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~Written by Viki Rife

It was our last Zoom meeting together before summer break, and it was bittersweet. Yes, Zoom fatigue is real, but the need for each other was more real. We exchanged ideas for handling everything from teenagers socially distancing from their families to the longing to keep some of the lessons we learned during the lockdown. We confessed our struggles and our joys. We reminded each other of the good things the pandemic had accomplished in the spiritual growth of our ministry communities.

We had been meeting monthly over the past year, women ministering in different states from around the country. We shared our stories of quarantines and family adjustments to a very unusual year. One dear sister kept reminding us that although we were online, we were indeed meeting face to face.

This band of sisters has blessed me with their honesty, determination, and humor. We are all at different ages, different stages of life, but we have one Savior and one purpose—to bring God glory. These conversations have helped us through many hard times. Who knew others were struggling with the same thoughts that were haunting me? Who knew some had found viable solutions? And who knew I would have something to contribute to this group of warriors who are fighting for the souls God has given them to shepherd?

In the end, we all agreed that even if things open up, we want to keep meeting in the fall. Let me encourage you to take advantage of opportunities to be part of such a community. Women of Grace USA offers a number of opportunities to dialog through online encounters, book clubs, and classes. Keep an eye open for upcoming gatherings and find out what a rich blessing God has given us in our sisters.

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He opened the hatch of his truck with a grand flourish. As I walked out to greet him, I chuckled as I tried imagining what deserved such grandeur from my date on the night he was meeting my family.

He piled my arms with Christmas presents before he loaded his own arms with even more. He shrugged comically as he said around the boxes, “I think this is it, but I’ll come back and look in a bit to make sure.”

My family graciously received the Christmas presents from this perfect stranger, but Michael was quick to realize it made all of us—even me—incredibly uncomfortable. Trinkets, games, books, and candy lined a couch as everyone in my family had the same mental thought. What’s the point?

I honestly believed he was doing so much to impress my parents. When we finally had a moment alone, I discovered that wasn’t the case at all. “I assumed you never really experienced a Christmas full of presents as a kid since you were missionaries. I thought every family needed to experience being overloaded with stuff at least once. Based on your reactions, I guess I was wrong.”

Achieving simplicity for Christmas is difficult when you’ve forgotten what it means to truly long for something money can’t buy. As Christmas makes its appearance this year, I’m hearing more and more families confess, “It’s just going to be simple this year—really simple.”

It’s not wrong to lavish our loved ones with gifts and grand memories. However, maybe the simplicity of this Christmas comes at the exact moment we needed to step away from all the “extra” and just focus on Jesus. He doesn’t care about how big or small our gatherings, celebrations, or gift exchanges are.

He simply cares about whether we’re focused on what his love means for our lives, whether or not our Christmas feels “normal.”

Have a Christ-filled Christmas!

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~ Written by Viki Rife

We had no clue when we set out for the forest preserve that we would get to see bald eagles—three at the same time, to be exact. They were perched in a tree close to where we stood, easily visible. The preserve was trying to reintroduce them, and for several years we had thought from time to time we saw one fly over, but never were close enough to be sure. Now there they were, watching us with their sharp eyes.

Of course, the first thing my husband did was grab his camera and start shooting. We were thrilled at the amazing opportunity that had opened up for us. When we finally left, I was eager to view what must be sensational photos. When I pressed the button to review them, however, a square with a menu showed up over the photo, blocking everything but the edges.

“How do I get that out of here?” I asked my husband. He shrugged. “It’s been doing that for a long time. I can’t figure out what to do about it.”

It was frustrating to wait until we finished several errands and got home so we could download and get a glimpse of the photos. It gave me a resolve to get the camera situation fixed. Nothing I tried worked.

Finally, as a last resort, I sat down and read the manual. Guess what? There was an easy solution for the problem! Why didn’t I do that to begin with? My only answer is that sometimes I’m a lot like a two-year-old who insists, “Me do it!”

I’m afraid the same attitude is at work when I go through times when I can’t see God. I often try everything before I give up and pour over the Manual, His Word. But I find it’s the only way to eliminate what’s blocking His precious image. Only there will I find the answers my soul craves.

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~ Written by Samantha Freds

There are few things I enjoy more this time of year than puzzles. I love piecing together a beautiful landscape or a colorful scene. I find it relaxing yet challenging. I relish the satisfaction of tracking down that one piece I have been looking for. Recently, I’ve discovered what I believe to be a near-perfect combination of favorite things: fuzzy socks, a cup of hot coffee, and a puzzle.

My love for puzzles goes back to my childhood. My mom and I used to do them together when the weather forced us to stay inside. It was my mom who taught me proper puzzle strategy. First, you must separate the edge pieces from the middle pieces. Next, you put the outside together so you have a boundary to work within. Then you lay out all the middle pieces and put the box away.

Mom always encouraged me to not look at the picture on the box because she thought that was cheating. I, on the other hand, called it using my resources!

Fortunately, Mom had a very different strategy when it came to life. She encouraged both her kids to return to God’s puzzle box as often as possible. Just like puzzle creators provide a guide, our Creator gave us a guidebook for life. And just like the picture helps direct my efforts when I get stuck working on a certain section of a puzzle, the Bible is the life-giving direction I so desperately need.

I’ve been in a bit of a valley lately – a dry season spiritually. So I write to remind myself of the beauty of the Word of God. I so desperately need it to guide my life!

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Psalm 119:105

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~ Written by Viki Rife

It started when I went back to a town I had lived in during high school and decided to track down a favorite teacher. She welcomed me warmly and led me through the living room into her “sitting room.” My jaw dropped. The huge room was a floor-to-ceiling library, with a curving stair leading to a reading loft high up among the books. I think it was inspired by the library in the 1964 film “My Fair Lady.”

A reading addict like me has trouble resisting the temptation to ignore everything else and start browsing the shelves. Even as we chatted, I found my eyes wandering. What amazing opportunities were tucked along those walls! I wouldn’t even know where to start.

That memory shows me such a picture of our relationship with God. Opening His Word is like being let loose in a library full of rich treasures. Sometimes it can be overwhelming. There is so much to know about Him that we couldn’t possibly comprehend it all. We might choose to explore one aspect of Him one day, or for a month, then we check out other subjects about Him that expand our understanding of Him even more.

Yes, at times relationship with an all-knowing God can seem overwhelming. But the more we explore, the more we discover of His amazing character and how He wants to speak to our hearts.

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~ Written by Viki Rife

Reading Nancy Drew with a flashlight under the covers after bedtime in fifth grade. Keeping an Agatha Christie book in the bathroom to sneak a quick peek when I was potty-training toddlers. I can’t help it; mysteries have always reached out and grabbed me. Do you feel it, too? There’s something about things that don’t fit together just right that calls our minds to investigate and make sense of them. And, oh, the joy of figuring it out before the author reveals it!

Maybe that’s why this mystery called Life gets so frustrating. We see it as our job to be the detectives, to solve the mystery. But the deeper we go, the more threads of the mystery appear. Each thread could be followed into infinity. Each clue could take a lifetime to examine. 

We need to learn to be at peace with living in mystery. We need to give ourselves permission to enjoy the journey of discovery. We know the story will be worth it—the Author is our best friend. He assures us that the ending will be amazing beyond our wildest dreams. Enjoy exploring your mystery, but don’t assume you have found all the answers. Our Author is far too clever for us to figure out. He wants to keep the suspense so He can reveal the surprise ending Himself. 

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~ Written by Viki Rife

It happened, of all places, in a doctor’s office. For years I have struggled to grasp the elusive meaning of the invitation to abide in Christ given to us in John 15. What does that look like? How can I know I’m doing it?

That particular day I had taken my parents to a doctor’s appointment and we had already been there almost three hours. We were all weary, hungry and frustrated. I had too many deadlines hanging over me to be sitting there wasting time. I found myself mentally transferring items from the day’s to-do list to the next day’s list.

Suddenly, it hit me. Nothing—not one single thing on my list of complaints—mattered at that moment. All that mattered was that I live this very moment with an attitude that brings glory to God. He had already given permission for the delays to happen to us. My time belongs to Him, and if He decides to use it this way, that is His right. This moment sitting with my parents is as sacred to His glory as the ones I spend reading my Bible and praying.

It’s my response to the situation that makes the difference. That is what it means to abide in Christ—to live every moment as if it is ordained by Him. Because, after all, it is!

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Day before yesterday was the first Sunday of Lent. I have never been a part of a church that observes Lent and I’m not attuned to the liturgical church calendar, so I was caught by surprise when I read a blog last week about Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten observance.

In my growing up years, the only people I knew about who observed Lent were Catholics. I knew they had special church services, did penance for their sins, and gave up certain things during the 40 days prior to Good Friday (minus Sundays, which are a celebration of the Resurrection). Then I learned that other denominations followed the same practice – but not ours.

Ask.com defines Lent as “a time when many Christians prepare for Easter by observing a period of fasting, repentance, moderation and spiritual discipline. The purpose is to set aside time for reflection on Jesus Christ – his suffering and his sacrifice, his life, death, burial and resurrection.”

While many of our churches that grew out of the Anabaptist tradition do not observe Lent, viewing it as a manmade holy day and frowning on rituals and liturgies, I think there can be much spiritual value in taking time at this season to meditate on scripture that describes Christ’s suffering and sacrifice on our behalf. The greatness of his love and the depth of his sacrifice should lead to confession and repentance from sin. Fasting can be a part of our observance. Spiritual fasting may mean anything from going without meals or a certain food to eliminating certain attitudes or activities from one’s life in order to free ourselves from the desires of the flesh and turn our hunger toward God. The decision to fast should be led by the Spirit of God.

While I do not feel led to fast, I have decided to observe Lent by focusing my devotional times on the cross of Christ. I am working through Contemplating the Cross, a small book by Trisha McCary Rhodes that provides daily scripture readings from the Old and New Testaments, a brief narrative of a few moments in Christ’s journey to the cross, and probing questions to consider. I want to understand in a deeper way the rejection, the anguish, and the terrible suffering Jesus endured for my sake!

Some blogs I’ve read offer insights and suggestions for observing Lent. You may find something helpful on one of these sites:
http://blog.lifeway.com/womenallaccess/2014/03/03/what-lent-taught-me-about-myself/#.Uxd_QWex4rg
http://www.christianitytoday.com/amyjuliabecker/2014/february/in-defense-of-lent.html
http://www.judydouglass.com/2014/03/discovering-mercy-lent/

If you don’t choose to fast, you may want to make a donation to someone in need. A suggestion would be to help our sisters and brothers in the Central African Republic who are experiencing severe hunger – an unintentional fast caused by the bitter suffering and destruction they have experienced because of the warring factions in their nation. You can donate at http://www.encompassworldpartners.org/component/k2/item/4590-africa-relief.html

I trust that during these days leading up to “Good” Friday (the darkest of all days for our Lord), your heart will be stirred again by the depths of his suffering on your behalf. Then rejoice, because after dark Friday comes Resurrection Sunday!

Do you observe Lent? What practices are especially meaningful to you? I’d love to hear from you.

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Thanksgiving Day is family reunion day on my mom’s side of the family. We gather in the hometown of one of the cousins (this year in Tennessee) and have the traditional turkey dinner with all the trimmings. After the meal the men watch football (or sleep!), the women visit and the children play. We end the day by singing praise songs, sharing what we’re thankful for, and eating leftovers.

As much as we love each other and enjoy getting together on this special day, this is just a small slice of our individual families. Things look good on the surface as we catch up with one another on a fairly superficial level, but the truth is that although all of us are Jesus-followers, each family has struggled with heartbreak or a painful, messy situation of some sort. We are no different than other families.

Every family is at least a little bit dysfunctional, mine included. Usually we try to keep the messes hidden so we’ll look okay to the rest of the world. But Elisa Morgan, one of Christianity Today’s top fifty women influencing the church and culture and former CEO of MOPS International, has opened wide the closets of her life to reveal her personal story of brokenness, from her family of origin to her family today.

The Beauty of Broken is a raw, candid and heartbreaking look at the issues that Elisa’s family struggled with and that many parents face, including divorce, alcoholism, teen pregnancy, drug addiction, homosexuality, and more. In childhood, when her parents divorced and her mom sought refuge in alcohol, Elisa thought it was her fault that her family broke, so she tried her best to fix things, or at least to hide her family’s problems. As an adult, she was determined to make an unbroken family. So she bought into the myth that if parents implement “perfect family values,” their kids will turn out okay and they will be immune from being broken. But the problem, she acknowledges, is that she was broken. “Everybody is. So no matter what we do, we all end up making broken families…There is no such thing as a perfect family.”

Using her family of origin and her “family of creation”, she shares the hope that God offers in the form of twelve “broken family values” such as commitment, humility, reality, relinquishment and more. She reminds us that God understands that no one is perfect, but he wants us to remain in relationship with him as he picks up our broken pieces and shapes them into his design for us.

My family is broken, just like yours is. It’s true that we haven’t dealt with all the struggles that Elisa’s family faced, but my husband and I are broken people just like you. How grateful I am for a loving God who is able to take our brokenness and use it for himself.

The book ends with an Appendix of Hope and Scriptures of Hope to remind the reader of God’s love and healing grace in the midst of brokenness. But at the beginning Elisa writes, “This is my story. This is not the story of [naming her other family members]…This is my story, as I believe God wants me to tell it. And maybe – just maybe – it’s your story too.”

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Fourth in a series
By Sharon MacMillan

As a Bible study teacher, have you found yourself running for a notebook so you could write down some golden nugget of truth that would be just perfect for next week’s lesson? It’s a veritable feast as you talk over some new insight that had never dawned on you before with others who love to know God’s Word.

Peter experienced joy as he preached to the crowd at Pentecost in Acts 2. After he had identified who Jesus was and what He did, Peter saw 3000 people respond to the message, becoming believers in Jesus! If you had been the one giving the message instead of Peter, what would have been in your mind as you watched people from all over the inhabited world bowing their knee to Jesus at that moment? Peter may have had joy in watching new believers coming into the fold, but he did not respond with pride or self-adulation after the painful lessons he had learned from Jesus a few months before. He knew that Jesus had called him to feed God’s flock. And obeying Jesus in answer to His call was his only desire.

Jeremiah’s experience as a message-bearer of God presents a contrast to Peter’s. Sometimes there is no joy in being the messenger for God. He had been appointed and prepared to relay a message of coming judgment to disobedient Israel. Instead of a joyful embrace to God’s offer of mercy, the people came against Jeremiah with angry red faces and eventually put him in a pit to keep him quiet and away from them. God didn’t relent. When Jeremiah tried to hold back speaking the message of gloom, doom and judgment, the words would burn within him. You can read about this conflicted prophet’s testimony in Jeremiah 20. God needed Jeremiah to warn Israel to turn from their adulterous ways so they would not be destroyed. The result was not blessing for Jeremiah, but suffering.

What is common between these two men? Both had been prepared to receive God’s message so that it could be delivered effectively: Jeremiah’s mouth had been cleansed and Peter had been filled with the Holy Spirit. Both knew that obeying God by giving His message was their first priority no matter what the results. Both knew their God and knew the messages were truth.

We Must Remain True to God’s Word
Beth Moore’s chapter on “Calling all Teachers” from Mercy Triumphs helps us understand the role of the teacher, which explains why not many should be teachers. The teacher must not compromise from giving God’s message of truth to God’s people, even if suffering is involved. A few chapters later in Acts we see that Peter didn’t always have an adoring audience and he ended up in prison. One thing cannot be disputed: To be effective, a teacher must teach God’s Word with no apologies and no compromise. We know that in the last days, days that are similar to ours, people will have itchy ears, wanting to hear pleasing messages, not necessarily convicting ones. But we must continue to teach the Word without watering it down or softening the message so that conviction can take place. We, like Peter and Jeremiah, must teach out of an uncompromised heart in our love for God.

We Must Teach Out of Godly Character
Referring again to Beth Moore’s, “Calling All Teachers,” her comments on James 3:1 regarding teaching are welcome words of wisdom to the one who wants to take this calling seriously and desires to be effective. She calls us not only to teach without compromise, but also to not allow ourselves to be affected by praise or criticism. Both can make you motivated or unmotivated with wrong motives.

The teacher must not be lazy – there is no substitute for the hard work of study so that God can interface with the teacher. What a waste of words if we end up teaching our own ideas! We would be taking others down Misleading Avenue or become misled ourselves. Both will incur God’s judgment instead of the blessing He wants to give. In learning new things from the Lord we are at risk for both pride and humiliation. Neither one of these should be allowed to rule over the life of a teacher. We must teach from a sincere heart (James 3:17). We should be eager to let God do His good work of disciplining and chastening so that we are in sync with Him, teaching the message as a faithful messenger.

Our Hearts Must Be Nurtured by God
Oswald Sanders, author of Spiritual Discipleship, tells us what God is after to make teachers who are able to teach His powerful Word of truth. We need a transformed life where the heart is burning with passion for God and for His people. Jesus taught, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; love your neighbor as yourself.” How can we possibly teach the truths of God if He is not the LOVE of our hearts? He knows the process by which transformation can take place.

How does God nurture those called to teach? He reveals Who He is in His holiness so that all desire is turned towards Him as we spend time in His presence. In a most holy moment (Exodus 33:11-23), God unveiled Himself to Moses for our viewing. What was the result of revealing His glory? Moses bowed to the ground and worshipped. We will find ourselves responding to God in the same way as He reveals Himself to us. Our sin will be magnified; our need of Him will cause us to fall before Him in thankful adoration for His grace, mercy and love. The cross of our Savior will become all the more precious to us.

How could we ever impart the knowledge about the Almighty God without our own encounter in His Presence? We are to be emptied of our own speculations, our own intentions, our own resources to make room for the powerful Word of Truth and the Presence of His Holy Spirit within.

The veil used to cover Moses’ face becomes a symbol of what happens when we are face to face with God. When the people of Israel saw Moses after He had been with God, his face was so radiant he had to use a veil. Every time the people saw Moses with the veil, he was a stunning reminder that God had been with Moses. They could learn from Moses’ radiance alone that God is gloriously holy and yet approachable if we follow in full obedience. Moses was able to speak face to face with God. The words he shared with the people were not his own words but God’s.

God ‘s Teachers Must Be Tested
James teaches what God’s goal is for His teachers. He wants them to come to maturity, to be complete, lacking nothing. He wants teachers that have been taught by God Himself. How would God bring this about? He brings Father-filtered trials that develop our perseverance or endurance. He will not let up on the process until we receive the promised crown of life, which He delights to give to His beloved people. In the process we will have been transformed into His likeness. Through these trials, disciplines will be established that will be useful for effective teaching. Dependence on Him will be taught so that we will not teach from our own wells but from His. He will become more precious to us than we could ever have dreamed. And that will be a priceless thing to impart to others. What an honor to represent God and His truth to His people!

So if we are to be teachers we will be led into his Presence, we will be tested so that we can learn the truth of His Word, we will become so in love with God that nothing matters but doing and teaching what He has given to us to teach. “I will be with your mouth” is just as true for us today as it was for Moses. Believe it! And let all else go!

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