I am blessed

Blessed at All Times, in Every Place

Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with all my heart, in the company of the upright and in the assembly.  Great are the works of the Lord; They are studied by all who delight in them. Splendid and majestic is His work. And His righteousness endures forever.  Psalm 111:1-3

forblogThis spring, I stood at the foot of the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, marveling at the ice-capped beauty rising up before me, rugged and shrouded in mist. Worship welled up inside of me as I stood beside that lake, still frozen in May.  I wanted to call out with the psalmist, “Splendid and majestic is His work!”  At that moment, I was overwhelmingly thankful for God’s blessings.

But, other times, it’s been harder for me to be thankful for the blessings of God. I remember one dark day sitting on a hard wooden bench in Africa.  The scenery perfectly matched my sullen mood.  Everything was brown.  Drought had choked every last bit of beauty from that landscape.  The grass was brown.  The dirt was brown.  The huts were made of mud, so they were of course … brown.  The thatched roofs were brown.  And even the leaves of the mango tree in front of me were coated in dust, making them brown. In fact, the only color other than brown in the entire scene was my hostess’ dress – and even it was dirty.  My heart certainly didn’t burst into any psalmist’s praise that day.

But was I any less blessed on the day in Africa than I was on the day in Wyoming? Was God any less deserving of my spontaneous praise when I sat on a wooden bench in a dust-coated village than he was when I stood on a hiking trail admiring the mountains in a national park?

When I am happy, am I more blessed than when I am sad?

That’s a lot of questions, and I think the answer to all of them is “no.” My emotions will go up and down depending on the circumstances around me.  If I see a beautiful mountain, I will feel awe.  If I see a dirty home, I will feel depressed.  If I get a job next week, I’m gonna be happy.  If I lose one, I will despair.

But in every situation, no matter my emotion, God is deserving of my praise. And in every situation, he is pleased when I remember His blessings that He’s showered me with – salvation, fellowship with other Christians, His unfailing love, a home in Heaven.

I am a blessed woman indeed.

I am blessed

Persecution and Blessing

Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake for righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  Matthew 5:10-12

Here in the United States, we Christians may take a few well-aimed insults. We might be the recipients of a stinging comment or two.  But step into West Africa, and you’ll find some believers who are ostracized for their faith, cut off from their families, made into economic and social outcasts.  Travel a little further into parts of the Middle East, and the penalty for following Christ gets even stiffer: death.  In some places, death would be preferable to long imprisonments in filthy cells, torture, and starvation.

Whether a believer suffers only from someone mocking her or faces an arena of hungry lions, persecution is far from joyful. And to consider a blessing?  Well, I just can’t do it.

And neither could Jesus. Read these verses carefully.  He did not say persecution was a happy event.  He did not say it was a blessing.

The blessing was the heavenly reward, not the persecution itself. God Himself bottles his children’s tears, keeps count of their lashes, winces when they are struck.  And with each blow, He adds to their blessings stored up in Heaven, waiting for them.

So, see that believer there in Asia, laying on the cold stone floors of a prison? God has a blessing waiting for him at the end of his journey.  He’ll step out of his jail cell into Heaven and receive it – a heap of treasure, a blessing from his Father who loves him.

Jesus spoke these words to remind us, to encourage us. If we suffer because we follow Him, we have a great reward in Heaven.  Blessings are often not abundant on this earth.  I’m so glad I’m only here for 70 to 80-some-odd years.  I’ve got an eternity of blessings on the other side.

And I can’t wait to see the pile my truly persecuted siblings get.

I am Saved

Saved from Fear of Death

After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were robed in white with palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb! Revelation 7:9 HCSB

This scene is from heaven.  I’m so thankful John recorded in Revelation.  Death holds no sting for me.  That’s one of the things I’m saved from – fear of dying.  And I’m not the only one.  History is full of tales of Christians who died rejoicing.  One elderly musician who had spent his life praising God with his voice opened his eyes one last time to utter: “Wow. Wow!” and then he was gone.  Lottie Moon, famous missionary to China, was said to spend her last breaths uttering greetings to Chinese believers who had gone before.  Can’t you just see her in the throng this verse from Revelation describes?

O!Mag, a Bible study and commentary blog, records some more Christians’ last words.  You can find the orginal post here http://www.oh-mag.com/in-between-studies/last-words/

John Pawson, minister:“I know I am dying, but my deathbed is a bed of roses. I have no thorns planted upon my dying pillow. In Christ, heaven is already begun!”

Adoniram Judson, American missionary to Burma:“I go with the gladness of a boy bounding away from school. I feel so strong in Christ.”

John A. Lyth:“Can this be death? Why, it is better than living! Tell them I die happy in Jesus!”

Martha McCrackin:“How bright the room! How full of angels!”

Mary Frances: “Oh, that I could tell you what joy I possess! The Lord does shine with such power upon my soul!”

Sir David Brewster, scientist and inventor of the kaleidoscope: “I will see Jesus; I shall see Him as He is! I have had the light for many years. Oh how bright it is! I feel so safe and satisfied!”

But it’s not so for unbelievers, for those separated from Christ forever … for the unsaved.  Many years ago in Africa, my husband returned from a visit to a nearby village, visibly shaken.  He sat down, pale, and told me this story.

An African woman lay dying on a mat in her mud hut.  She had spent her life sacrificing to ancestors, trusting in amulets, and worshipping carved masks, but it was obvious none of that was going to help her now.  Her family called my husband in to pray for her.  He stepped into the gloom of the hut just as she opened her eyes for the last time.

“I watched her face — as she stared into hell.  She uttered a horrible cry, and was gone.  I’ve never – never – seen an expression on someone’s face like that before,” he told me.

The unsaved have no peace at death, or for any moment thereafter.

These words, also drawn from O!Mag post above, are attributed to non-Christians at their moment of death:

Edward Gibbon, author of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire:“All is lost, irrecoverably lost. All is dark and doubtful.”

David Hume: The atheist died in utter despair with an awful scene crying out, “I am in the flames!”

Karl Marx: Was on his deathbed surrounded by candles burning to Lucifer and screamed at his nurse who asked him if he had any last words, “Go on, get out! Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough.”

Sir Thomas Scott: “Until now I thought there was no God or hell. Now I know there is both, and I am doomed.”

I am saved from doom.  Saved to a life of rejoicing around the throne with others from every tribe and tongue and nation.

Praise God. I’m saved.

I am Saved

Only One Way to be Saved

There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people by which we must be saved. Acts 4:12 HCSB

He bowed his grey head, his wise face serene. The African rainforest loomed behind him, strung with vines and bursting with green.  A monkey shrieked in the distance.

“May our ancestors forgive us and give us blessings,” he said in his tribal language, touching his forehead.

“Amina!” the crowd chorused around him.  It means “amen.”

“May they give us good crops and much rain.”

“Amina.”

“Please accept our sacrifice, ancestors.”

“Amina.”

Then, he tipped the gourd he was holding, spilling a bit of the palm wine out onto the fertile earth.  He touched the wet spot and then his forehead again.  The other elders, all clad in robes of homespun navy and white, crouched down around the puddle to do the same.  Now, they could drink from the gourd.  The sacrifice had appeased their dead relatives, whose spirits would more likely help them now.

These precious people in West Africa trust in the good will of the spirits.  If they have it, their children will live and go to school, their rice harvest will be plenty, their village will prosper.  If they make the spirits angry, though, their babies will die, drought will choke the rice and the village will wither.  Who will save them if the ancestors don’t?

Animism is a religion of fear.

Across the planet, Asian families burn incense to Buddha in gilded temples. On the same continent, Indians strive to please a pantheon of gods. In the Middle East, Muslims try very, very hard to be good and keep all of Allah’s rules. Right here in the United States, millions of people think that if they just live uprightly, God will let them into heaven – even if they’ve never really known His son.

We all have one thing in common.  We all believe in God.  True atheists are rather rare, and I never met one in Africa.  But so many of us from some many different cultures try to reach God through doors he’s said will not open.  He’s made an exclusive path.  It’s not politically correct to say it, but it’s the truth: Salvation is found in no one else but Jesus Christ.

Salvation from what?  From fear.  From rules so numerous we can never keep them. From working so hard to please a god whose favor is not sure at all.

Salvation from wrath.  We deserve a fiery punishment for all we’ve done wrong, and Jesus provided the way out of that – the only way.

Salvation from meaninglessness. Salvation from myself.

I’m saved – by the only savior there is.  Precious Jesus.

I am able to be content

Contentment in Weakness and Trials

Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with  insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 NASB

When I started writing this post, I began just with Paul last sentence here: “I am well content with weakness, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties …”  I thought I could come up with some great insights about being content with hardships.  I came up dry.  Because, um, I’m not content with insults and difficulties.  Really.  I’m not.  I spend a lot of time praying that God would take those suckers away – not praying that I’d be content in them.

So I went back to my Bible to get some context for Paul’s radical statement.  It’s sort of vague, but the gist of it is this: God had given Paul some mighty revelations.  Paul had walked on a spiritual mountaintop, and to keep him from thinking too highly of himself because of it, God allowed Satan to give Paul some sort of affliction.  No clue what it was, but it was bothersome, and Paul (like me) prayed that God would take it away.

And God said, “No.” 

He allowed Paul to keep struggling with this unnamed hardship, this weakness that tripped him up, so that the glory for all Paul accomplished would go to God Himself and not to Paul.  It would be obvious that God was moving and bringing people to Himself, because Paul’s mastery of that African language was so poor that no one could ever credit him for the success.  (Oh, wait … that was me in Africa, not Paul.)

What is it for you?  What are you inept at?  That may be where God can be most glorified – right there in your weakness, as He moves inspite of you flubbing up your part. Go plunge into ministry despite your weakness. That way God gets the credit instead of you. I think this is at least part of what Paul is saying here. 

But there’s more.  He’s not just talking about personal inaptitude.  He’s talking about honest-to-goodness trials, things that assail us from the outside.  Contentment, he says, can be found when God gets the glory as we suffer through them.

A man in my Sunday School class had a massive and unexpected stroke a few weeks ago.  As his life ebbed away there in the ICU, his family stood around his bed and sang hymns. Because musical talent runs deep in their genetic pool, they sang them in four-part harmony.  A hush fell over the hospital.  Nurses, doctors, other patients, and other visitors stopped their bustle to listen to a grieving group of believers praise their God in the midst of their trial. 

My friend died.  His family is heartbroken.  But they gave God glory in their suffering, and who knows how many hearts were moved closer to God’s kingdom because of it?

Yes, I am weak.  Yes, I will face hardships, persecutions, distress. And when God uses me despite those things, when He brings people into His kingdom even though I am tangled in my afflictions, He gets the glory – not me. 

In that, I truly am well content.

I am rich

Poor, Yet Rich

He [Jesus] looked up and saw the rich dropping their offerings into the temple treasury.  He also saw a poor widow dropping in two tiny coins.  “I tell you the truth,” He said.  “This poor widow has put in more than all of them.  For all these people have put in gifts out of their surplus, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.” Luke 21:1-3 HCSB

I sat in the little African house, sweating.  The rainforest sent bugs through the open windows to crawl on the walls, painted a nauseating shade of hospital green. 

My host arrived, smiling, to get the room ready for the church service.  His home was one of the largest in the village, and so there we gathered.  I was early by African standards, (on time by American), so I was the only one there.

I watched him, puzzled.  He carried several of his wife’s skirts – which were really just lengths of fabric in eye-popping prints.  He pushed a chair up to a wall, stood on it, pulled a roll of duct tape out of his pocket, and taped up the material. He drug the chair around the room to hang all the skirts, sometimes scrunching the fabric into butterfly patterns, sometimes draping it artfully, always securing it with the grey duct tape.

Really?  He thought that made the place look better? I wanted to roll my American eyes.  But what irritated me the most was the duct tape.  This guy didn’t make more than $10 a week, and duct tape cost two or three dollars in the market.  He was wasting his money.

Instantly, the Holy Spirit convicted me, as sharply as He’s ever spoken to my heart.

You are witnessing the widow’s mite, and I am very pleased.

My host was beautifying his home as an act of worship, and quite suddenly, the most stunning of stained glass windows were not as lovely as that duct-taped fabric. Cathedrals have been built by the surplus riches of the elite, but this humble farmer outdid them all.

I may have more in my bank account than that man will ever see, but that day, he gathered riches in heaven untold.

I am Guided by the Good Shepherd

I am Guided by the Good Shepherd: A Joint Post

A Psalm of David. The LORD [is] my shepherd; I shall not want.

He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters.

He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You [are] with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the LORD Forever.

~Psalm 23, NKJV

From Jen:

I remember my dad reciting this Psalm at my grandfather’s funeral. Pretty common practice, I think, except my dad made it personal. He spoke as if he were speaking to God, not reciting to a group of mourners.

Ever wonder if something has become too familiar? I grew up in Colorado, at the base of the majestic Rocky Mountains. I’d lived in those mountains during the early part of my childhood. But I didn’t really appreciate their glory until I was an adult living on the Great Plains of Nebraska. Back when I was a kid, they were the peaks in my back yard. Now they are the astonishing handy-work of God, and every chance I get to go hiking is like an intensive one-on-one conference between me and my Creator.

I think Psalm 23 may be like that. Churched all my life, I’ve heard it. A lot. But this week, what if we hike through it? What if we take a stroll near those still waters? Come to know that rod and staff that are comforting? Taste the goodness and mercy David spoke of?

Maybe it will become more than a backdrop in the yard of our faith. Are you up for it?

From Susan:

I am.  If we begin at the base of this mountain, we begin with the first sentence and the premise of the whole psalm: The Lord is my shepherd.

When I first moved to West Africa, we lived in the midst of a stunning rainforest dotted with tiny villages connected by rough dirt roads.  Each village was overflowing with livestock of every kind, including sheep.  But no one shepherded them.  They just wondered around as they pleased, mingling with the goats and chickens and ducks and guinea fowl.

As my husband and I drove our truck over all the bumps and rocks between the villages, the animals scurried out of the road, except for the sheep.  They just stood there, looking blankly at the pickup, oblivious to the fact that we could squash them.  Undoubtedly, they were the stupidest of all the creatures there. I’d often ask my husband, as we laid on the horn trying to urge one from our path, “Why in the world don’t the Africans shepherd these things?”

I, too, need a shepherd. Without one, I will blithely walk in front of oncoming trucks.  I will make unwise life decisions.  I will choose to stop and nibble on the tuft of grass in the middle of the road. I will seek to meet my immediate needs without considering the long-term consequences.

And the awe-inspiring thing is that God himself has taken the job.  The Creator of the Universe has decided to guide me, to keep me safe, to shepherd me.

May we stand at the base of the mountain and just marvel about Who our shepherd is today.