Faith: In Origin & Destination

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As I get older, I get simpler.

I find I have reduced the number of things that make my blood boil and my mouth blurt.

Whilst listening to a fairly acrimonious “conversation” about “Evolution or Creation,” (for example), I realized that I was far more interested in the why of existence than the how it had all come about.

And I certainly wasn’t interested in the loveless backbiting that had replaced seeking for truth together.

The Bible (to which I afterwards turned with relief), puts it so quietly, so beautifully: “In the beginning, God.” The writer of Genesis 1 is explaining the world. This is all you need to know. This is why things came into being. Because “In the beginning, God.”

And the writer to the Hebrews underlines that the Christian does not use the Bible as a textbook of cosmic mechanics,  but as a spiritual explanation: “By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God” (Hebrews 11:3.)

Faith is the perception of God as originator. But he is not only origin but destination. Time begins and concludes in him. History is “his story”, as they say.

Faith looks back (to that point of origin) but it also looks forward to the complete denouement, when God, rather like Hercules Poirot calling everyone into the library. goes through all the clues and explains how they all fit together…

Faith is the looking back and the looking ahead… it’s that sense of seeing God’s hand on the whole. This is something that really impacted me when I was writing “Friend of God” and reflecting on the life of Abraham. He’s such a key figure for understanding life as journey.

His life illustrates the important difference between faith and hope.

Faith can look back (to creation) as well as forward. So faith is the larger idea. It includes hope, but is more than hope. You might put it this way: faith is our confidence in the Word of God, and whenever that Word has reference to the future, you can call our confidence in it hope. Hope is faith in the future tense.

Why is this important to see?

First, it helps us grasp the true nature of biblical hope. Most of us know that biblical faith is a strong confidence. Doubt is the enemy of biblical faith. But if hope is faith in the future tense, then we can see more clearly that hope, too, is a strong confidence and not just wishful thinking.

But also, it shows how indispensable hope is. We all know that we are saved by grace through faith. Faith is necessary for our salvation. But we don’t as often speak of hope in those terms. But we should. Hope is an essential part of faith. Take away hope and the definition of faith in Hebrews 11:1 is disabled. We are not merely saved by grace through faith. We are saved by grace through hope.

Paul shares this same view of hope in Romans 4:18. He describes Abraham as the great example of faith, and in particular, of justification by faith. In Romans 4: 22,  he says, “This is why Abraham’s faith was ‘reckoned to him as righteousness.‘” And the faith Paul is speaking about is the faith that God would fulfil his promise by giving him a son, Isaac.

So the faith which justified Abraham was faith in the future work of God. Verse 21 makes this crystal clear: he was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.” In other words he had what Hebrews 6:11 called the “full assurance of hope.”

Verse 18 describes how faith and hope worked together: “In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations.

Against hope” means that from the ordinary human standpoint there was no hope at all! Abraham was too old to have a child, and his wife was barren. But biblical hope is never based on what is possible with man. Biblical hope looks away from man to the promise of God. And when it does, it becomes the “full assurance of hope“—the expectation of great things from God.

It is not easy to describe exactly what Paul means in verse 18 when he says, “In hope Abraham believed . . . that he should become the father of many nations.” But from the whole context I think it is fair to say that Abraham’s faith was his strong confidence in the reliability of God’s Word, and Abraham’s hope was his strong confidence in the fulfillment of God’s promise.

In other words, whenever faith in God looks to the future, it can be called hope. And whenever hope rests on the Word of God, it can be called faith.

Not the ordinary concept we use in everyday speech. It does not imply uncertainty or lack of assurance. Instead biblical hope is a confident expectation and desire for something good in the future.

It’s the inner certainty that it is going to be ok.

Because God is in it.

 

Pic is from “The Beginning Starts With the End” an album by Russian band OMY

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Faith pushes past obstacles

 

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I remember watching the young people in our church doing a drama about the guy lowered down from the roof a while back. I particularly enjoyed the hard hats and hi-vis jackets donned for roof removal.

You know that story? It’s an odd moment in Mark 2, when suddenly the crowd around Jesus is sprinkled with plaster dust, and then a hole in the roof appears,  and is steadily enlarged. Everyone looks up in surprise as around the edge of the hole, four grinning faces appear, and then disappear. There’s a bit of “To me, to you” stuff and then a stretcher wobbles its way down into the middle of the room to the very feet of  Jesus.

And Jesus “seeing their faith” said to the guy on the stretcher….

Leaving aside what he said for a moment (But do check it out for yourself and get back to me; it’s fascinating stuff and not at all what you’d expect)… I was startled by that opening moment.

Some people looked up at the disappearing ceiling in delighted surprise. Possibly the home-owner looked up in irritation or anger. Some saw the dexterity or cleverness or sheer Get-Up-And-Go-ness of the stretcher-bearers.

But Jesus saw their faith.

As was often the case, Jesus was looking in a different kind of way, and saw something that had been overlooked or misunderstood by the rest. Their faith got through to him. It gained access.

Literally and metaphorically.

Faith is a pioneering kind of quality. It pushes through past every obstacle and won’t take no for an answer. Hebrews 11 contains a wonderful list of people, some well known and some completely unknown, who simply believed God’s promises and put their belief on the line. Some experienced happy endings and many did not, but that wasn’t the point that the writer was making.

He was outlining the adventurous lifestyle that God calls us into.

He begins: “Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see…  And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

He rewards those who earnestly seek him! Think about that.

So that’s what Jesus saw in the faces of the men who destroyed the roof! He saw people who were earnest about getting to Jesus because they believed that he could deal with the crisis in their friend’s life!

And so they pushed through every barrier. And Jesus saw it and rewarded them.

It so happened that on the morning of the drama, I had been  reading Romans 5 (a favourite passage). But when I saw the drama, the words of the text came to me in a wholly new way. Here it is:

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.”

Now this puts the whole in the brilliant perspective of the Gospel of Christ. If you major simply on the pushing-through aspect of faith, you are tempted to think that it’s all down to you and your effort to get to God, with high scores for personal achievement. The verse makes it clear that “we have peace with God [only] through [the work of] our Lord Jesus Christ.”  It’s entirely through him that we have any gain.

But don’t forget the other side of it! -And this is my point – that “we have gained access by faith.”

You know, I really do think that God allows obstacles to test the limits of our desire to reach him. He admired the faith of the Syro-Phoenician woman who traded witticisms for a few “crumbs” of the children’s bread. He saw Zaccheus in the tree and gently recognised it as a reaching-out in faith. He simply told a soldier that the healing was done, and nodded appreciatively at the guy’s About-turn and quick-march away. The fellow understood authority and acted on it. So “Be it done to you according to the measure of your faith.

Faith gains access.

It’s like those badges the roadies wear at rock concerts: “Access all areas.” If you truly believe that God can heal, he wants you to act on the belief. If you believe he can supply all your needs, then he wants you to act as if that is more than a theoretical concept. “All things are possible to him that believes.”

And, of course, that’s what was happening on the roof! Faith was gaining access to the place of power, healing, authority and grace.

So how much do you want God to do for you? And what are you prepared to do about it?

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What is it, to “Live by faith”?

 

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“Who through faith conquered kingdoms…”What a line with which to start the day!

It makes me think of Joshua, I suppose, and the faith that met the challenge and potentially mind-numbing fear of “giants in the land” with the deep assurance that God would see him through.

It’s a quote from Hebrews 11, that amazing picture of what faith is and what it does. Here’s the context: [There are those]“Who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again.” (Hebrews 11:33-35)

“Living by faith” sounds like a perilous enterprise!

Of course, anyone can have “faith” when the sun is shining, and you have plenty of money in the bank, but the language here is rather of conflict and victory. Look at those verbs:  “conquered… gained…shut… quenched… became powerful.”

So who are they? Who are those “who through faith conquer kingdoms”?

Faith has been badly misunderstood. Many would agree with the little boy who said, “Faith is believing what you know isn’t true.” Or they think faith is the opposite of rational thought, as if faith is nothing more than positive thinking or wishful dreaming. Many people make the mistake of confusing faith with feeling so that if they don’t “feel” it, it must not be true.

The writer knows all this. So he introduces us to men and women whose lives of faith may inspire us. And almost always they are those those whose faith has been made strong through hard times. Faith that has never been “through it” is only a notion. But right now, I don’t need a theology book about faith. I need to know how it works.

And so I read this chapter and think, “God, help me to live like that!” The disciples said to Jesus, “Lord, increase our faith.” (Luke 17:5). And I just want to agree. And do life that way.

Sometimes, we think that “faith” is a sort of ticket of entry, a moment at the beginning of our Christian lives; and after that, we just figure things out using brains and bank balance, like everyone else.

But the Bible tells us that, “The righteous will live by his faith,” (Habakkuk 2:4), and we are told that the gospel reveals a righteousness that is “by faith from first to last” (Romans 1:17). It’s all the way through!

All that we do, we do by faith. And so we read Hebrews 11 as a list of those who lived against the current of their times and who sought God and His promises. And although they were separated by time, nationality, gender and personal circumstances, one common factor links them all up: These were all commended for their faith.” (Hebrews 11:39)

Now down deep in our hearts, we believe a lie that this sort of stuff is restricted to a few “special” people and we could never qualify to have our names added to this list. But that’s the very reason this chapter is in the Bible, so that we would know that these are ordinary men and women who did extraordinary things simply because they had faith in God. They are made of the same stuff as us. The life of faith is within the reach of every believer. If we desire it, we can live like this too.

As Merton put it: “You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”

And that’s what God  is waiting for. He’s waiting to see that spark of push and to say: “Yes! That’s my boy. That’s my girl! Those are my kids. They all belong to me.” I think that God simply loves it when his people dare to trust Him. He loves it so much that he bears witness to the world that His people belong to him.

So what is it, to live by faith? It is to be brave and take risks! You don’t have to have it all figured out to move forward. You just have to know the one who walks with you. In The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom wrote:

“This is what the past is for! Every experience God gives us, every person He puts in our lives is the perfect preparation for the future that only He can see… Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”

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“Remember…when you endured?” (Hebrews 10)

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“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

That’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer, of course, writing in The Cost of Discipleship. In a sense, he had the right to say such a thing, since he was imprisoned by the Gestapo and executed a few days before the end of the Second World War.

The early followers of Jesus shared the same experience. The writer to the Hebrews looks back on his own memory of hard times:

 “Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering.  Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated.  You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.  So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.” (Hebrews 10: 32-36)

“A great conflict of sufferings.”

“Publicly exposed to insult and persecution…”

“Suffered along with those in prison….”

“Joyfully accpted the confiscation of your property…”

Wait, what was that last one again? You’re kidding, right?

Our word “athletic” comes from the Greek word translated “conflict.” here in v32. It was like a hard-fought athletic contest. But we endured.

The trouble is, when I come to think about such passages, that I’ve never been beaten, tortured, or thrown in prison because of my faith. I’ve never had my property confiscated or my family torn away from me because I confess Christ as Lord.  So  my empathy and understanding is limited.

And of course, though I use the phrase “The trouble is,” I’m very glad that that’s the case! I’m relieved. I feel blessed to have had life so easy.

And it becomes tempting to become complacent about that blessing, to assume it as a right and to allow it to become a false view of the Christian life that emphasizes the benefits of the faith in this life.

Somehow we receive the message, “God offers an abundant plan for your life. Trust in Jesus and He will help you overcome all of your problems and enjoy life to the fullest!” Jesus is marketed as the solution to everything from weight loss to success in business to having a happy marriage. The sales pitch is that receiving Christ will bring you the greatest happiness in this life.

Somehow, getting persecuted and losing your material possessions and maybe your life don’t harmonize with that message!

And without ever putting it in such simplistic tertms: Most of us signed up for the prosperity plan, not for the persecution plan.

In fact, many go further still and if they (or rather, we) encounter difficult trials,  get angry at God and maybe even decide, “If that’s the way He’s going to treat me, I’m not going to follow Him. Hardship, persecution, and suffering aren’t in the deal that I signed up for! What IS this?”

But how could I have strayed so far from what the Bible actually says? It speaks of warfare (Eph. 6:10-20), of hard times (John 16:33). Jesus stated plainly the requirements for following Him: Deny yourself and take up your cross daily (Luke 9:23). A cross was not a slightly irritating circumstance; it was an instrument of slow death!

Since the cross is the symbol of our faith, how could I so signally fail to see that point?

Lesslie Newbigin made the same point in The Open Secret about Israel: ““Through the repeated hammer blows of defeat, destruction, and deportation, interpreted by the faithful prophets, Israel has to learn that election is not for comfort and security but for suffering and humiliation.”

“Election is not for comfort”? Darn it, I hoped it was.

Are you comfortable being comfortable?

Well. All that that question does is evoke a pretty useless kind of guilt.

It’s better to recognize that we are all in the midst of conflict of one sort or another, that we are all in a contest,a race, and we better look to Jesus the “author and finisher” or we just won’t make it through.

Steven Cole reflected that “To have faith that endures trials, remember how God worked in the past, focus on doing His will in the present, and look to His promises in the future.” Faith that endures trial is not self-confidence, but confidence in the One who has sustained you thus far.

He will carry you through.

He never lets go.

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“Should we go or should we stay?” Faith as Adventure

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Faith is the principle at the heart of adventure.

“By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.” (Hebrews 11:6)

It’s the “not knowing” and yet “obeying” that resonates here. It’s the DNA of every decision you make that puts God first.

Come to think of it, what level of faith is involved if you know precisely where you’re going and what you’re doing and how you’re going to do it? (Answer: Not a lot).

On a church level, it all comes down to the simple choice of the title question. “Should we go or should we stay?” This is a question that cuts to the chase of every other question. It’s a question of fundamental ideology.

You might ask, for example, in measuring the effectiveness of the church: “How many visitors have we attracted?”

It seems a reasonable enough question, but it’s a “Stay put” question. I’d rather ask the question, “How many members have we sent?” How many folks have we empowered to get going in ministry? What is our sense of the word apostolic”? Are we geared towards evangelism as an outwardly mobile lifestyle?

Of course, these kind of questions suggest a coherent, integrated and unified system of choice. How do we decide what to do?  For example, when contemplating some form of change, we may think: “If this proves upsetting to any of our members, we won’t do it.” And, once again, that is a static, expression of immobility based on comfort. The “Go” statement is very different: “If this proposed activity will help us bless and touch someone outside of our faith community, let’s take the risk and try it.”

To make such a statement requires a Big Picture vision that is oriented around mobility and flexibility. But we are “called to go” and our obedience ensures our “inheritance.” And that is a treasure that is not to be quantified in real estate, but in changed lives.

We cannot respond to change by thinking how it will affect us , but rather how it will align our activities around the mission of God.

It’s the choice between being faithful to our past or faithful to our future. Sometimes you can only choose one. You can’t drive your car safely whilst constantly looking in the rearview mirror, right? (As I can assure you from personal experience)

We either seek to avoid conflict at any cost (and rarely succeed), or we accept that conflict is the price of progress, and a price that must be paid.

We either develop a managerial approach to leadership, where the emphasis is on keeping everything in order and running smoothly,or we focus on a transformational style, casting a vision of what can be, and marching off the map in order to bring the vision into reality.

We either get wrapped up in ourselves,  our organizations and structure, our constitutions and committees – or with the culture outside, with understanding how secular people think and what makes them tick. We pray to determine their needs and their points of accessibility to the Gospel.

We either ask “How many Christians, who aren’t currently members, live within a twenty-minute drive of this church?” or we ask “How many unreached people groups live within a twenty-minute drive of this building?” 

We either look at the community and ask: “How can we get these people to come to our church?” or we ask: “How can we go and be engaged with these people?”

We either think about how to save our congregation or we dream of planting new ones to extend the Kingdom of God.

If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine: it’s lethal.

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“How to answer everyone”: Grace-Conversations

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“Be wise in the way you act towards outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.  Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer each one.” ( Col 4:5,6)

The challenge is in the last clause: How do I “know how to answer each one“?

This passage suggests five ideas. First, do it “wisely, ” thoughtfully, carefully. Jesus said “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you” (Matthew 7:6). Being wise means being discerning as to when I speak and to whom. Sometimes I need to be straightforward and strong. Other times I need to shut up.

And I need the wisdom to know the difference!

John Piper said this on this passage: “Wisdom is knowing what to do for the glory of God when the rule book runs out. It’s knowing how to become all things to all men without compromising holiness and truth. It is creativity and tact and thoughtfulness. It’s having a feel for the moment, and having an eye for what people need and want.”

Second, I should talk about my faith with a real sense of urgency, “making the best use of the time,” or in one paraphrase, “snapping up every opportunity that comes.”

I simply can’t let  fear or hesitation or lack of preparation steal that moment. There may not be another.

Bill Butterworth wrote that “The four things that matter in life: [are] 1) love 2) honesty 3) faith 4) courage. ”  I like that a lot. Because it seems to me that when we talk about Jesus, all those aspects come into play both about him and about the way we share.

Third, my conversation must always be “gracious.” The word means “attractively, endearingly.” Graciousness  creates that balance which elsewhere Paul described as “Speaking the truth in love.”  If you don’t speak truth, it doesn’t help; if you don’t speak in love, they won’t hear.

Imbalance is deadly. I just can’t be pushy, or offensive, belligerently insisting on something because “It’s the truth!”  Many such presentations do far more harm than good.  And yet, if I soften the edges and dilute everything into a palatable goo, with a ladle-full of sugar to help the medicine go down,  it may not be the gospel at all, just a self-help guide to feeling good.

So, be gracious when you share about grace.

Fourth, says Paul, let your conversation be “seasoned with salt,” There’s no special prize for being dull or insipid or lukewarm when you share your faith!

Do you talk of Jesus in a way that makes people’s mouths water? Do your words and manner create the opportunity for a spiritual thirst to emerge? It’s the way Jesus himself spoke, letting his stories prod and poke, claiming attention and encouraging curiosity.

The psalmist said, “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8)! Do people see and sense the sweetness of the Savior when we speak of him? He is altogether lovely and should not be made known in an unlovely or unappealing manner. Jesus tastes good!

Don’t spoil the flavor with a grumpy disposition.

Fifth, we must be careful to respond to “each one.” You don’t speak in the same way to everyone but appropriately to “each one” as he or she has need. Think of the way Jesus spoke to a tired old intellectual at night (in John 3), and then to a spiritually thirsty woman by day (John 4). No one hears the gospel the same way. Some encounter Christ with probing intellectual objections, while others are struggling with deeply entrenched sinful habits. I just need to find what to say to “each one.”

I know there’s no rulebook here, or tried and trusty How To manual. But if you know Jesus, you have a faith-story to tell. Paul is encouraging a group of new believers to share that story wisely, urgently, graciously, encouragingly and appropriately….

Lord, today, let me be responsive to the needs of the folks around me. Grant me opportunities to speak to one or two with wisdom, grace and love.

In Jesus’ name, Amen

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The non-toxic Parent

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We have this book here called Toxic Parents (by Susan Forward). It makes for unpleasant, but truthful reading:

“Children who are not encouraged to do, to try, to explore, to master, and to risk failure, often feel helpless and inadequate. Over-controlled by anxious, fearful parents, these children often become anxious and fearful themselves. This makes it difficult for them to mature. Many never outgrow the need for ongoing parental guidance and control. As a result, their parents continue to invade, manipulate, and frequently dominate their lives.”

From the child’s point of view, it’s the old rabbit-frozen-in-the-headlight syndrome.When you’re scared, you stay put!

And what happens next? It’s a kind of spiral of worry which makes your decision-making more and more cautious. You read the signals wrongly, perceiving threat and risk where there is none, leading to more fear-driven decisions. You get stuck.

And the doctor puts the blame squarely on Toxic Parents.

But what if your parents are non-toxic? Or rather, what if these inadequate specimens were magically switched for their emotional opposites? My online Thesaurus struggled with an antonym for toxic, though it finally came up with

If your parents were like this, surely it would change everything, right? You could take that psychology textbook and flip it on its head, enjoying every positive alternative! My decisions would be calm, rational, fearless. I wouldn’t worry that my parents would “continue to invade, manipulate, and frequently dominate” my life. Instead, they would provide back-up, peace of mind, reassurance and the resource of enduring love.

And that -precisely that!- was how Jesus lived in relationship with his Father.

That relationship forms the backdrop to how he lived and to what he said.

But far from claiming that this relationship was unique or exclusive, he repeatedly urged his disciples to acknowledge it as the basis for their own lifestyle. It was  to be a shared experience. “When you pray, say, ‘Our Father.’” The mutuality of the “Our” is the starting point for prayer itself, for the understanding of love and resource, and uncritical acceptance.

According to Jesus, God is the ultimate non-Toxic Parent, (healthy, helpful, kind and wholesome).

And so, on the basis of all of that: “Whatever you do, DON’T BE ANXIOUS.”

This was Jesus’ clear word:  “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.” (Matthew 6:31-32)

It’s easy to miss the key word in this verse. It’s the word “Your.” Jesus is comparing outsiders and insiders.

It’s not a comparison that says “God loves Israel and hates everybody else” – though sometimes the Old Testament seemed to tend that way.

No, God is the Father of all nations and peoples, but many do not acknowledge that relationship. 

The consequence of that lack of relationship is to seek to fill the void with other stuff. So don’t be like those outsiders, then, who “seek after all these things.” No, for you who know him as Father, operate out of the rich resource of that relationship.

The verse goes on. “Seek first the kingdom of heaven and all these things shall be added to you.” Your heavenly Father knows” all about your needs.

Just get your priorities right. God is aware of all our needs, physical, intellectual… and spiritual.

And it is his delight to provide for his children.

Once you know him as Father, there can no longer be any need to be anxious. Your relationship is an infinite resource.

In Rachel Vincent poignant little novel, Alpha, there’s a beautiful reflection on the concept of a non-toxic father:

“When I was a child, all problems had ended with a single word from my father. A smile from him was sunshine, his scowl a bolt of thunder. He was smart, and generous, and honorable without fail. He could exile a trespasser, check my math homework, and fix the leaky bathroom sink, all before dinner. For the longest time, I thought he was invincible. Above the petty problems that plagued normal people…”

Now you know where she’s going with this. It’s nostalgia heading straight for regret. But when Jesus spoke of his Father, there was an eternal quality -a sublime confidence that “all I have needed, his hand has provided.”

God is a faithful, truthful help in ages past and our hope for the years to come. “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine….” -fix the tap, do the Maths- nothing is too little and nothing is too big for someone so loving and capable. And Paul’s verse (in Ephesians 3:20) brings us into the loop too: “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.” 

Working in us! He is working in us!

Lord, give me a fresh awareness of your Fatherhood, as I traipse through my day with its decisions, its responses to people and circumstances. Enable me to smile more and worry less, because you are there beside me.

And my relationship is my resource. Thank you!

 

 

 

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