God’s plans have purpose

By Erika Rizkallah

All I wanted for my 50th birthday was a trip to Hawaii so I could visit Volcanoes National Park and walk the rim of a volcano. When I expressed the desire to my family, everyone was excited — except for my son.

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“Nope. I’m not going.” he said.

“What? Why? It’s my birthday trip.”

“I’ll stay home then, you go have fun.”

I pressed him for a reason and he said, “Lava. I’m never going anyplace that has volcanoes.”

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I begged, I badgered and I even taunted him. “You’re being ridiculous. You’re more likely to get injured in a car accident.” I said.

He wouldn’t budge.

“What are the odds of a volcanic eruption happening WHILE WE’RE THERE?” I shouted.

He stood firm and after a few days I let it go. I don’t usually let our kids dictate vacation plans but I could see he was seriously anxious and I didn’t want to argue. Then oddly, I lost all desire for my Hawaii trip.

Imagine my wonder and surprise when Mount Kilauea erupted during the week we’d planned to go!

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I sent him a video text of the eruption with the words . . . “Uh, I guess I owe you an apology.”

The wisdom in Proverbs often speaks of man’s plans in light of God’s. Here’s one I find particularly apropos:  In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps. Proverbs 16:9

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?”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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?

 

 

Peace, Prosperity & Politics

By Erika Rizkallah

I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. My parents worked in the Capitol – one in the Senate and one in the House of Representatives – though neither were politicians. They worked grueling hours for Congress and I grew resentful about the way our government treated its workers.

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Politics was the news in our town. Other than that, we just got doom and gloom reports of crime and death in what was then “the murder capital of the world.” What I remember most was a having a sense of overwhelming fear. Almost every thought and decision was filtered through a lens of anxiety.

I felt like a captive.

Many of my friends thrived on political discourse but I hated it. I didn’t want to hear or talk about it so I stopped watching the news.

I learned the “behind the scenes” truth from my parents. Though our politicians fought and filibustered on television, many were backroom buddies. The powerful and power-hungry dined and drank together in posh clubs, away from the C-Span cameras.

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When I turned 40, God called me to a new place – hours away from the ladder climbing and clamor. It’s my personal “Promised Land” and the home I’d always longed for.

Ironically, I’m a political junkie now. I guess it’s woven into the fabric of my life. However, I’m no longer anxious or fearful about the state of our country or world. I believe making it a better place is up to us.

It’s the duty of those who believe in Christ, to be salt and light. To help create reform. We’re able to create positive changes because we have true power.

We have the Holy Spirit.

I’m halfway through the book of Jeremiah and it reminded me being a captive. Jeremiah warned people for years that if they didn’t reform their ways, they’d be exiled to Babylon. But they didn’t listen and were sent to live in a land with a new ruler, customs and language.

 

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In the midst of their servitude to King Nebuchadnezzar, God gave them instructions for living through a letter sent by the prophet Jeremiah. He said, “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper . . .”  Jeremiah 29:5-7

I love the phrase . . . Build houses and settle down.

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It conveys a sense of peace in frightening circumstances. Though their rebellion resulted in captivity, God still comforted them. He always has a purpose and plan for his people.

The letter also said, “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. “ v. 29:11

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We often hear the prosperity part without the following verses:

“Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.” v. 29:12-14

I believe his declarations. His gracious promise of peace and prosperity. He’s for us no matter the political posturing or predicaments.

When we seek him with all our heart and seek the peace and prosperity of our cities, he will listen and we will be found by him.

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Oh what a reason for rejoicing and wonder!

How about you: Are you seeking?

 

 

Surviving seasons of sorrow and slobber.

By Erika Rizkallah

I thank God summer is over. Well, kind of. I live on the Southeastern coast and even though leaves are starting to fall and acorns litter the sidewalks, it can feel as hot as Hades.

From my windows I watch boats drift by with girls in bikinis dancing on the bow. I watch egrets stand as still as statues in the tall grasses at the water’s edge. I see fish jumping as they try to avoid the jaws of a gator who has no business being near my dock.

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I saw a lot out of my windows this summer but rarely got out of the house. Even though I can see the beach, I didn’t get a chance to spend even one day on it.

I know I sound like a baby . . . a little woe is me. But I don’t mean to. It’s simply that this summer season was hard.

So hard.

I watched the health of my loved ones deteriorate. I tried to provide comfort, safety and aid and I guess in that regard it was successful. We made it through but at times I questioned my own sanity.

And in the middle of it all, my husband ( bless his heart ) made a ridiculous decision. He brought home a puppy – a Rottweiler. Somehow he thought this would be a great thing, even though I’ve continually said, “Not one more thing that poops is allowed in this house!”

I told him I’d rather have a baby and he told me not to worry. I wasn’t going to have to care for this baby. No, he and my son would do it all. Yeah, right. He made it through a month before he realized he’d  made a big, messy, slobbery mistake.

Yet, in spite of all the chaos and sorrow, I watched God working out things for our good. It’s one of the promises I held onto through the tears, hospital visits and sleepless summer nights.

His plans are good. His ways are higher. His love heals our wounds.

I hope you know that friends. I pray you will cling to Our Father, keep your eyes on His son and understand that His grace is sufficient for us.

Here’s our promise . .  .

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28

5 Benefits of Having a Clear Conscience

By Erika Rizkallah

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The other day I took my dog, Titan, for a walk on our dock. Generally he hates this because he’s a big chicken. He’s afraid of the dark and wind but he seemed eager this day. He pulled me up the ramp, through the gazebo and toward the water. So I went with it.

I thought, well you’re not such a fraidy cat after all. We walked a short while and he stopped;  I gazed at the water and took a few cleansing breaths of salty air. Then he started pulling me back toward the house. Ah, the wind! I thought.

When we got to the gazebo I saw something out of the corner of my eye and pulled on the leash. He stopped and stoically faced forward.

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“Titan!” I barked. He just looked at me.

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Then he turned forward again as if I couldn’t see him; he knows not to pick up bones.

He has a conscience . . . a guilty one.

Having a clear conscience is a gift of peace. The idea of having a clear conscience before God is woven throughout the Old and New Testaments. Interchangeable words are “heart” and “mind.” According to the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis “. . . the words have a dominant metaphorical use in reference to the center of human psychical and spiritual life, to the entire inner life of a person.”

Here are five benefits of having a clear conscience straight from the Bible. For the full stories read the scripture references. Since it’s a longer than normal post I’d suggest pouring a cup of coffee and reading it as a mini study.

God keeps us from sinning against him – Read Genesis 20:1-18 – When Abraham was traveling in the region of the Negev he told people that his wife, Sarah, was his sister. One day Abimelech, the king of the land sent for Sarah and took her. Nice huh? But God came to him in a dream and told him she was married woman. Now Abimelech hadn’t touched her so he appealed to God and claimed his innocence. He said, “I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands.” Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her.”

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We are freed from burdens – Read 1 Samuel 25 1-34 – While David (before he was king) hid in the desert from King Saul, he watched the flocks of a rich jerk named Nabal. At shearing time it was customary for the owner of the flocks to feed the shepherds protecting them. But Nabal refused and offended David, so he came tearing down the hills bent on revenge. Nabal’s wife, Abigail, was a smart lady and rode out to meet him with gifts of food and drink. She humbled herself, called him master and said, “When the Lord has done for my master every good thing he promised concerning him and has appointed him leader over Israel, my master will not have on his conscience the staggering burden of needless bloodshed or of having avenged himself.” Abigail’s humility and quick thinking saved scores of lives that day.

The New Testament idea of conscience changes a bit as it’s influenced by Greek and Roman thought. As the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology explains, “The avoidance of a bad, accusing conscience is worth aspiring after, yet it is even more important to have a good conscience that confirms the correspondence of faith and life.” and “The Pastoral Letters lay great emphasis on a good conscience.” In short, it’s a rule of conduct applying to us today.

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Our conscience confirms our duty before God – Read Acts 22:1-23:11 – The Apostle Paul gave his testimony about Christ before a hostile crowd in Jerusalem. Things got so violent that the Romans arrested him and the next day he was brought before the Sanhedrin to find out why he was being accused by the Jews. The Bible says, Paul looked straight at the Sanhedrin and said, “My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.” He was struck by those next to him for saying this and another violent dispute broke out. He was then taken away by force at the order of the Roman commander, but this time for his safety. But listen to this amazing sentence: The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome. The Lord himself stood by Paul that night!

We have knowledge of right and wrong – Read Romans 13:1 – Like Jiminy Cricket in the Pinocchio story says, “Always let your conscience be your guide.” Paul preached a lot about doing the right thing. In his letter to the Romans he wrote about submitting to the authorities, how it was the right thing to do (even though the Romans were known for their brutality). He writes, Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.

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We have love – Read 1 Timothy 1:1-5 – When Paul went into Macedonia, he urged Timothy to stay in Ephesus to take care of men teaching false doctrines. It was Timothy’s job to command them to stop and instead do God’s work. Paul wrote, The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. The combination of a pure heart, a good conscience and sincere faith produces love.

I know when my conscience is clear I feel at peace with God, but it requires vigilance on my part. Right now, I’m working on some things that need cleaning up in my own life. How about you? Which of the five benefits applies to you right now?

 

 

Faith and impatience: A new view of Sarah

Once a year (usually in early fall) I read the Bible straight through. I try to  finish before the year is over, but since I’m behind in everything I got started late. Even still, each time I do this I understand more about Christianity and the history from which it springs.

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Have you ever read something in the Bible that changes the way you think about what you’ve been taught? I sure hope so! The Bible acts as a truth detective and is filled with events and stories of people. It provides us life changing examples of what it means to be faithful to God.

One such story is about Abraham and his wife, Sarah. Abraham was known as the father of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims. His narratives are woven throughout the Old and New Testaments. Before God changed their names they were known as Abram and Sarai. God told him he would be the “father of many nations.”

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Because Sarai couldn’t have children, she gave Abram to her servant, Hagar, and they had a son, Ishmael. Later, when she was 90 and Abram was 100, Sarai gave birth to Isaac who superseded Ishmael as the legitimate son. There’s a story about Sarai and Hagar fighting – with Abraham stuck between them – and you can find it in Genesis 21:1-20.

Because I like to switch up translations and versions, this year I decided to use the Archaeological Study Bible. In it I discovered something new – something that changed my thinking about what I’d been taught by well meaning church leaders.

While Abraham is held up as a model of faithfulness for believing God’s promise about a son being born to him, Sarah is often not. She’s portrayed as less faithful because in her impatience, she initiated the arrangement with Hagar and “gave her” to Abraham in order to build a family through her. Not only that, when the original promise was made, she laughed.

What woman wouldn’t? After all, her womb was dead to begin with and trust me, there are physical signs and stages an older woman endures that assured her of this fact.

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After waiting ten years for that promise to materialize she took matters into her own hands, so to speak. Abraham was a willing partner in this scheme but still – if only she’d been faithful like him . . .

But this is what I learned about the Mesopotamian culture they were living in at the time: “Laws from ancient Mesopotamia provide various interesting parallels to the Genesis stories. In particular, numerous regulations illustrate the marriage and inheritance issues found in the accounts of the patriarchs. For example: Just as Sarai procured an heir for Abram through her maid (Ge 16; cf. ch 30), the Sumerian laws of Ur-Nammu … allowed a husband to take a concubine after waiting in vain for his primary wife to bear children. As in Sarai’s case, the primary wife might even have initiated the arrangement.”

It goes on to explain inheritance and disinheritance rights which Abraham eventually used after divine intervention (Gen 21:8-13).

So was Sarai really impatient and unbelieving or was she simply availing herself of the cultural laws and traditions in which she lived? After all, her husband didn’t disagree to the use of a young Egyptian maidservant. On this point, I’ve frequently heard, “and what man would?” (insert guffaw).

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I highlight this story as an example for us today. In order to be truly informed, we need to read and teach the Bible in context of the time and place in which the characters lived. Then maybe we won’t be so quick to misjudge and characterize people from our modern (and still male dominated) viewpoints.

Your Turn: I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts in this matter. Does this change your previously held views of Sarai?

 

 

 

Thanksgiving: What would Jesus do?

By Erika Rizkallah

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday for many reasons, but mostly because it reminds me of my dad. He was an amazing cook and at each celebration he tried to outdo his efforts from the previous year.

In addition to the traditional turkey with stuffing, his artfully set table was laden with food for a variety of tastes. However, the best part of the day was receiving company. Our dinner wasn’t limited to family only. My dad made it a point to invite a hodgepodge of interesting people who had no place else to go.

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After dessert, my brother and I were sent to the kitchen for dish duty (washing by hand), but mostly I did it myself. I loved to eavesdrop on the grown-up conversations and learn a bit about the lives of our guests.

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I can’t count how many stories I heard about estranged and hurting families.

Dad died 26 years ago, shortly before his favorite holiday. It felt weird to sit at the table without him, and yet we were comforted by carrying on the tradition of an open home for others.

The holidays are joyful times for many, but can be miserable for the lonely and those separated from family.

Jesus was mindful of this. Banqueting was a popular ritual for wealthy ancient Romans. It was an honor to be invited and the host would produce a lavish display for his guests, who lounged on couches. The next banquet host would reciprocate and try to outdo him at the same time – a kind of competitive dining experience.

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One time Jesus went to such a dinner and told his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do they might invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Luke 14:12

Most of us will gather with family and friends this year – myself included – giving thanks to God for all his blessings. But wouldn’t it be awesome to try to include some of those people he mentioned at our feasts? What an awesome way to show God’s love to those who need it most.

Your Turn: Are you planning to invite someone special to share your holiday meal?

 

Good advice for the angry

By Erika Rizkallah

During my bridal shower – twenty years ago – my mother passed around a journal and asked the ladies to jot a note or write some marital advice. Among the blessings and prayers was the popular suggestion to “never go to bed angry.”

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Many people are surprised to learn this principle comes from the Bible. In context the whole passage is about the Christian life in general. To be exact, the passage reads: Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need. Ephesians 4:25-28.

As you can see, the verse about anger is sandwiched between lying and stealing. But it still makes good advice for soon to be newlyweds. However, it’s not one my husband and I have always been able to apply. Sometimes we go to bed angry and sometimes for no good reason at all – like last week.

For three whole days we didn’t speak to one another except in casual (if not comfortable) conversation, and then only because we had to.

Let’s just say it was his fault.

The highlighted quote about anger comes from the Old Testament in Psalm 4:4 which reads: Tremble and do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent. The “tremble” part means in your anger, which makes sense because when we’re really angry, we shake with it.

Sometimes quiet introspection is good when we’re arguing. It allows us to step back and think about why we love one another in the first place. It also helps us not say things (sometimes) that are sinful and hurt the other party.

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              “In your anger do not sin.”

So if you’re giving advice at a shower or in a doozy of a fight with your spouse, remember Psalm 4:4. The world – and our marriages – will be better and a whole lot quieter.