December 6 – Open Letters – Solitude – Part 2

Read 1 Peter 5:8

Dear Solitude,

In yesterday’s letter, I wrote about the good side of your coin – the heads side – spending time alone with Jesus. Today I’m writing you about the dark side of your coin – those times when I approach you, Solitude, as if I was entirely alone with no one to hear my thoughts. Tails! Solitude, on this side, you are bad.

The words of a song by Paul Simon came to mind as I pondered writing this letter to you.

Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence

Acting as if I am spiritually alone always ends in destruction.  On this dark side of you, Solitude, the Evil One comes masquerading like an old friend.  When I “talk with darkness,” his lies are veiled as a lovely vision. A vision that softly creeps up on me in ways so insidiously believable it leaves seeds of deception, where I am most likely to be misled.  Next, when I’m “asleep at the wheel”, those seeds sprout and bloom into more visions in my brain. Then slowly, quietly and steadily, I am overtaken. Unless, that is, I recognize these deceptions by holding the visions up to what I see in the truths of the Scriptures.

The other part I’ve learned of your bad side, Solitude, is that I am most vulnerable when I am not in community with other Christ followers. Why do I say that? Because 1 Peter 5:8 tells me that the Enemy is a prowling lion: “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” I don’t watch a lot of Animal Planet, but this much I’ve seen: predators look for those animals away from the protection of the herd. A little sheep is having a good time wandering by itself, munching on some tasty grass. The next instant, a lion springs out of nowhere and that poor little lamb is now dinner. That lamb gets devoured, much like I can be, if I wander from the protection of the Body of Christ. When I believe the lie that I can live successfully in spiritual aloneness, it gets ugly.

What have I learned about your bad side, Solitude? I must always be wary of any feeling that I am altogether alone; wary of any voice that would whisper to me in the “darkness.” And lastly, I am most protected when I stay close to The Good Shepherd and the rest of the Flock.  That’s one of the reasons why we, at Grace, say “Life is Better Together!”

December 5 – Open Letters – Solitude – Part 1

Read Luke 5: 15,16

Dear Solitude,

I like you and I don’t. You are good and you are evil. Like a coin with two sides.

Heads! Solitude, on one side, you are good:

 “Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”

In this passage I read that Christ often spent time alone, apart from everyone, including His disciples. Away from the clamor, the questions, and the attention; no distractions like the sound of a cell phone buzzing with text messages or email notifications.  Oh, there might have been the sound of a bird singing or a donkey in the distance.  But, for the most part, just silence. And in that wonderful side of you, Solitude, I imagine there were no voices, aside from the conversation in His head with His dad.

Was Jesus just tired of being around people?  No.

I’m reminded, Solitude, of John 13:18b – “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” Christ doesn’t just LIKE us. He doesn’t read our Facebook status, hit the “like” button, and move on.  He loves us deeply. And He stays by our side because it is where He wants to be. Unlike two small siblings strapped into car seats and forced to ride together in the back seat of a car on an eternally long road trip, our Savior will never leave us nor forsake us – not because He is stuck with us, but because He thoroughly desires to be next to us for the entire ride.

Did Jesus grow weary of healing the multitude of folks whose bodies and spirits were broken? No, again.

God’s only Son, in whom all power and authority had been placed (Ephesians 1:20-23), allowed Himself to be confined within the physical limitations of a human body. Surely, there were times when He became “bone weary.”  Yet, Jesus understood well His mission and the power He had been given to complete it. That same incredible power made available to us. (Ephesians 1:19-21)

Your “Heads” side, Solitude? Solitude with God can be empowering, comforting, soothing.

I’ll have more to say to you tomorrow, Solitude, when I talk to you about your other side – the bad side of your coin.

December 4 – Open Letters – Human Approval

Read 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12

Dear Human Approval,

You are a hard task master. In our desire for your applause, we have pushed ourselves to the limits and then listened for your response:

  • … At times, you seemed to offer only criticism rather than compliments. The only thing people seemed to notice was how we could have done better. Don’t you know how important your “thumbs up” is to us?
  • …Sometimes, you said nothing. There was only silence instead of recognition. No one voiced anything – good or bad. Didn’t you see how hard we worked and how noteworthy the outcome was?
  • …Yes, there were times when you acknowledged our efforts and praised our efforts. Still, we often yearned for more than you delivered. And even what approval you offered felt like pressure from you that we had to deliver even more and better next time.

You have exhausted and disappointed us!

So, we are trading you in. Like the apostle Paul in today’s reading, we are choosing God’s approval rather than yours (v. 4). We have so often found that our motives get all messed up when we perform for the wrong audience (v. 3). So, we are intentionally deciding to pursue His praise and not that of people (v. 6). Even when the human opposition and criticism seem most threatening, we refuse to change our message or our response (v. 2).

Instead, today and from this day forward, we are playing to an audience of one – the God of heaven. Although we don’t always sense His immediate response, we know that it is ultimately before Him and before Him alone that we will one day stand (2 Cor. 5:10). It is His approval we seek. It is His “Well done, good and faithful servant!” we long to hear. He is the One who calls us to give our best while also recognizing that our inherent abilities may differ from those with whom we have so often compared ourselves (Matt. 25:14-30).

My prayer: Father, forgive me of my insecurity that has caused me to pursue the applause of people. I give myself from this day forward to pleasing you and you alone.

December 3 – Open Letters – Perfectionism

Read Galatians 1:10

Dear Perfectionism,

Really? How can I be perfect when I am human? How can I expect everybody else to be perfect when they are human? Quit bugging me!

Major League Baseball has been around for 140 years. In that span there have been 210,000 games played and just 23 perfect games have been thrown. And you expect me to be perfect?

I see all of these people on social media who seem to be perfect. Why can’t I achieve that? How can I learn to forgive myself?  I want to LEARN from my mistakes and grow as a Christian. I am encouraged by the song, MESS OF ME, as Switchfoot sings:

“Oh, when you can’t forgive yourself!
There ain’t no drug –

The sickness is myself.”

Are you even attainable?

I am always chasing you. But you and all your expectations are always with me. I try so hard to keep everyone happy. I try so hard to keep things in order, to make others feel good, to do things the right way, to be all that I can be – and to be who others want to see. This actually can be pretty tiring. Am I trying to do the impossible for the ungrateful? You, Perfectionism, leave me discouraged and wishing I could be better.

I know God’s Word gives me great hope on how to get out from under you – you burden of perfectionism! Galatians 1:10 hits it head on: “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”

Excellence is the quality of being outstanding or extremely good. I will now strive for excellence, not perfection. I will discard you. Instead, I can achieve excellence. You, Perfectionism, are causing me unnecessary stress. Through prayer, perseverance and learning from mistakes, I can defeat you.

Colossians 3:23 says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for God, not men”.  You know what? I CAN DO THAT. AND I AM GOING TO DO THAT! Goodbye, Perfectionism. Hello, Excellence.

“Gentlemen, we will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while we can never attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence.”Vince Lombardi, winning coach of Super Bowl I & II.

December 2 – Open Letters – Expectations

Read Ecclesiastes 2:1-26

Open Letter to Expectations:

We all have them! Expectations are a part of our existence. Fulfilled expectations bring great joy! We receive the college of choice, job of choice, spouse of choice, the family, the house…you get the picture!  What about the experiences that finish the sentence…”I didn’t expect that…!”?

I am overjoyed with the parents I had, the spouse I have, the children I am blessed with, grandchildren. On the flip side, I didn’t expect to see my mom pass away when I was 25, I didn’t expect my children to have such struggles in life, and I didn’t expect to lose a grandson before I could kiss his cheek. You can finish the same statements with your own lists of joys and unexpected sorrows. This is life “under the sun.”  

For a little more than two years, a friend and I studied and talked about the book of Ecclesiastes. King Solomon is on a quest for meaning in life and is passionate in his pursuits to experience purpose and joy. He builds parks and houses and “denies himself nothing that his eyes desire; and refuses his heart no pleasure.”  He says “that his heart takes delight in his labor and that is the reward.” He expected this satisfaction.  It just didn’t last long enough. He surveys all that his hands had done and all he achieved and then admits that it has no meaning. He was looking for eternal fulfillment in a temporary earthly existence. We are like Solomon.

Do you remember who Solomon’s father was?  David.  He was, as a boy, a shepherd. I’m sure he didn’t expect to be a warrior for his nation and then a king.  As a shepherd, he writes a beautiful poem that refers to God as his shepherd. (Ps.23)

He is my Good Shepherd and His sovereignty is a quality no human has.  I praise Him because He was behind my existence and He is with me each moment of my existence and He goes before me and knows how many days my existence on earth will be.  

King Solomon admits that “everything is meaningless.” The Good Shepherd says, “I come so they may have life and have it to the full.” (John 10:10) Will my expectations rule me or will I let the Good Shepherd lead me?

Through this song, be reminded of His goodness, regardless of the fulfillment of our earthly expectations. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EpqSbKYxd9Y

December 1 – Open Letters – Depression

Read 1 Samuel 2:2

Dear Depression,

It is safe to say that you and I have an on-again off-again relationship. When you come back into my life, you hit me like a ton of bricks. It’s like a tug of war in my head; you’re on one side and Truth from God’s Word is on the other side…pulling, back and forth, as I sit in the middle and the dust from the struggle fills my mind as I wait for clarity.

You are a part of my story, my history. However, when you come for a visit, I am not me. I forget who I am and whose I am.

We met when I was a young child and I trained myself to depend on you through tough times. Yet, here I am, almost 30 years old, a believer and follower of Christ and someone who walks in the Truth that His Word is authoritative. I believe He IS Good but, when you are here, you come as life hits and it’s hard to get out of the hole that is you.

BUT…

That authoritative Truth, the words that are proclaimed by a powerful God, are mine too – verses that were a result of hard lessons learned alongside you and Him.

And so… when you come to visit, I will repeat them more to myself. Every time I need to step out of the hole or get up from between the tug of war, I will walk to His side and depend on His clarity. You may have won this battle before, but the war has already been won and I am no longer enslaved to the words that come along with your presence.

So I will say…

“There is no one holy like the Lord, Indeed, there is no one besides You.  Nor is there any rock like our God” – 1 Samuel 2:2

“Blessed be the Lord, Because He has heard the voice of my supplication. The Lord is my strength and my shield; My heart trusts in Him, and I am helped. Therefore my heart exults, and with my song I shall thank Him.” – Psalm 28:6-7

“The steadfast of mind You will keep in perfect peace, Because he trusts in You” – Isaiah 26:3

You may come for a visit, you may come to fill the space around me with lies but my God is good and He is my rock.

November 30 – Open Letters – Anger

Read James 1:19-20

In the coming days, you are going to be reading some Open Letters that our team has written to emotions, struggles and issues that we have either observed or experienced. It is our prayer that these letters will encourage you, if you are struggling with the same, to see and experience healing and deliverance through Jesus. He is and always will be the solution to our problems. However, our problems are still a struggle within us.

Allow me to share such a struggle from my life:

Dear Anger,

There’s no real reason why you play such a big role in my life. I wasn’t raised in an angry household. Through my many years of church attendance, I have been surrounded by many people who are loving and supportive. Regardless, I have always been someone that allows you to control much more of my life than you deserve.

Experiences in Jr. High and High School didn’t help. Being an afterthought to many people, being told I wasn’t strong enough…tough enough. Being told eye-to-eye that, “You don’t have what it takes…”. I have often allowed you to well up to the surface and to hurt people that I love the most. Because of the damage you caused, I feel like apologizing to people I’ve hurt over and over. They deserved better.

I was freed from you.

James tells us in his letter:

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”

You do not produce the righteousness that God desires. I’m done giving you control in my life. I live to serve my Lord. I will continue to challenge myself to be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to give in to you. I will learn to forgive as others have forgiven me. The people who caused me such pain are your children as well. If you have forgiven me, why shouldn’t I forgive them?

I am dedicating myself to pursuing the righteousness that God desires. I won’t allow the small things to matter so much. I’m done with allowing my past to define my future. God has created me for so much more than you.

My past won’t define me. You will not define me.

Allow me to conclude this letter by quoting a song lyric:

“Here’s to a past I’ll never need
No ‘here’s to you’
Rest in peace”

November 29 – 10 Commandments – Don’t Covet

Read Exodus 20:17

“Covet” is a strange word that is not used very much these days but is practiced all the time.  

According to the dictionary, “covet” is a verb that means “to yearn to possess or have something.”  God first lists your neighbor’s house and wife but goes on to include anything that belongs to your neighbor.  That can be possessions, positions in life, perceived happiness, talent, fame, or fortune. It goes beyond just the old practice of “keeping up with the Joneses.” It is a yearning, a feeling of intense longing for something.  

When feelings get intense, one usually takes action to get whatever it is they want.  Does that lead to adultery, robbery,  or despair? Despair leads to heartache and pain. The underlying cause is that one is not happy with their OWN life, talents, possessions, or status in life.

Hollywood is a multi-billion dollar business to make you covet the lives of their stars. Magazine covers, commercials, movies, tv and award shows are there to promote the “rich and famous.”  They are filled with pictures of grand mansions, beautiful clothes, thin bodies, luxury cars,  and diamond jewelry just to increase your yearning for more and more things. However, a closer look into the private lives of the rich and famous tells a completely different story of broken marriages, failed relationships, fake friendships, drugs, alcohol, and rehab and all for what?

There is nothing wrong with being inspired by people around you.  In fact, I remember thinking at my cousin’s college graduation, “If she can do it, so can I!”  So I went back to college and finished getting my degree!

Inspiration often means putting forth an effort to change or improve.   Inspiration + perspiration = success.  Coveting has the connotation of not earning what you want but wasting your time wishing for more and not being happy with what you do have. 

Some of the nicest and happiest people I know live in small homes, drive old cars, and their kids wear hand me down clothes. They might not have many material things, but they do have one thing that no amount of money can buy.  They have a close relationship with their Lord and Savior Jesus and their Heavenly Father! With that, they can close their eyes each night with a clear conscience and a blessed assurance that God is watching over them and their family.  No matter what life might throw their way, God is in control and will see them through it all.

Like George Bailey at the end of the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, when he didn’t get all the things he THOUGHT he wanted and nearly lost everything he already HAD, he found out that, with all the people who loved him, he was the “richest man in the world.”

Don’t throw away what God has given you, searching for happiness next door when happiness is right there in your own back yard!

Give thanks for what you have!

Pat Arnold

November 28 – 10 Commandments – Don’t Lie

(Today’s devotional is borrowed from the You Version plan, “The Ten Commandments: A 10-Day Devotional”.)

Read Exodus 20:16 and Proverbs 18:17.

The ninth commandment doesn’t cover just courtroom infractions. It deals with all manner of falsehoods. Throughout the Ten Commandments we’ve seen that God cares about justice. Why would He make laws against murder except that He cares about each person made in His image? Why would He make laws against stealing except that He cares about the right of private property? Here we see that God cares deeply about verbal justice. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” just isn’t true. Lies hurt people deeply. This command was meant to protect marriages, property, life, reputation, and honor.

Why is telling the truth so important? It’s important because it is the nature of God himself. “The Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret” (1 Sam. 15:29). What makes God *God* and not human? One answer is that He doesn’t lie—ever. “Let God be true though every one were a liar” (Rom. 3:4). As Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). It’s the nature of God himself.

Reflect

How is motive a factor in breaking or keeping the ninth commandment?

November 27 – 10 Commandments – Steal

Read Exodus 20:15

Looking back on my childhood, one of the things that I am most grateful for is that we were raised modestly. We didn’t have all the newest toys and gadgets but we always had what we needed. Sure, there were times where I wanted to get my hands on the newest PlayStation that my friends had or a smartphone when I still had a “dumb phone”. However, I never allowed those thoughts to resonate too much because there was a certain peace with being content.

That way of thinking has continued to be present as I have continued to grow older. When the new PlayStation 5 came out with a $500 price tag, I literally laughed out loud and said there was no chance I would get one anytime soon.

Every parent wants to give their kids what they want but, I would argue a better way of thinking and parenting is teaching and building contentment in the heart of your children and the next generation.

The command to not steal is another one of the “duh” commands through which we don’t need to explain much. We can all agree that taking something that doesn’t belong to you is wrong.

When you take the time to think deeper about the physical act of stealing, what causes one to do that?

Discontentment.

When you aren’t happy with what it is you have, you begin to entertain the thought of getting your hands on a better version of your outdated version…and who doesn’t like something that’s free?

While we can all agree that we shouldn’t steal, I will take my challenge a step further: in what way can you grow in your contentment with what God has given you?

Do you need to think about the people who aren’t lucky enough to have what you do? When you begin to think about a “first world problem” that you have, think about the amount of people who would do just about anything for what you aren’t content with.

Take a moment and think about the things you aren’t content with and change your discontent mindset to one of gratitude. Many people around the world are happy with what they have and it turns out to be a fraction of what you do.

Thank God for what you have and pray about ways that you can show contentment to those around you as well as opportunities to use what you have to further His Kingdom.

Jake Lawson