Who or what dominates your thinking?

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Is it just me, or do you find that living by faith and not by sight grows HARDER and HARDER as the years go by?  The ‘pop quizzes’ that used to land on me every few weeks now seem to show up every couple of days.

Not one to spot my unbelief right away, I sense God gently but firmly taking my face between his hands (so to speak!) to make me look at my unbelief. My pride recoils at yet more evidence for my lack of trust in the Lord as Good Father, Faithful Shepherd, Wise Counselor.

This past week has been that kind of personal attention or ‘handling’.  I have struggled to let go of persistent worry. It’s not that I have been anxious about anything, rather I have OBSESSIVELY ‘angsted’.  My personalized version of Phil 4:6 is now “Do not OBSESS over anything!” rather than the tame ‘do not be anxious’.

I KNOW what I’m supposed to do and I do try!

  • Daily I hand over my needs à la ‘Cast your cares on Him….’
  • Hourly I pray with much fervor à la ‘The fervent prayers of a righteous man…..’
  • I recollect many blessings, the good things about God, who He is and what He has done and the promises laid up for me……

Yet, I feel bound up in worry.

So, it was no surprise to me that the Sovereign Lord, the One who reigns over all creation, used a portion of yesterday’s assigned Scripture from 2 Sam 19: 1-8 to show me exactly what happens when I make a created thing PRE-EMINENT in my life.

Just so you’ll know how I recognize something as being preeminent in my life, it’s those occasions when my thoughts ‘glom’ onto a created thing like sewing pins sticking to a magnet.

Here’s a synopsis of events 2 Samuel 19:

  • King David’s rebel son Absalom has been killed by David’s men and the coup squelched.  David acts ‘un-kingly’ as he indulges his natural grief in an unceasing, over-the-top inconsolable fashion.
  • He does not publicly thank the valiant ones who risked their lives and their homes to flee Jerusalem and side with him.  He does not acknowledge the cost to his loyal citizens who probably fought against some family members supportive of Absalom.
  • He obsessively wails to such an extent, to such a danger point that General Joab, his chief of the army, has to shock him into acting like a king.  Joab point blank tells him that if he doesn’t stop crying about his son and get back to doing his job as God’s anointed king, then he’ll find himself at the end of EVERYONE’s spear.

That’s the narrative in a nutshell. In what way did I see this biblical example as a gentle rebuke from God to abandon my anxious obsession?  Reading this account revealed the evil of disobedience. God had appointed David to shepherd God’s people for Him. David courted danger, almost to the point of no return, when he inverted God’s priorities. This observation is what convicted me.

The king harmed good people when he made his son more valuable, more meaningful than the welfare of those in his care.

I do the same when I place a created thing over the Creator.

Our pastor’s sermons on the preeminence of Christ have bathed my thoughts over the past several weeks (when I wasn’t anxiously obsessing!) The Greek word for preeminence ‘proteuo’ is described in two ways:

  • Ranking first
  • Exercising the most influence

So even as I have struggled with handing over a particular problem to God and then taking it back, I’ve been asking myself:

Maria, who or what is preeminent in your life?”

It’s a piercing question that demands honesty.  I have felt bound up in the time I’ve invested in trying to ‘solve this suffering’ of a loved one.  And God keeps throwing me reminders to ‘JUST STOP IT!’ (you’ll smile if you’re old enough to remember TV actor Bob Newhart as the UN-empathetic counselor). Our good Father gave me the very same counsel but from a different source.

Margin

Dr. Richard Swenson, an author whose book about regaining margin I’m re-reading, penned this arresting statement

The purpose of life is not to solve suffering but righteousness.

Bolstering that truth has been the realization that EVERY single human being on earth in every epoch has lived or is experiencing now a life of suffering.  The purpose of life cannot then be to ‘solve’ suffering.  I have known this but now I KNOW it more deeply. My purpose, your purpose if you belong to Christ, is to be content in Him, to enjoy Him, to seek to please Him, to sing new songs of who He is and what He has done.  In the midst of suffering.

I think we can fall into the trap of making an idol out of a problem-free life, a life without suffering.  At least I am beginning to see that about me. And if that is my or your goal, then we are setting ourselves up for misery.

May God help us all to be joyful obedient servants of our loving God.

 

 

 

I am Mephibosheth, sort of

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The news stunned him. Acid began contorting his stomach into a paroxysmal attack.  Ziba had just come back from the palace, dropping this bombshell, one he had been fearing ever since his dad and grandpa had been killed in battle.

Now that Israel’s true hero David, the one who had slain Goliath without hesitation, reigned in King Saul’s place, Mephibosheth had known this day would arrive.  He had expected it weeks, even months ago.  Everyone knew that new kings wiped out any and all people connected with previous rulers. The only explanation for his delayed execution was that David had more pressing enemies.

“Defeating the Philistines is keeping the new king busy.  Maybe he’ll….forget about me?  After all, what threat do I, a man who can’t even walk, pose.  It’s humiliating enough that my steward Ziba assigns men to carry me from my bed to the bathroom to the table to the veranda.  There is no way I could stage an overthrow to take back what is rightfully mine.”

Yes, Mephibosheth was the rightful heir to Saul’s throne as the only surviving male in the dynasty.  But his dad Jonathan had in effect given up the right to succeed Saul when he took off his ‘heir apparent’ cloak and placed it on his most trusted, beloved friend and comrade, David.  Jonathan had announced to Mephibosheth and little grandson Mica that David would be the next king, not he. Never had Mephibosheth pictured that his dad and his uncles would die in battle WITH the king.  He had trusted Jonathan’s friendship with David.  But all changed when Dad died.

Resigning himself to the inevitable execution in the next week days, Mephibosheth prepared his heart. If this summons meant an audience first with the King before dying, then he knew in what manner he would face David.

Little did he know David’s true intent:

2 Samuel 9:1: David asked,”Is there anyone still left of the house of Saul to whom I can show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?”

Someone recalled Ziba, chief over all the attendants serving Saul’s household and family. Messengers located Ziba and then escorted him to the palace in Jerusalem.  From Ziba David learned that Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s son, survived.  Apparently, Mephibosheth maintained what he thought was a low profile up north in Makir’s house.  Ziba directed his men to transport this crippled former heir to dead King Saul.

Let’s pick up with the dramatic tête-à-tête:

2 Sam 9:6  When Mephibosheth son of Jonathan, the son of Saul, came to David, he bowed down to pay him honor. 

David said, “Mephibosheth!”

“Your servant,” he replied.

“Don’t be afraid,” David said to him,”for I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan.  I will restore to you all the land that belonged to your grandfather Saul, and you will always eat at my table.”

Mephibosheth bowed down and said,”What is your servant, that you should notice a dead dog like me?

Reading Mephibosheth’s response stunned me. His self-description ‘dead dog like me’ accurately reflected his status.  He was dead meat, for sure, no better than a ‘dog’. Contemporary culture at the time despised canines, often categorizing their heathen enemies as dogs.

So, what was it that startled me enough to think deeply about this vignette in David’s life?

I am Mephibosheth….in some ways.  Seeing Mephibosheth’s self-assessment reflects my true status. What is that? Simply that apart from God’s grace toward me, I remain an enemy by nature and deserving execution.  Like Jonathan’s son,  I am also a cripple, incapable and resistant to being in the King’s presence.

But here is how we differ:

  • I don’t REALLY believe that I am like a dead dog, and all that expression carried back then.
  • Therefore, I am unconscious most of the time of what my life would look like were it not for God’s grace.

Here’s my question for myself:

“If this news stunned the humble and honest Mephibosheth, what will it take for you, Maria, to SEE the unimaginable kindness of King Jesus toward you? Why don’t you wake up every morning, pinching yourself to make sure you’re not dreaming, that your new status as friend of the King is REAL and SECURE ?  Where is your daily mirth, your transparent joy?  Does your face or any words or actions even hint at the enormity of this life-altering gift?”

I have no answer or excuse.  But I thank God for gently shining His light through His Word on my unholy responses to Him.

 

When a gift from God looks like a disaster

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You all know the story of Uzzah, the son of Abinadab, whom God killed when he touched the ark being transported to the City of David.

The ark had rested in Abinadab’s house for a good while after the Philistines gave it back, having captured it from the startled Hebrews in battle.  1 Samuel 7:1 – So the men of Kiriath Jearim came and took up the ark of the LORD. They took it to Abinadab’s house on the hill and consecrated Eleazar his son to guard the ark of the LORD.

Now comes the drama. King David is ruling and wants to bring the ark into his city, Jerusalem. The leaders of Israel all agree that this is a good idea. But there is the problem.

As I read in my study-bible’s notes this morning, the manner in which the Hebrews organized the transport of this ark of the Lord’s covenant showed a decisive Philistine influence on their thinking.  A generation earlier, when the Philistine cart pulled by 2 momma cows transported the resting ark back to Hebrew territory, that picture must have erased their understanding and memory of how the Lord decreed the ark should be moved.

Those from Abinadab’s house apparently do not check with God or consult the law. Instead they organize a Philistine-style movement plan.  At one point the oxen pulling the cart carrying the ark stumble.  Uzzah reaches for the ark and God kills him immediately.

‘Whoa!’ exclaims a startled King David who suddenly flushes with shame, rage and fear, all at once.  He makes the command decision:  “We’re NOT going any further.”  1 Chron 13:12-13 records his decision:

David was afraid of God that day and asked, “How can I ever bring the ark of God to me?”  He did not take the ark to be with him in the City of David.  Instead, he took it aside to the house of Obed-Edom, the Gittite.

Okay, put yourself in the shoes of Mr & Mrs Obed-Edom, their relatives and all their servants.  How would you have reacted?  I can image the terror when the King pronounces this decision.  Did some of these fears blitz through their minds?

  • If Uzzah, a son of the family which had successfully housed the ark for about 40 years, died from a seeming good motive (to keep the ark from falling) what is going to happen to us?
  • We don’t know anything about tending the ark?  What….how…..who?
  • We’re doomed!  We’re all gonna die!

But look at what the text says after David changes the ark’s travel destination:

1 Chron 13:14 . The ark of God remained with the family of Obed-Edom in his house for three months, and the Lord blessed his household and everything he had.

What the Obed-Edom family and household did NOT expect was God’s blessing.  But look at what the Lord did!  We read that nothing BUT good things occurred to all the people and every THING Mr. Obed-Edom owned.

I hope that fact encourages you as it did me.  What looks like a sudden disaster turned out to be a gift from God, beyond anything ANYONE in the family and household could have predicted or even prayed for.

So what has God ‘gifted’ you with recently that seems like suffering or a problem?  Draw encouragement this day from the goodness and wisdom of our Father.

I’ll close with this paraphrase of something I read by Tim Keller referring to the insanity of worry:  I’m not wise enough to know what is best for me.

Is Jesus enough for me?

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Elkanah had it right!  Do you remember his question to his wife, the wife he loved most, the wife who was barren? This was the childless wife, Hannah, who wanted to have children of her own.   The OTHER wife, the fertile one, ‘her rival’ as the text renders it, used to taunt her sister wife about her lack of kids.

One year, when the entire family made their annual trek to Shiloh to sacrifice and worship to the Lord, Elkanah addressed Hannah’s sadness and said:

……“Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons? 1 Sam 1:8

We women often smirk at Elkanah’s remark, belittling him for his apparent oblivion of Hannah’s desire to be a mom.  Justifying our reaction we also point to the heightened value of children in that culture and concomitant stigma assigned to those unable to bring forth life.

I thought of Elkanah this morning when I lingered over Charles Spurgeon’s morning encouragement:  Spurgeon’s am thoughts – 27 April 2019

Specifically, he writes about God:

  • He can supply you with all, or, better still, he can be to you instead of all.

When I read that, I stopped and immediately thought of Hannah’s husband and his response to her sadness. Could it be that Elkanah is a type, pointing to Jesus, not only the provision-supplier but THE provision Himself?

Convicted, I suddenly saw how I tend to go to Jesus more for what He can give me, rather than simply for Himself as my satisfaction.  That is to say,  I go to Jesus to get ‘bread’ – my specific stuff that I ‘need’. Recently those needs have centered around:

  • guidance about how to live as a newly un-employed woman, sprung from a life of hustle and rush
  • direction about what to do with my English language videos I’m producing since I don’t ‘have’ to make money now
  • help and encouragement for family members and friends who struggle with suffering, fears and doubts

But this is a new thought. Maybe Spurgeon and Elkanah are saying: Yes, for sure go to the Provider for what you need. Always.  But don’t stop there. Think bigger! Ask for what lasts, for you and for those whose needs you lift up.

Could it be that our various necessities have an expiration date, that they won’t EVER be enough, lastingly?

That, the temporary provision is going to have to be replaced with still more short-term supply, ad infinitum?

That Jesus offers not just the daily, hourly particular nuggets of grace, but Himself, the Bread, the Water, the Light, the Life that really satisfies?

These are new thoughts.

Maybe we really CAN trust Jesus when He says: Seek primarily, most of all, before anything else, the Kingdom of God and my righteousness. (Matt 6:33)

For then, THROUGH Him, IN Him, BY MEANS of HIM we can see how to think about everything else.

Elkanah was speaking more truth than I ever have given him credit.  I’m going to put his name on my list of people I want to meet in heaven.

 

Feeling overwhelmed today?

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Are you like me, sometimes? Do you ever feel unprepared for what you have to do?  Do you feel the task at hand is too big for you?  Do you feel insecure at different times?  It could be that like me, you’ve forgotten some very good news.

First a fact:

Where you are today is where God has put you.  Nothing happens without His directing.  That is, if we take the plain meaning of God’s word in scripture.

Ephesians 1:8-11 (GNT)

In all his wisdom and insight God did what he had purposed, and made known to us the secret plan he had already decided to complete by means of Christ. This plan, which God will complete when the time is right, is to bring all creation together, everything in heaven and on earth, with Christ as head. 
All things are done according to God’s plan and decision; and God chose us to be his own people in union with Christ because of his own purpose, based on what he had decided from the very beginning. 
Now a story:
Mike, my husband, is into his 4th week at a new job.  Like any change in work situation, there is a lot to learn.  The culture of the work community; the expectations of a new boss; the protocol for this or that; wisdom about how much to share of your heart with new colleagues – a lot.  It ALWAYS feels overwhelming, no matter how long you’ve worked.
Last week (Friday, 19 April) in our assigned reading (Chronological reading plan) Psalm 18 was included.
While reading some of the verses I saw explicit mention of how God equips His people.  I saw hope for Mike and for anyone who is in a spot where the demands and expectations feel overwhelming.  It could be a new and different job like is the case for Mike, or a call to volunteer in a new ministry or just to persevere in a difficult situation.  Maybe your ‘hard’ is the day-in, day-out parenting/elder care or loving and tending someone with a disability or chronic illness.  Then there are those who persevere in marriages with an unresponsive spouse or ‘trying’ spouse.  And how about just plain ole stuck in a situation for which there seems no good outcome?
Hear, then, what our good Father says to you, to me, to my husband Mike:
Psalm 18: 31-35
For who is God, but theLord?
    And who is a rock, except our God?—
the God who equipped me with strength
    and made my way blameless.
He made my feet like the feet of a deer
    and set me secure on the heights.
 He trains my hands for war,
    so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.
 You have given me the shield of your salvation,
    and your right hand supported me,
    and your gentleness made me great.
With those power facts, we can pray for ourselves and for others.
For Mike I prayed this morning:
  • Thank you, Father, that you have equipped Mike with a good mind and the ability to think and make connections and then articulate them to others so they can understand
  • I rejoice that you made Mike to see and create analogies on the spot
  • How amazing that you have placed Mike in this new job here in Huntsville and set US in a church where we can grow in our knowledge and love of you!
  • Father, you continue to train Mike in new applications of systems engineering so he can add value to his firm.
  • You are the God who has given Mike your divine Spirit; the One who is counselor and provider and intercessor and comforter.
  • It’s YOUR right hand that keeps my husband safe, keeps him relying on you, keeps him  repenting and thanking you and you will bring him to you  in the end
  • What more could we be glad about than your gentleness in coming to earth to rescue us and make us adopted kids in your forever family.  That is what we boast about, that we know you, our Rock.

Do you see how God’s word can fill one with HOPE!  O, dear friends, feed on God’s good word and pray it for yourself and for those you love.

 

Achsah’s wisdom toward her husband and confidence in her father – a model for us

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Joshua 15: 16-19

Caleb said, “Whoever strikes Kiriath-sepher and captures it, to him will I give Achsah my daughter as wife.” And Othniel the son of Kenaz, the brother of Caleb, captured it. And he gave him Achsah his daughter as wife.  When she came to him, she urged him to ask her father for a field. And she got off her donkey, and Caleb said to her, “What do you want?”  She said to him, “Give me a blessing. Since you have given me the land of the Negeb, give me also springs of water.” And he gave her the upper springs and the lower springs.

Achsah is one confident daughter.  She knows what is necessary for a secure future with her new husband Othniel – land with easy access to water.  She knows who can provide, her dad!

Here are the facts leading up to her in-person request of her good father, Caleb:

  • Caleb offers Achsah, his daughter, to the man who subdues and occupies a certain town.  This city is located in the midst of the territory Joshua gave Caleb in recognition for Caleb’s decades of faithful service.
  • Othniel (Israel’s first and future judge-to-be after Joshua’s death) steps forward and handles the challenge, winning the hand of Caleb’s daughter.
  • Achsah is wise and ‘suggests’ to her husband that he ask his new father-in-law for a field.
  • We draw the implicit conclusion that Othniel accepts his wife’s suggestion and goes to Caleb with the request.  Apparently Caleb deeds over some land.
  • We learn a few verses down that the land Caleb gives his son-in-law is actually desert (‘land of the Negeb’)
  • Finally we read that Achsah saddles a donkey and pays her father a visit.

Now let’s look at the dialogue between father and daughter.  Caleb is direct.  As soon as she dismounts, he asks:  What do you want?  Achsah doesn’t mince words: Give me a blessing.

She then requests springs to water the land Dad has given them.  Employing the language of ‘blessing’, she humbly communicates that she doesn’t DESERVE what she wants, but that it would be GIFT.

She spells out just what kind of ‘blessing’ she has in mind.  She and Othniel will need access to life-giving water if they are to farm successfully and support their family and servants.

The good father immediately complies and gives her TWO springs, the upper and the lower springs. Achsah did not specify just what kind of springs they needed.  She left it to her dad to decide what was best.

Achsah’s confidence in her father impressed me.  When her husband comes back with the news that Dad had given them a parcel from the Negeb, Achsah doesn’t grumble.  Nor does she berate her husband (“Why did you settle for THAT kind of lot, you dummy.  It’s desert!”)

She saddles up and goes to Caleb, trusting in his fatherly goodness and generosity.  And Caleb satisfies her request.  He indeed blesses her with ownership of the entire springs, not just one spring.

This example of a wise young wife and faithful daughter shows me both how to act toward Mike, my husband whom God has called to lead our family and toward my good Father who owns ALL.

Husbands respond positively to gentle suggestions.  They appreciate wise and gentle counsel from their wives.

Fathers love to give good gifts to their children.  Our Father in heaven, of whom Caleb is a shadow and a type, is always ready to respond profusely to His kids’ needs and requests.

Lesson? Let us approach our Father in heaven with confidence since Jesus has done the hard job to rescue us, His rebellious children, from well-deserved eternal judgment.  May it NOT be said of us that ‘we have not because we ask not’.

Do you know anyone who has named her daughter Achsah?

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. Ephesians 3:20-21

A reluctant child – a lesson about God’s love

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I was that reluctant child who complained about where God planted me.  Six years ago when we moved to western NC, God opened ONE door to teach French, all the way in Asheville, a 50-minute each-way commute. Within 6 weeks, I didn’t want to be there.  School was difficult.   An experienced French teacher (and filled with pride, I found out), I had come from a supportive Christian classical school. My principal liked me.  Parents were pleased with me.  I enjoyed good rapport with my students.

But at this new school disgruntled parents complained to my principal about their unhappy children.  I was stunned.  Parents didn’t talk to me, but went right to my principal.  By January, I was on an ‘informal’ probation.  This brutal first year humbled me. I even went so far as to contemplating cleaning houses as an alternative source of income.

But God!  Amazingly He got me through year 1 with a contract for another term.  I didn’t want to go back.  Despite job hunting that summer, He kept all other doors shut. I had no choice but to go back for year 2.  And year 3.  And year 4.

Something happened by the end of year 4.  By then I had enjoyed many hours getting to know my middle-school colleagues. I also grew professionally in how I coached kids to acquire French.  The school invested in me by funding further world-language training up in Boston where I was exposed to new ideas about teaching French with comprehensible input.  I was grateful.

In essence, though I did not want to be at this school for a number of reasons, I grew personally and professionally, in the midst of suffering and difficulties.  Working where God so clearly intended me to be remained hard, every day.

One shift in thinking did help somewhat. I’ve always wanted to use my French skills to teach others about the greatness of God. When I realized that I would not think it strange to encounter hardship on the mission field, I tried to stop whining to God.  Thinking about this teaching assignment as ministry helped.  Suddenly I could see that while teaching French was my official duty, being present to my colleagues, their parents and students was my primary calling.

It’s easy for me to get to know people. God has given me a real interest in people’s stories and problems.  I found that by inquiring and listening well, I could encourage both secular colleagues and those with a knowledge of God.  I offered to pray for both groups.  Gradually some opened up to me, sensing that they were safe in unburdening themselves. My heart was drawn even more towards them.  Each day I prayed for openings to say something true, beautiful and good about God.

Fast forward to a painful 2018 for Mike.  Vocationally and spiritually he had been struggling for 4 years after a honeymoon first year.  Setbacks and closed doors humbled him.  Spiraling into depression he found a biblical counselor.  By the end of November, only 4 months ago, God suddenly revealed the ‘unthinkable’:  Mike needed to look for  full-time work and we should put the house on the market. 

Now at the end of March 2019, God has sold our house, moved us to Huntsville, Alabama and Mike starts work on Monday, 1 April 2019.  And I no longer teach at my school. The other ‘unthinkable’ was that I did not finish out the school year.  I left teaching French with 8 weeks remaining in the school year.

Now for the good part!  Here is how God poured out love on this reluctant, often whiny child:

  • As soon as my principal informed parents that Madame Cochrane would be leaving to accompany her husband on a new adventure, parents wrote me and students swarmed me.  I heard how much everyone loved me and how sad they were that I was departing.  Students shared how much French they had acquired and what a loving, caring advisor I had been.
  • My sixth-grade team of teachers fêted me with Keto-snacks and tickets to the botanical gardens in Huntsville.  I heard from some teachers how much they appreciated my personal interest in their lives. ‘Who is going to ask me about my family?’ lamented the art teacher.
  • My last day some of my students gave me gifts, sang a song in French, hugged me A LOT, made a good-bye poster in French, hugged me more.
  • That same last day, colleagues shared lunch with me and gave me personalized book suggestions, a cross-stitch of my favorite Bible verse and a gift card for books!
  • Three hours later at a faculty meeting I did not attend, since it was my last day, the head of the school announced that 7 full-time teachers and 4 full-time staff were having their contracts for next year revoked, due to lower enrollment.

God’s timing floored me as much as the early-complaining parents caught me by surprise.  He providentially arranged for me to leave this school on a high note with a love-filled sendoff before my colleagues knew about the falling ax of some job losses.

Since my final school day ten days ago, here’s what I have concluded:

Proverbs 11:25 Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered.

None of us embraces suffering willingly – it’s too painful. We like comfort and ease. However, in God’s hands, suffering brings rich blessings to the child of God.

Mike and I prayed over and planned the move to western North Carolina.  God clearly opened the doors for that transition, leading us to an amazing house on 10 acres in the Smokies and a well-paying French job for me. We reveled in the beauty.  Easy access to hiking was the main reason we chose this spot.  I also grew very close to Christian sisters, both in the community and at our church – a major gift from a loving Father.

Yet I suffered. And God worked through me in ways I had not anticipated.  As John Piper says:  Don’t waste your suffering!  By God’s grace I didn’t.  Nor did Mike.

Although this post is mostly about me, I will say that Mike was equally flabbergasted at the outpouring of feelings and gratitude and love from our church family AND from the beneficiaries of reporting he had done for World News Group. An equally reluctant worker, he would occasionally lament: “I never wanted to be a journalist!”. Yet God blessed that sometimes complaining tech reporter and church member.

Bottom line conclusion.  Our Father DOES know what is best, for us and for others. Sometimes where God has us is NOT about us, but for the blessing of others.

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