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~Written by Viki Rife

It was a small thing; it was a huge thing. Although my friend told me the story decades ago, it still burns in my bones.

When my friend was growing up in Cuba, his parents offered a Good News gospel-sharing club for the children in their neighborhood. One boy who often came was a troublemaker. He and his brothers disrupted the group, sassed the adults, and made life unpleasant for everyone. Finally, my friend’s parents told the boys they weren’t allowed to come onto their property.

Every week after that, the boy and his brothers would be waiting outside the fence to my friend’s family farm. As the other kids trudged down the dirt path, the banished boys would pelt them with stones and sticks. They had been a problem when they were attended but were even more of a problem when forbidden to come!

I’ve always wondered what might have happened if some of the adults involved had taken the main troublemaker, if not the others, under their wing. What if some man had offered to take the boy fishing, away from the kids he felt he could bully? What if someone had taken an interest in him and shown him there was a better way to spend his life? What if he had seen someone show him the unconditional love of Jesus?

You see, that boy’s name was Fidel Castro. If you know much about world history, you know the cruelty visited on the Cuban people by this dictator. I know friends who had to live under his regime and were able to escape, but who still bear physical and emotional scars.

Might the history of Fidel Castro have been different if someone who loved Jesus had reached out and shown that love? Because I don’t know, I am committed to reaching out to hard-to-love people with the love of Christ.

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~ Written by Viki Rife

She wasn’t really my aunt, but all my childhood I called her Aunt Bertha, a common courtesy for missionaries who worked together. Her apartment was always open to my family. She especially took an interest in me. When I was young and fighting health problems, our family traveled to her city and stayed with her for treatments and my surgery. When there were complications with the surgery, she was like a second mother to me, letting my mother get some rest. I trusted her with all my heart.

When we moved to her city several years later, I would stay at her house when my parents had to travel so I wouldn’t miss school. We’d ride our bikes (she never drove a car) to market and to care for her ministry responsibilities. The conversations during those bike rides were deep and inspired me in ministry.

Aunt Bertha had a problem, though. Her rheumatoid arthritis was progressing, and she was finally told she needed to leave the mission field. She returned to the US, moving in with her brother and family.

I was fifteen when my family had a chance to visit her. She lay engulfed in a hospital-type bed that seemed to fill the room. My heart was broken, and in my teenage awkwardness I couldn’t really converse with her. My parents were puzzled by my lack of engagement.

The problem was, at that moment I became very angry with God. Here was this precious woman who had done so much for His kingdom, lying helpless! Is this how He rewarded His faithful ones?

In the decades that followed, I couldn’t think of her without feelings of pain and anger. God just didn’t make sense. I served him, but there was an underlying root of distrust.

One day I attended a women’s retreat where the speaker was a missionary to the same country. She shared that before she ever left for the mission field, she had the opportunity to meet a former missionary who was in her last days on earth. She shared that the veteran missionary told her that her disability was the most beautiful thing that had ever happened to her. “The past ten years have been the best of my life!” she told the new recruit. “I have gotten to know God in a way I could never have imagined. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything in the world!”

At that moment, my bitterness melted away. God had taken care of Aunt Bertha in ways my physical eyes could not see. Since then, I’ve watched His faithful ones suffer and seen similar responses. We can see their suffering, but until we experience it ourselves, I don’t think we can ever know how God cares for His own.

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~ Written by Viki Rife

My friend and I rang for the elevator and were relieved to find no one was in it. Playing in the elevator was one of our favorite entertainments through the long weeks aboard the ship taking us to South America. Unexpectedly, my eight-year-old sister dashed around the corner and slipped in right behind us. As we turned to remonstrate with her that she wasn’t invited, a man with a little girl in his arms came running up, and we groaned inwardly even as we held the door for him as we had been trained. It wasn’t nearly as much fun when there were others in the elevator, especially adults or tattletale younger siblings.

As we descended to the next floor, suddenly the lights went out. The elevator jerked to a grinding halt. In the complete darkness, my ten-year-old brain started to fabricate an explanation. The night before I had been careful not to break any rules, but…

You see, our parents had told us we could not go into areas that weren’t reserved for our “tourist” class. However, the floor below us was showing a movie that evening, and it looked intriguing. It was about the sinking of the Titanic. My friend and I figured out that if we sat with our feet hanging through the railing at the top of the stairs on our floor, we could see just enough to watch the movie. At the time, my story-loving heart thought it was thrilling. Now I found myself associating loss of power with a doomed ship. Terror began to descend on me. What if the ship were sinking and we would go down trapped in the elevator, with no hope of getting out to try to swim to the surface?

I’ve always wondered if the man who was with us had also seen the movie. He began to yell something in Japanese, desperately shouting up the shaft of the pitch-dark elevator. His little girl started crying, and my sister dug her fingernails into my arm. I started confessing my sins to God as quickly as I could, bargaining with him to get me out of the predicament.

It was at that moment I ran into one of the great moral dilemmas of my life: Had I disobeyed by watching the movie? I knew my parents had to approve movies I watched in the movie room on our deck, but did it apply to a different deck? I hadn’t physically gone down there, so I had remained obedient, right? Suddenly, my conscience overrode my perspective on myself as a non rule-breaker. I might not have broken the letter of the law, but I realized I had broken the spirit of the law.

In the 45 minutes it took for the ship’s mechanics to rescue us, I experienced a huge change in my heart. I began to realize that just staying within the boundaries isn’t enough. I have to examine my motives and consider the reasons why the rules are made. That understanding has shaped my perspective on what the Old Testament law was about. People found ways to get around the rules. We have an advantage in that God has written his laws on our hearts and minds.

Praise God, we don’t follow rules, but His Spirit.

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~ Written by Viki Rife

I finally found the place I had always dreamed of—that place where I would find perfect peace. You see, when I was a child, I had to have allergy shots every week. I would throw a fit every Thursday when the time came to go to the clinic.

My mom finally sat me down and helped me see I just needed to get used to it. She advised me to imagine a beautiful place and pretend I was there instead.

I knew exactly what to focus on. A painting I loved showed a babbling stream running downhill through the rocks, surrounded by forest trees and ferns. I dreamed of walking along the little path that wound alongside the brook. I pictured myself sitting on the rock under one of the trees and reading, journaling, maybe even trying some sketching. I would be completely at peace.

It became my mental go-to place when life got hard. Going to the dentist? Picture myself in my happy place. Waiting for a tow truck for a broken-down car? Mentally spend that time in my beautiful forest.

One day while traveling we passed it—a place that looked like my perfect place. We had to stop and enjoy it!

I stepped out of the car to the rich smell of balsam fir. This was even better than I had imagined. I hurried toward the little path. The fern slapped at my legs and the going wasn’t as easy as I had imagined. Then I felt a stinging sensation, followed by another and another. The little pools among the stones formed a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes! Soon I started sneezing uncontrollably. The strong scent of the firs was too much for my sinuses. I headed back to the car. As I tried to skirt the ferns, my foot sank up to my ankle in mud.

I had fallen in love with a two-dimensional picture! I never imagined the realities of my idyllic scenario. It helped me realize how I’ve deceived myself all my life. I keep thinking the next season of life will be easier/happier/freer.  I look at others and assume their lives are easier than mine. The truth is that the life of my dreams not very realistic.

It was a wake-up call. Life just isn’t going to meet my expectations. The real thing is sometimes hard. However, I’m glad I experienced the real thing. I no longer waste my time dreaming of the day life will be perfect.

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~ Written by Cassie Rayl

Not knowing how God will provide for my needs is one of the hardest things for me to handle. I am, after all, a control freak. The only thing worse is not knowing when he will provide. I’ve never enjoyed learning how to rely on God’s unpredictable provision, but he’s given me a lifetime of circumstances which prove he always does.

One of my earliest memories of God making me wait was when my parents informed me and my two siblings we were moving to Alaska. They didn’t have answers for any of my anxiety-driven questions. Where would we live? Did Dad have a job? Did they know who I’d become friends with? How could we afford the move?

Throughout the entire 12-day drive to Alaska, I had more than enough time to remind God I hated not being comfortable. I just wanted proof my family would be okay. Any time I voiced my concerns to my mom, she would smile and promise me God would provide exactly what we needed. We were moving out of obedience to God, and that was enough.

God did provide us a home, but not until hours after we arrived in Soldotna, Alaska. Looking back on that memory, it’s obvious why he waited. He waited so I would learn—even at the young age of nine—just how faithful and powerful he is in my most uncomfortable seasons.

As a whole, our nation has had to redefine what it means to be provided for and have enough. It’s hard, uncomfortable, and the future is unknown, but the proof of God providing for his children is always evident.

He provides what we need, when we need it. Look for him in the unknown. I promise you, he’s still there.

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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 Cassie Rayl

“I asked God to keep you alive as proof that He exists.”

The young man’s words were filled with emotion as he told me of his recent spiritual battle. Praying for my survival while undergoing multiple brain surgeries seemed like high enough stakes to bet on. His mental game had been simple.

Childhood friend dies: Christianity was pointless. She lives: He’d try surrender out; see if he liked it.

Hearing Cody’s declaration as a 16-year-old myself was a weight no shoulders should ever carry. Regardless, I heard my Master whisper, “You prayed for release from this life around the same time he prayed for proof that I exist. His search for me is thin, but your life gave him a reason to at least look for Me. Your pain isn’t pointless. You’ve no idea what I’m planning on doing with you both!”

Nearly two decades later, God brings me back to that moment on a consistent basis. At the time, I had been so angry at my Jesus for apparently not hearing my prayer for Heaven. However, I had no idea He was using my seemingly unanswered prayer, and my journey through it, to glorify Himself in the life of someone who needed Him to do big things.

Surrender isn’t always beautiful. But it is, in fact, always for the same purpose: To let the world know our God is real, and He is faithful to make Himself known to those who call on Him.

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~ Written by Samantha Freds

Christmas is a season of anticipation. Children of all ages struggle to sleep the night before Christmas as their little hearts are filled with excitement of the next morning. Families have countdown calendars and preparatory traditions leading up to the joyous day. The Christmas season should remind us of another season of anticipation long ago.

For generations, Israel awaited the promised Messiah. Parents and grandparents would have gathered their children around to tell them the prophesies of the One who was to save them. They anxiously awaited freedom from Roman oppression. They expected a Savior King.

They got an infant. A baby so weak it could be contained in a blanket. A child so insignificant he was born among animals and laid in a feeding trough. Jesus was far from what they expected.

But as he grew, there was promise of greatness. He impressed the religious teachers in the temple as a boy. He performed miracles and drew huge crowds when he spoke.

Then the real unexpected happened. Jesus stood silent before his accusers next to a political insurrectionist named Barabbas. Barabbas was a voice in the rebellion. He was the leader Israel wanted. So though Pilate didn’t think Jesus was guilty under Roman law, his death was called for by the very people he came to save.

They were disappointed with Jesus.

Are you disappointed with Jesus? Has He been too slow in answering your heart’s deepest prayer? Did you expect Him to rush in and save the day? Are you wondering where the mighty Savior is? Have you been hurt by the lack of justice in your life or in the life of someone you love?

If you are disappointed with Jesus know you are not alone. And know that Jesus isn’t deterred by your disappointment. His love is unconditional. He knew He would be despised and rejected, but He came anyway. This season we celebrate the birth of a Savior who exceeded all expectations when He willingly went to the cross for each and every one of us.

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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

I realized the Pilgrims were kindred spirits the year I turned nine. Up until then, I hadn’t thought much about people who landed in the United States, half a world away from where my family lived, and celebrated a season of thankfulness. Because Thanksgiving wasn’t a holiday in the country where my parents were missionaries, the fourth Thursday of November was just another school day a few weeks before the start of summer vacation.

That year, my parents decided to put on a Thanksgiving dinner to share our culture with some of the people they were working with. Mom was seven months pregnant with her fourth child, and I suspect she was craving stuffing and pumpkin pie. Dad talked to some friends who said they knew a butcher who might have turkeys, so the day before the celebration we all piled into the car to drive across the city to check it out.

We three kids waited in the hot car for what seemed like an hour before Mom and Dad came out of the butcher shop empty-handed. That shop didn’t have turkeys, but they referred us to someone in another part of the city who might have some. That shop ended up referring us to another, and so it went.

Four hours later, we still had no turkey. It was starting to get dark. We were all hot, tired, and irritable. The tension in the car was palpable. Frustrated, I said, “I bet the Pilgrims didn’t have this much trouble getting a turkey for Thanksgiving!”

My parents laughed and my younger siblings wanted to know what Pilgrims were. As Mom and Dad explained, with me jumping in to share what little I knew, the mood in the car became thoughtful, almost reverent. We talked about what it meant to leave family and friends and struggle in a new land. We talked about gratitude and why it was important.

I think it was my little sister who said, “Can we pray that God will give us a turkey?” Somehow it suddenly seemed important to celebrate such a crucial holiday. We prayed as we drove to the last-hope butcher. Sure enough, they had a (very scrawny) turkey.

The next day, we sat down to a feast reminiscent of the pictures I’d seen in magazines. All was great until we bit into the turkey. It was one tough bird! Before we could complain, Mom said brightly, “I bet the turkey the Pilgrims ate was tough, too.” We laughed, and I decided I could really identify with those Pilgrim children.

Tough turkey and all, we had a lot to be thankful for.

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