another. A sweet aroma!

But to the non-believer, your life is a reminder of who they are not and what they do not have. Or, at least, it should be. They listen to your words and look at your actions and think, “Wow – she’s different. Where is that peace coming from?” Or “Why is he so joyful even when his life is falling apart?” Or “How can she be kind to that person who was so rude to her?” And even as they are drawn to the things they see or sense in you, they are also repulsed by it at the same time. They begin to rationalize how they are just as good as you, with or without your “religion”. They look for flaws in you – and of course, they find them because you are still a work in progress. And they fight giving over their will to the One Who created them and is using you to draw them to Himself. It is a life or death fight for their eternal destiny – and until they surrender, you stink. You are a constant reminder of the choice they need to make to surrender to Him, a constant reminder of the dull ache of the emptiness in their soul.

Or, at least, you should be.

Because you have been genetically altered by God. When you accepted the free gift of salvation, you were born a second time into the family of God. And with that birth, the Holy Spirit came to dwell in you. He began to pour His mind into your life and exude it out through your actions, your words, your reactions and your responses. He is the aroma they smell coming from you because you have been changed. The old has gone, the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:17) The fruit of the Spirit is starting to be evident in the branches of your life. (Galatians 5:22-23) And that person who doesn’t know Him is torn as they watch it happen. They wrestle with “I want that – but I don’t want to surrender.”

But, here’s the thing. As I look around at my church, my friends and even my own life, I often feel like we try to spray on some kind of spiritual deodorant so that we not an offensive odor to the non-Christ-follower. We choose to not say what the Holy Spirit puts on our lips because we “don’t want to offend”. We choose to not voice what the Word of God says on a sin issue because we are afraid of the response we might get. We choose to try to blend in rather than stink out the place with the wonder of grace.

And by the way – there is a HUGE and important caveat here. If you have not been actively loving the nonbelievers in your life, actively and intentionally living love in your interactions, then please, don’t speak up. Don’t share the Truth. Keep your mouth shut and keep spraying that deodorant you have been using. Because the Bible doesn’t say anywhere, “Beat people about the head with the Truth in the name of Jesus.” Instead, it says to “Speak the Truth in love” (Ephesians 4). It says to “Love others as God has loved you” and to “Forgive as you have been forgiven”. It says that when people see your LOVE for them, they will know you are a Christ-follower. So I am not exhorting you to be a stinky Christian in words only. We have far, far too many of them as it is. I am begging you to live the love that you have been given. To get to know the Word of God and then apply to yourself first. And then to let it transform EVERY place your feet take you and EVERY conversation you have. With your boss. And with your spouse. With your kids. And with their teachers. And yes, even with the person on social media who makes your blood boil. We should be stinking up every area of our lives – but with the aroma of Christ and not hypocrisy. With the aroma of His righteousness and not our self-righteousness. With the aroma of His sacrifice, not the stench of our selfishness.

Not sure if you stink in all the right ways? Ask Him to show you. He will not only show you – but He will give you everything you need to stink up your corner of the world with the aroma of amazing grace. Indescribable love. Astonishing forgiveness. Inexpressible power. And when you do that – when WE do that – He will do there what the disciples did in the earliest days of the church – they “turned the world upside down”(Acts 17:6) – one stinky relationship at a time!