How does your (spiritual) garden grow?

By Erika Rizkallah

Got a brown thumb? Happily, spiritual planting is all about growth! We can learn so much about growing our faith by applying lessons from the garden.

I inherited my gardening passion from my dad. I also come from a long line of farmers and joyfully remember the summer weeks spent with my grandparents. My brother and I explored fields planted with corn and soybeans and hunted for wild asparagus growing near a ditch in front of the farmhouse.

When I moved into my forever home I inherited the previous homeowner’s garden. I was thrilled with the yard until I learned she practiced Ikebana (Japanese flower design). On closer inspection, I discovered it contained all sorts of heinous invasive plants. I spent hours weeding, only to find them sprout again, trying to strangle plants I wanted to keep.

IMG_1144

But I was patient, and after pulling them by the roots, I planted my favorites in their place. Now I have a gorgeous yard that fills me with satisfaction and peace — though it’s still a work in progress.

Tending to my little corner of the world connects me to God in a more meaningful way. Adam and Eve’s first home was a garden and many of Jesus’ teachings took place outdoors and reflect his love of nature. Themes of harvest, sowing and reaping feature prominently in the Bible.

flowers 1

Growth and spiritual fruit production are imperatives for anyone seeking maturity in Christ. Here are five ways our earthy and spiritual lives are similar:

Great soil: All gardeners know the key to a productive garden is great soil. It’s the primary ingredient for flourishing plants and must be healthy. Conditioning is often necessary because let’s face it, almost no soil is perfectly healthy in its natural state. If it’s too sandy, wet or filled with sticky clay, plants wither and die.

The soil of our spiritual life is the heart. Biblically speaking, the heart – kardia in Greek – represents our whole inner being. It’s not just a blood pumping organ, but the source of life, made up of mind, soul and spirit.

Nourishment: We can’t simply plop flowers and plants into a garden and expect it to grow. We must nourish it. Sunlight, the meticulous watering and protection from the elements are critical. We often need to amend soil with fertilizer and emulsifiers, which come from surprising sources. We apply dead fish and poop to feed our plants — this used to gross me out.

In spiritual matters, our fertilizer is prayer and scripture reading. And just as manure provides nutrients, trouble (the poopy parts of life), also benefits us. Adversity strengthens and causes us to seek God, to rely on him and his word for our inner health.

 

prayer-1308663_1920

Maintenance: Here is where many gardeners begin to falter. The first part, getting the soil and feeding right, is relatively easy. The hard part is keeping up with it. Regular maintenance includes weeding, pruning, pest control and deadheading — a fancy term for removing spent flower heads.

Spiritual life requires maintenance too. We get this by spending intentional daily quiet time with God. Enjoying friendship with fellow believers can help us weed out sin and discern the parts of life God’s wants to prune. While painful, pruning — cutting off dead and unproductive stuff — helps us grow and flourish. Regular maintenance gets rid of pests, slugs and worms threatening to devour us.

Patience: Waiting is the truly difficult part. After all the time and energy spent on the early part of the process, it’s not unusual to see little result. We live in an “instant” society and gardening is anything but immediate. It can take months and even years for some plants to thrive and grow. So it goes with faith . . .

girl-2760853_1920

But hidden under the dark surface and seemingly dormant areas, God is always working.  Patience is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit and our Father is generous to provide for our needs. Though often boring, waiting is necessary and active.

Being still, standing firm in our faith and trusting are active habits. Even though we sometimes can’t see it, God is ever-present and cares deeply for us.

Produce: This is the good stuff — our hard work has paid off! Beautiful, bountiful flowers bloom and we pluck fruit from the trees. We bite into the luscious apple, craft a bouquet and feel satisfaction and accomplishment.

God wants this for us. He wants fruit production and for us to enjoy that fresh fruit of our labor.

peach-2632182_1920

Take a bite out of the juicy peach and thank him for his daily tending!

Your Turn: Our earthly and spiritual lives are a work in progress. There’s always work to sow and benefits to reap. Where are the areas your spiritual garden needs tending most?

5 ways to deal with the trolls in your life

By Erika Rizkallah

Do you have trolls in your life?

As a kid, one of my favorite stories was the Norwegian folk tale, Three Billy Goats Gruff. Don’t be surprised if it’s unfamiliar; the fact that I recall it shows my age.

It’s about three goats — a little one, a middle sized one and a huge one — who had to cross a bridge to get to the other side of the mountain to eat. A grotesque and ferocious troll lived underneath, threatening to devour them.

background-2032255_1920

The little and middle-sized ones tricked him into waiting for the huge billy goat who crushed his bones and threw him over the bridge.

Just a terrifying tale parents liked to read right before bedtime!

We also had troll dolls. Remember those? We’d smash the neon polyester hair down and spin their squat bodies in our palms to whip up crazy hairdos.

Seems kind of lame now but that’s what we did for fun in the “good ‘ol days.”

troll-18240_1920

Trolls still exist. They usually menace behind electronic devices, but sometimes actively pursue.

I have one and she’s not the fun kind.

She’s the mother of my son’s (former) friend. Our boys were goofing around in my home and it escalated into a physical fight. Though her son started the horseplay and sucker punched my kid first, hers lost the fight and was injured.

Out of town that weekend, I heard the story from my husband, son and another witness. And the detective assigned to the case — yes, she called the police. Not getting the desired result, she’s now hell-bent on harassing me.

She’s sent nasty texts, tried to post awful comments on my blog and slandered my family in the community. So she’s trolling everywhere.

norge-2467913_1920

This is the world we live in. A world filled with strangers who feel free to unleash rage and harm. Just because they can or feel entitled to.

So how do we deal with it?

Ignore them: The first troll-defeating rule is always the best. Ignore them. They’re not worth our time or energy. Really, they’re not. They’re out living dull lives, getting their jollies by trying to cause harm. Don’t let them drag you to the party. Go about your own life and be thankful you have better things to do.

For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. James 1:13-15

Rise up: Unlike mythological monsters, humans are complex. Maybe they’re hurting and trolling is their only way to feel powerful. Maybe they’re immature, attention seeking or insecure. We’ve all had our moments but we don’t have to act creaturely.

A pig that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud. 2 Peter 2:22

pig-1516956_1920

Talk it out: No, not to the troll — that won’t do any good. Talk about it with people who really know you. There’s nothing like meeting with a close friend to reassure us that we’re not what they say we are.

A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity. Proverbs 17:17

Go to God: Remember your creator. He’s the one who loves you most of all. He knows your heart, sees your frustration and can act in ways you’ve never even imagined. He’s the ultimate healer of the damaged. Meditate on this verse:

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. Psalm 139:13-14

Live with joy: Jesus warned that in this world we would have trouble. It’s the unfortunate part of earthly living, but we don’t have to dwell on Negativity Island. There are wonderful things out there that deserve our attention. We can do something nice for a stranger, offer a word of encouragement to a friend in need and spend time with positive people.

Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength. Nehemiah 8:10

girl-2755877_1920

Most of all, remember who you are. None of us are perfect, but we are all loved — even the trolls.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8

 

 

Feel like you don’t have much to offer?

When I was growing up, one of the most popular tunes on the radio was a song called Stand By Your Man, co-written and recorded by Tammy Wynette. Though it contains only 128 words and was written in 15 minutes, it’s sparked debate and controversy for years.

No one predicted the surprising results this scant and quickly written song produced; Tammy catapulted to fame and it remains one of country music’s Top hits 50 years later.

I’ve been married to the same guy for 24 years and consider myself fortunate. He’s a business owner and we have a great life despite many ups and downs. Long ago, God told me he’d provide for me through my husband and I’ve accepted his promise gratefully.

marriage-2545684_1920

But it’s difficult at times, especially in this day and age when we voraciously compare ourselves to others. Though I’ve worked off and on through the years and have my own online business, I’m not “self-supporting.” When I fill out paperwork, I put “Not Applicable” under the employment section. One time at a doctor’s office, the receptionist shouted across the room, “Are you still unemployed?”

These questions make me cringe — I hate labels. I’m independent and was the main breadwinner in our family for several years before I quit work to take care of my children. In my hometown near Washington D.C., women would ask, “What do you do for a living?” When I explained I was a stay-at-home mom, they often discreetly drifted off looking for someone more interesting to talk to.

walking-312087_1280

True story.

The bulk of my work goes unseen and uncompensated. I’m not what the world considers “successful,” but I know I am. So does my family and most importantly, so does my God.

Still, sometimes I want the sacrifices I’ve made to be seen and dare I say, celebrated.

It reminds me of the Bible story known as the widow’s offering. One day, Jesus was teaching in the temple and he sat down across from where people were putting in their required offerings.

Mark 12:41-44 says: Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. 

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything — all she had to live on.” 

Sometimes women at any stage of life can feel like our offerings are meager. On low  strength and energy days, the only fuel I have is knowing that Jesus sees me. He accepts my small offerings and he loves it.

money-2340409_1920

He sees and loves you as well. No offering is too small to make a huge difference in the world and for his kingdom.

Sometimes I wonder what happened to the widow. I know God provided for her because it’s one of his promises. He’s close to the poor, the oppressed, those who feel small.

The lesson was so important that he called his disciples over to witness it. The story is told in the books of Mark and Luke; the nameless woman is still held up as an example over 2,000 years later.

That’s incredible . . . and so are you!

 

 

 

What’s missing in your walk with Jesus?

By Erika Rizkallah

One of the most well known stories in the New Testament begins in Mark 10:17. It’s the story of the rich young ruler.

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a young man ran up to him, threw himself at his feet and said, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Hoffman-ChristAndTheRichYoungRuler

The first thing Jesus points out is his error. He asks, “Why do you call me good? No one is good — except God alone.”

I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the response he expected. After all, he was rich, young and a ruler. He would have been used to people kowtowing to him.

His had the correct approach. First of all, he ran up to Jesus — something a dignified and respected man would never do in that culture. Then he threw himself at Jesus’ feet, another unusual action for a man in his position.

It was a declaration of worship and I believe he really wanted to know the answer to his question.

But Jesus often does and says the unexpected.

stone-tablets-1242854_1920

Jesus responded, “You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.’

The ruler declared, “Teacher, all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

I love the next sentence. The Bible says Jesus looked at him and loved him. This story is often told and preached in pulpits all over the world . . . with the love part left out.

“One thing you lack,” said Jesus. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

woman-2827304_1920

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

I always feel for the guy when I hear this story. Here was a person who seemingly had it all: youth, wealth and power and yet, he walks away from the conversation in a state of sadness and uncertainty.

Jesus used the episode as a teaching moment for his disciples. He says, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

This flips the disciples out — they’re shocked and amazed — because during that time, it was thought that wealth and power were signs of blessing from God. A guarantee of gaining entrance to Heaven.

gold-1633073_1920

Sometimes we come to Jesus asking deep questions and don’t get the expected answers. But maybe that’s the point.

Only he knows what we truly lack. Only he knows what hinders our faith walk.

But like the rich young ruler, we first have to be brave enough to ask the question.

How about you? What questions have you asked Jesus lately?

 

 

Pursuing peace and quiet

By Erika Rizkallah

malham-2877857_1920

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,

he leads me beside quiet waters,

he restores my soul.

Psalm 23:1-3

What pictures come to mind when you think about the words peace and quiet?

Try closing your eyes and pondering for a moment. Go ahead, I’m waiting.

These are a few images that come to my mind:

landscape-photo-2930249_1920I don’t fish so I’m not sure why this is.

canola-fields-1911392_1920I’m not a farmer, but whenever I see rolling hills and fields, my spirit sighs and settles.

snow-3084740_1920  Maybe I’ve read one too many fairy tales, but this makes my heart happy!

The moments I savor and crave most are those when my home or yard is still. The house is silent and I’m alone. No groan of lawnmowers chewing up the grass, horns honking, or people whining.

Silence energizes and the sounds of nature refresh our souls. And yet, what a nosy and noisy world we live in.

new-york-1587558_1920

Sometimes I imagine what it was like before God created mankind. But of course, mankind what just what he had in mind. The Bible teaches us that after he created the world, he made Adam out of the dust. He created Eve out of Adam’s rib — flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone.

He placed them in a garden and walked with them and all was well for awhile.

sculpture-3185623_1920

I think that original beauty and silence is sorely lacking today. I believe we need to find our way back and snatch up as much of it as we can. But silence is scary for a lot of people these days.

How can we hear the Holy Spirit’s whispers if our ears are crammed with noise and our homes rife with strife?

How can we commune with the creator if we stuff our lives with the busyness of the world?

people-2604837_1920

What do you think? Do you have enough quiet time in your life? Do you make getting alone with God (or yourself) a priority? Do you fear what you might hear?

God loves when we seek him in this way. He loves to whisper into our spirit and he delights in our attempts to hear him.

In 1 Timothy 2:2 the apostle Paul gives instructions for worship and prayer. He asks that we pray for our leaders “that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”

This is worth pursuing.

Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness. James 3:18

 

Boating with Jesus

By Erika Rizkallah

Yesterday I had lunch with Kathy, a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time. As we settled into our seats at Panera, a woman rushed up to us.

“I saw you sitting here and I just had to pop over and say hello,” she gushed. “You’re a hard woman to get in touch with, always so busy.”

Emily introduced herself to me and apologized for interrupting our conversation. I didn’t mind. Kathy runs a successful children’s theatre program and though we both moved to town at the same time, it seems like she knows everyone.

Emily asked several questions about the program and Kathy directed her to the website to get the information she needed. Kathy said, “It’s all on my Facebook page. We just updated it.” Then the discussion turned to social media and they talked and talked.

I said, “I’m hardly ever on social media so I’ll have to check out the page too.”

“Oh, you’re lucky,” Emily said. “It’s better to stay away from it or you can get sucked in.”

girl-1064658_1920

I explained that I needed to be on it more – though I don’t like to – because if I’m not, the world passes you by; people rarely reach out to me. We share so much through platforms and devices now, I’ve become disconnected. My nephew broke his arm last month and I didn’t know because I wasn’t on Facebook.

Before she left Emily said, “It’s nice to meet you.” I thought she was talking to me but it quickly became apparent she’d never met Kathy in person — she’d only “seen” her online.

Her words, “You’re lucky” made me pause. Luck has nothing to do with it, intentionality does.

tree-3080406_1920

It reminds me of a passage in Mark 3. Jesus has just pissed off the Pharisees after healing a man on the Sabbath, against their religious law. He withdrew to the lake and large crowds followed him.

Because of the crowd he told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him, to keep the people from crowding him. Mark 3:9

Though needed and followed by the masses, Jesus deliberately withdrew. He kept his distance, not allowing the crowd to press into him. We often see him withdrawing to quiet places and spending time with God in solitude. We often see him getting into a boat.

rowing-boat-1926423_1920

Like Jesus, we too need to get away from the crowds for a time, even if they’re virtual. Then we come back better grounded in reality and stronger.

Is the world pressing in on you? Do you need to spend more face time with your friends and take a break from a demanding crowd?

It’s ok to give yourself permission and press the “off” button for as long as you need.

Just tell them you have a boat ready and a date with the friend who loves you the most!

 

Sharing the hope of Christ

By Erika Rizkallah

The other day my son and I drove one of his buddies home from school. I got the chance to listen in on an interesting conversation. His friend, Matt, is part of a growing movement of Millennials who believe the earth is flat.

Shocked, I struggled to keep my mouth shut and just listen, but I had to butt in.

secret-2681508_1920

“Matt, do you seriously think the earth is flat or are you joking?” I asked.

“Yes ma’am, I do. I’ve spent months researching it and there’s compelling evidence out there that proves the earth is not round.”

“No mom!” my son shouted, “Don’t get him started — he’ll never stop talking about it.”

Let me first say that Matt is a super smart kid, very respectful and a self-described  “super hard-core Christian.”

And my son was right, once he got going, he didn’t want to stop. I expressed my skepticism and he had answers (good ones!) for every challenge I issued. In fact, a few of his questions made me really think. I admit to doing a little research of my own when I got home.

art-1301872

He said, “How can you be certain we landed on the moon? Did you see it yourself? No, you were told about it in school and you accepted it as truth. Do you know that most pictures of earth are computer generated models? And what about the fake picture of the moon walk?

He told me he wasn’t just going to accept what the government told him about the world without researching it first. He also said his tactics sometimes got him in trouble with school administrators.

board-2584719_1920

While I don’t share his views, they’re popular with a group of people known as the Flat Earthers — an organization founded centuries ago by The Flat Earth Society.

His diligence and unbridled passion about the subject reminded me of the Apostle Peter’s exhortation in 1 Peter 3:15: “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” 

Matt taught me a lesson that day — I need to be equally prepared and courageous enough to share the hope of Christ with others. I must be willing to gently argue my case and tell my story to skeptics.

Maybe my efforts will pay off and help someone dig deeper into the message about His love for them.

cross-2925354_1920

How about you? Kids say the darnedest things! What lessons about God have you learned from them?

 

 

 

 

Living with Chronic Pain – Rise and Go!

By Erika Rizkallah

“Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” Luke 17:19

In the passages of Luke 17, Jesus spoke to his disciples about temptation, sin and forgiveness. He told them that if a brother sinned against them seven times and repented seven times, they must forgive him. This would be a hard pill for anyone to swallow — sometimes it’s hard to forgive even once.

His disciples urged him to increase their faith. He explained that if they have faith as small as a mustard seed they can command a mulberry tree to uproot and plant itself in the sea. And the tree would obey!

water-1124761_1920

Is Jesus simply using hyperbole? I think not. I think he’s trying to teach them that faith — even a small amount — is powerful and they have more authority than they realize. I think he’s also teaching them that the increase of faith is their responsibility.

It requires action. The tree will uproot and plant itself if they command it, but it won’t do it on its own.

At this time, they’re heading to Jerusalem, passing between Samaria and Galilee. Ten lepers met them as they entered a village. By law, lepers were considered unclean and outcasts from society. These men, standing at a distance, begged Jesus to have mercy and heal them.

ten lepers

He called out and told them to go show themselves to the priest, a requirement for anyone healed of disease. So they left and were healed as they went along.

Think about that for a minute. Jesus didn’t actually touch the men, he told them to go and they did. I think this object lesson showed the disciples two important things:

They had the power to command and faith requires action.

Notice that all ten men left believing they’d be healed and declared clean.

However, there’s another important facet of the story. Before they got to the priest, one man came back, fell to his knees before Jesus and thanked him. Before, he stood at a distance, and after, he sat at Jesus’ feet.

lepers 2

Jesus said, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”

The foreigner was a Samaritan — a hated enemy of the Jews.

Living with chronic pain can make us feel like lepers. Sometimes we feel like outcasts standing on the fringes of life, unwelcome and alone. Jesus doesn’t see us that way. In fact, I think he wants us to understand that even small faith is powerful.

I’m commanding my pain to plant itself somewhere else.

DSC_0035 (2)

We can live with anticipation of knowing that at any time, Jesus can appear and send us on the journey to healing.

So rise, start journeying and don’t forget to praise God!

 

Returning God’s grace

By Erika Rizkallah

The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it on the seas, and established it on the waters. Psalm 24:1-2

For the past couple of years my rhythm has been off. To say I’ve not been myself is an understatement.

I don’t like it one bit but I’ve had to make necessary adjustments to guard my home. I’ve been raising teenagers and they like to stay up late. So I’ve stayed up late to watch over and guide them.

Trouble often seeks us out in darkness.

Today I woke up at 4:00 a.m. (4:30 used to be my sweet spot) and I had the pleasure of watching the sun rise above the ocean. Sea birds are especially busy in the mornings. Pelicans glide inches over the water, gulls cackle and circle above and ducks fly in formation.

horizon-768759_1920

As I watched the sky turn orange, saturating the world in a peachy glow I prayed, this all belongs to you God. Everything we see and take pleasure in on this earth is yours.

How blessed we are to be beneficiaries of God’s amazing grace. How blessed we are to watch him work — to daily enjoy his creation and be part of it!

I wonder if he feels the same way about me when I rise in the morning?

I think so. I think he looks at each one of us as a vessel filled with the dawn of possibility. I bet when we stretch and scratch and begin the day’s work, we’re no less beautiful than the sea birds just doing their thing.

seagull-2654561_1920

Let’s be filled with wonder and gratitude each morning. Let’s try to live in a manner that pleases him and returns the grace.

Good morning!

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God — this is your true and proper worship. Romans 12:1

Be strange. Be weird. Be a blessing.

By Erika Rizkallah

I was watching Fox News the other day and happened to see the story about a group of Evangelical church leaders praying over President Trump. Maybe you saw it too.

Erin Burnett, a CNN news anchor, did a segment on it and said, “all these people sort of touching him” was “very strange.” I guess to people unfamiliar with Christianity, the picture may indeed seem strange. However, it’s a basic doctrine of our faith and is called “laying hands” on someone.

The use of hands in forms of worship and prayer is not unusual in many cultures and religions. But I wonder how many “influencers” would object or comment negatively on them . . .

camping-1839021_1920

tibet-1717188_1920

worship-2289770_1920In Christianity there are no less than 29 passages of scripture on this practice, which has a long history spanning both the Old and New Testaments. It can signify separation of a person or groups of people for a specific task:

And you shall bring the Levites before the tent of meeting and assemble the whole congregation of the people of Israel. When you bring the Levites before the LORD, the people of Israel shall lay their hands on the Levites, and Aaron shall offer the Levites before the LORD as a wave offering from the people of Israel, that they may do the service of the LORD. Numbers 8:9-11

It can also signify blessing, as was done by Jesus when parents brought their children to him:

Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” And he laid his hands on them and went away. Matthew 19:13-15

jesus prays

It’s a practice also used in healing, reassurance and comfort. I’ve had many hands layed on me over the years and I’ve layed hands on many others.

I’ve experienced healing, reassurance and comfort and am glad our President is a willing recipient of prayer. Even though some folks think it’s “weird.”

One of my favorite scriptures about this is found in Matthew 9:18:

As he was saying these things to them, behold, a ruler came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.”

The ruler – an important and powerful man – didn’t let his pride or position get in the way of doing all he could to save his daughter.  As a result, she was raised to life.

dad-1003819_1920

There will always be mockers – people who sneer at our faith and belittle our practices. Jesus told us to expect it. But you never know. A skeptic may also turn to us in a time of need, accept a prayer and a hand of reassurance that all will be well.

For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. Colossians 2:9-10

So . . . Be Strange. Be weird. Be a blessing!