Goals – do I set any? or what!

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Part of my family is entrepreneurial.  My son and his wife run on-line businesses.

Recently during Thanksgiving Shay, my daughter-in-law mentioned that as soon as they returned to Tampa she would be heading off for her annual 24-hour-away solo planning meeting to evaluate the year, set business goals, and create strategies for working toward those sales and growth targets.

No matter which industry you’re in (I taught secondary school French for years), planning is essential.  You can’t just wing a project and expect the same kind of outcome that is attainable through measured steps.

Since October, I’ve been searching for a Biblical goal, a Jesus-centered capital-G goal for my life (or this next year), one that transcends the narrower aspirations such as building more muscle mass, acquiring proficiency in Spanish, spending less time on my phone/with my laptop, eliminating rushing.

What drives my desire for ONE Holy-Spirit-powered goal?  Chronic anxiety, occasional feelings of being unsettled or splintered, and a struggle to hand over fears.

I’ve been trying on different goals for size.  Such as:

  • The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself as love (Gal 5:6b)
  • Breath mantras about God like: “His good, my peace”
  • Creating a habit of noticing beautiful aspects of life and creation and thanking God at the moment.

Monday of this week, I finally confessed to Mike all my anxieties ‘du jour’ and asked him to pray for me.  It was cyber Monday, and with Christmas approaching I was feeling VERY scattered, like Martha running around the house, as she attempted to multi-task her way through the day.

Then Tuesday morning, during my quiet time the Holy Spirit dropped THIS thought into my heart:

  • Since I am going to be spending the majority of my life (read: forever!) in heaven with the Triune God of the universe….
  • Since I am IN FACT an adopted daughter of the Father as well as Jesus’ little sister……

…should I not be PRACTICING MY ROLE, MY LINES for living eternally right now?  After all, in one sense, I already AM ‘above. It’s not like I need to pretend some thing that isn’t true. For we read in Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae:

Colossians 3:1 Therefore, since you have been raised with Christ, strive for the things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.

Jesus’ little sister!  This thought captivated me. Yes, I AM His sister.  Then came the empowering breath of the Spirit:  “Well, Maria, if you ARE Jesus’ little sister, how about starting to ACT like who you already are!”

There it was – my goal. So simple. It claimed me.  Immediately and at various times yesterday AND today, I have been reminding myself:  ‘You’re Jesus’ little sister.  So, act like it Maria!’ That prompt is all I have needed to send the anxieties running.

How have I translated my eternal identity into concrete living?  For one, I immediately have taken a deep breath and relaxed.  Jesus never rushed. I certainly won’t be rushing in heaven. Might as well start practicing moving at HIS pace now, on earth.

The corollary to NOT rushing is taking time to be with the people I encounter during the day.  Yesterday that looked like: noticing and engaging gently with an impatient man in the grocery check-out line ahead of me at Kroger.  Today, it was sitting in my car for 30 minutes chatting with a friend after we picked out granite for our new house.

All I seem to need to pull back from stress is to say out loud to myself,  “I’m Jesus’ little sister.” And Holy Spirit calm settles on me.  Then I look up to see whom I might encounter.

The cool thing is that yesterday at lunch time Mike texted me writing that he had just prayed again for me to feel less scattered.  I rejoiced to share with him how the Lord had used his prayer for me.  Then I reminded him that he also is Jesus’ younger brother.

Does God care about the little things?

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“Oh, He is too busy running the world to care about this little issue of mine!”

Have you ever been politely put off by someone pretending to be humble?

Here’s the Truth – our God LOVES to take care of ALL our issues, cares, problems, burdens.  “Cast ALL of your cares on Him, for He cares for you!”  1 Peter 5:7

I’ll tell you a story about one of those ‘little things’ that my Father took care of yesterday and the bigger take-away.

It’s almost Thanksgiving.  We’re living in a rental house with a small frig. Family arrive next week to share the holiday.  I had been fretting on my inability to do any food prep and baking ahead of time due to the size of our freezer section.  Mike to rescue! He seconded my suggestion about buying a chest freezer NOW (instead of waiting until we move into our new house).  Relief!

Home Depot here in Huntsville had a sale. The freezer fit in the back of the Subaru. Mike set it up and turned it on. Monday, I happily purchased the $40 frozen organic turkey, along with some wild-caught Sockeye on sale, also frozen.  Placed them and some bacon in the new freezer.

But the next morning after working out in the garage, Mike reported that the turkey felt soft when he checked it.  Oh, no!  It had been solid as a rock when I purchased it the day before.  My mind flashed to all the rigamarole it would cause us, especially Mike, to have to load the freezer in the car, take it BACK to Home Depot…..et cetera. And when would he have the time to do that?

By God’s grace, I knew immediately what to do:  I handed the entire mess over to the Lord.

“Father, you tell us to cast ALL our burdens on you.  Handle this, please. You know I just spent a bunch of money and that I need a freezer. And how I had planned to do some baking this afternoon.  Help!”

Finishing my quiet time, I bundled up for my walk and prayed on and off during the 30 minutes. I continued to have a steady confidence that this was one of those tests and that the Lord would come through.  Entering the house, I hung up my jacket and took out my phone.  Following Nehemiah’s example, I formulated another quick prayer as I punched in the number for Home Depot, asking God that the manager would be in the store this early (8 am).

He was!  But first I had to go through customer service.  I really hadn’t wanted to explain the situation to the gal on phone duty, but she asked before connecting me to the manager.  Her empathetic response reassured me, “Oh, how awful! Of course, I’ll put you through right away to Drew.”

Drew grasped my situation immediately.  Asking a few questions, he assured me that he would send a replacement over as soon as possible.  By 9 am, I had a new freezer humming in the garage.  And praise be to the Lord!  Per Google, my turkey which had been kept cool over the past 18 hours but not frozen in the defective appliance, could be safely refrozen, if within 3 days.

With joy, I texted Mike to share the good news of how quickly God had worked. Furthermore, by 3 pm I had placed one baked item in my new and fully functioning freezer.

What about that corollary or bigger take-away from this on-time grace?

It’s this:  like all of you, Mike and I have a BIG need that we have committed to God.  We pray every day, asking for a resolution as well as the strength to endure and trust him in the meantime.  And our Father has seen fit to tarry.  Frankly, some days it’s a real struggle to hold on by faith to his promises as well as to remind ourselves of all his past answers.  We intentionally rehearse his goodness as we read about him in his Word and see hourly and daily evidence of his love.

So, in his very rapid handling of our freezer problem, I see reassurance from a loving and kind Father that he really does care about us. Through this quick supply of grace, it is as though he is reassuring us that he IS indeed at work in our big need. But that in his perfect wisdom, he has planned a wait.  So, we await HIS timing and continue to pray.  But not frantically, not desperately.

Oh, by the way, the next time someone thinks to put me off with a quip about God having more important things to do than handle a problem like a defective freezer, I’ll confidently say:

The one and only true, living and loving God cares about ALL that concerns me, AND you, AND the nations at war, AND the environment, etc. And compared to his GREATNESS, and from his point of view, all these problems are little items!

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.

 

 

 

Vitamins and minerals against anxiety

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You will keep him in shalowm shalowm* whose mind is stayed on you because he trusts in You.  Isaiah 26:3 (*Hebrew for perfect peace)

Years ago, in our 20s, Mike and I sold Amway products.  One item that we whole-heartedly promoted was their top-of-the-line vitamin and mineral supplement named Double X.  I’m not sure what the X stood for, but whatever it was, twice as much good stuff was packed into those green little shapes.  Double X was pricey, even back then. We grew accustomed to budgeting for vitamins.  Daily exogenous micronutrients still form part of the healthy way we cook and eat.

With school starting this month, I’ve engaged in the ‘good fight of faith’, pondering how to resist the temptation to worry.  For me, it’s always about ‘having enough time’ to give to those extra-curricular activities important to me like writing this blog, reading and creating my ‘English without Fear’ videos.

One of my go-to-verses to battle fear and worry is the one above from Isaiah.  Original Hebrew or Greek words always draw me in.  So, when I read that ‘perfect peace’ is really shalowm shalowm, I rejoiced!  You all know that shalowm is far more than peace and tranquility; it includes welfare, contentment, soundness, health, quiet and safety.

Who doesn’t desire all that?

So, what’s the catch?

Oh….just the habit of keeping our thoughts FIXED on God.  That’s all.

Right!

But just as the Spirit of God brought my Isaiah fighter verse to mind, so, too, he brought a devotional that same night. The author penned almost as an afterthought that for every thought we invest in regrets or excitement or discouragement concerning earthly, transitory details, we ought to commit 100 times as much of our thought life to ALL WE HAVE IN CHRIST!

I have to confess that I don’t even apportion 2 to 1 of my thoughts and emotions to what Jesus has given me!  The writer’s exhortation not only pulled me up short but has stayed with me all week long.

So how do we DO what he recommends?

One technique I’ve used in the past, occasionally, is to go through the alphabet, letter by letter, and just praise God out loud for all the words I can think of about Him.  I do this on hikes with Mike when we can go for long stretches of time without talking.

For example:

A:  Father, I’m so glad that you are always available, that you have adopted me into your forever family, that you are always the same, that you have altered my reality by giving me new life, that you adore me, that you arrange all the details of my life, that Jesus argues with the accuser that He has taken care of my sin problem.

I just point out as many things to God as I can think of beginning with that letter.  And then I move on to the next letter.  Sometimes halfway through the alphabet, I’ll add another deed or characteristic that I’ve already prayed about. No matter.

What other ways can you think of that we can think about God’s good eternal gifts to us?

Of course, I haven’t mentioned ‘the trust you’ part, but I see my praises for his deeds and attributes as ASSUMING a trust in him.

Father, may you give us your grace to rejoice and be glad in who you are and who we are because of you.  Thanks to Christ, Amen!

How God changes people

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For 9 years I struggled with bulimia; 6 years before I married Mike, followed by 3 more years.  A favorite activity of ours as young lieutenants stationed in Germany was to explore the German countryside by means of a nearby ‘Volksmarch’.  These organized 3-4 hour walks through villages and wooded beauty gave us time to talk.  I would ask Mike each week while we traipsed, “What am I going to do?  How can I manage or handle this scourge of bulimia!!?”   Poor guy!  My supportive and loving husband probably felt frustrated as he offered his comfort and solutions time and time again.

In my mind, it was all up to me to find a solution AND the motivation to implement it.  The problem was, I couldn’t trust myself to follow through, no matter how sincere my intentions were.

We were new Christians and I prayed my heart out, week in and week out.  But God didn’t give me a way to free myself from this addiction to food.  Instead, he removed the burden himself, in a creative way.  I got pregnant.

With that dramatic change in circumstances, I had a new, compelling interest and desire.   Caring for this baby growing inside of me replaced the desire to binge and purge.  Up until now, I hadn’t felt enough self-love to take care of my body. But now, for the sake of this new life growing inside of me, I WANTED to nurture myself with good foods and healthy practices.

The 7 1/2 conscious months of carrying another human being turned out to be what I needed to break the binge and purge cycle.  God be praised!

God CAN and DOES change people and we know that.  If you are a Christian, there was a time when you weren’t. Maybe you can’t remember that period if you have loved Jesus from an early age.  But many of us do recall feeling either indifferent or luke-warm about God.  And then something happened.  All of a sudden we were interested in reading our Bibles.  The things of God drew us in.  We might have attributed that newfound growing fascination as something we did. But we would be incorrect. Dead men don’t make decisions!

Paul writes to the believers in Colosse: When you were dead in your trespasses and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. (Col 2:13)

That means that any interest, any LOVE for Jesus comes from outside of us.  As Paul so bluntly argues in his letter to the Romans – ……God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Rom 5:5b)

Mike, too, has experienced this ‘from the outside to the inside change of heart’ regarding cars.  After those couple of years stationed in Germany, the land of VERY fast and powerful automobiles, Mike returned stateside with a growing, almost insatiable love for cars.  About 15 years ago Mike started noticing the decreasing pull of all things automotive.  During the span of 37+ years of marriage, we have bought, owned and sold 28 cars, not counting motorcycles.

But God!  Yes, God removed the interest, the mania, the seemingly insatiable desire for new wheels.  Mike didn’t set out to change.  In fact, he didn’t think he needed to change.  God has been working on Mike’s heart and shifting his values.

When we married at 22 (we’re now 60), we were not even believers.  Over the years, what has emerged as our favorite time of the day is something we would never have imagined in the first 25 years together.  The dinner-prep time, those 90 minutes when we’re in the kitchen fixing dinner and tomorrow’s breakfasts and lunches, we talk and listen to music.  Before we sit down to dine, we each get out our notebooks where we’ve observed and written down what we noticed in the day’s Scripture reading.  Inevitably Mike will have picked up something that passed me by and vice versa.  This in-depth exchange deepens our love and appreciation for God’s holiness and his Word. In our twenties and thirties, talking about God held no place in our daily exchanges.  God has planted and cultivated this now-cherished habit.

Last year I witnessed two other new desires that ‘came up out of nowhere’. (I’ve written previously about ‘dining with my school colleagues’ and ‘wanting to continue teaching and working on my craft of helping students with Second Language Acquisition’). What I love about God is how he surprises and delights me.   Maybe that’s what my family should etch on my tombstone, “Surprised by God!”

Recently, God did it again.  The change caught me unaware.  But this time, I connected it to a pattern.  (Why had no one comforted me with the FACT that change IS possible in God’s kingdom and that it is not all up to us!?)

Here’s what happened.  As I described above God rescued me from bulimia in my mid-twenties. Although the binge-purge pattern no longer ran my life, my obsession with eating and how I looked and felt about my body still plagued me.  The scales have been a powerful idol for decades.  Gradually God has weaned me mostly away from them.  But I still don’t trust myself to stick to any resolutions.

But God!  Yes, he has changed my desire.  Visiting with Shay and Graham over Christmas prompted an unexpected change.  They have been following a plant-based way of eating for 2 years.  Whereas I have always enjoyed the occasional vegetarian meal I considered it extreme to avoid all meat and dairy.  I like meat and dairy.  But watching the documentary Forks over Knives changed me.  I happened to ask Shay a question about the smoothie she was preparing.  It was Christmas Eve and we had a block of time before heading to church.  She asked me if I wanted to see for myself what caused them to switch.  I did and I was convinced.  Plant-based eating IS healthier and CAN minimize one’s risk for disease.  For me, it was a ‘no-brainer’.

And with that, I switched.  Mike, a very good-hearted, generous and supportive husband, agreed to drop his morning yogurt and share a smoothie with me. My lunches, breakfasts, and snacks are plant-based. And I agreed to prepare an ‘every-other-night’ entré of meat.    After all, Graham and Shay have adopted a ‘reasonable’ 80 %-of-the-time- vegan lifestyle.  This allows for eating what is served them by friends, or the occasional desire to sample something not plant-based.

A few weeks into this way of life, I recognized that I no longer care what the scale says.  What I value is eating healthy.  Surprise!  When we drove down to Tampa for Christmas, this new world of plant-based cooking was not on the radar.

So here is the principle.  Don’t angst about a change you can’t seem to make for the better.  Give it to God to bring about:

  • in his perfect way
  • in his perfect timing
  • to his glory and your blessing

Psalm 37:4  Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

PS:  I think the desires the Psalmist had in mind are not what WE think we want, but rather what God wants for us as his beloved children!

 

 

Commands & promises that simplify life

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Parents mean well, but they can unwittingly burden their children.

My father was one of those ‘can-do’ men who had reduced life’s collective wisdom to short statements meant to both encourage and teach.  Some of this military man’s words of advice were:

  • Drive on all the way (Infantry motto)
  • Your wants won’t hurt you
  • Don’t borrow trouble
  • Do your best

That last one has caused me much grief.  Why?  Because I never knew what was my best. By what objective standard did one measure one’s best?  How would I know if I had reached ‘my best’?

There was one time in my life when I obsessively worked a side business while teaching school full-time and mothering 2 sons.  I almost wrecked our marriage, so driven was I for ‘success’ in that part-time fashion venture.

One week in particular stands out.  Push-push-push!  Striving to reach a sales goal in order to be recognized and applauded at the national sales conference one month later, I drove myself nuts (and probably the rest of the family!).  My dad’s motto about one’s BEST compelled me to keep making phone calls.  My goal consumed me.  I couldn’t rest.  That target named ‘MY BEST’ kept inching further away.

This past week, 2 verses have both grabbed my heart and resurrected painful memories of drivenness.

  1. Psalm 105:4   Seek the LORD and His strength, seek His presence continually
  2. Psalm 37:3  Trust in the LORD and do good

Yesterday was a difficult day teaching.  I dreaded one of my classes.  As I was walking up the stairs to the building, praying, I affirmed over and over again: All I need are the LORD’s strength and His presence.  God has commanded me to seek and pray for these things.  He must really want me to have them!

And He came through!  (why do I doubt????)

This morning, bracing for that same first-period class and sensing the familiar creeping dread, I recalled Pop’s adage about doing my best. I prayed for God’s strength and His presence; and the above verse from Psalm 34 came to mind.  Tim Keller in his devotional on the Psalms had reflected on that psalm the previous night.  And I had been encouraged by the simple command to ‘do good’ in the context of trusting/resting in God.

Far from being burdened by having to aim for my best, I felt relief flooding me.  One’s best might be the way of the world, the mantra of certain motivational speakers, but not the path that the Triune God teaches.

Prior to any effort or work God commands from us, He assures us in numerous places what He has already accomplished FOR us. (chose, created, sought, rescued, redeemed, and saved us). And in view of THOSE mercies, we are to TRUST HIM. For hasn’t He already proven to us that He is worthy of our trust?

How that command to trust Him relieved the burden of my dreaded class was in this way:

  • I don’t know what God is doing in the interactions between my class and me.  Most of the time I FEEL ineffective with them.
  • But I willed myself to trust Him, the all-wise, all-knowing, all-powerful Sovereign of the universe.
  • And having committed myself to trust Him this day, I resolved to DO GOOD.

But what did ‘do good’ look like? For me, this morning, I taught French to my class in a way that was sensitive to their moods, abilities and comprehension and did not fret with what they gained from the class.  I did not take personally their bored 13-year-old faces or their chattiness about other topics IN FRENCH class!   I trusted God, did ‘good’ and let it rest.

This particular crop of students is weak. Their abilities probably don’t have as much to do with my skill as a teacher as I think. But God has placed me at that school with those children for His purposes. His plans are good and I will commit to being faithful in my assignment through the power the Holy Spirit gives me.  That is all He expects.

 

 

What Elijah and I have in common

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1 Kings 19: 3,4b, 5a –   Elijah was afraid and ran for his life.……….. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die.I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.

I was having an Elijah day.  Tired.  Leg and foot cramps at night degrade my sleep. So when I hop out of bed more than the customary once per night, I feel FOGGY and handicapped the next day.

As you know fatigue is NOT conducive to feelings that represent reality.

I had gotten up at my customary time, knowing that I needed time with the Lord on my walk and at the kitchen counter reading my Bible and praying.  If I didn’t set TRUTH front and center in my life, I would not make it through the day teaching school and interacting with colleagues.

Even with the reminder of our unchanging God, it was still HARD.  The feelings, which seemed to originate from WITHIN me, kept up their assault:

  • I don’t really care about kids!
  • I’m too old to be teaching in a Middle School
  • But where am I going to find another job that pays this much and frees up my summer for family and friends?

Finally, I chose to ignore the feelings and NOT yield to the temptation to draw any conclusion.

I found refuge in this promise from God:  My grace IS sufficient for you, because my power is made perfect when combined with your weakness, Maria.  2 Cor 12:9 (includes my personalization!)

The next day, after a better sleep (Thank you, Jesus!) I thought of Elijah and his emotional outburst and wrong conclusions.

If you read the entire passage in 1 Kings 19, you can clearly see God’s tenderness.  He doesn’t rebuke Elijah, but causes him to sleep, then sends an angel to feed him and to invite him to sleep some more. Only then does God dialogue with Elijah and set him straight with truth – that Elijah is NOT the only believer left, but there are another 7000!

So dear friends, I am learning (and RE-learning) not to agree with or even fight feelings when I’m tired, but just to lay them in Jesus’ lap and take care of my body.  There’s plenty of time to figure things out WITH God knowing that He has promised to give me perfect power for my needs.

 

 

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