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~ Written by Cassie Rayl

Two years ago, my mom bought me a lilac bush for our first home. Her gift left me—someone whose thumb is more brown than green—equally elated and terrified. I was even more scared when she told me it wouldn’t bloom for at least the first year. How in the world am I supposed to know if it died or not? I thought in a panic.

The bush was dutifully planted where I would see it every day and remember to water it. I inevitably forgot about it, anyway—just like every other “brown thumb” I know. Occasionally, I’d water the plant faithfully for a few weeks, but overall, I was just too exhausted by life to spend much time nurturing it.

Imagine my surprise when my husband announced one day from his view of our backyard, “Hey! It’s blooming! The lilac bush. It actually has flowers on it!” I had considered the bush just another lost cause, but it had survived multiple years of not-so-great care and bloomed anyway.

Sometimes, it can seem like we all have a spiritual brown thumb. We come before the Throne of Grace and mutter, “This is all I have the energy to offer, Lord.” Seeds of belief and strength have been sown, but it’s hard to keep the faith when our faith feels dormant.

If that’s your experience, take courage. Maybe you’re like my lilac bush, and God’s allowing those seeds of truth to rest hidden in your heart for a time. Just because I couldn’t see the lilac bush’s growth didn’t mean it wasn’t there. If God can make a plant bloom after years of dormancy, he can do the same beautiful transformation in our hearts as well.

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~ Written by Tabby McMonagle

Have you have ever seen salmon during spawning season? Thousands of salmon struggle against the current to reach their destination of calm pools where they can lay their eggs. In their pursuit of survival they end up fighting against their own kind.

This past year I have felt like a salmon. First it was masks or no masks, then it was this president or that president, and now it is vaccine or no vaccine. I always admired salmon for their strength and determination, but I never wanted to be one.

I am not alone in all the mixed feelings and thoughts swirling around from the impact of the last year. People talk about a new normal, but aren’t we all reaching for the old one? Although we may get back to our daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly trips, will relationships will get back to the old normal?

I want to be human again. I want to have a simple conversation without conflicting opinions on this or that. I want to talk about what is important like how are you, and how are you managing it? Because that is the real matter at hand.

The last year has unveiled diversity of thought. I find it hard to rest easy re-emerging into friendships because we are no longer focused on common ground. I don’t want to be so shallow as to cut off relationships of those who think differently than myself. I love my people with an undying passion.

The truth is we are called to be like salmon. We are called to go against the flow of this world. We are not; however, called to fight amongst ourselves.

Lord, help us keep our eyes on you through the strong currents.

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~ Written by Viki Rife

Out for a walk during a break at the South Focus Retreat last week, I passed an animal that had been killed on the road. I didn’t think much of it until on the way back, I saw a bald eagle land near it. The
eagle tried to pick up the roadkill, but could only get it about six inches off the ground. The eagle flew less than a foot before it sank to the ground, the meat still in its claws. As I approached, it tried time and time again to fly with its burden.

It reminded me of the conversation I’d had earlier in the week with a friend about Isaiah 40:31, which talks about how those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength and will soar with wings like
eagles.

This eagle certainly wasn’t soaring. Why not? Because it was trying to carry something much too big for it! Does that sound familiar? It sure struck me. God says we will soar with wings like eagles, but even
eagles can’t soar when weighed down like that. Our worries and cares were never meant to be carried by us. God wants us to put our hope in Him so we can truly soar.

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~Written by Cassie Rayl

 If respecting Sean was hard, loving him was harder. From the day we met everything he said was mean, disrespectful, lewd, crude, and rude. He was one of those older gentlemen any decent person would follow around, if only to mutter, “I’m sorry; he shouldn’t have said that” to Sean’s latest victim. There was nothing wrong with Sean; he just didn’t like people.

The only thing he seemed to hate more than people was Jesus Christ. When most of his family came to the Lord, that somehow made his negativity worsen. We all watched the years go by thinking, “Lord, no heart is too hard, but will Sean ever see you?” In our human estimations, it definitely didn’t seem like it!

Just hours before he passed away from a fast-acting illness, the proverbial scales fell from Sean’s eyes, and he begged his family to lead him to the Lord. What victory! Sean would end his harsh life knowing full-well the saving grace and mercy of his savior, Jesus Christ. We all rejoiced him into Heaven, relieved that his fight was over.

Well, almost all of us. A young woman pulled me aside and simply asked, “How can Jesus have mercy on such a horrible man? It seems to me he’s the last person who deserves Christ’s mercy. Sean was evil!”

Although I didn’t share her sentiment, I understood it. How often have I decided Jesus’ limitless mercy was enough to cover my sins, but not the sins of those who left so many wounded? Jesus easily forgives my sins. Things like: gluttony, dishonesty, and pride. But isn’t there a different scale for the “bigger” sins which consigns the sinner in his wretchedness where he deserves to be?

The reality is, we can’t short-change the mercy of God over someone we believe has committed a greater offense. If we do that, we completely change the story of salvation and what makes Jesus different from any other false god.

We’ve all fallen short of the glory of God. Jesus’ mercy isn’t fair, but it is what makes his love large enough to rescue the world.

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~Written by Cassie Rayl

“Is that all you have to say? Aren’t you gonna fix this like you’ve fixed everything else?” My friend’s disappointment in my response to his crisis broke my heart. I really had done my best to always rescue him in the past. Once upon a time, fixing loved ones’ issues is where I secretly found my worth. I truly believed I always had their best interest at heart.

And yet, when my lifelong friend’s world crashed yet again, this time I firmly heard the Spirit whisper, “Do not steal my glory, Child.”

Tears came to the surface. I obediently gritted my teeth and repeated, “I’m sorry you’re angry. I’m sorry this doesn’t make sense. God is big enough to hear those complaints and handle your anger.” As I knew would be the case, my words did not go over well.

Our phone call ended on a sweet note, but I could tell he felt like I had ripped the already-shaking ground out from under him. But I couldn’t stop mentally repeating what the Spirit had just whispered moments before, “Don’t steal my glory.”

As is often shared among Christians, “Our ways are not God’s ways.” It’s tempting to find an easier path. It feels better to tangibly do something for a loved one in crisis, rather than stand in the wings merely praying. It’s more comfortable to try doing God’s work for him rather than stand by and watch someone suffer.

Right?

But when we push ahead of God, we steal his glory. Spiritual growth is born in crisis, and if we take away the crisis, we cripple the other person’s ability to see Jesus for who he is.

After all, in the end, do we want people to need Jesus and know he can handle anything, or need us and watch as we fail them every time?

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~ Written by Viki Rife

I thought I was done with Christmas for another year. As I drove up to my house the other day, though, I realized the Christmas decoration on the front door had been overlooked in packing up. Boldly it proclaimed, “Joy to the World.”

My first thought was, “It doesn’t belong there now.” My next one was, “Why not?”

I had been feeling like the year had gotten off to a rough start. Suddenly, the responsibility of truly bringing joy to the world hit me. The joy we expect to have at Christmas was intended to be for every day of the year. It has nothing to do with presents or family gatherings. Joy is something we can choose to have no matter what our circumstances. It is an attitude we can convey to the watching world around us as we rejoice in who our God is.

Can 2021 be a year of joy, even if nothing is going the way we hoped? Let’s resolve this year to celebrate daily the joy of personally knowing the Savior of the world. Our choice to live in joy instead of complaining, criticizing or despairing will do more to draw the world to Christ than anything else we could do.

As God’s dearly loved children, let’s focus together this year on bringing joy to the world.

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~ Written by Viki Rife

Three days before Christmas, as I prepared for my morning devotions, I sat and just cried instead. It was the third anniversary of my father’s death, and we lost my mom this year as the shadow of Covid-19 kept us from ministering to her as we would have liked.

Through my tears, I finally was able to open my Bible to the bookmark where I had left off. I read:

So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord,for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:6-10).

It was a timely reminder of the joy my parents are experiencing and what I hope to experience some day. However, more than comfort, it gave me resolve for the upcoming year.

For many of us, 2020 is the year we’d like to forget. The fact that 2021 is starting under the same cloud has been weighing on me. But courage says that whether we are in our body or away from it, we make it our aim to please God. That’s all I have to do: seek to please him every day, even when the media is assaulting me with threatening headlines or my body is experiencing symptoms that could be Covid. Seek to please him whatever happens in 2021.

How would the world change if we truly walked by faith, not sight, and sought to just please God? So many anxious, fearful moments would be avoided! So much anger and bitterness would be dissolved.

Please God. Just seek to please God. May that be our focus for this new year!

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~ Written by Viki Rife

Maybe it’s because Christmas is coming, but lately I’ve found myself checking our credit score more often. It’s almost a compulsion. What if I accidentally forgot to make some payment? What if our credit score drops?

The funny part is that it really doesn’t matter. In the first place, we’re not planning on using our credit card for any Christmas shopping we can’t pay back at the end of the month. In the second place, I hear that a credit score only makes a difference if you’re trying to borrow money, which we have no plans to do.

So why do I have to keep checking that score? Basically, because I have a competitive spirit. It’s so intense, I even have to compete against myself! Is my number better than it was last month? I just have to check!

It’s not just credit scores which compel me to use math to one-up myself. It’s the number of steps I take a day. It’s how many leftovers are in serving-sized containers in our freezer in case we get Covid and are quarantined with no strength to cook.

Maybe that competitive attitude is what makes me wish Jesus would just give me a neat number by my name, telling me how pleased He is with me this month. Then I could know whether I need to try harder or if maybe I can go easy on myself.

Of course, that sounds extreme, but I wonder how many of us have that mentality deep in our hearts. As long as I can keep my credit score with Jesus in the right number range, I’m okay. He doesn’t oblige us, though. He keeps us on our toes by choosing to relate to us in deep ways that math could never measure.

I’m so grateful this season that he’s not just our scorekeeper—He is God With Us!

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~ Written by Cassie Rayl

His question couldn’t have come at a harder time. I had just lost my job and was walking the tightrope of paying the bills but knowing my heart was called to ministry. It felt more hopeless than it was, but at 21, I was convinced God had it out for me.

Then, to pour salt on the wound, a deacon in my church approached me and asked, “If God provided a sustainable job for you where your main job was to pray for the Body of Christ and its ministries, would you take it?”

What? I remember exclaiming mentally. I mean, absolutely, but there’s no way God could do that. None. Thanks for reminding me ministry doesn’t pay, friend.

Still, my mind wandered through his inquiry for months. What would that look like? Is it feasible? Are there really employers out there who just want believers behind them as a prayer force? If that’s true, sign me up! Ultimately, my dreams of having an office with an ever-growing online prayer database and a warm reading chair to pray in eight hours a day never turned into reality.

I think often of my friend’s inquiry about getting paid to pray for a living. My current job is the farthest thing from “ministry” I’ve gotten in my lifetime as an employee. I sit at a computer and punch numbers, verifying an endless number of accounts and faceless customers. It’s a blessing of a job for my family’s current situation, but it’s not the glorious ministry position I once envisioned.

And yet, the job pays. My mind is allowed to wander often, and it wanders towards people and ministries within the Body of Christ. Often, while inputting data, my mind is in the Throne Room, interceding for whoever comes to mind. Eight hours out of the day, if my spirit is willing, I’m paid to pray.


This year has countless people—including myself—muttering, “This isn’t what I wanted!” It’s so easy to focus on the negativity that statement presents, and yet, what if we just need to step back and look for how God works within the shadows of these otherwise-inconvenient changes?

After all, of all the things that have changed, Christ and his character have not.

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~ Written by Viki Rife

I used to think people who talk to their plants were a bit strange. Not any more.

I caught myself talking to my geraniums a few days ago. They’re having a hard time. All summer they thrive and bloom on the deck, enjoying the sun and fresh air. In the winter I bring them into my improvised greenhouse in the garage. They have a grow light, controlled temperature (although colder than they’re used to), and I still water them. But each year, they start looking dejected after the move indoors.

So I felt sorry for them, and as I cut off dead leaves and blooms, I found myself whispering: “I know you weren’t made for this. You were meant for much more. Just hang on through this season, and in due time you’ll be out in the sun where you can truly thrive.”

Then it hit me: God must look at me the same way. I wasn’t made for this world. It is so artificial compared with what He intended when He created us! I picture him watching me struggle along through life in less than ideal circumstances, and I hear him whisper: “Just hang on through this season. When you come home to Me you will truly thrive.”

Of all the things I’m thankful for today, this is the greatest: I can hang on during this season of life on earth because I know greater things are coming. Deeply grateful that I have a future and a hope.

For our God, death is the fulfillment of what He created us for. He will help us hold on until we can bloom in all His glory.

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