Saturday, October 31, 2009

Ghost Stories

Today is Halloween, the day when we entertain each other with ghost stories. We're able to have fun on Halloween because we don't really believe in the scary and gruesome things that we celebrate. We don't go to bed worrying about vampires or goblins because we know those things aren't real and therefore can't hurt us.

We all make different choices about what we're willing to believe in. Some people believe in ghosts and some don't. Some people believe in demons and some don't. But all Christians have one thing in common: we believe in God. God is the most real, the most absolute, and the most powerful being there is, so my belief in God overshadows and shapes all of my other beliefs. Even if I believe in ghosts or demons, I know that God's power is stronger than anything they could muster. Everything in this world that I fear becomes less real when I compare it to God. There are things in this world that can cause me pain, but there is nothing that can do my soul permanent damage because God is my spiritual physician. Whatever dark forces do exist in this world, I am protected from them because I belong to Christ.

Powers of darkness aren't the only things that frighten me, though. I also fear my own sin and what it can do to harm me. I've learned, though, that the evil inside me is not nearly as real as the love of God that overflows in my life. God is willing and able to save me from my sin, and God's forgiveness will restore me from any self-inflicted damage. I am sinful, but I am also loved, and that's why I'm not afraid. In fact, because God loved me enough to send His son to redeem my life, I don't even have to be afraid of death anymore. The Christian reality is that death and sin are nothing more than ghost stories. I don't have to waste my life fearing what they can do to me because they are powerless compared to God.

God is my ally. Of whom or what shall I be afraid? Maybe there are ghosts, demons, or even serial killers out there who could do me harm. I understand that I may suffer great pain in my life. Still, I know that God's love was there before evil, is with me as I struggle with evil, and will still be there after evil is vanquished. Darkness will not haunt my life forever, so why should I fear it? Eventually I will be set free, and in the meantime I have God's love and strength to comfort and aid me. No ghost story can take that away.

Friday, October 30, 2009


Today is my big sister's birthday. She's the only sibling I have, and even though we live in different states and don't talk all that frequently, my sister remains a very important part of my life. I'm always excited to see her when I come home for a visit, and it's really nice to spend time with her and to hear what's going on in her life. We had some rough patches growing up (what siblings don't?), but my relationship with my sister has taught me some very important lessons about life and love. Ours is a unique bond that provides me with some insights and benefits that I might not get from many other people.
  • We love each other even though we're different. We have the same gene pool, of course, but my sister and I turned out with pretty different personalities. Our tastes in music, men, and jewelry are pretty far apart. We have different skills, talents, and hobbies. Our dream jobs, homes, or vacations probably wouldn't look at all alike. Still, we get along pretty well. I don't know if I would choose someone like my sister as a friend, and that's precisely why I'm so lucky to have her as my sister. She provides me with a chance to look at the world from a different perspective, to consider life from another angle. When I look at her, I see that we're simultaneously different and the same, and that's a beautiful thing. I can take that lesson and apply it to my relationships with all kinds of people. 
  • I get to just be myself. I don't need to bother with any pretenses when it comes to my sister. She knows that I'm a smart person who is capable of saying intelligent and helpful things. She also knows that I can really screw up and do stupid things sometimes. She loves me because I'm her sister, not because I'm awesome or brilliant, and that's kind of nice. We're not really trying to impress each other, so we can just relax and be ourselves. I can confide in her when I need to vent my petty thoughts or talk about something embarrassing because I know she won't judge me for it. I can be completely honest with her because she knows me so well that I probably can't hide things from her anyway. No matter what good or bad decisions I make, she's still going to be my sister. Being with her is relaxing in a way that many relationships aren't. I don't have to worry about what she's thinking—I get to just be myself.
  • She keeps me grounded. My sister isn't going to let me get too big for my britches. Even if by some miracle I go on to be a millionaire best-selling author, I'll still just be her sister. I'm sure she's happy when I succeed, but she still remembers the funny things I used to say and do in my sleep, the times I peed myself because I was laughing so hard, and the time I accidentally called a graham cracker a 'graham crapper.' Even if everyone else is making a big fuss over me, she's going to treat me the same way she always does, and that's awesome. I hate feeling like people only see what I do and not who I am, and I never have to worry about that with my sister. She sees the good and the bad, and she's not going to let me get carried away with what everybody else sees. My sister knows I'm no genius, and I'm glad I have her around to remind me of that if I forget.
  • We have fun together. My sister and I really know how to have a good time. I try not to be too silly in front of most people, even people I love, because I want them to take me at least somewhat seriously. I don't have to worry about that with my sister, though. When we get together, I've been known to laugh till I cry. We like to play games and watch movies together, and we usually have a good time when we go somewhere together, even if it's nowhere all that exciting. My sister puts up with downright goofiness that my husband can't even take, and what's more, she's usually willing to be goofy right along with me. I might be a college-educated adult, but sometimes I want to just kick back and have a rollicking good time, and that's something my sister understands. 
This list is, of course, incomplete. My sister has a lot of great qualities that I could spend pages trying to describe, and I still wouldn't be able to do them justice. One of her best traits, though, is that she is a very loyal, loving person, and I can't even describe how I've benefited from that. She's put up with a lot of little sister annoyances from me over the years, and she's even endured the slights of the people who paid me too much attention and her too little. Despite our differences, my sister still loves me, and that's an important part of my life's foundation.

So, if you're reading this, Happy Birthday, Sis! I love you.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Truth Will Set You Free

Sometimes the truth hurts. It can seem stern and unforgiving as it makes us face our inadequacies and our failures. We may invent excuses to evade the implacable truth, or we may let it crush us until we feel broken and hopeless. The truth can drive us to madness if we let it, but I've discovered that there is a very powerful weapon at my disposal when the truth is too much for me to handle. I've learned that God's truth trumps all other kinds of truth, and the reality of God's love can shield me from the full effects of some harsher realities. By focusing on God's truth, the other kinds of truth seem less important and their barbs less sharp.

Here are a few examples:
  • The truth: I once fell hopelessly in love with a dear friend who refused to date me. We remained friends, and I eventually moved on and starting dating the man who would be my husband. Years after I was married, I asked my friend why he had refused to date me since we got along so well. The truth was that he just didn't find me physically attractive, so he didn't want to try to pursue a romantic relationship with me. That kind of truth can leave dents on a woman's self-image.
    God's truth: God created me in His own image and made me beautiful and unique inside and out. God created a wide variety of physical characteristics and personality traits within the human race, and each of us have our own preferences within that spectrum. God intended for my husband and me to end up together, so it didn't really matter whether anyone else wanted to date me as long as he did. God engineered my husband and me to be attracted to each other, and that's what really matters.
  • The truth: I have inflicted pain on people I love. I have said unkind things, waited too long between phone calls, and failed to live up to expectations. I have put my pride before love and have even harbored jealousy towards close friends. I have been unforgiving and stubborn and self-righteous. These actions have negatively impacted the lives of people I care about very much.
    God's truth:
    God is constantly teaching His people the power of forgiveness. He prompts me to apologize when I do wrong and to recommit myself to the relationship. God shows us how to have open hearts so that we can focus on the positive things instead of the negative things, fostering love in the face of imperfection. God has forgiven me for these mistakes, and in many cases my loved ones have too.
  • The truth: I am not qualified for every job for which I may apply. I may not even get some of the jobs for which I am qualified. No matter how beautifully I try to sing, I will not win every solo in my choir. My books may never be on bestseller lists, and I may never be listed in a Who's Who publication. I may never win awards or be the guest of honor or keynote speaker. I may never achieve excellence even in fields I'm passionate about, and I can't expect to get top marks in everything I do.
    God's truth: I was blessed with certain skills and talents, and God will present me with opportunities to use them. I am not required to achieve something incredible all on my own. Instead, God intends for me to combine my efforts with those of others so that together we can build something wonderful. My average accomplishments when combined with the work of others become extraordinary, and God values all of my contributions no matter how small. I don't need to be the best in order to make God proud—all I need to do is use what He's given me.
  • The truth: We all die. Eventually I will lose many of the people I love, and my life will also eventually come to an end. Most of us will suffer at least some pain as our bodies stop functioning. We can't cheat death. We can't be frozen in ice to be revived by genius scientists in the next century. We probably won't be raised from the tomb as Lazarus was. Once I die, that will be it for life as I've known it.
    God's truth: Death isn't the end. My life will change in ways that I cannot imagine, but it will be a more magnificent, wonderful, and blessed life. My soul will be preserved even as my earthly body decays, and God's love will extend forever. There is no reason for me to try to cheat death because Jesus has already defeated it on my behalf.
I've found that this exercise helps me focus on what's really important. When I take God's truth to heart, it truly does set me free.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Nothing Can Separate Us

I worry sometimes that the people I love won't love me anymore if I mess up. In some cases, that might be true. We humans don't have perfect patience, and I may exhaust the sympathies of others with my constant mistakes. God's patience, however, is inexhaustible. I'm sure that God gets irritated with me just like my human neighbors do, but those feelings aren't enough to negate God's love for me. Even if I go on to do terrible things that break God's heart, He will still love me. No matter what harm I do, God will always be there striving to restore the the brokenness I've caused in myself and others with His loving touch. Even if God turns His face away from me, He will never turn His back. God's love will always be stronger than my sins.

Some of my human relationships also fall victim to space and time. I move away from friends and slowly lose touch with them. Today I struggle to maintain contact with friends from high school, but it just can't be the same now that I live halfway across the country from them. In college, I saw my closest friends every day, and now I see the ones who still live nearby only once a week or so. I don't need to worry about these things when it comes to God. There is nowhere that I can go that God cannot come with me. God does not have to choose how to use His time because He can do everything at once. God always has time for me, and God can always be with me no matter where I am.

I may even find myself separated from the people I love by powers outside human control. Things like diseases and accidents can become obstacles to relationships. Death will separate me at least temporarily from people that I love. Though I hope nothing of the sort ever happens, people I love could even end up in prison or held captive by kidnappers or terrorists. There are forces in this world that can separate me from those I love whether I like it or not, but nothing can separate me from the love of God. Even if I am trapped in a place where no one can find me, God will be there trying to comfort me. Even if I lose my senses and can no longer comprehend the affection of my loved ones, I will always be able to feel God's loving touch in my life. God can transcend the powers that hinder humans. Nothing can separate me from the love of God, because God's love is the most powerful thing there is.

Because the apostle Paul's words on this subject are so powerful, I will close with them: "I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:28–39)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Delayed Gratification

The advertising industry works very hard to promote a culture of instant gratification in America. If you want something, go out and buy it today. Live for today and don’t worry about tomorrow. Sometimes we become so impatient that if something is taking a lot of time, we’re inclined to just give up. If a dream seems too difficult to reach, we become discouraged and consider abandoning it. If a relationship takes too much time and effort to foster, we’re tempted to just walk away.

Still, delayed gratification can be a really beautiful thing. Sometimes the longer we have worked for something, the more we value it. Long struggles can end in profound joy. In fact, my Christian journey is an exercise in delayed gratification. While I am benefiting from God’s love and blessings right now, I still have to deal with imperfections, struggles, and pain. Eventually I will be perfected and live in complete harmony with God and my neighbors in a world without pain, but that won’t happen for a long time. I have to be willing to wait. But eternal bliss is a pleasure well worth waiting for!

In the meantime, I’ve discovered that I can also enjoy many beautiful things on Earth if I’m willing to wait for them. I have a chance at having the career I’ve always wanted if I am dedicated enough to spend years working toward it. I can raise Godly, well-adjusted children if I am patient with them and willing to make nurturing them the primary focus of two decades of my life. Right now I am fostering a friendship that I have been working to develop for more than a year. Progress is slow, but the results are worth it to me. I am willing to invest long-term in the things that my heart wants because they are worth the wait.

Sometimes I feel that my efforts aren’t worth anything until I see results, so delayed gratification can be really frustrating. I’ve realized, though, that I am building character and learning skills through the process of working toward a goal, and those benefits are independent of the end result. For example, even if I never manage to get another book published, my efforts toward that goal are building professional skills and a work ethic that I could use in other areas of my life as well. Likewise, my efforts to connect with others are teaching me lessons about kindness, patience, and love that I will be able to keep no matter how those particular relationships turn out in the end.

I’ve discovered that some things really are worth waiting for, and some journeys are as rewarding as their destinations. I do like to have instant gratification sometimes, but I don’t want everything to be easy. I want to have the chance to grow and develop through dedication and perseverance, and I want to be able to really appreciate the value of the things I’ve worked for.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Price of Free

Love is free, but it still comes with a price. Consider this: if you're given a free new car but you don't put any gas in it, that car isn't going to do you much good. You don't have to pay the person who gave it to you, but you can't use it either. Your benefactor wanted to give you the gift of worry-free transportation, but because you wouldn't invest anything in it, all you've got is a shiny new lawn decoration. Likewise, the person who gives you love doesn't demand repayment, but if you don't make a contribution, you won't get to fully enjoy the gift.

Christians argue with each other a lot about faith and works and how they relate to righteousness. Some argue that if we receive salvation for free then nothing obligates us to be good. Sure, God's not demanding that we be righteous in exchange for His love and forgiveness, but if we aren't moved to be better people, then we aren't really benefiting from God's gifts. Salvation doesn't just mean a free ticket to heaven after we die. Salvation is a chance to be fully alive, and the person who truly receives God's gift of salvation will experience that newness of life long before arriving in heaven. If we're interested solely in prolonging our existence, then our existence probably isn't worth prolonging. I believe that we can only give our lives meaning by choosing to respond to the gifts we've been given, even if nothing is forcibly demanded of us.

There's no such thing as an effortless relationship. If I want to gain something from a friendship, then I need to make an effort. Who cares that someone loves me if I would be absolutely the same person whether I had a relationship with that person or not? Growth is the point of love, but growth requires effort. Others give us love for free, but that's all they can do. We have to make the effort to respond to that love in order to receive the full benefits of the gift they've given. A well-meaning visitor can move the potted plants in my house into the sunlight for me, but if I don't water them, they'll still die. When we are given a beautiful free gift, I think we have a responsibility to make sure it's not wasted. Love is more than a gift—it's a challenge to be the best people that we can be. Shouldn't we make the effort to meet that challenge?

Love is free, but I'm still going to pay a price when I receive it.  I don't think it's too much to ask for me to put in a little effort in order to enjoy the full benefits of my free gift. After all, it is a free gift, and that's a pretty sweet deal. I'm not inclined to complain about the price of free when it comes to love. I know what a great gift I've been given, so my gratitude outweighs my laziness. If God and my neighbors care about me enough to love me freely, then I want to do whatever it takes to make the most of that beautiful gift, not squander it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Loving Myself

The commandment "love your neighbor as yourself" implies that we're supposed to love both our neighbors and ourselves. Sometimes I find that loving myself can be just as difficult as loving other people. It can be really hard for me to accept my imperfections and still see myself as a good and valuable person. So often when I see weakness in others I feel compassion, but when I see weakness in myself I feel contempt. As I learn how to forgive others, God wants me to also learn to forgive myself. Just as I should be patient with others when they struggle, I need to cut myself a little slack when I am having a hard time. I am an imperfect being just like everyone else, and I shouldn't be more critical of my own shortcomings just because I am more aware of them.

Love also carries discipline with it, so while I should try to be understanding towards my weaknesses,  I can't be self-indulgent. I need to be able to look at the big picture even when I'm distracted by my wants and desires, and I need to be able to hold myself to the same standards that I would like to see in the lives of others. I can't encourage others to be good and righteous people without driving myself to grow in faith as well. I don't want to get lost in complacency when I am expecting action from my community. I need to encourage myself to work towards my goals and dreams just as I cheer on my neighbors. I want the whole body of Christ to be healthy, happy, and productive, and that includes me.

Self-sacrifice is a really important part of loving others, but I also need to make sure I am taking care of myself on a basic level. Sometimes I do need to deny some of my needs for a while in order to help someone else, but that shouldn't be taken to extremes. If I allow myself to get run-down or heartsick, how will I be able to help anyone else? God wants me to meet the needs of others, but He also wants my needs to be met. I need to respond to others who ask for help, but I also need to love myself enough to ask for help when I need it. Sometimes I may need to take a little time for myself, and that's OK. Jesus spent most of his time healing and preaching to the people, but he did wander off to pray by himself sometimes. Jesus certainly didn't overindulge himself, but he did make sure that his basic needs were met so that he could remain strong in his demanding ministry. Likewise, I need to make sure that I am getting what I need to continue on in my Christian life.

Every time I look at someone else and see a precious child of God, I need to remind myself that I am beloved too. Whenever I see someone making a positive impact in the world, I should remember that God has given me the ability to do good things too. I can take care of others and myself at the same time, and I can engage in relationships that sustain and affirm both parties. I get frustrated sometimes when I look in the mirror or think about the mistakes I've made, but I do know deep down that I am a good and beautiful person. God loves me, and I love myself.
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