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~ Written by Viki Rife

I have to admit, I’m a sucker for fox pups. A mother fox uses our barn every few years to raise her litter. When I watch these furry little balls of energy playing on the lawn by the barn, my heart melts. I love how the first time the mother brings them out, they have to leap high with each step just to get through the grass. I love watching them wrestle with each other, tumbling over and over as they roll down the hill. I hold my breath when a car whizzes down our road, hoping they don’t run in front of it.

As I enjoy and protect the young foxes, however, I manage to deliberately forget they won’t be cute balls of fur for very long. A time will come when I’ll hear a neighbor complaining about losing their free-range chickens. Or, as happened a few years ago, we’ll wake up to find the remains of a fawn in our yard. Cute, fluffy little foxes become sly and wily big foxes who can do a lot of damage. I know the foxes don’t belong in our neighborhood, but I overlook that knowledge and let them stay in our barn.

Unfortunately, I often view my pet sins as innocent bouncy balls of fur, instead of foreseeing their sneaky, deadly outcomes. I give them a safe place to grow, and I even enjoy their antics for a season, until they are big and strong enough to bring consequences into my life. They are so hard to get rid of once they’ve taken over! Lately I’ve been using the fox metaphor to keep reminding myself: “This seems like a tiny, innocuous sin, but someday it will get the best of you. Don’t let it stay in your barn. It has no place in your life.”

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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 Tabby McMonagle

“Oh, no!” I exclaimed out loud as I waited for my appointment. Luckily, I was in the waiting room alone.

As soon as I got home, I set out to mend the hole I’d discovered in my jeans. I lovingly took my time, careful to fix the hole without compromising the comfort of the jeans. After, I observed my work and decided I was satisfied. My favorite jeans had been spared.

A week or so later, I was at my ukulele lessons and found another hole. My heart sank. The realization of what was to come began to settle in. My jeans, although mendable, are nearing the end of their life with me. I am going to have to buy a new pair of jeans.

For a few months now I have felt this tugging on my heart. I have tried to figure it out in vain. I even went as far to tell God I didn’t understand what He was asking me to do. AllI knew was it felt uncomfortable and I didn’t want to do it. This morning in my prayer time I felt the tugging again. Then I thought of my jeans.

Sometimes what brings us comfort works for a little while, but when the time is right, God asks to give up our old rags and turn them in for His new garments. It is not that God’s clothes are uncomfortable, it is that they are new and I have to be willing to take off my old favorite clothes to receive the new gifts God has prepared for me.

Dear Lord, Sometimes I get so attached to what I know that trying new things is hard. Please help me to let go of old behaviors and ways so that You can have Your way in me.

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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 Cassie Rayl

Our New Year didn’t come in the way I had hoped. Although our plans hadn’t been huge, New Year’s was potentially the last holiday my husband, Peter, and I had before our son, Judah, arrives in early April. Ideas of games, movies, junk food and laughter were all I had thought about for days.

Instead, there were bowls strategically placed between the bathrooms so  I would be prepared any time my nausea hit. Peter militantly checked my blood pressure, managed my new medications, and gently understood when sleeping seemed better than looking at his face. As miserable as I was, I giggled every time Judah kicked my ribs.

Relief was on the horizon, though. My medical team had jumped into action, and as soon as my body adapted to new medications, I’d be okay. Still, I wasn’t focused on Jesus, joy, or Judah. I was adamantly focused on how God hadn’t given me what I wanted for the New Year.

At some point in my pity party, I heard the Spirit whisper to my heart, “Will you sing me a song? Will you bring in the New Year praising me anyway? You’re obviously miserable. Will you actually let me help you refocus? Or would you rather just hear yourself complain?”

The songs started out quite begrudgingly, let me tell you. Honestly, I started singing out of mere obedience. Before I knew it, though, I wasn’t focusing on my discomfort, missed plans, or even my fears over my health or the health of our son. I was just singing to the Man who first called me Beloved. My thirty-minute, possibly-off-tune worship session ended in joy simply because God had shifted my perspective from myself to Him.

I’m fairly certain we’re all realizing that the strike of midnight on January 1st didn’t make our lives a bed of roses. As Christ has continually challenged me, I extend that same challenge to you: When your heart is filled with what you don’t have and what you can’t control in this new year, praise God anyway.

Even in times of uncertainty, focusing on our First Love is always the answer to finding freedom and living in joy.

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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

It was just another gray morning in the Midwest, not helped by the prospect of an early morning doctor’s appointment. It had been a rough night, mulling over a number of challenges, disappointments and “what ifs.” As we drove past the lake, the rising sun broke through the clouds and aimed straight for the opposite bank. Suddenly, it felt like the world was transformed. The colors of the trees left us breathless. The whole world now seemed alive and vibrant. It only lasted five minutes, but it was worth stopping and savoring the moment.

Sometimes I forget that my God is light and can see colors and nuances I can’t. Sometimes I feel like I’m trudging along in a gray, dreary world. Then, when I stop creating my own clouds and let His perspective enter my thinking, His light helps me see what is really there, in all its glory.

I keep this picture handy to remind me that what I see isn’t the full story. All it takes to change my view is to open the way for God’s light.

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~ Written by Samantha Freds

Earlier this summer, the hydrangea plant in the landscaping around my house started sprouting an odd-looking stem. When I first saw it I thought, “That’s a weed, I should pull it up.” But then I started to look closer and suddenly wasn’t sure exactly what it was. The leaves, though a darker color, looked like the rest of the plant. They all had jagged edges. I lifted the leaves to trace the stems to the roots and I could not separate the stems of this thing from the flower. I thought, “Let’s just see what happens. I don’t remember what it looked like last year.” So I left it.

Before long, the weed completely took over! You could hardly see the hydrangea under the looming weed. And it took everything my husband had to wrestle it out of there. We attacked the root with a shovel and took turns twisting and pulling until finally he was able to yank it out.  When he did, we realized that the root of the weed had grown about a foot directly into the roots—the foundation—of the flower.

That is exactly what happens in our thought life when we do not take captive the thoughts that threaten us, threaten our identity, security and freedom in Christ, the reality of who we are because of Him. It’s what happens when we let thoughts run wild about other people. When we compare ourselves to them or make quick judgments about them.

It’s what happens when concerns and worries about our circumstances plant themselves so strongly in our minds they threaten to steal our joy. And it is certainly what happens when our thoughts tempt us toward all kinds of destructive habits and attitudes. Even while everything on the outside still seems to blend in, that pesky little thought is burrowing its way into our very core.

We don’t have to be held hostage by our thoughts. Instead, we can tell them the truth about who God says we are in Him!

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