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~ Written by Cassie Rayl

The furnace had the potential to erase their faith instantly when you think about it. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego stood up for their faith in Yahweh. Their reward for doing so was to be thrown into a furnace so hot, it melted flesh and turned bone to dust.

Were these three men anything like me, I wonder? Did they proclaim their faith, confront the threat of death by fiery inferno, and then silently pray God would deliver them before the flames truly touched their skin? Wouldn’t that be just as powerful a divine plan as making His followers actually burn?

But that’s not what happened. The men were still conscious when they were tossed into the flame. They had made their allegiance to Yahweh clear, but I wonder if, even for a split second, they felt the heat on their faces and wondered if their faith was worth the burden.

In Daniel 3:24-25, we see a glimpse of the divine reason Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego weren’t rescued. King Nebuchadnezzar—the man who had ordered the men’s deaths—had to see how his power stacked up against Yahweh’s power. He had to see the flames. He had to see the trial take place. Only after he observed those things did he come to realize that Yahweh was truly God and worthy of worship.

More often than not, our own trials—our own fiery furnace—is so the world can see God at work in an undeniable way. No matter how hot the flames get, it is so the world can say with undeniable certainty, “God was with you in that fire.”

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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

Her mind had to be running in a hundred different directions. She knew the cultural expectations. The woman was more than aware she had broken the Law. When the religious leaders found her committing adultery, she must have started envisioning the pain of countless stones hitting her body.

She had committed sin; her crime was known. Death by the hands of those more righteous was her penalty. And yet, this rabbi—Jesus, son of Joseph—spoke words which somehow kept the righteous ones from carrying out their punishment. Whatever he said made the ruckus stand still, but she wasn’t sure what was to happen next.

The screaming and taunting may have died down, but she had already sealed her own fate. She knew she was as good as dead. Even though there was an unusual sense of peace and introspection in the air, I imagine she kept her eyes closed—begging for time to speed by and death to come quickly.

But it never came. Instead the gentle, firm voice of Jesus spoke to a broken woman in front of a shrinking crowd. “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” He asks. When she responded that no one had, Jesus responds simply yet profoundly, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”

I’ve sat in the rubble with that woman before. I know what it’s like to stand condemned. How many times have I gone before Jehovah, the Holy Judge, and ignored the grace in his eyes? Somehow, I’d forgotten that his love is deeper than my sin, and he truly can turn my life around. Sometimes, it can seem easier to swallow punishment rather than accept grace.

Yet, if we, just like the adulterous woman in John 8, look up and focus on Jesus, we quickly realize he wants to give us life! The only thing holding us back is our hesitation to trust that his mercy can truly make a difference.

What hope we’d experience if we simply trusted the Judge.

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~ Written by Viki Rife

I had struggled to walk across an icy parking lot on my previous stop, so I was determined to park as close to the door as possible on this one. There was one parking space only a few cars down—all the others were at the opposite end of the strip mall. I pulled into the space, trying to leave a bit of extra room to get out because the big black car on my drivers’ side was sitting over the line into “my” space.

I had forgotten, however, how limited my movement was because of a recent neck injury. As I started to get out, the car door touched the black car. I pulled the door back and tried again, holding the door carefully. As I maneuvered my foot onto the parking lot, however, I slipped on the ice and my door hit the car again. I tried once more, and my door touched the car, but at least I was out now. I carefully looked over the side of the black car and saw no sign of damage.

Walking gingerly alongside my car, I saw someone get out of the black car and head for me. A young woman, very irate. “Why are you beating up my car?” She exclaimed. “What do you think you’re doing?”

I’d like to say that I apologetically explained myself. But that isn’t what happened. I said, “There’s no damage. And by the way, you’re parked over the line.” With that I turned and made my way to my appointment, as she yelled after me that there were other parking spaces I could have used.

By the time I reached the door, I was thoroughly ashamed of myself. I think of myself as someone who is kind, caring, and concerned about others. But all I found in my heart was bitterness and a self-serving attitude. If things don’t go my way, it takes very little to get my defenses up.

The lesson I learned? The incident was a good reminder that I’m not as pure inside as I would like to think. I still react in fleshly ways on the slightest provocation. Praise God, though, there is hope. He is still working on me!

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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 Viki Rife

Anna felt all alone. The husband who had needed her care night and day over the past decade had just passed away. Her own health had deteriorated during that time. Now she was left with no friends, no family nearby, and the huge specter of anxiety and depression hanging over her. The isolation of the Covid shutdown had her almost paralyzed.

One morning she decided to make a list of things she could do that day. She grabbed her walker and made her way to the desk, where she found a notepad in the drawer. She started to write: Take a shower. Organize meds into a labeled contained so she would know which ones she had taken. Read a Psalm as a prayer. She was surprised at the satisfaction she got from checking each item off the list.

The next day her list was a bit bolder. Reorganize her sock drawer. Dust one room of the house. Write a get-well card to someone from church. Call Betty, her old high school friend she hadn’t talked to for years, just to catch up.

Betty was delighted to hear from her. Anna was struck by how little it takes to encourage someone else. After that, Anna made a point each day of including in her list at least one item that would bless or encourage someone else.

As time went on, she then started adding some occasion to celebrate God’s goodness each day. Eventually, the day came when she was able to sort and label a box of old photos, all the time thanking God for the memories rather than feeling sorry for herself. As she finished that project, the thought hit her: “I can choose to live in joy. And I’m doing it!”

Anna’s journey from anxiety and depression to joy seemed like a miracle to all of us. But as she summarized it: “Be Thankful. Bless others.”

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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

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 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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~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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