Surprise

I chose a sky blue shirt and a bright yellow coffee mug this morning in defiance of the grey, windy day out my window. When I first set foot outside I could smell the ice releasing its grip on the world, but I know it can’t last. It is only February after all. The temperatures are mild for the moment, and in just a few hours the clouds will roll in and bring a fresh layer of clean, white snow to play in. It will be at least a month before we really start to see the melt last longer than a moment or two, but I love the little reminders that you can’t hold back spring.

A few weeks ago I picked up a potted mixed-bulb mini garden. I was desperate for a burst of fresh, bright colour and these shy irises, long daffodils and fragrant hyacinths were ready for their big show! I shelled out the few bucks required and covered them carefully as I carried them to the car in the freezing cold air, hoping they would survive the ride home.

Thankfully, they did. I placed them at centre stage on top of the piano and left them alone to shine. The very next day, the daffodils had grown another few centimetres. Wow I thought. This plant is really bringing its A game! Not to be outdone, the hyacinth pushed itself out so far that it began to lean to the side. I had visions of an old science fiction movie where the unsuspecting lead character buys a lovely plant from a strange old lady and then brings it home only to find it has taken over her house the next morning! The next day I walked past the mini-garden, which was becoming less than mini every day. I stopped and turned around. What in the world?! Two bright yellow and orange tulips were shooting up past the covering of their green leaves.

I had no idea there were tulips in the garden at all!

How was this thing growing so fast? I watched it for a moment, at once realizing it was silly to expect to actually see the plants lengthen before my very eyes. But every time I looked back at it, it was taller, fuller, longer and brighter.

Amazing how things grow when we’re not paying attention. Suddenly, flowers burst into bloom that you didn’t even know were there.

What a truly wonderful surprise.

In John 15, Jesus says that He is the Vine and that we are the branches, and that if we truly want to live, we need to stay connected to Him.

“Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-5 NIV)

All the good things we see flowing through our lives are because of Jesus. Any bit of sacrificial love, greater joy, deeper peace, wider patience, extravagant kindness and goodness, steadfast faithfulness, incredible gentleness and self-control are all because of Christ. When we stay connected to the Vine, drawing our source of life from Him, we will experience His beauty overflowing in the most unexpected ways and most surprising places.

Isn’t that just the most incredible thing you’ve heard today?

tulip

A lovely surprise

Everyone is Growing Up

My holiday joy was mingled with the grief that comes from the unmistakeable reality of the passage of time.

Everyone is growing up.

Maybe it was the fact that for the first time ever my sister and I shared cooking duties for the entire holiday dinner on our own, or the realization that our home has become “The Christmas House” in my family, or that it seems entirely possible that we are finally growing out of the “my kids are sick all Christmas break from sharing little kid germs” phase of life.

Or maybe it was the big wedding.

My oldest niece got married at the end of December and I am now 100 years old. How did this sweet little baby I cuddled and rocked to sleep just last night, the one who made me an auntie in my teens, become this stunning bride before me?

I couldn’t look at her mama (my sister) during the ceremony. I cried for an entire day afterward. I really am happy for this new chapter in her life, and we all just love her new husband, but I am definitely having feelings about this whole growing up thing.

And she’s not even my child.

My parents entered a new decade of life last year and I didn’t think it would really make a difference for me, but it has. They’re gradually moving into their later years and I’m thinking about it more than I thought I would.

Birthday season has blown into our home with a vengeance. Of the four kids, three of them have winter birthdays within six weeks of each other. As we celebrate their next milestones and cheer them on in their growth and development, I can see the next stage on the horizon and I don’t know how I feel about that today.

We know change so well, don’t we? We can’t even fathom a life where things stay the same forever. Morning and night, day after day, month after month, we are living through the slow change of aging and seasons. I see it in the mirror, I witness it in my children, I experience it in the gradual lengthening of the daylight hours. We can count on it – and we do. Winter will end and spring will come. Summer follows, then fall brings its brilliance. Back to winter and we begin again.

Children become adults who become parents then grandparents. And the cycle continues.

An inescapable reality.

The other day I was reading a devotional that focussed on God’s immutability. He is the Unchanging One. It gave me pause for a moment. I realized that we as humans, we only know change. We understand change. We live through it and thrive because of it. And frankly, the concept immutability is so foreign to the human experience that I wonder if we truly appreciate just how incredible it really is. Like the constant north star, we catch a glimpse of it when we encounter God.

He Himself says he is unchanging (Malachi 3). He does not change like shifting shadows (James 3). He is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13). He laid the foundations of the world (Hebrews 1; John 1). He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end (Revelation 1).

What a remarkable truth to bring to bear in our lives! How does God’s immutability affect my current state of mind? My world is constantly changing and I am continually grieving losses while celebrating gains, knowing that through it all He never changes. His character, His will, His covenant promises – these will never be broken or removed. I have finally found Someone I can count on to be who He says He is, to do what He says He will do, to prove faithful generation after generation.

We may welcome it or we may lament it, but change is constant. Thankfully we are deeply loved by One who never changes, One on whom we can depend regardless of how our billows are rolling in this season.

Maybe you are in the throes of something that feels like too great a change to bear. Set your feet on the solid rock of Christ!

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” – Matthew 7:24 (NIV)

“For the Lord is good and His love endures forever, His faithfulness continues to all generations.” – Psalm 100:5 (NIV)

Thank you Lord that You are the solid foundation beneath my feet, and that You are good! Your love endures forever, Your faithfulness continues in my life even today with all its changes. As I navigate this part of my journey, I praise You for Your unchanging nature!

stars Arto Marttinen

Image by Arto Marttinen

What Now?

Christmas has come and gone for another year. The decorations are packed away and we’re moving forward with all our plans and goals, and yet, something from the season lingers in my heart and keeps returning to my mind.

A spark in the night. A flickering candle in the cold of winter.

The beautiful truth that light dispels darkness.

Over the Advent season I had been reflecting on some Old Testament scripture found in Isaiah 60:1 (NIV) – “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.”

And in Isaiah 9:6 (NIV) – “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”

Then, I came across this in John 1:1-5 (NIV) – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” 

And John 8:12 (NIV) – When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life’.”

Unbelievably, I’ve been catching glimpses of this everywhere! Again, earlier this week, I was reading Ephesians 5:8-10 (NIV) – “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord.”

Living as children of light isn’t a mystery. We don’t have to walk around wondering what to do next. We don’t have to hope we’re reading the signs around us correctly. Let’s begin by searching His Word for the kind of life that shines His light and watch the darkness around us flee.

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Winter sunlight on the trees

The Light Has Come

I got my first “are you ready for Christmas?” of the season earlier this week, and I replied with a laugh and a “well, almost!”.

I don’t know about you, but I sure want things to be “just so” before all the fun really gets going. And somehow you’d think I would have learned by now that life never quite goes that way. It’s the two-day process of decorating the Christmas tree because we just couldn’t get it all done in one day. It’s the decorations next to the laundry pile. Kids memorizing lines for the church Christmas play while home on a sick day. Adjusting plans and re-adjusting plans based on the various unexpected requests and demands that inevitably pop up in December. It’s a December birthday and a December wedding sandwiching the wonder of Christmas itself.

It seems that we’re searching for a bit of silence.

But is that what we truly want?

Silence is exactly what was going on before the Light of the World dawned. There are 400 years of it between the Old Testament and the New Testament. God spoke promise after promise of One who would bring salvation, and then nothing. For four centuries. 400 years of waiting, wondering, yearning for the Messiah – the Promised One who would bring deliverance from sin.

400 years of hoping this leader would be the one.

And then, the silence is broken. An angel visits a young girl with a message that cuts through the darkness. Could it be? Could all the waiting be finally coming to an end? Could our watching and hoping be fulfilled before our very eyes?

It’s then we realize that it isn’t silence we’re really looking for after all; it’s peace.

I love the powerful words of Isaiah 60:1-2 (NIV):

“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
    and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.

See, darkness covers the earth
    and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you
    and his glory appears over you.”

How that resonates with me this year. How I long to rediscover Jesus as the Light of the World, the Light of my heart. The words in Isaiah were written hundreds of years before that star shone in the East, before the angel brought good news to Mary, before that long and arduous journey to Bethlehem. Long before that tiny Baby breathed his first breath, before that Wonderful Saviour breathed His last breath, and before He rose from the grave and conquered sin and death.

He is the Light of the World. The Lord has risen upon us and his glory appears over us. After all those years of silence, the Prince of Peace came; the Promise was kept. And as we think about how Jesus said He would return one day to make everything right, we understand that this promise will be kept too. He will return as King of Kings.

I’m setting my heart on Him this Advent season.

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:14 NIV)

Amen.

Candle David Monje

Image: David Monje

Unexpected

Heavy wet snow is falling across the neighbourhood, blanketing everything with a fresh layer of white. The towering evergreens across the street bear thick drifts on their branches like sweaters and the tall breezy willow to the left is looking cosy in its snowy new duds.

It makes getting around somewhat complicated and tiresome, but it sure is beautiful.

Much like the snow, colds have descended upon our home this week and it’s making getting around somewhat, well, complicated and tiresome.

But there is beauty even in these moments.

More cuddles. More time together. Rest and recuperation. Time to read, reflect and pray.

A gift.

Maybe not the way we would have expected it to come, with a physical cost, but a great gift, nonetheless.

Isn’t that the message of Christmas?

An immeasurable gift, with a physical cost, wrapped in an unexpected package.

Do you really want to know what God is like?

Start with Jesus.

Like the Wise Men catching a glimpse of something glorious in the sky, we know there must be something more to all this sparkle than what we’re seeing with our eyes. We yearn to look into the face of something, or Someone, greater than ourselves and finally understand where we fit.

It really makes no sense and perfect sense all at the same time. How does God help us understand just what He is like? How does the Creator of the Universe strike up a relationship with His creation? John 1:1-4,14 (NIV) has always moved my heart.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it….The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

In Him was life, the light of the world. It shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it! And then that very Word became flesh. We have seen His glory, revealed for the very first time so many Christmases ago.

My heart breathes a sigh of relief. There really is good news that will cause great joy for all the people (Luke 2:10).

Let’s begin this holiday season with a sense that we are about to behold the very One who laid the foundation of the world and knit us together in our mother’s womb. Let us walk into the next few weeks with the wonder of God’s great love and mercy in our hearts and understand that this unexpected package holds something infinitely greater than we could ever discover on our own.

Let’s welcome how this Great Gift will disrupt our normal, make “getting around” a bit more complicated, and require more of us than we think reasonable.

But guaranteed, if we choose to receive it, this Great Gift will transform our ordinary.

This unexpected and wonderful Gift that came with such a cost can and will change us forever.

I’m so glad Christmas is so much more than just brown paper packages tied up with string. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

angel chimes on the table

Angel Chimes light up our Christmas Table

You Do Not Walk Alone

The beginning of November with all its darkness and cold weather sends me into a bit of a tizzy!

My mind spins with all the questions: How is it November already? Is this year really almost over? Have I done all the things I wanted to do? Can I cram all the other stuff on the list into two very busy, very short months? Will we be ready for Christmas in time? Is everything really going to be okay?

I don’t know all the answers to all the questions, but I have a sneaking suspicion based on my experience from years past that the answer to the last one is a resounding, “yes! Everything really will be okay!”

I wept this week as I thought about the goodness of our God. He is so merciful and kind! His grace knows no bounds. His love knows no end. His justice will triumph over all evil and His is the victory.

Most of all, He alone will wipe away every tear (Rev 21:4).

Whatever you are walking through today that feels overwhelming and impossible, one thing is for sure – you do not walk alone.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.” 

(2 Corinthians 1:3-7 NIV)

berries in bushes

This little bush gave me a glimpse of hope in the midst of a difficult season.

A Glimpse of What’s to Come

This is the final in a weekly blog series leading up to Thanksgiving. Join the conversation at #3WeeksofThanks.

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We’re on the doorstep of the Thanksgiving weekend and if your life is anything like mine, you’ve probably had a few things pop up recently that were unexpected and unwelcome. They may be innocuous but inconvenient, or they may be devastating and difficult to recover from.

And sometimes they’re somewhere in between.

As Christians, we understand that we are living in the tension of what is and what is yet to come. We know that one day, all evil will come to an end and Jesus will reign. I came across this powerful picture of the future in Isaiah 60:19-20 (NIV) —

“The sun will no more be your light by day,
    nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you,
for the Lord will be your everlasting light,
    and your God will be your glory.

Your sun will never set again,
    and your moon will wane no more;
the Lord will be your everlasting light,
    and your days of sorrow will end.”

When Jesus came, we caught a glimpse of what God’s Kingdom will be like. He is the one who binds up the brokenhearted, sets the captives free, comforts those who mourn, and gives beauty instead of ashes, joy instead of mourning, praise instead of the spirit of despair (Isaiah 61:1-3, Luke 4:18). How amazing to know that God’s plan moves forward despite attempts to thwart Him!

I’ve been reminded recently that God is the God of the ages. He is eternal and His plans will stand, no matter what our current circumstances may look like. Our days of sorrow will end one day because of Jesus, but for now we as Christians share in His sufferings so that one day, we will share in His glory. I read through Romans 8:16-21 this week and its truth pierced my heart.

“The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” (NIV)

Difficult days tempt us to believe that there is no hope and that our circumstances are all there is to this life. Even on a holiday weekend where warm feelings of gratitude ought to overwhelm, we find ourselves holding things that deeply grieve our hearts and make it tough to see the forest for the trees.

In these moments, let us choose joy. Let us choose gratitude. Let us choose to saturate ourselves in the truth of God’s word! Our days of sorrow will end. Jesus has come to bind up the brokenhearted and set the captives free. Our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us!

Happy Thanksgiving! We are blessed beyond measure. Yes, with homes and food and community and loved ones, but even more than that – we are blessed with a Heavenly Father who loves us and pursues us, never leaving us where He finds us, but rather constantly restoring and reconciling us to Himself.

Praise His Holy name!

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A Heart of Thanksgiving

This is the third in a weekly blog series leading up to Thanksgiving. Join the conversation at #3WeeksofThanks.

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Want a healthier heart? Count your blessings.

How about a better night’s sleep? Write them down in your gratitude journal before bed.

If you want to be more optimistic, make new friends and get more exercise, make a point of expressing your thanks many times a day.

Research shows us that gratitude is good for our hearts, helps us sleep better, builds our relationships and improves our physical health. There are so many benefits of counting our blessings every single day! We begin to feel more alive when we take a moment to actually remember all the good things we’ve been given. But what about when things aren’t going too well?

How do you cultivate a heart of thanksgiving when you’re wrapped up in the whirlwind of stressful day-to-day demands?

How do you cultivate a heart of thanksgiving in a season of loss and grief?

When you’re alone or disconnected? In poor health or experiencing scarcity?

When the stories in the news point to tragedy, evil and seemingly impending doom?

If we’re completely honest, our personal set of circumstances and the global state of affairs can make us feel unsettled. Then October rolls around and we are reminded to feel thankful for the safety of our homes, the satisfaction of our full bellies and the health of our loved ones, but it’s often only because we know it could be much worse. We see lives falling apart around us and feel thankful that we have been spared that kind of suffering, so far. We consider our own difficulties and wonder if things really will be alright after all.

That opportunity to choose to be thankful in the middle of difficulty is good for us. It leads us to the understanding that our thanksgiving needs to be anchored in something much greater than our circumstances or the changing times we live in. We’re not thankful because of what we have or don’t have – we’re thankful because God is good, all the time, and He will always keep His promises.

As Christians, we understand God’s Word to be His revelation of who He is and the primary way we get to know Him. Creation reveals Him as Creator, Jesus reveals God as Father, His Word reveals His character, and when we put our faith in Christ and become filled with the Holy Spirit, He is revealed through His very presence in our lives.

That’s how to begin to cultivate a heart of thanksgiving, no matter what we’re facing.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the story Jesus told about the Wise and the Foolish Builders in Matthew 7:24-29 (NIV) —

“ ‘Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.’

When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.”

The rain will fall, the streams will rise. Giving thanks in the middle of it all takes supernatural power! In this season, let’s move beyond breathing a sigh of relief that we aren’t worse off and begin to understand what it means to build our lives on a solid foundation that won’t crumble under the weight of changing circumstances and the negative news cycle. Let’s discover true thanksgiving that fills our hearts with gratitude no matter what we’ve faced in the past, what we’re staring down in the present or what may come in the future, so that we can say with Paul in Philippians:

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:12-13 NIV)

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The Ordinary Becomes Extraordinary

This is the second in a weekly blog series leading up to Thanksgiving. Join the conversation at #3WeeksofThanks.

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We live near a natural area that comes alive with brilliant colour in the fall. Early summer’s green grasses give way to a brown, dry landscape throughout the drier months of July and August. As the weeks go by, it becomes entirely monochromatic and unremarkable, until about mid-September.

And then fall comes blazing in.

A few groves of taller trees shine in a yellow hue, but it’s the low-lying brush and grasses that are centre stage. In the nooks and crannies during these weeks of the year, the weeds and small shrubs showcase a marbling of orange, red and purple on the hillside, singing out a beautiful melody to the One who made them.

A few streets away, the tall elms are sending their golden leaves swirling to the ground in the fall afternoon winds. Clouds that threaten a few cold rain showers move across the sky full of sunlight, much paler now than a month ago, but it still holds warmth, bringing a welcome break from the brisk breeze. I truly cannot get enough! Every year I am astounded by its beauty.

The Thanksgiving Tree is up on the wall now, and our handprint leaves remind us of the tangible blessings we have in front of us. One of the other practices I am attempting throughout this season is a daily gratitude journal. Most nights before bed, I think about the ten things I am most thankful for that day and write them on a list.

An altar of sorts.

Several times throughout the Old Testament, at significant moments, God instructs His people to build a raised structure as a place of sacrifice, to mark what He had done at that particular location, for Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Samuel, Saul, David, Elijah and others. Altars were meant for worship, communion with God, and to recall the covenant He made with His people. To turn their hearts towards Him and remember His amazing promises again.

We too need those moments of remembering because in them, a reorienting occurs. As we spend time considering who God is, what He has done in the past, how He has kept His promises through all the generations before us through Jesus Christ’s work on the cross and His resurrection bringing victory over death, and even what He is doing now in our lives through the Holy Spirit, we are changed. Our stone hearts become flesh again, and we turn from our self-centred focus on getting our own way to surrendering to the way of the One who will always do what He says He will do.

Because of Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrifice, the methods of worship have changed, but the heart behind it is the same. We may no longer offer blood sacrifices on a stone altar for the forgiveness of our sins, but when we come to Christ and confess our sins, we receive that forgiveness and brand new life. We walk forward in the truth that we are filled with the Holy Spirit and are being transformed by His power.

These ordinary places of communion with God – these modern-day altars – call us to remember Whom we worship. The glorious colours of fall on the hillside. The daily list of ten things I’m thankful for today. The moments that seem so ordinary – these are the places we turn our hearts toward God and remember who He is and what He has done. We remember Who we were created for.

And we find our hearts full of thanksgiving.

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When You’re Not Feeling Thankful

This is the first in a weekly blog series leading up to Thanksgiving. Join the conversation at #3WeeksofThanks.

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Today is the first day of #3WeeksofThanks.

Full disclosure: I’m not feeling particularly thankful.

We’ve been short on sleep and long on conflict at our house this week, and that makes for a tired family. Just as I predicted, Thanksgiving isn’t really at the top of our minds. It’s still four weekends away, but here we are, intentionally entering into a season of being reminded of God’s faithfulness in the smallest, most frustrating and even most sorrow-laden areas of our lives.

It occurred to me yesterday that I am a work in progress, and I am so glad God is not done with me yet. The older I get, the more I come to the realization that He loves me enough not to leave me in my selfishness and pride. He’s pulling out the sandpaper and smoothing those rough edges for His glory. Though it is uncomfortable and downright painful at times, in the end I know He is working in me for my good, because He loves me.

As I’m looking at the theme of thanksgiving and the faithfulness of God throughout His Word, I’m struck by just how many times the Israelites forget who God is and turn away from Him to worship something else.

Then the call comes to remember. Again and again, the people are reminded of what God has done in the past, and who they really belong to. Psalm 77:11 (NIV) says, “I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.”

He loves them enough not to leave them in their sin. And He draws them back to Himself, although the cost is high.

Often I find that when I’m not feeling thankful, it’s not because I am not thankful — it’s because I have forgotten who God is and what He has done in the past, not only for me and our family, but for humans throughout history. Looking through His Word at the events of the Old Testament, leading into the life of Jesus, His death and resurrection, then the pouring out of the Holy Spirit and the progress of the early church, I am reminded that the same God who set those events in motion is the same God who meets me where I am in this moment of the day when I need Him most.

He draws me back to Himself, and I can say with the Psalmist: “I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.” Only then does it seem possible to live out the words of Colossians 3:15 (NIV) in even the intense and difficult moments of today:

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.

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