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A life of gratitude is a life well-celebrated

Last week, I was reminded of how faithful God is and how faithless we truly are. I was rushing to work one morning because I overslept and was, subsequently, late. I didn’t get the chance to eat breakfast or stop by the nearest Starbucks for a turkey, egg and cheese muffin. On top of that, I was worrying about some debt that I needed to settle — since my budget was not adding up – and my struggling wardrobe. I couldn’t remember the last time I shopped for some new clothes.

When I arrived to the office, I made a beeline for my desk. I turned on my computer, logged on and began to sort through my e-mail. At some point, I looked up and noticed that one of the editors had walked in. She had a million (or so it seemed) bags in her hands. She placed them on a nearby table and began to unload.

I observed the contents from the bag closely and noticed that there were boxes of donuts, bagels, fruit containers, two tubs of cream cheese, cookies and plastic utensils. Somebody asked her what the occasion was and she simply replied, “A celebration of life.” She called us all over to help ourselves.

My stomach growled as if it were offering a nod of approval. I silently thanked God and rushed over. I grabbed a bagel and some fruit, and thanked this generous colleague of mine. She nodded and said, “I couldn’t have let the day pass without doing something wonderful. Three years ago, on this exact day, I completed my last chemotherapy. I have been cancer-free since.” I was at a loss for words as I looked into her misty eyes. She continued, “God has been generous to me so it’s only right that I be generous to you guys.” “That is really kind of you,” I responded.

Back at my desk, I mused about the beginning of my day. I had been fretting about unimportant things when God has said, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?” (Matthew 6:25). How easily do I forget! How easily we forget!

In the Book of Matthew (chapter 14) is a riveting account of Jesus feeding a crowd of 5,000 people. They were hungry, but Jesus saw an opportunity to use their physical need as an illustration of a deeper longing in their souls. He multiplied five loaves of bread and two fishes to cater to the multitude. But first, He gave thanks.

Everyone ate till they were full and there were even left overs! Not only was this seemingly impossible feat a miracle; it was also a testament of what God can do when our resources — time, money, talents, efforts — are limited. The disciples saw the task as a challenge and could not fathom the outcome, but Jesus showed them that anything was possible through Him. He also showed them, unbeknownst to them, that He was indeed the “bread of life,” sufficient enough to fulfill our inner hunger:

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again.” John 6:35

Hence, life is more than food and clothes. It is valuable, yet fragile. We can be here today and gone tomorrow after one bad accident or diagnosis. But thank God for His grace. Thank God that was not how the story ended for my ever appreciating co-worker. And thank God she was mindful of and grateful for that. Not because she brought food for me to eat, but because I was reminded, yet again, of God’s providence.

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Against all Odds

dice“For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.” 1 John 5:4

On Father’s Day, just a few hours before the big game, NBA player Chris Bosh addressed the media about his team’s 3-1 deficit in the Finals. One reporter asked him what his attitude was going into a game where the odds were heavily stacked against the Miami Heat (no NBA franchise has ever rallied from such a hole to win the Larry O’Brien trophy). His reponse: “Odds are for people who can’t do it.” The Heat’s star Lebron James added, “Why not us? History is made to broken, why not be part of it.”

That’s a lot of confidence, but unfortunately it was not enough for Bosh, James and their teammates. They succombed to the San Antonio Spurs in a game – best-of-seven series – that many sports analysts and basketball fans described as a “jaw-dropping masterpiece.” But that doesn’t mean they haven’t defied the odds before; they are one of four teams in NBA history to have gone to the finals back-to-back four times or more. That says a lot considering how long the NBA has been around and the amount of teams that compete each year. That is why the Miami Heat can afford to be hopeful in the face of adversity…and so can we.

We have a lot of odds stacked up against us in our own personal endeavors. Research show and tell us that the ratio of Americans who go on to become billionaires are one in 785,166; one in five marriages will end within five years; the chances of a normal, healthy woman getting pregnant are only 20 to 40 percent; the odds of having identical triplets sans fertility treatments is one in every 2 million; the chances of dying from heart disease is more than one in three if your’re a woman; men have one in two chance of developing cancer; and the chances of living to 100 years of age is one in 1,000.

These statistics, including family history and past experiences (whether personal or interpersonal) cement this idea in our minds that we cannot beat the odds. As a result, when faced with challenges while trying to pursue a seemingly unattainable goal, we shrink back in unbelief, become discouraged and give up.

But a careful look at the lives of the saints in the Bible reveal that perfectly flawed humans who find themselves in compromising situations can defeat the odds as long as they trust God.

When Gideon was given the daunting task of delivering the Israelites from the aggressive Midianites the first thing he did was measure his failures against the enemy’s success. Gideon was the “least in [his] father’s house” and came from a weak clan. On the contrary, the Midianites boasted an army as numerous as the sand on the seashore and they always succeeded in their raids against Israel. How could Gideon not be afraid? An angel of God had to encourage him: “God is with you, you mighty man of valor” (Judges 6:12).

Gideon was still unsure if it was truly God asking him to combat the Midianites. He said, “Show me a sign that it is You who speak with me” (Judges 6:17). More specifically, Gideon asked God to make a piece of wool wet overnight and He did. He also asked God to keep another piece of fleece dry while making the surrounding dirt wet and God complied. Gideon finally obliged.

He assembled a formidable group of Israelite men but God commanded him to downsize lest Gideon and his crew take credit for the victory. If anyone was and is deserving of all the glory, it is God.

Gideon’s shrunk his troupe from 32,000 to 300 and they went on to defeat the Midianites. Their victory was truly an anomaly to those watching from afar because the Israelites did not boast an impressive resume. They clearly lacked the strength and size to conquer their enemy, but they had the favor of God upon them. And that was more than enough.

Like Gideon, we may become fearful in the face of adversity and begin to doubt God. In desperation, we may even seek out other options to guarantee a win. But God will always remind us, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit” (Zechariah 4:6). He knows our faith is best developed when we have done everything humanely possible only to fall short.

So He does not only use the odds to build our faith; He employs us in our vulnerable state – by His grace – to test our faith and allow us to defeat the odds for His glory.

 

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Courage to Start Over

          starting-over-road

Starting all over, either by force or by choice, is tough for anyone, young and old.

I remember when I had to attend a new elementary school at the age of eight. I was very upset about leaving all of my friends and relatives at Dillard Elementary School where I was a student for three years. I really felt like I belonged because the student body was very diverse and the faculty and staff were culturally conscious. We explored the world around us through lively and interactive presentations in our special classes and at our school assemblies. I didn’t want to leave all of that behind (this affected me a lot emotionally), but I eventually found the courage to adapt to the new faces and curriculum at my new school.

Many years later, when I left home for college at the age of 19, I quickly learned that my past experiences could not prepare me to adjust to my new environment in Tallahassee. Aside from now having to live in a slow-paced (and sometimes too friendly and scary) city, I had to pay my own rent, buy groceries and prepare my meals, nurse myself back to health when I was sick and deal with other issues without the help of my family. When the hurricanes blew through during that period, that was especially hard for me because my dad was not there to make me feel safe.

Reading the Bible, which appears to have a ‘starting over” theme weaved through all of the stories, helped a lot reminding me that I was never alone in life transitions.

After the Jews were taken captive by King Nebuchadnezzar II, they spent 70 years as prisoners in Babylon. Prior to their exile, the Jews had already experienced slavery and deliverance in Egypt and made a life for themselves in Jerusalem.Yet, they were distressed because they lost their city, homes, pride, Temple (a symbol of their faith) and most importantly, the Ark of the Covenant. It was hard for them to get comfortable in the homeland of idolatry where the Babylonians bowed down to anyone but God.

When they had served their time – their captivity was the result of their sins and God’s subsequent judgment – King Cyrus of Persia sent a decree allowing the Jews to return to their land with the blessings of the Persian Empire. However, not many of them were willing to leave Babylon because they had already settled. The few that did return to Palestine had to start all over because all they found was rubble in the place they once called home. After many years of opposition, they were able to successfully rebuild the Temple and the walls of Jerusalem. A revival was held in celebration of this feat in which the prophets read books of the Old Testament and gave the Jews a renewed sense of hope.

Babylon represented chaos, but the Jews turned to God, who encouraged them to keep calm: “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. Then you will call on 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” (Jeremiah 29:11-14). Zion, the land of Judah, to which the Jews returned represented God’s spiritual kingdom. In retrospect, when the Jews went back home, they also returned to God’s unmerited favor.

In life, we will all experience change (both good and bad) and each one will feel like the first time — like we have been taken out of God’s goodness and held captive in a strange and chaotic environment. If we are not careful, we will settle in our broken places and miss out on our breakthrough. Instead of returning to God and rebuilding our shattered dreams, we will revel in pain, anger and bitterness and become sluggish.

That is not the purpose of God’s judgment or grace. He wants us to grow in the hard places in preparation for a fresh start. And if that seems like a daunting task, we only need to remember His promises to Israel through the prophet Isaiah: “But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (Isaiah 40:31).

 

References: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9

“Then times of refreshment will come from the presence of the Lord.” Acts 3:20