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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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 . . .

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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.

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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?

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 . . .

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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

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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.

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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!

 

Christmas Offerings:5 tips for living a life dedicated to God

 

By Erika Rizkallah

Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Ephesians 5:1-2

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For many, New Year’s Eve is the day to leave the things of the past behind and start fresh. But for me this process begins on Christmas Eve.

December 24 is my “Dedication Day” and is the most important day of the year to me. It’s become sort of a ritual over the last seven years. It happened like this: In 2009, I left my old life in the D.C. area behind to follow God to a new place.

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It was a big deal because not only did I leave family and friends, I left my job in ministry. I’d been on staff at a church when I heard the Lord tell me to GO. It didn’t make sense to me then and it certainly didn’t make sense to my boss.

My family and friends were also skeptical. After all, why would God send me to an unfamiliar place when I was succeeding where I was? Especially when I had no idea what I was going to do!

But go I did.

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That leap of faith has rewarded me in ways I can’t express. However, I went through a tremendous identity crisis with buckets of tears and confusion. I didn’t know how to just “be”. . . without a home, career or support system. Ironically, He sent me to North Carolina whose state motto is: Esse Quam Videri which means To be, rather than to seem.

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Isn’t God wonderful?!

He sent me here for that purpose. To be my authentic self – his daughter in Christ.

After a period of loneliness and settling in, I had a “moment” with Him I’ll never forget. I was in the bedroom of my rental home praying about the year ahead. I said, “Okay Lord, I followed you here. I’m waiting for my new assignment.” I didn’t hear anything. So I thought, Well, I’ll just serve you in whatever thing you place in my path.

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In that moment, I was filled – and I mean filled – with a sense of overwhelming joy. I literally danced! I carried that joy into the new year and I served my “old self” off.

Since then, I’ve rededicated myself to the Lord – to his plans and purposes for me – each Christmas Eve.

If this sounds like a welcome adventure to you, here are five tips to help get started . . .

Pray – All conversation with God begins and ends in prayer. Ask him to reveal His will for you in the upcoming year. He’s kind and generous and wants to lead us to authentic life in Him.

Remember – What is it about the current year you want to revisit or leave behind? Remembering needs to be done in a place of solitude with plenty of time set aside.

Listen – Bend your ear toward Him, keeping in mind His voice is often soft. You may not hear anything immediately but when you do make sure to write it down!

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Commit – With a heart intent on heeding his will, devote yourself to the task ahead. Even just “being” is hard work and requires trust, perseverance and faithfulness.

Obey – Obedience isn’t a word we like to hear or practice in our culture but it’s a requirement for all God’s children. You may need to clear your schedule, distance yourself from toxic people or learn to say no to good things so you can say yes to better ones.

That first year of service wasn’t always butterflies and jellybeans. I served in obscurity, behind the scenes on every occasion. I scrubbed toilets, ran errands, served meals and babysat the neighbor’s kids.

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But through obedience, I experienced overarching peace and clarity. Best of all, my relationship with our Heavenly Father and His son, Jesus, deepened my faith and soothed my soul.

How about you: What offering can you give to Jesus this year? 

 

 

Walking the walk: 3 ways to follow Jesus

The other day I bought myself a spiffy new pair of walking shoes. There were many styles of shoes to choose from but walking is all I can do these days. I suffer from a chronic illness that (for now) prevents me from running, cross training and anything else that requires me to jump around.

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Sometimes this upsets me, but honestly I hate running and cross training anyway! The last time I enjoyed exercise was in the 80’s when aerobics was the craze. I remember bopping around in my mom’s kitchen in my leotard and leg warmers . . . those were the days.

The days I had energy and nothing sagged or jiggled around. Oh well.

Walking is more my speed anyway and I’m in good company – Jesus walked. He walked in gardens, by the sea, in the desert and in towns all around ancient Palestine. He walked alone, with friends and with crowds of people who hung on his every word.

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In antiquity the word “walk” was a metaphor for the way in which someone lived her life. There were only two choices: you could walk in the way of light or in the way of darkness.

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

So what does this mean for us? The same thing it meant for the people of Jesus’ day. We have the same choice. Here are three ways we can cultivate this practice.

Love God: Loving God requires commitment. When we read the Bible we get to know Him intimately and learn to put Him in first place above ourselves and others. We begin to understand his character and his requirements. Then we can begin a relationship with him through prayer which is the first step to opening the lines of communication. Deuteronomy 10:12 says: And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?

We benefit when we walk with God and learn to fear him.

Get rid of sin: Sin contaminates and separates us from God. The Bible says: For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness but rather expose them. We can confess our sins to another trusted believer, ask God for forgiveness and change the way we live.

Living with sin is worthless and unproductive.

Obey Jesus’ commands: Scholars disagree on exactly how many commands Jesus issued during his ministry but the numbers range anywhere from 50 – 125. That should keep us busy for awhile (just kidding). Jesus’ commands run through the pages of the New Testament and especially in the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. John, one of Jesus’s best friends, said: “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.

When we walk like Jesus we find true life.

Your turn: What’s your favorite scripture that helps you walk like Him?

Need a gift for Valentine’s Day?

I’ve been doing a morning devotional for at least a decade and I’ve got my favorites. But this one . . .

Wow!

I adore this one and think it would make a wonderful gift for that special woman in your life. Yes, this is for ladies and by that I mean ladies, this would be a great present for your best friend, mother or sister.

Or do like I did and buy a gift for yourself – you deserve it.

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The One Year Women in Christian History devotional, by Randy Petersen and Robin Shreeves has 365 stories about God’s work in and through the lives of women. Many stories are about first century women who influenced the church and church history, but there’s a good mix from other time periods as well. I’ve never heard their stories told in over 25 years of attending church.

What a shame to let their legacies be forgotten!

But I’m making up for lost time and each morning I read this and come away encouraged, strengthened and inspired.

Your turn: Do you have a great Valentine’s gift to share this year?

As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend. Prov 27:17

Offering the gift of Christ at Christmas

Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked those who brought them. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” When he had placed his hands on them he went on from there. Matt 19:13-15

Do you ever marvel at what a gift it is to receive the good news of Christ?

For the past couple of months I’ve been re-reading the gospels. Real slow. In fact, so slowly I’m not even finished with Matthew.

But if there’s anytime to savor God’s Word, it’s now.

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The scripture above remind us that the kingdom of heaven is a gift offered and available to all – even those who appear to be insignificant to others.

Jesus placed his hands on them and when he did, he changed the world for these “little ones” and us. Forever.

As we wrap our gifts during the next few days (…if you’re late like me) I challenge you to pray over some “little ones” – people who may be overlooked during this time of year or family members who don’t yet have a relationship with Christ. We never know what kind of heart work God’s done beforehand.  Your prayer person may just be ready to receive the gift and waits for you to offer it.

One of my own wandering daughters is one of the “little ones” on my list. I too, will be offering Christ so I’ll let you know how it goes.

How do you get your best rest?

By Erika Rizkallah

“There are no second acts in American lives.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

According to a study released by the Centers for Disease Control an estimated 50 to 70 million American adults suffer from sleep deprivation.

I think the often debated quote by Fitzgerald explains part of the problem. By “second acts,” I don’t mean second chances. American life offers plenty of them. I’m talking about the stage of life in which the fruits of our labor finally pay off.

For example, I’m a stay at home mom. I’ve spent the last eighteen years diligently investing in my marriage, children and family life. At this time, the fruit of that labor isn’t always obvious – especially in the teen years. In reality, I may not see it until my third act of life when I’m a grandmother.

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Maybe you know what this feels like. Maybe you’ve spent years investing in a career, education or hobby that’s produced more uncertainty than fruit.

What happens then? We can overcompensate and do and do and strive and spin in order to let everyone see we’re productive.

The church can also contribute to the exhaustion of its members.

I commonly hear church leaders say things like, “If you can picture what God wants to do through you, your vision is too small.” Or how about this one: “You’re not fully alive if you’re not serving on a team here at . . . ”

Well no wonder we can’t sleep!

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How can I relax if I’m supposed to have an unrecognizable vision? If I’m not fully alive?

That can leave us fearful and worried that we’re missing out on our calling or the thing that will remain undone if we don’t “step up to the plate” or “step out in faith.” Instead of becoming leaders of world-changing overcomers we end up exhausted and burned out underachievers.

Fortunately, God has an antidote for this problem. It’s called the Sabbath, a.k.a. known as a weekly day of rest. This practice was instituted by God for His people and is the fourth of the laws known as The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-11). I love how it’s subtitled in my Bible in Exodus 23 as The Laws of Justice and Mercy.

This scripture explains why God made it a commandment: Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest and the slave born in your household, and the alien as well, may be refreshed. Exodus 23:12.

This law is a law of love to prevent the abuse of people and animals by and for the community.

It also puts us in our place: we’re God’s creation and find ourselves most satisfied when we love, walk and rest in him.

Personally, I love a good nap, a great cappuccino and taking pictures of the world around me.

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How do you get rested and refreshed on the Sabbath?