Surprises are a mixed bag. Some are welcome, some not:
an unexpected birthday party,
a positive pregnancy test,
a letter from the IRS, months after you’ve paid your taxes,
a bouquet of flowers when it’s not your anniversary or birthday,
a deer that leaps in front of your car at 60 mph.
This week I was surprised–pleasantly–by sunflowers.
Six feet tall, seven at the best–that was all I expected. According to the description on the back of the sunflower seed packets, these varieties shouldn’t be this tall.
The Mammoth Russians I knew would grow eight to twelve feet high, but I was surprised to be looking up at the Evening Sun and Autumn Beauty sunflowers towering four feet above me, reaching into the eaves of the garage.
When I get more than I bargain for,
more than I expect,
more than I deserve,
it warms my heart, triggers happy tears, and drops me to my knees.
These are the surprises that amaze and astonish.
And the greatest surprise, the epiphany that prompts hands raised in praise?
I am surprised to be loved by God.
I am in awe of the great wonder of Jesus’ saving grace and His startling love for me. It is more than I could expect, more than I deserve.
But me he caught—reached all the way
from sky to sea; he pulled me out
Of that ocean of hate, that enemy chaos,
the void in which I was drowning.
They hit me when I was down,
but God stuck by me.
He stood me up on a wide-open field;
I stood there saved—surprised to be loved!
Psalm 18:16-19 MSG
God continues to bless me with the wonder of the unexpected. This week, as I photographed the sunflowers (those I could reach), I noticed the scarlet shape of a male cardinal sitting on the garage window sill, half hidden behind the thick stalks. Then I startled into flight a bright, mating-season yellow goldfinch, that had been perched on a ripening seed head.
I had received another surprise, a gift wrapped in beauty with a “card” signed, “your loving Father.”
We’ll never comprehend all the great things he does;
his miracle-surprises can’t be counted. Job 9:10
My prayer for us all:
May Jesus himself and God our Father, who reached out in love and surprised you with gifts of unending help and confidence, put a fresh heart in you . . . 2 Thess. 2:16-17 MSG
How has God surprised you this week?
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My thanks go to blogger Walter Bright. I was inspired by his post “Surprised by His Love,” commenting on Psalm 18:16-19 MSG.
Filtered, morning sun from a single window softly lit the small, rectangular room where upholstered and folding chairs lined three walls. The members of two extended families, ranging from a toddler to those in their eighties, filled the seats. All sounds were muffled: sobs and sniffling, the rip of tissues torn from their cardboard box, subdued conversations in an adjoining room, and the chime of a grandfather clock down the carpeted hallway.
An open casket was centered against the fourth wall. We had come to see him one last time, to “pay our respects,” to say good-bye. As the time for the small, family-only burial service neared, everyone left the viewing room and gathered in the main entry area, discussing directions to the cemetery. I stepped back in and looked at my nephew’s still face a final time. Oh, Nathan, Nathan, what have you done?
Our hearts are broken: every mother, father, brother, and sister heart, each grandparent, every aunt and uncle, each cousin and friend. We have all fallen with the weight of this loss, and we are scraped and bruised, bleeding
To lose a young man we loved–who was only twenty years old and had such potential and such a gentle soul–is difficult enough, but in this way . . .
We are left with nagging questions and regrets: the should haves and could haves and would anything have? I can’t imagine the pain and despair and hopelessness that led you to this choice. I can’t imagine how your mind was painted with the wide, black strokes of depression. I answer my own question (Nathan, what have you done?): you became ill.
At the cemetery family members carried the casket from the hearse to the graveside, walking across the green grass sprinkled with sweet clover. Some sat in chairs, and some stood in the shade of a small, blue awning under the vault of a bright, blue sky.
We commended Nathan to God’s care and final healing. We listened to the reminder that Nathan’s name meant “gift of God.” He was. He is. We read his favorite scripture and sang his favorite hymn. Those who wished to share spoke of his life, his character, what he was like as a child, and how we remembered him best. After a season of dark illness, Nathan now rests in the Light of Jesus.
If I could have choked out the words at the graveside service, I would have shared this verse.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
1 Corinthians 13:13
If faith falters, and hope slips away, love remains. Nathan may not have had a life “full of years,” but his life was full of love–his love for his family and friends and their great love for him.
And over all, covering all, forgiving all, healing all is the boundless love of God.
Nathan, age 10
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If you are depressed and feeling hopeless, please, please, talk to someone. I am not a counselor or mental health professional, but I know you need to get help. Talk to your friends, your family, your pastor. Find a doctor or a counselor. You may need to call your local mental health center and schedule an emergency appointment.
If you know someone who is despairing, reach out. You may need to direct them to professional help. Offer to go with them to an appointment. If you have serious concerns, you may call the police who can go to the person’s residence to do a welfare check.
If someone you love has taken their own life, you may experience a range of emotions: from anger to sorrow. You may benefit from support groups and counseling .
Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. Galatians 6:2 NIV
. . . weep with those who weep. Romans 12:15 RSV
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When suicide strikes in the body of Christ — Please continue reading to the end of this article for links to suicide hotlines, prevention and awareness sites, and grief support for survivors.
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bleeding heart photo by Heather Johnson of truelifewithgod.com
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I was nine or ten years old, and I was lying on my back in the grass in the yard, gazing up at the stars in the velvet blackness on a summer’s night. Even then, as a child, I was in awe of creation and believed there must be a Creator.
You have set your glory
in the heavens.
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
Psalm 8:1,3-4 NIV
I didn’t find it hard to believe in an all-powerful God, who made the beauty around me–
dark, starry nights,
sweet, apple blossoms in spring,
wind sighing in the top of the elm tree,
soft down of newly-hatched chicks.
But the basic reality of God is plain enough. Open your eyes and there it is! By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can’t see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of his divine being. Romans 1:19,20
I didn’t understand at the time that other parts of God’s divine nature–His love and kindness–could be seen by looking at the sky, too.
This week I watched the clouds pile up, as a cold front tumbled in from the west.
Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.Acts 14:17 NIV
The blue overhead was quickly overtaken by steel gray cumulus, extinguishing the glorious sun’s rays.
Ask the Lord for rain in the springtime;
it is the Lord who sends the thunderstorms.
He gives showers of rain to all people,
and plants of the field to everyone.Zechariah 10:1 NIV
The first heavy drops of much-needed rain chased me inside, as thunder echoed in the distance.
This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty.
Matthew 5:45 MSG
He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
Matthew 5:45 NIV
The downpour was brief, the line of storm clouds narrow, and soon a gusty wind swept the showers eastward. Through the rain-splashed window, I spotted the second gift of the thunderstorm–a rainbow, the ephemeral sign of God’s eternal promise.
“He pulls water up out of the sea,
distills it, and fills up his rain-cloud cisterns.
Then the skies open up
and pour out soaking showers on everyone.
Does anyone have the slightest idea how this happens?
How he arranges the clouds, how he speaks in thunder?
Just look at that lightning, his sky-filling light show
illumining the dark depths of the sea!
These are the symbols of his sovereignty,
his generosity, his loving care.
Job 36:27-31 MSG
I hurried into chore boots and ran outside to capture the rainbow before the brilliant arc faded.
Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life.
Genesis 9: 14,15 NIV
Sing to the Lord with grateful praise;
make music to our God on the harp.
Psalm 147:7 NIV
As the sun began to sink behind me, the last rays illumined the upper parts of the cumulonimbus.
“Sing to the Lord with grateful praise.”
He covers the sky with clouds;
he supplies the earth with rain
and makes grass grow on the hills.
Psalm 147:8 NIV
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Hearts . . .
Hearts are in every shop window, but in two weeks a new display will be hung.
Hearts shout at us from every magazine, newspaper, blog, and TV show, but soon they’ll be relegated to the “trash” to make way for something new to catch our eye.
Heart-shaped pizzas, heart cookies? They are consumed and then forgotten.
Heart shapes in nature? This snowy shape sheltered in a wind-blown nest is already buried in a drift.
Hearts sparkling from the jewelry counter? Surely precious metals are more enduring than snow, but gold bands wear thin, and silver chains rupture at the weakest link.
Where can we find something of real permanence to speak to us–every single heart-beating day–the language of Love?
Maybe if we look to the heavens, there will be something more permanent like these nebulae (called Heart and Soul), but even nebulae are changing from and changing to. They are the birthing and dying chambers of stars, and we only see a slice of their slow motion, life dance.
Where can we find a way to remind us of Love, to burn in our minds an unchanging icon that will tell us about a Love that last forever?
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The knife slipped as I was chopping cabbage for coleslaw, and I sliced my finger instead. My daughter, who was beginning to learn the alphabet, recognized the shape of the curving red gash. She said it looked like the first letter of her name: a “J” written in flesh and blood. A fine, white line is still visible. Although the “J” was accidental, the scar does remind me of my beloved daughter.
One faint mark, that fades each year.
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In the Old Testament the garments of the High Priest were described in detail.
Engrave the names of the sons of Israel on the two stones the way a gem cutter engraves a seal. Then mount the stones in gold filigree settings and fasten them on the shoulder pieces of the ephod as memorial stones for the sons of Israel. Aaron is to bear the names on his shoulders as a memorial before the Lord. Exodus 28:11, 12 NIV
Twelve names were engraved in gem stone. Twelve sons of Israel to be remembered by Aaron. Twelve reminders to the Lord of His beloved children. Twelve stones that can fracture or be lost or stolen.
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We need a living reminder of Love, one that can’t fade away. We need a heart that speaks Love day after day, one that beats forever and never wears out. We need a Savior, the Savior who was crucified, hands and feet nailed to a cross, out of love for us.
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. Isaiah 53:5 NIV
Do you remember Isaiah’s prophetic words of a love that endures forever?
I have engraved you on the palms of my hands Isaiah 49:16 NIV
Engraving isn’t ink that fades. It isn’t a pale scar that dims with passing years. It’s not carving on a stone that can shatter.
Engraving is permanent.
We are engraved on Jesus’ two living hands.
Look closely, and you’ll see that the scars spell your name.
* * * * *Heart and Soul Nebulae photo by Leonardo Orazi. Thanks to Mr. Orazi for allowing me to share this photo. You may view a high resolution image on Mr. Orazi’s site. * * * * *
Maybe it’s the thermometer’s frigid announcement–6 degrees below zero.
Maybe it’s the weather forecast–wind chill advisory of 20-30 degrees below zero, with blowing snow.
Maybe it’s the sun dogs I saw last night–ice crystals kindled into rainbows by the setting sun.
There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”
When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.” Exodus 3:3,4 NIV
But I think it’s more than an unconscious desire for the warmth of a fire in the middle of bitter January weather. I’m trying to follow the flaming thread woven in the tapestry of God’s love story, from Old to New Testament.
Moses learned of God’s holiness. He was in awe.
“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God. Exodus 3:5,6 NIV
The children of Israel learned reverence.
Moses and Aaron entered the Tent of Meeting. When they came out they blessed the people and the Glory of God appeared to all the people. Fire blazed out from God and consumed the Whole-Burnt-Offering and the fat pieces on the Altar. When all the people saw it happen they cheered loudly and then fell down, bowing in reverence. Leviticus 9:23,24
For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, Deuteronomy 4:24 NIV
In the story of Elijah’s conflict with evil King Ahab, the people acknowledged God as supreme and powerful.
Immediately the fire of God fell and burned up the offering, the wood, the stones, the dirt, and even the water in the trench.
All the people saw it happen and fell on their faces in awed worship, exclaiming, “God is the true God! God is the true God!”
In the third chapter of Daniel we are brushed by another fire that doesn’t burn. Although Daniel’s fellow exiles weren’t sure if they would be saved, they were confident that the Lord was able to rescue them from the king’s furnace.
Nebuchadnezzar then approached the opening of the blazing furnace and shouted, “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!”
So Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego came out of the fire, and the satraps, prefects, governors and royal advisers crowded around them. They saw that the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them.
Daniel 3:26, 27 NIV
These three faithful men learned they were not alone in the furnace.
He [the King] said, “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods. Daniel 3:25
Paul took his understanding of the temple sacrifices and laid them onto the template of the New Covenant when he wrote of a radical new offering for worship: ourselves. We are living sacrifices–we don’t have to be burnt up like the offerings in the temple.
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 NIV
What have I learned?
The bush blazes on holy ground. I take off my shoes.
The furnace that was meant to destroy only ignites the ropes that bind me.
The fire of life burns hot, but I am not consumed.
I am not the ashes I deserve to be.
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. Lamentations 3:22 NIV
The voice from within the bush calls my name, and I answer, “Here I am.”
The sacrifice I offer in worship is myself,
and I walk into the flames willingly, because the fire is His great love.
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photo #2 by Barb Briggs
photo #4 a happy, photographic “accident” that happened while writing this post
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