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?

Lessons from a Liar

By Erika Rizkallah

Have you ever heard the Bible story about Ananias and Sapphira? This couple carries the unfortunate legacy of being some of the most dishonest people in the New Testament.

Their story is told in Acts 5:1-11 — it’s a warning for the ages.

To fully understand it we must read the previous passages in Acts 4:32-37. The author tells about a special time in the early church. Jesus has ascended to Heaven and the persecution of his disciples has begun. The Holy Spirit settled on the believers who’d gathered together and formed a close-knit community.

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The Bible says: All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. Acts 4:32.

The apostles boldly testified about Jesus’ resurrection and there were no needy people in the community. The generosity was so great that some individuals with land and property sold it off and gave it to the apostles to distribute to anyone with need. They practiced Christ’s command of brotherly love. One man who did this was Joseph, who they nicknamed Barnabus, which means Son of Encouragement.

This sounds Utopian, but there’s always a snake in the garden.

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Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostle’s feet. Acts 5:1-2

Peter knew something was up. He said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.” (v.3,4)

When Ananias heard this he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. (v. 5)

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The story continues with Sapphira, who wasn’t there when the offering was made. She arrived three hours later and Peter questioned her, asking if they withheld any money. She lied and Peter said, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.” (v. 9)

Then she dropped dead!

In hindsight, we could read this and wonder why they did the things they did. But we might also feel sympathetic — haven’t we been tempted to lie or hold out on God?

Did pride cause Ananias to lie? Greed? Maybe it was both. Or maybe he wanted to be like Joseph — maybe he wanted to be called a Barnabus. I know when I see a friend do something awesome, I want to be like her.

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What about Sapphira? Didn’t she have a clue that something might be wrong when her husband didn’t come home? Maybe she feared what he might do if she told the truth.

Either way it’s a sad story that hurt their loving community.

It’s also a reminder to us. We must continually check our hearts for evidence of greed and dishonesty. We must always remember that our enemy — the great serpent — lives to tempt us into grieving the Holy Spirit.

His goal is our destruction and the dissolution of Christianity.

 

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We must remember that like those in the early church, we are filled with the Holy Spirit and his grace is sufficient for us.

Heavenly Father, we praise you. We ask that you give us the courage and strength to rely on you for all our needs. We ask that you make us aware of any evil in our hearts and keep us from the temptations of the evil one. Above all, we seek your glory and not our own. Amen

God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth. John 4:24

 

 

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

The cure for spiritual teenagers

By Erika Rizkallah

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

I have three children; two adult daughters and a 15-year-old son. It feels like I’ve been in this stage of parenting forever. And I do mean forever!

Teen girls are difficult but raising my son is harder because our thought processes are completely different.

I mean, why would you do this when I told you not to . . ?

 

Most days I dread waking him up. It sounds awful but I’m just being honest. He’s my baby and our tight-knit bond is unraveling. I know his need for independence is a good and healthy thing. But I’m often nostalgic for the good old days when he wasn’t embarrassed of me and I wasn’t irritated by him.  

Some weeks are tougher than others and this is one of those weeks. When I came across the Romans 8:28 verse this morning, I reflected on this question:

           Who doesn’t want good things?

The gentle me said, “Everyone. We all want good things.” angel-640996_1920 

But my inner cynic shoved her aside and snapped, My kid doesn’t want good things, otherwise he wouldn’t be such a pain in the butt. (I named that voice – I call her The Commander).

She looks like this . . . 

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The Commander is mean and she lies. A lot.

My son does want good things. He just thinks his wants are the good things and my wants are irrelevant. He’s obstinate and acting his age – he’s excelling in rebelling.

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I loathe rebellion. It annoys and frustrates me because I know my want is greater. For example:

He wants to drink soda all day.

        I want his teeth to stay in his mouth.

He wants to stay up late at night.

        I want him to be ready and alert for school.

He wants to take Driver’s Ed.

        I want him to obey house rules before road rules.

But the more I think about it, I realize that unless we’ve spent years walking with Jesus, we grownups can also act like self-involved spiritual teenagers.

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God loves us no matter our age or stage but his wants are always higher.

Always.

Jesus is our standard and pattern for living. He was devoted to Our Father’s purpose and plans for his life. He was obedient in every word and deed. The same obedience is required from us despite our wants and it’s not easy. 

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He said, “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.” John 14:21

Obedience often has negative connotations in our culture unless it pertains to children or animals. In Biblical terms it’s not demeaning. It’s a yielding of self and when we offer ourselves we receive much more. We receive his love and look at those last few words . . . he shows himself to us.   

We can learn from his example and pattern our lives after his. This is called discipleship and not only benefits us, it changes the world. 

Obedience is the antidote for the harmful effects of sin. When we keep our hearts focused on loving and serving God, our perspective changes. Those harmful desires that trap and keep us in spiritual bondage begin to melt away.

Parents wanting good things for their children won’t allow them to wallow in immaturity.  We want them to live full lives and that’s what God wants for us. As disciples, we’ll be drawn ever higher, ever deeper, and ever richer into the fullness of Christ.

 

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His death on the cross gives us strength to keep walking forward. He gives us hope as we push through the squirmy emotions and resentful attitudes we encounter from ourselves and others.

He’s working all things for good!

 

 

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?

 

 

Ringing Out the Old: 3 things to leave behind us in the new year

By Erika Rizkallah

Goodbye 2016. I’m not sad to see you go!fireworks-1759

The lessons and difficulties won’t soon be forgotten. I learned a lot – and I’m thankful for that – but I won’t make the same mistakes this year.

I’ll ring in the new year quietly working the Christmas puzzle I started yesterday, eating Mexican food and hitting the hay. Right after I let my son shoot his paintball gun into the midnight sky.

Some of you will gather with friends, dance your heads off and watch the ball drop in Times Square.

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Our family tradition is to kiss one another at midnight. Sometimes we watch the worldwide celebrations on television. And sometimes, we mumble the words (we remember) of the song, Auld Lang Syne . . . but I have no idea why.

I don’t even know what it means!

So today I looked it up and it’s not at all what I thought it was. Reader’s Digest has a good article about the origins. And an informative post from the Scotland website provides the full lyrics in case we want to sing along. In English the words translate, “old long since.”

Truthfully, I’ve always thought it was about leaving things behind – hence the title of this post. So as far as these three things are concerned, let’s give them a farewell kiss . . .

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Sin – Sin separates us from God. He won’t tolerate it because it’s against his nature. He is holy. Let’s separate ourselves from it!

Despair – I’ve had my fill of despairing people this year. It may come across as mean-spirited but that’s not my intent. Never have I encountered as many dismal souls as I have this year. Despair doesn’t belong in Christ followers. Let’s toss it out!

Deceit – I’m no stranger to the power of deceit. As I reflect on 2016 I see how the enemy’s lies crept into my spirit and mind, like a lion waiting to devour. I’m sure I’m not the only one. Let’s shoot that sucker in the heart!

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Auld Lang Syne is actually an ancient Scottish reunion song . . . and a good song to drink to. It’s about friendship, a sense of belonging and thinking about days gone by. 

I think it’s an apt metaphor for the here and now.

In the end, when Christ comes again, we’ll be reunited with Jesus and all the other believers – past and present. We’ll sit down at a banquet together with a cup of wine in hand (both hands for me) and toast the days gone by.

We’ll say goodbye to the old earth, the old ways and the old life. We’ll celebrate the new life and catch up with old friends.

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What a lovely picture of heaven!

But make no mistake, we’ll find ourselves weeping and filled with anguish if we don’t renounce sin, despair and deceit now. We’ll never make it into God’s kingdom with those burdens in our spirit.

Let’s do the work.

There’s one glorious celebration ahead!

Happy New Year and God bless you friends!

 

 

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? 

 

 

God still does miracles. Do you believe?

For you make me glad by your deeds, O Lord; I sing for joy at the works of your hands. How great are your works, O Lord, how profound your thoughts! Psalm 92:4-5

Do you believe God still does miracles?

I ask because in this day and age, many don’t. Even Christians. Over the years I’ve heard some influential preachers say the time for miracles is over.

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As if God chose to bless only those living in the first century.

I don’t believe it. The story I’m about to tell you is long overdue because, frankly, I didn’t know how to explain it.

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I also wasn’t sure about the “whys.” I’m a “why?” kind of girl; I spend chunks of time ruminating about the reasoning behind things and events.

In this case, I now know why.

Earlier this year I read a friend’s status update about Facebook having a type of automatic spam filter. I didn’t know this. When she accessed it, she discovered scores of hidden messages. Most were spam, but some were from friends and were several years old.

I was intrigued and decided to check it out. My results were much the same. Nigerian princes wanting to deposit millions into my bank account if I gave them access.

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People offering to help me with my erectile dysfunction, which I, um . . . do not struggle with.

There were also legitimate ones dating as far back as 2012 which were actually important. I had to apologize to several people for not responding. However, one in particular caught my attention because the subject line mentioned my maiden name.

That name is intentionally left off my profile so people can NOT find me.

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Now I’m going to pause for a moment to give you a quick backstory. My beloved father died in 1989, and although I was his next of kin, his ashes were divided. His partner, Charlie, got the bulk of them and I have some in a small box. Charlie and I lost touch and the whereabouts of my dad’s ashes were a mystery.

Deep inside, I’ve carried resentment about it. Not much, but a bit because my grandmother wanted my portion to be buried with her. She doesn’t approve of cremation and wanted him to have a proper burial.

Reading the “spam” message has enlarged my ideas about the universe and shrunk the distance between God in heaven and on earth.

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It came from a young woman I didn’t know existed – Charlie’s granddaughter. She told me she and her father had been searching for me for years. When Facebook became popular she decided to give it a shot.

She had my father’s ashes.

The box they’re in was passed down through her family for 25 years (long after Charlie died) in hopes of returning them to me.

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Mind blown!

For the past several months, I’ve had them in a place of honor in my home. They were a daily reminder of God’s faithfulness.

They’re proof that His love bridges the gap between space and time to answer even our unspoken prayers.

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Now they’re gone again.

A few weeks ago my aunt called saying my grandmother was on the verge of death. Emergency surgery was scheduled for the next day and she wanted me to send the ashes to be buried with her.

I hopped on a plane, lugging the box with me and praying I’d make it in time. I wanted her to know her son was with her.

God answered those prayers too; she made it through surgery. When she came to she told my aunt that God was with her during the surgery. She said she couldn’t see him but she could feel him. This is a HUGE deal – my grandma isn’t (wasn’t) a believer.

Before I gave them to her, my aunt took pictures so I’d have memories of this sacred event.

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Friends, He does answer prayer. Even today. Even the unspoken ones.