Christmas doesn’t have to be stressful

Nothing is more stressful than the holiday season. Don’t get me wrong. Christmas is my favorite time of year, but it’s also when a lot of stuff happens. A lot of things go wrong. A lot of people come to visit. A lot of things need to get done. And when you add all that up, it can amount to a heaping helping of stress and anxiety.

But the more Christmases I live through, the more I learn that my stress and anxiety during the holiday season doesn’t stem from family and friends visiting or expectations of others or needing to bake and cook and clean. No, anything negative I experience happens because I’ve got my focus in the wrong place.

christmas-xmas-santa-claus-adventToday’s verse is John 15:4.

Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me.

The world is complicated and stressful without the hustle and bustle of the holidays, and it’s always a temptation to step away from God’s way and do things ourselves. But when we try to accomplish anything in our own strength, we will ultimately fail.

Like a branch can’t produce fruit if it’s severed from the tree, a Christ-follower can’t accomplish much without God’s power in his or her life. And that relates to everything we do. At our jobs. In our homes. In our churches. Among our families.

So as you gather with family and friends today and tomorrow, don’t let stress dictate how you feel. Don’t let the craziness of the season tempt you away from remembering what it’s all about.

Christmas is about Jesus. It’s the day He came to save us from our sins. It’s the day God kept His promise. Who cares if the pie burns or if your in-laws are being rude? So what if you couldn’t get the exact present you wanted? Whatever is bothering you today, shelf it. Let it go. Instead, focus on what really matters, and find your strength and patience in Christ’s love and grace.

It’s a stressful time of year, but it doesn’t have to be. With God, anything is possible. And if you’re a Christ-follower, you have free access to His power, and God is just waiting for you to sit down at His table.

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Every time I’m in trouble I call on you, confident that you’ll answer

Sometimes you just need a Psalm…. This version is The Message, a really stunning paraphrase. You can also read it in the New Living Translation, but this version really struck a chord with me today.

Got any bullies after you today? And, no, they don’t have to be people. Sometimes the worst bullies in our lives are intangible. Anxiety and fear. Depression and despair. Anger and frustration. And insecurity. Just because a bully can’t physically touch you doesn’t make it less harmful. And just because it’s not physical doesn’t mean God can’t help you overcome it.

Psalm 86

person-young-woman-girl-7306Bend an ear, God; answer me.
I’m one miserable wretch!
Keep me safe—haven’t I lived a good life?
Help your servant—I’m depending on you!
You’re my God; have mercy on me.
I count on you from morning to night.
Give your servant a happy life;
I put myself in your hands!
You’re well-known as good and forgiving,
bighearted to all who ask for help.
Pay attention, God, to my prayer;
bend down and listen to my cry for help.
Every time I’m in trouble I call on you,
confident that you’ll answer.

There’s no one quite like you among the gods, O Lord,
and nothing to compare with your works.
All the nations you made are on their way,
ready to give honor to you, O Lord,
Ready to put your beauty on display,
parading your greatness,
And the great things you do—
God, you’re the one, there’s no one but you!

Train me, God, to walk straight;
then I’ll follow your true path.
Put me together, one heart and mind;
then, undivided, I’ll worship in joyful fear.
From the bottom of my heart I thank you, dear Lord;
I’ve never kept secret what you’re up to.
You’ve always been great toward me—what love!
You snatched me from the brink of disaster!
God, these bullies have reared their heads!
A gang of thugs is after me—
and they don’t care a thing about you.
But you, O God, are both tender and kind,
not easily angered, immense in love,
and you never, never quit.
So look me in the eye and show kindness,
give your servant the strength to go on,
save your dear, dear child!
Make a show of how much you love me
so the bullies who hate me will stand there slack-jawed,
As you, God, gently and powerfully
put me back on my feet.

Dreams are like seeds, and God’s the one who plants them

Nearly everyone I’ve ever met has a dream. Granted there are a few who don’t. But the vast majority of people I know have a burning desire in their hearts to accomplish something. Maybe it’s something that’s never been done before, or maybe it’s something that others have already tried. It doesn’t matter if it’s an original idea or a revised one, it won’t leave you alone, and your soul is only quiet when you’re pursuing it.

So what happens when the season of your life prevents you from chasing your dream? What do you do then? You don’t have the money. You don’t have the time. You don’t have the energy. You just can’t make a living and chase your dream at the same time. Or, you can, but some important part of your life will suffer. You can chase your dream at the cost of your spouse or your children. You can chase your dream at the expense of your health. You can do all of those things, but you have to realize what it’s going to cost you.

Instead, wouldn’t it better to let God work things out? Sure, He works on a different timetable. He won’t move as fast as you want Him to, or He’ll move so fast you’ll scramble to keep up. But you’ve got to remember that your dream didn’t appear in your heart by accident. God gave you that dream, and He wants to help you achieve it. It just has to be in His timing and not yours.

Wheat growing at Safe Haven Farm

Wheat growing at Safe Haven Farm

Today’s verse is Philippians 1:6.

And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.

Dreams start out like seeds, and God’s the one who plants them. They grow a little at a time over the years until they turn into something you can recognize. I mean, after all, plants all look alike when they’re first sprouting. But you can’t tell grass from wheat right away. It takes a little bit of time before you can identify what your dream actually is.

But once you know it, you can start helping it along. Feeding it, caring for it, giving it what it needs so that it can grow bigger and stronger. For me, when I understood that my dream was about writing, I took classes in writing. I practiced writing. I followed other writers and read what they wrote. I fed that dream until it grew big enough that it wasn’t just a vague inclination anymore.

But I hit snag. Even though I’d cared for my dream, it still wasn’t the right time to live it. So I had to do the hardest thing: I had to give it back to God. He’s the One who gave it to me to begin with, but I didn’t want to give it back. It was mine. But I couldn’t help it grow anymore. I had done all I could to make it happen, and it wasn’t enough. God was the only One who could give it life. That took a long time. But I finally got there.

And along the way, I’ve learned the most dreams are the same. God gives them to us, but at some point, we have to be willing to give them back to Him. Without Him, they won’t ever become what they were meant to be. We’re not strong enough to accomplish that. Only God can. And He’s promised that whatever dream you have won’t die. Maybe it will feel like it is because you’re turning loose of it, but that’s not the point.

God just wants you to trust Him. So will you trust Him with your dream? Will you let it go and let Him have it back and trust that He’ll turn it into something bigger and better than you can imagine? Turning it loose won’t kill it. Quite the opposite. Sort of like you, your dream can’t live until it dies first and becomes something bigger.

So turn it over. Whatever it is. You can’t accomplish your dreams alone. They’ll stall and stop and flounder and fail, but if you give them to God, He’ll rejuvenate them. And on the day you least expect it, your dream will show up again with more possibilities and more joy than you thought possible, when God says the time is right.

Fear is more than what’s holding you back

Sometimes it feels like there’s a giant wall between me and what I’m trying to accomplish. The wall takes many forms. It’s being busy. Being tired. Being distracted and discouraged. Sometimes it’s even being happy and being around other people. But that’s been the story of my life–trying to write while I’m distracted, trying to create when I’m exhausted. So I think I’ve been afraid to tear the wall down because I don’t know if I can do this without it.

And that’s true. I am afraid to tear the wall down. But I realized something: Fear is what makes up the wall itself.

Today’s verses are Hebrews 13:5-6.

Don’t love money; be satisfied with what you have.
For God has said,
“I will never fail you.
I will never abandon you.”
So we can say with confidence,
“The Lord is my helper,
so I will have no fear.
What can mere people do to me?”

There’s something in us that tells us we have to provide for ourselves. We have to take care of ourselves. Our safety and comfort and freedom and life are all up to us, and if we don’t do something, we’ll lose them. There is a morsel of truth to that, but first of all, we have to understand that none of that comes from anything we’ve done. Our safety and freedom and life are all gifts from God. And while we do have to work to preserve them, we should never accept the concept that we did anything to earn them or even deserve them.

The Bible says over and over again that God is our strength. He’s our freedom. He’s our help. He’s the one we should turn to in our dark moments when we don’t know what to do. Heck, we should turn to Him even if we do know what to do.

Work backwards through the verses. God is our helper. So we don’t need to fear anything. That verse (verse 6) starts off with the word So, which means that to understand it fully you need to refer to the verse before it. We can confidently say God is our helper and we don’t have to fear because God says He’ll never fail us or abandon us. The same is true about the word For. God will never fail us or abandon us and that means we should be satisfied with what we have instead of endlessly grasping for material wealth.

We don’t need material wealth if we have God’s promise to never fail us and never abandon us. He’s our help. So why are we afraid?

Fear is a paralytic, yes, but it’s also a drug that keeps you sedate. It mimics the idea of safety and comfort, because if you never challenge it, nothing ever changes. You never grow, so you never have to experience growing pains.

I struggle with fear and anxiety. The worry is ever-present in my brain. What if I can’t find enough work? What if I can’t pay my bills? What if I have to go back to a corporate job again? Does that mean I’ve failed? Does that mean God didn’t want me to strike out on my own like this in the first place? Have I just been fooling myself? It’s a vicious spiral of anxiety that usually ends in self-loathing and utter discouragement.

Ever been there? When you’ve made that difficult choice to follow God instead of what the world says matters? You’d think it would get easier when you give God your yes, right? Ha. Sorry, folks, it’s doesn’t work that way. There’s nothing easy about following God because we’re trying to follow Him through a minefield, and everywhere we step, we run the risk of blowing ourselves up.

It’s so easy to just stop walking. It’s so much easier to just stay where you are. Why try to climb the wall if you know you can’t do it? Why try to tear the fence down when it’ll just build itself up again overnight?

Fear is an emotion. It’s something we feel, and like all our other emotions, you can’t always trust it. Our fear is just as broken as we are. So there’s really only one way to handle it, and that’s to read what the Bible says about it and trust that what God says is right.

Fear is more than what’s holding you back. It’s the wall around your that’s keeping you in. So don’t give into it.

God promises He’ll never fail us, even if we fail Him. He promises never to abandon us, even when we turn our backs on what He says is right. And because He always keeps His promises, we don’t have to be afraid of anything. He will always provide. He will always be there. And nothing anyone does to you will change that–not even what you do to yourself.

Success through your own strength is limited

I like being productive. It’s the double-edged sword of a performance-driven perfectionist. I like getting things done, being able to check the boxes off, scratching the tasks off my to-do list. I’ve even been known to make a to-do list filled with tasks I’ve already completed just so I can tick them off and feel better about myself. I’m sure it’s some kind of psychosis.

Don’t get me wrong. Getting things done is good. Everyone should have goals, and we should all be working to accomplish and achieve something with our lives. But the trouble comes when we try to accomplish lasting goals in our own strength. There’s only so much of your own strength you can invest in a project or in someone else’s life before your strength runs out. And what happens when your strength fails you? All those project you’re juggling will drop like leaves in autumn. If you have no more strength to pour into them, they’ll fall away. That’s just the way it works.

But what if you could do more? What if you could accomplish great, lasting things? It is possible. It’s just not possible for you.

J8LSZELS1RToday’s verses are John 15:4-5.

Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.

I don’t think anything I’ve done in my own strength or power will last beyond my lifetime. I could be wrong, but from what I know about myself, my own accomplishments pale in comparison to what God has been able to do through me. Because of God, I’ve been able to do things I never would have dreamed, help people I never would have met, go places I never imagined possible.

Maybe I can write a little devotional every morning for four years, but God’s the one who gives me the words to write. He’s the one who takes those words and uses them to speak to someone else. That’s not me. Gosh, guys, I mean it’s miraculous enough that I can even crank out anything coherent at this time in the morning.

My problem is that I try to do too much in my own strength. I tend to leap before I look. I rush into a situation before I ask God if it’s what He wants me to do. That’s not the life a Christ-follower should have.

A Christ-follower should live plugged in to Jesus. He’s where we get our strength. He’s where we get our wisdom, our peace, our love for others. And it’s His strength and power that allows us to make a difference in other people’s lives.

Autumn is my favorite time of year. Hands down. No discussion. I love the colors and the temperatures and the flavors. I love sweaters and socks and hats. And pumpkin everything. But the next time you see a tree losing its leaves, take a moment to remember God’s strength. While that tree is alive and awake, it’s pumping life into those leaves. But when it goes to sleep, the leaves don’t have the strength to hold on to the branch anymore.

I’m like a leaf. I am fully dependent on God’s strength to get me through my life. Sure, if I cut myself off from Him, I can make it. I can exist. I can let the wind blow me around listlessly and aimlessly. But what kind of life is that? That’s not the life God has in mind for me.

So don’t cut yourself off from God. Stop trying to live life without His strength. Stop trying to make a difference without His power. You can’t do it. If you want to productive, if you want to be effective, if you want to be successful, get plugged in to Jesus. His eternal, everlasting strength is ours for the asking. And with Jesus, you can do everything.

Sunrise over Jamaica Beach, Galveston, TX

God’s rescue comes even though the waters keep rising

You’ve got to love David. If you’ve ever spent any time in the Psalms, you know what I’m talking about. David just had a gift with words. He could turn a phrase just right so that it got right down to the heart of the issue. Most of the time I think it’s because David was honest and earnest about who he was and who God is. But one of my favorite “psalms” of David’s isn’t in Psalms at all. In fact, it’s in 2 Samuel.

It’s long, like 50 verses, but I’m only going to post the first 30 this morning, mainly because those are the ones that really stuck out to me as I read them. (I should correct yesterday’s post too, since my best friend’s novel is actually based on verses 17-18 of this passage; I saw deep waters and got my verses mixed up!)

Sunrise over Jamaica Beach, Galveston, TX

Sunrise over Jamaica Beach, Galveston, TX

Today’s verses are 2 Samuel 3-30:

The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my savior;
    my God is my rock, in whom I find protection.
He is my shield, the power that saves me,
    and my place of safety.
He is my refuge, my savior,
    the one who saves me from violence.
I called on the Lord, who is worthy of praise,
    and he saved me from my enemies.

“The waves of death overwhelmed me;
    floods of destruction swept over me.
 The grave wrapped its ropes around me;
    death laid a trap in my path.
 But in my distress I cried out to the Lord;
    yes, I cried to my God for help.
He heard me from his sanctuary;
    my cry reached his ears.

“Then the earth quaked and trembled.
    The foundations of the heavens shook;
    they quaked because of his anger.
 Smoke poured from his nostrils;
    fierce flames leaped from his mouth.
    Glowing coals blazed forth from him.
 He opened the heavens and came down;
    dark storm clouds were beneath his feet.
 Mounted on a mighty angelic being, he flew,
    soaring on the wings of the wind.
 He shrouded himself in darkness,
    veiling his approach with dense rain clouds.
 A great brightness shone around him,
    and burning coals blazed forth.
 The Lord thundered from heaven;
    the voice of the Most High resounded. 
He shot arrows and scattered his enemies;
    his lightning flashed, and they were confused.
 Then at the command of the Lord,
    at the blast of his breath, the bottom of the sea could be seen,
    and the foundations of the earth were laid bare.

“He reached down from heaven and rescued me;
    he drew me out of deep waters.
 He rescued me from my powerful enemies,
    from those who hated me and were too strong for me.
 They attacked me at a moment when I was in distress,
    but the Lord supported me.
 He led me to a place of safety;
    he rescued me because he delights in me.
 The Lord rewarded me for doing right;
    he restored me because of my innocence.
 For I have kept the ways of the Lord;
    I have not turned from my God to follow evil.
 I have followed all his regulations;
    I have never abandoned his decrees.
 I am blameless before God;
    I have kept myself from sin.
 The Lord rewarded me for doing right.
    He has seen my innocence.

“To the faithful you show yourself faithful;
    to those with integrity you show integrity.
 To the pure you show yourself pure,
    but to the wicked you show yourself hostile.
 You rescue the humble,
    but your eyes watch the proud and humiliate them.
 O Lord, you are my lamp.
    The Lord lights up my darkness.
 In your strength I can crush an army;
    with my God I can scale any wall.

David sang this song after God rescued Him from his enemies, but there is a lot in this passage that applies to life as we know it today. So much that I don’t really have time to go over all of it. I could spend a month on this chapter alone. Maybe I should.

But what I love about this–one of the many aspects–is how it depicts God coming to the rescue. Part of me thinks it’s ironic to see God’s rescue being depicted in natural disasters; maybe there’s a point in that. But when God comes to the rescue like that, who could doubt Him? He charges in with thunder and lightning and earthquakes and terror and reaches down to us to pull us out of our distress and our fear. I love how this passage ends too. God is our light in the darkness, and with Him nothing is impossible.

I’m not sure if we can really wrap our heads around that concept, but we can try. So the next impossible task you face, remember this passage. Remember that when you’re in trouble, you just need to cry out for help, and God will be there. He’ll come charging in to rescue you, to draw you out of the floods that are threatening to overwhelm you.

True, the verse doesn’t say God will stop the floods. But it does say God will be there to help. And if we have God’s help, there’s nothing we can’t do.

The view from behind a cannon in Edinburgh Castle, Scotland

Why I shouldn’t be discouraged

There’s a lot to be afraid of in life. I’m sure if you tried, you could make an exhaustive list of all the possibilities without too much effort. There is so much that we face on a daily basis that we could be afraid of if we choose. I’m sorry to say many times I choose fear when it comes to certain situations, especially like talking to people I don’t know. And maybe this is just me, but once I give in to fear, discouragement follows soon after–because I know better. I know that fear is a choice. I know that fear is not from God, but there are times when I choose it anyway.

The Bible amazes me because so often it has already made connections between emotions that we don’t think about.

The view from behind a cannon in Edinburgh Castle, Scotland

The view from behind a cannon in Edinburgh Castle, Scotland

Today’s verse is Isaiah 41:10.

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.

If you asked another person why they shouldn’t be afraid, I’m pretty positive the answer would come back as a list of reasons, depending on the situation. Why shouldn’t you be afraid of a break-in? You have a security system. Why shouldn’t you be afraid of a hail storm? You have car insurance. Why shouldn’t you be afraid of the dentist? And so on and so forth. So when God chooses to give reasons for why we shouldn’t be afraid or discouraged in this verse, it’s interesting to note His reasons.

Don’t be afraid because God is with you.

Don’t be discouraged because I am your God.

Are those sufficient reasons to turn from fear and discouragement? Obviously, God thinks so, or He wouldn’t have said it. These are His words via the prophet Isaiah to the people of Israel, offering comfort and help.

The fear part I get. We shouldn’t be afraid because God is with us. If God’s with us, who can be against us? If God is with us, nothing can harm us that He hasn’t allowed, and even if something does harm us, He’ll be there throughout. He won’t leave us. I can grasp that on a rational level, although the emotional level is a little more difficult. Once fear gets its claws in you, it’s hard to break loose of its hold.

We don’t need to fear the unknown. We don’t need to fear what we don’t know. We don’t need to fear period. God is with us. He’s got it handled. He knows what’s He’s doing.

Okay. So what about discouragement? Don’t be discouraged because God is our God. What? What sense does that make? Is that even an answer to the question?

I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but God doesn’t always answer our questions in a way that we expect. Half the time, He’ll answer with a question. And the rest of the time He’ll answer the question we don’t even know we’re asking. He knows our hearts, and He knows what we need to hear, especially when we don’t know. But He’s always right. And He always says what we need. So what does this mean?

Why shouldn’t I be discouraged? I am your God.

Think about that statement for a moment. I am your God. What does that mean to you? To me, it means that I have access to a power greater than myself. It means that God has got everything figured out and He’s willing to let me in on it. It means that God has chosen me, not that I chose Him. I have, but He chose me first to be a part of His big plan.

For me, discouragement comes when I’ve failed or when I’ve given in to something I know I shouldn’t have done. For me, discouragement is a response to my inadequacy. And when I think about it that way, it suddenly makes sense.

I shouldn’t discouraged because God chose me in spite of my failures and inadequacies. My shortcomings are no surprise to Him. He knows all about them. I shouldn’t be trying to get through life on my own anyway. Remember? God is with me? That means He’s with me in the good times as well as the bad times.

When discouragement rears its ugly head, I need to remember that my life isn’t about me. It’s not about my failures or my successes. It’s about God and what God is doing and what He wants to do. I’m a part of His plan because He put me there–right where He wants me–and nothing is going to happen that He didn’t already know about. Nothing is going to catch Him off guard. And when I fail–and I will–I don’t need to give in to discouragement because He’s my God and He never leaves people behind.

Discouragement is as much a choice as fear is. True, I think it’s more of a response to giving into fear, but both of them are choices. And God has equipped us to face both down. So if you’re facing a tough situation today or if you’re just feeling blue, don’t give in. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be discouraged.

God is with you. He’s your God. He wants to help.

Choose to let Him.