The other day, I learned of some negative, unwarranted, and inaccurate comments spoken about someone I care deeply for. And the more I thought about the injustice of the situation, the more upset I became. So I turned to God in prayer, asking Him to take away my negative emotions–emotions that were souring my stomach and causing my muscles to clench–and to replace these emotions with love, joy, peace, and patience–with grace.

But no matter how hard and long I prayed, my frustration refused to still.

Until I prayed for the “offender.” The moment I spoke the first words of blessing and intercession, peace flooded through me. And while I was yet praying, the words Jesus spoke as He hung on the cross came to mind: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Father forgive them, because they don’t realize what they are doing. Because apart from You, they are incapable of doing better.

Because once, I, too, was just like them, full of anger, of bitterness, of malice. As the oft quote phrase goes, “But by the grace of God, there goes I.”

Ephesians 2:1-3a “Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil–the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature” (NLT).

Let’s talk about this. When dealing with others, especially those who may be difficult to love, it’s easy to keep our focus on the surface–the words and actions–losing sight of the root–the spiritual condition that is in desperate need of a Savior. It helps when we pause to remember, we–each one of us–were once like them, giving in to our sinful natures and selfish desires. In fact, if not for God’s grace, that is exactly where we would be, slipping further and further into selfishness and isolation. But God handed us a rope–a life vest–in His Son, and now He longs for us to do the same, to be instruments of His life-giving, life-transforming grace. But we can’t point the hurting to God if we’re too busy dwelling on their faults. Instead, we need to keep our eyes ever on the Savior, their Creator, who loves them to their very core. Loved them so much, in fact, He surrendered His life to save them and draw them to Himself.

Share your thoughts and stories in the comments before or on Facebook at Living by Grace.

1387142_sea_sunset_1Innocence stolen, security shattered, hearts wrenched. In one moment, lives were changed forever–some snatched, others left behind, wondering how they would go on once their treasure–their child–was violently ripped from them. And for many, for most, even those with the strongest faith, one question rages: why? Why would God allow such a horrendous act to occur?

Today, Lance Burch from Shadowlake Churck in Papillion, NE, suggests perhaps there’s a bigger question we need to ask: Who? The following post is long, but I encourage you to read it. It’s 157050_10150139846962468_3870147_nwell worth your few moments in time. (But before you watch the video and read the following, I wanted to congratulate last week’s give-away winner. Dana Patrola, you won a copy of Delia Latham’s latest release, Jewels for the Kingdom. Enjoy! I’ll be contacting you shortly to get this to you.)

Friday around 9:30 am a 911 call was made from Sandy Hook elementary school reporting gunshots and screams. The rest of America was getting ready for work… or stuck in traffic… or complaining about being served cold coffee… and in Connecticut… a horrific scene played out.

I gasped as I read the ever changing headlines on the news sites. First reporting two confirmed fatalities then eventually 27 at the school and one in a home in Newtown. 20 of them children… ages 6 and 7. I was stunned. Speechless. It was impossible to grasp the reality of this evil. And I didn’t want to. I didn’t want it to be real. I couldn’t get, can’t get the imagined images out of my mind of what it must have been like to be trapped in a classroom. To see your friends die and to know that you are next. I imagined parents waiting anxiously for news of their child and getting the worst possible message, your son… your daughter has died. Won’t be coming home. I’m sure there are presents that are going to be delivered to some of those homes. Some are already under the tree. Never to be opened.

And we’re asking this. You’ve asked this. What was God thinking? That question comes back again and again. You will ask this question again. Not because of the tragedy in CT… because of tragedies in your life.
What was God thinking?
Is He truly powerful? Loving?
Can God be trusted?

Did He cause it or allow it?

Neither is comforting.

If I see my daughter about to trip over a rock to hurt herself and I can stop it and I do nothing but watch and allow it to happen. Or if I push her.

Either way, it gives the impression of a bad father.

Everybody of every religious faith are asking these questions. Nobody is immune.

Where was God in this unimaginable suffering?

And many will say:

Either there is no God or God must be cruel.
Something happened. How could God allow such an unimaginable loss? What is your God up to?

When I try to lay current events over a good God, I can’t make sense of it.

Perhaps the God I prayed to and trusted in…doesn’t exist.

When current reality doesn’t match your view of God… you would do well not to ignore current reality.

If He’s not the God who makes sure that all children get home safely. Then who is he? Is He something different than what I had imagined? Have I been believing a lie?

For some, this is not a problem. Perhaps you believe there is no God. Maybe you’re atheist. You’re devastated like everyone else. You want to help those affected. You cried when they heard the news… But – somewhere in the back of your mind, you’re thinking “Christian, let me see you try to explain this one. Let’s face reality. This supports my theory. There’s no God. It’s random. And you are wasting your time. Life happens… then you die.”

Before you judge us Christians too harshly, consider, you have the same problem we do. You’ve created a God in your mind… and you can’t find evidence of the God you created in your mind. Then all you’ve proved is that the God who “should do” this and “couldn’t provide” that… doesn’t exist.

Is there a clue in the loss of life. Isn’t it a question I need to ask? Just who is God?

Regardless of what answers we comfort ourselves with.

At this time of year, when we are celebrating the joyous birth of Christ… families are mourning the loss of children, wives and mothers. They are looking at packages underneath trees that will never be opened. 20 graduation gowns that will never be worn. 20 love stories that will never be told. These sorts of tragedies, while almost unspeakable… aren’t new. In fact, as hard as it may be to believe, this is exactly the kind of world that Jesus was born into. There was a shocking event that happened in the little city of Bethlehem that is the dark side of the Christmas story. It wouldn’t normally come up in a Christmas series, and we didn’t plan on talking about it this year. But, it happened… and I think by looking at it… we can learn something about just WHO God is.

After the wise men were gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up! Flee to Egypt with the child and his mother,” the angel said. “Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is going to search for the child to kill him” (Matthew Chapter 2:13).

Jesus came into the world under a death sentence. He was already marked for death. He came into a dark world in which power was so important that if you had to take a life to maintain power, then so be it.

That night Joseph left for Egypt with the child and Mary, his mother, and they stayed there until Herod’s death. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: “I called my Son out of Egypt.”

Herod was furious when he realized that the wise men had outwitted him. He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, based on the wise men’s report of the star’s first appearance. (Matthew 2:14-16).

Scholars think that somewhere between 20 and 30 boys 2 years and under were murdered. Now we might have been able to read that somewhat passively just 3 days ago. But not today. Today we don’t have that luxury. Parents in the little peaceful town of Bethlehem were broken hearted… their hearts ripped out by an evil man bent on power. The gospel was good news… but it wasn’t good news for these families. They were left with confusion and grief.

Herod’s brutal action fulfilled what God had spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

“A cry was heard in Ramah-
weeping and great mourning.
Rachel weeps for her children,
refusing to be comforted,
for they are dead” (Matthew 2:17-18).

This verse comes from Jeremiah in the Old Testament. Jeremiah spoke of Rachel as the representation of all of Israel as her children are led away in captivity and many of them killed by invading armies from the east.

Jesus came into this world under a death sentence and suffered.

So we have a clue, a God who was willing to come into this world under a death sentence.

This wasn’t plan B… He was always going to come into the world as our hero… (Genesis 3:15) as our rescuer. But why did we need to be rescued?
Adam and Eve, the first humans God created, were given one rule. They were placed in a beautiful garden, allowed to eat all they wanted, except for the fruit of one tree. And that is the one tree they ate from.

God created everything good because He is good and great. He is loving and powerful.
So Good and Great that when sin happened, he judged it fiercely and completely. Woman was subjected to pain in child birth, Man was subjected to work a cursed ground!

Romans 8:20-21a says, “for the creation was subjected to frustration not by its own choice but by the will of the one who subjected it in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay

God judged sin.

God is great and good. He would not and could not turn a blind eye to sin.

We have underestimated the results of sin. God made everything good and gave us the freedom to mess it up… which we did.

We have suffered the consequences ever since. We know how it could be and should be. and we can’t get it to stay that way.

Who is this God we are dealing with?

God is great and God is good.

When sin entered the world, He judged it greatly. Severely.

Everything was cursed, you me… and the ground. Cancer, wars, death…

All of it…
Was this an overreaction on God’s part? If you think that then you underestimate the serious of sin.

But not only did Jesus come into this fallen world

With the threat of death hanging over Him

When He left… He gave us the Holy Spirit to be with us. Always.

Romans 8:26 says, “And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words.”

Holy Spirit is ALWAYS with us… ALWAYS… present.

2) He is present in our suffering… and comforts.

But even more than that, one day Jesus is going to come back and make things right.

Revelations 21:3 I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them.

One day all that is sad, all that is tragic… will come untrue. Jesus will so fully redeem the world that we will be more stunned by it’s beautiful redemption than all the horrors that took place after the fall.

The light of resurrection will eclipse the darkness of sin and death.

He’s proved it with His own life…

He comforts us with His promise to return and rule.

He came into the world under a death sentence… and suffered.
He is present in our suffering… and comforts.
He comforts us with his return to this world… to rule.

That is who God is. No matter how dark and twisted the world gets. That is the world that a baby’s cry was heard in. He didn’t turn away from the ugliness. He entered into it. He won’t shy away from your ugliness. He loves, that’s what He does. We messed this whole thing up and now people suffer. But God is great and good. He didn’t leave us when things got messed up. Why, because he loves.

God’s grace has allowed all of us to be the exception to the rule… today. But none of us are getting out of this thing alive. We are all, in a sense, under the curse because we live in a broken, fallen, decaying world. These events shock us, jar us… but maybe they can wake us up. See, evil is real. It isn’t made up. We all need, right now, to just admit that not only is evil real, but that we take part in it every day. We aren’t part of the solution, so quit giving everyone advice about how to fix this on facebook… because while we know that something is wrong with the world, we can’t fix it and make it stay that way. Because we are the ones who messed it up in the first place!

At the end of the day today, pray, “Father, thank you for one more day of allowing me to be the exception to the rule. You are gracious. You gave me exactly what I don’t deserve.”

We all wish this hadn’t happened. We wish that we had never heard of Sandy Hook elementary school. But, we have heard of it. We wept for it. It stands as a stark reminder that all is not well with this world.

This tragedy reminds us that things are not as they should be… but the cry from the manger… the voice of God at Christmas reminds us that one day they will be.

One day, all that will be left is our love for God and each other… and God’s love for us. One day all that is sad will come untrue.

There will be a last tear… because tears don’t last forever.
There will be a last heartbreak… because heartbreaks don’t last forever.
There will be a last death… because death will eventually die
There will be a last tragedy… tragedies will come to their own end.

And after all of that… just love… our deep love for God and each other… and God’s unimaginable love for us. Hang on… hang on…

You can watch more of Pastor Burch’s grace and truth filled messages here.

Lance Burch is the lead pastor of Shadowlake Church, located in Papillion, NE. He is passionate about sharing Christ’s love with a hurting world and motivates others to do the same.

I’m quite good at throwing pity parties, and this fall and winter, I think I’ve excelled in this area. I’ve even invited others to join me. But leave it to 1129777_theres_a_party_2God to crash the party with some heart-illuminating truth. 🙂 Truth revealed through an ancient widow living in a time when life for widows appeared hopeless. After seven years of marriage, her husband died, leaving her destitute. She didn’t have access to welfare. No life-insurance policies or thrift plans to fall back on. So what was a woman to do? Why, isolate in her misery as she bemoans her situation to all who might listen, of course.

Hardly. She turned her eyes upward and focused on serving God in whatever capacity she could.

And God rewarded her for it by allowing her to catch a glimpse of the long-awaited Savior.

36 There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

39 When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him (Luke 2:36-39 NIV).

Notice how she spent her time. Not complaining or lamenting but instead, worshipping. She turned her eyes off herself and her situation and placed them on her true treasure–God. And God showed up when she was 84. After 50, maybe 60 or more, years of patient serving.

We all have obstacles, heartaches, trials that come our way. Constraints on our time. And when our energy wanes or our health fails or our schedule balloons, it’s easy to focus on what we can’t do. We might even be tempted to throw a pity party or two, but God expects more. He wants us to take our focus off ourselves, placing it where it belongs–on Him, anxiously awaiting His blessings, His guidance, His nudges.

More than that, He wants us to anxiously await His presence. Daily. Moment by moment.

I loved this fun yet thought-provoking post written by Billy Coffey. Pop on over to read about his missing Jesus (Thanks to fellow LBG hostess and co-author of our tween devotional, the Story of Faith, Joanne Sher for sharing this post on her FB wall!) then come back here to share an idea or two on how we can keep our focus and our hopes on our Savior, anxiously awaiting His presence each day and celebrating not the tinsel, lights, and presents but the miraculous gift of Immanuel. A gift so amazing, so life changing, that upon encountering God in flesh, prophet Simeon could proclaim:

Sovereign Lord, as You have promised,
 you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen Your salvation,
31     which You have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of Your people Israel” (Luke 2:30-32.)

You can now dismiss Your servant in peace. Simeon’s life dream had been fulfilled. He longed not for wealth, health, prestige, or promotion, but instead, to encounter God Almighty.

Can you say the same? This Christmas season, where do your expectations lie?

Let’s talk about this. Anna and Simeon had one thing in common–something I believe enabled them to experience great joy despite trials and setbacks. They focused not on being served but instead, on serving. And they appeared to have but one expectation or hope–encountering the living God. As I read their accounts, I wondered how many of my frustrations and heartaches come from expectations not fulfilled. How might centering my expectations on Christ and Christ alone affect my day? My Christmas?

Join me at Living by Grace as we share ideas on how to focus our expectations not on the events surrounding Christmas but instead, the Person who initiated the season to begin with.

Some questions to ponder and discuss:

1) Can expectations hinder our joy, and if so, how?

2) What are some signs our focus needs readjusting?

3) What are some ways we can grab hold of joy when stress or trials abound?

4) How can you anxiously await God’s presence today?

(You might also enjoy this devotional titled Battle in the Night, written by one of the Proverbs 31 women, that provides tools for grabbing hold of peace and joy when our crazy thoughts attempt to plunge us in angst and despair.)

And make sure to come back to Living By Grace Friday and Saturday for a continuation of our in-depth look at the book of James.

And before you go, I wanted to congratulate Mary Preston for winning last week’s book give-away. Mary, pop over to Linore’s website to choose what novel you’d like her to send you. And I’ll be shooting you an email soon to get your mailing address.

The following story is a modern day Velveteen Rabbit story saturated by grace. I’ve heard it said, the closer you grow to God, the more aware you are of your sin. This is certainly true in my case. Some days, my past swirls ceaselessly through my head, each harshly spoken word, each selfish act, rising to the surface until all I can do is say, “Help me, my Savior and King. Overcome everything unrighteous in me!” And that is where our hope is found, broken, resting in the Savior’s hands.

On those days when I feel as if I’ll never change, never do better or be better, I cling to God’s promise in Philippians 1:6 “being confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (NIV)

It is then that I remember that I will be better, but it won’t come from my determined effort. It will come from my full surrender, allowing God to do what needs to be done in me until I am more like His Son.

*     *     *

Here’s Raine’s story:

The other day, one of my co-workers told about a weekend shopping trip with his nine-year old daughter.  She had been saving up her allowance money for some time now and had decided it was time to buy a new doll.  So off they went, hand in hand to the local mall here in Yorktown, Virginia. They visited several stores, and eventually when she did not find what she wanted, they moved on to a few anchor stores down the street.  Still, after a few hours of searching, she did not find the doll she was looking for.

On his way home he stopped by the local Goodwill store.  He headed off to his section and she wandered (under his watchful eye) over to the toy section.  About 5 minutes later he was ready to go so he stopped to get her.  She held a badly damaged Barbie doll, gently stroking what little hair remained.

“This one,” she said.  “This is the doll I want.”

My friend did not want to hurt her feelings but gently reminded her of the beautiful dolls that they had just left in the mall.  Though they cost more, he reasoned, she would probably like one of them better.  But she was emphatic, and after standing her ground he took her to the register and let her pay for it.

On the way home he watched as she held up the broken doll and talked to it.  “You’ll be better in no time,” she said.  An eye was missing, and the left leg did not seem original.  The clothes were shabby and a few of the fingers on one hand had been chewed off.  What a broken piece of junk, he thought.

As he told me this I could not help but picture my storied relationship with Jesus.  Every day I look into the mirror I realize that I am broken.  Every day a part of my sinful nature shows itself, and I get a fleeting glimpse of my own shame and sinfulness.  And then I remember what Jesus has done for me, and I am suddenly filled with hope.  I am wounded by my brokenness, but overjoyed that I have the honor of being called a Christian.

I think this is not true of me only, but all of you as well.  We are all broken in one way or another; often unable to rise to our calling.  But in the midst of this brokenness, there is a hand that reaches for us.  A savior who values us deeply. In the end, we sink or swim, rise or fall to a gracious God who loves us in a way we will never really understand.  You and I are the apples of His eye.  In the end, we dance to an audience of one.

I am learning to walk in this grace that sees my faults through the lens of the death and resurrection of His son.  I am learning that my brokenness, profound at times, will over time be mended by the One who plucked me off the shelf, looked at me and said, “This One!”

*     *     *

Raine Sommersett is a retired Army Officer, though I still work for the Department of Defense.  I have published numerous articles in professional venues, and have often contributed to newspapers in my local community.  I have been writing towards publication for 10 years, and have completed 3 full length novels (all Young Adult), numerous short stories and volumes of poetry.  My first novel, Willford Creek, won first place in the juvenile category of the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference Literary Contest.  I love to write prose, and believe strongly that the foundation for good writing is built on prose and reading other great writing.  I live with my family in Yorktown, Virginia, and will soon move to the Seattle area.

Somehow I’ve accumulated a bit of short stories sitting on my computer. I hate wasted text, so, I decided to try something new and fun. But you know me, I hate being boxed in, which means, I can’t guarantee a story every Saturday, but as I’ve got them (or at times, as they’re sent) I’ll post them. If you’ve got a story or excerpt you’d like to share, send it to me via email at jenniferaslattery(at)gmail(dot)com. You’ve always wanted to write but aren’t sure how to get started? Try your hand and send it my way!

Moses Answers the Call (taken from Exodus 2-3)

Moses rolled his mat and stuffed it in his bag along with the rest of his belongings. The aroma of roasted grain filled the air, drawing him to a fire centered in their camp where Zipporah, his wife sat preparing his morning meal. Her sisters chattered beside her, one grinding grain, another pressing olives, still another weaving strong goat-hair thread into torn and thread-bare tent panels.

                Footsteps sounded behind him and he turned to see Jethro, his father-in-law, approaching. His stiff smile only deepened the sadness in his chestnut eyes. “So you have made up your mind? There is nothing I can say to sway you?”

                Moses sighed and gripped his bag tighter. How he longed to heed Jethro’s words of warning, but God left no room for doubt. “I must do as God commands.”

                “And if the Egyptians kills you?” His gaze drifted toward his daughters gathered a few paces away before returning to Moses.

                Moses straightened and lifted his chin. “They won’t. I told you of the signs God showed me. The flaming bush that never burned up. My staff which turned to a snake. My hand leprous and as white as the clouds drifting above us, made healthy by a mere dipping it into my cloak.”

                “But why now? After they’ve been enslaved for so very long?”

                Moses shook his head. “He did not tell me why, and I cannot worry about that which I do not understand. I must act upon what I know.”

                “And what is that?”

                Moses lifted his gaze toward the distant hills, a gentle breeze stirring through his thick, gray hair. “I know that God has heard the cries of his people and has deemed it time to act. I know that He will be their mighty deliverer. I know Aaron, my brother whom I thought I would never see again, is on his way to meet me even now.” He inhaled, then exhaled slowly, hoping to quiet the churning in his stomach. “I know it will not be easy—that the Pharaoh’s heart will grow hard again and again and I fear that my people, the people I come to help, will hate me.”

                “Yet still you go.”

                Moses nodded. “Yet still I go, for now that I have experienced God’s presence for myself, now that I have heard His voice, I cannot walk away. His presence is better than life itself.”

                Soft footsteps approached and Moses glanced up to see Zipporah approach with a bundle of cloth. “Better than life with me, my lord?” Unshed tears glistened in her eyes.

                Moses held her gaze, the very breath stolen from him. A tear slid down her cheek and he brushed it away. “Do not cry, my beautiful wife. I will return. Once Pharaoh lets the people go, and we begin our journey, I will send for you. I will bring you with me to the Promised Land.”

                Zipporah dipped her head and Moses knew the emotions that warred inside her, because they raged in him as well. Two days ago, God was nothing more than a story told to him as a child. And now, he risked everything to follow. The very thought turned his stomach, but below the fear simmered something more—hope.

                He cupped Zipporah’s chin and lifted her face until her eyes met his. “At night, when you lie upon your mat, gazing at the stars, think of the Promised Land I spoke of. A land with fragrant flowers growing upon the meadows. A land flowing with milk and honey.”

                Zipporah smiled. “I knew God had plans for you. All these years as you’ve served my father so faithfully, tending his sheep night after night, I knew you were destined for more, my prince of Egypt.”

                Moses chuckled. “Prince of Egypt indeed. Such a title is no longer important to me, my sweet Zipporah. Now I wish more than anything to be a servant of the living God.”

                “And so you will be. Go with the strength God provides, and may He protect your every step.”

Luke 9:23  Then He (Jesus) said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. (NIV)

When we read the biblical accounts, often we fail to realize these were real people with real struggles. They felt the same emotions you and I face. Although I’ve “fleshed out” the story provided in Exodus, adding details as I see they may have happened, I imagine leaving his wife, father-in-law and the predictable life he knew in Midian to confront the powerful, slave-driving Pharaoh wasn’t easy. Obedience rarely is. But I believe Moses’ obedience was motivated by two things: his love for God and his hope in something better–the Promised Land.

Similarly, as Christians our obedience is motivated by two things: our love for God who, while we were still sinners, died for us; and our hope in something better–Heaven, the eternal promised land. For we fix our eyes not on what is seen but on what is unseen, our glorious Savior and His promise of eternity.

Happy Saturday!

Last night I helped out at an area youth rally ran by the Fellowship Christian Athletes. Sweaty, giggling, bouncing teens swarmed the halls, filled the auditorium, and clamored around the concession stand, while others, faces hard with scowls, lingered on the outskirts. As I passed one couple in particular—a tall guy in high tops and a red jersey followed by a blonde at least two feet shorter, face caked in make-up—my heart rejoiced to see God’s grace trickle over these broken teens. Which is what they are. Sure, they look angry. They act angry, and their mouth may spew a thousand ear-blistering, hateful words, but that’s all a mask.

As adults, its easy to watch them from afar, lumping them all into one “rebellious heap”, but those who take the time to dig a bit deeper catch a different picture. A picture of isolation, of trying to fit in, of hearts broken from rejection or abandonment, of hearts crying out for a Savior.

Praise God that He sees past the exterior to broken heart hidden beneath. Praise God for His patience, as He woos these precious children to Himself, breaking through their defenses and winning their trust with His faithful love. Praise God that He not only sees the pain, but provides the soothing balm able to set them free.