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Author Archives: Family Christian

  • To Heaven and Back from Mary C. Neal

    Posted on March 4, 2014 by Family Christian

    Mary

    Prologue

    “The best and most beautiful things in this world cannot be seen or even heard, but must be felt with the heart.” —Helen Keller

    God and His angelic messengers are present and active in our world today and this involvement and intervention is both ordinary in its frequency and extraordinary in its occurrence. Despite leading what I would consider a very ordinary life, I have had the privilege of being touched by God in visible and very tangible ways. One of these experiences began on January 14, 1999, when I was vacationing in South America with my husband. While boating, I was pinned underwater in my kayak and drowned. I died and went to heaven. After a brief stay, I was returned to my body. I returned to my earthly life with two shattered legs and severe pulmonary problems. I was hospitalized for more than a month, wheelchair bound for even longer, and did not return to my orthopaedic surgery practice for more than six months.

    Many have described my accident as terrible and tragic. I describe it as one of the greatest gifts I have ever received. The series of events surrounding my accident and recovery were nothing short of miraculous. Not only did I have the privilege of experiencing heaven, but I continued to experience the intensity of God’s world and conversed with Jesus several times in the weeks after my return.

    Through this experience and conversation, I gained an understanding of many of life’s important questions, such as “What happens when we die?”, “Why are we here?”, and “Why do bad things happen to good people?” I also gained an understanding of the disciple Paul’s statement from 1 Corinthians 13 that of faith, hope, and love, the most enduring is love. I already had reasons to believe in miracles, but taking a journey to heaven and back transformed my faith into knowledge and my hope into reality. My love remained unchanged and everlasting.

    One of the several reasons for my return to earth was to tell my story to others and help them find their way back to God. During my initial recovery, I was invited to share my story with small groups in my community and these people shared my story with their friends and family. As it was spread to many parts of the country, I was often told of the profound impact my story made on the lives of the people who heard it. In the process of sharing, I realized that my story does not really belong to me, but to God and is meant to be shared. It has inspired many people, stimulated discussion, and has often resulted in a rejuvenated relationship with God. It has lessened people’s fear of death and increased their passion for living a full and meaningful life. My story has deepened people’s faith and given them hope for the future.

    Noblesse Oblige: With Privilege Comes Responsibility

    Truly, God does not give us a lamp so we can hide it under a basket or a bed. He gives each of us a lamp so we may give light to the world. Light always dissipates the emptiness of darkness. Ultimately, I felt that if the reading of my story could bring even one person closer to God, it would be worth the writing. Thus, I began to set down on paper an account of my observations and experiences. What I could not have known, and did not know as I worked to complete my manuscript, was that the sense of urgency compelling me to complete it was also God’s hand at work in my life. For the story did not end there…


    Introduction

    “Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer. From the end of the earth I call to you, when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.” —Psalm 61:1–2 (NRS)

    The tiny two-track road in the remote mountains of Mexico was saturated with rain from the previous night. It was late in the day and we were still several hours from the main road when our dilapidated truck slid off the road and immediately sank into the thick brown mud that formed the shoulder of the road. Our traveling group consisted of the fifteen-year old me, an adult missionary couple, another teenager, and a little baby. Our truck’s spinning wheels were unable to gain traction and the truck quickly sank to its axles. Our anxiety level rose quickly, as we knew that it would be a nearly impossible struggle for us to free the wheels of our truck. It was equally impossible for us to walk far enough to find help. We were not prepared for this sort of delay. The baby would need food and we knew the temperatures would plummet once the sun dipped below the horizon. It was imperative that we get the truck back on the road, as we had driven this desolate stretch of road many times over the summer and had never seen another vehicle. We focused entirely on the task at hand and tried again and again to free the wheels. The depth of the mud seemed to have no limit, and our efforts appeared feeble. As we worked, we began to pray with great fervor and specificity: We prayed that God would “put rock under us,” and soon.

    The words had barely floated off our lips when we were shocked to see a rusty old pickup truck rumbling up the road. The driver had taken a wrong turn and was trying to find his way to the main road. When told of our predicament, he graciously offered to give us a ride to town. The cab was too small to hold all of us, so we eagerly climbed into the truck bed and laughingly settled onto his cargo…of rocks. We were filled with joy at the sight of rock, knowing that our prayers had been heard.
    Was this an answer to our specific prayers? Did God, albeit with a sense of humor, intervene in our lives and answer our prayers? Was the truck driver an angel or other messenger of God? Was this a miracle? Maybe it was just luck or a coincidence. A coincidence is defined as the “accidental occurrence of events that seem to have a connection.” Luck is a “force that brings good fortune or adversity. It favors chance.” For myself, I call it a miracle: an “event that is considered a work of God.”
    The Bible describes many times when angels are sent by God to help those who are in need; often in times of turmoil, life-threatening situations, or at the moment of death. Miracles appear to be universal and are reported by Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, and Hindus. The Quran describes a miracle as the “supernatural intervention in the life of a human being.” The Catholic Church describes miracles as “works of God,” usually with a specific purpose, such as the conversion of a person to the faith. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines a miracle as an “extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention.” Cynics claim that miracles defy the laws of nature and, therefore, cannot occur. As described by others who believe as I do, there is a different way to perceive a miracle.

    Situation #1
    A ball is dropped from a height and falls to the ground.
    It obeys the laws of nature.

    Situation #2
    A ball is dropped from a height and falls toward the ground. A hand reaches out and catches it. It never reaches the ground. The ball has obeyed the laws of nature, but the hand has intervened. If the hand were God’s, we would have witnessed divine intervention without a defiance of the laws of nature.


    I believe that God heard our heartfelt cry on that little road in Mexico and chose to intervene
    on our behalf. Although the answer was not what we expected, God gave us a specific answer to our specific prayer: He put rock under us.
    Over the years, like most people, I have questioned my spirituality. I have wondered about the reality of God, the role of God in my life, wondered why so many bad things are allowed to happen, and wondered about the reality of life after death. Despite these questions and doubts, I witnessed countless numbers of answered prayers and occasions of divine intervention since this high school experience. I drowned while kayaking on a South American vacation and had the great pleasure, privilege, and gift of going to heaven and back. I had the opportunity to converse with angels and ask many questions. I gained much insight. As one result of this adventure, I have also had the opportunity of listening to many other people describe their own spiritual encounters and near-death experiences. Their stories usually begin with their saying, “I’ve never told anyone about this, because I didn’t think they would believe me, but….”
    Is God present in our world today? Do miracles still occur? Are there really angels all around us? Does God keep His promises? Is there sufficient reason to live by faith? I believe the answer to each one of these questions is a definitive “yes” and I believe that you will come to this same conclusion as you read about the miracles I have seen and experienced.

    Chapter 1, The Early Years

    “‘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.’”
    —Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV)

    I was born and raised in an ordinary Midwestern town in Michigan. I lived in a middle-class neighborhood with my parents, Bob and Betty, two brothers, Rob and Bill, one sister, Betsy, and a small dachshund named Trinka. My father was a general surgeon and my mother was a homemaker. I enjoyed a pleasant childhood which, in some aspects, was idyllic. I did not always have everything I wanted, but never lacked for what I needed. Most importantly for any child, I always felt loved by my family. The creek flowing through the back of our property offered me great excitement and opportunity. I spent many hours in and on that creek; ice skating, boating, fishing, swimming, and exploring.

    I learned about snails, slugs, and leeches. I learned what happens when a dog eats the bacon from a fishing hook, and I learned not to look a snapping turtle in the eye. My best friend and I built an elaborate fresh-water clam farm, only to find out later that pearls are made by oysters, not clams. It was great fun and it developed my love for being immersed in the outdoor natural world.

    My family attended the local Presbyterian Church, participating in a denomination in which my grandfather, great-grandfather, and great great grandfather had been ordained ministers. Our tall, traditional stone church stood proudly on the town square. While the outside was rather formal and not very inviting, its interior arched toward the sky, beautifully displaying large multicolored stained glass windows. The pews were well worn and made of a rich and deeply-colored wood. My siblings and I sat through Sunday school and confirmation classes, church services, and the occasional youth group gatherings, but these activities were mechanical and boring to me. Although I willingly attended, these various activities seemed to have little impact on my life.

    My brothers and sister and I certainly never developed a relationship with a living, loving God while growing up, and I don’t recall ever being expected to incorporate God or Jesus Christ into my daily life or thoughts. God seemed to be a “Sunday thing” and I do not remember my parents discussing spirituality or religion in our home. In many ways, however, they did model a Christian life for their children. My mother was loving, always supportive, and was an active volunteer in numerous service organizations. My father showed great compassion for those who were less fortunate in their circumstances and he was selfless in his profession as a surgeon.

    I would often trail behind my father as he checked on his patients in the hospital or when he was called to the emergency room on weekends. I perceived that his was a life of service, in which he was always kind and respectful to others, was not motivated by money, and always put the feelings and needs of others before his own. As I approached my teenage years, I became more independent and began to hold my own opinions. I discovered that although my father was good at doing activities together, he was not very good at sharing his feelings with me or discussing topics that I considered meaningful or difficult. I adored him in spite of his flaws and was stunned in the spring of 1970 when my parents’ relationship crumbled and my mother asked him to move out of our home.

    Divorce was still scandalous at that time and I was outraged when my parents’ divorce became final in the autumn of 1971. I was in the seventh grade and quickly became a confused and angry adolescent. When confronted by their divorce listing in the newspaper, I could no longer deny that my 1950s-esque image of an all-American family had been exploded. During that period, church attendance was one of the few stable aspects of my life.

    My two older siblings were already in college and my brother and I continued to live with my mother in our childhood home. Each Sunday morning, my father would drive me to the local greasy spoon for breakfast, then to Church services. I was still embarrassed, and probably angry, about my parents’ divorce, so refused to attend the Presbyterian Church services with him. Instead, we went to the morning service at the local Episcopal Church. We would usually go for a walk after church then return to his apartment to finish the day with a dinner of baked chicken and green beans: the only dinner he ever knew how to make. While I recognized his limitations, I still clung to the fantasy of his returning to my home, and of our family returning to the ideal of my remembered childhood.

    My mother was young, attractive, and interesting, so I should not have begrudged her the desire to date, but I did so anyway and tried to disrupt the process in any way possible. Mack was the first guy who was serious about my mom after Dad moved out. One evening when I returned home, I discovered that he managed to eat all of the cookies I had just baked (none of which had been intended for him) and I was furious. I made my opinion clear and I was delighted never to see him again. George was the next man who successfully captured mom’s attention. He was the general manager of the country club where my brothers worked, and they had told him about our mother.

    After my brothers persistently nudged him to call, a beautiful courtship developed between George and my mother. Although my parent’s divorce had long been final, I still hated the concept of my mother having a “boyfriend.” To his credit, George was funny, kind, gentle, understanding, and extremely patient. He also gave the best and longest back-scratches known to mankind, which, I might add, was a very successful way to break through my hostility! He loved my mom and he loved her children, so when my mom held a family conference about a year after they started dating and asked for our permission to marry George, it was impossible to deny her that happiness. In my heart, I remained conflicted. George was a decent man, and I thought he would be a reasonable stepfather, but I continued to pray daily for the return of my father and for the return of the life I had known.

    Until the very moment in 1973 when the preacher officially declared Mom and George “husband and wife,” I continued to pray that my father would arrive to interrupt the wedding ceremony and reclaim his family. When this didn’t happen, I concluded that God hadn’t listened to my most desperate of prayers and certainly hadn’t answered them. In my disappointment, I discarded the very notion of praying. I was only one very small creature on a planet of more than four billion people; if there really was a God, why should He listen to me or answer my prayers? I decided that my thoughts about an omnipresent God who cares about individuals had likely been a childish and silly belief so I decided to “move on,” leaving my beliefs about God behind me.

    I was a smart, accomplished, self-confident fifteen-year old young woman. I thought I knew what was best for me and believed that I was capable of\creating my own future without divine input. What was unrecognizable to me at that time was how God not only had heard my most desperate plea, but answered it in a way that was greater and more fulfilling than I could ever have imagined. Through my mother’s marriage, God gave me a stepfather who was steadfast in his loving, gentle, and gracious manner. George was supportive and respectful. As a parent, he taught me about joy, friendship, and responsibility. He modeled what a loving, respectful marriage looks like, and he became one of the most important influences in my life. God promises that He has plans for us to give us hope and a future and He kept this promise. George coming into my life was definitely not the answer I had prayed for. It was better.


    Excerpted from To Heaven and Back by Mary C. Neal, MD Copyright © 2012 by Mary C. Neal, MD. Excerpted by permission of Random House Large Print, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

  • Heart Wide Open from Shellie Rushing Tomlinson

    Posted on March 3, 2014 by Family Christian

    Shellie

    l like to say I was in church nine months before I was born and shortly thereafter my people began toting me back to the Lord’s house as quickly and as often as they could. I now understand there are worse places to grow up than the left side, second row of a small country church, but as a rambunctious kid with a serious imagination and a bad case of the fidgets, I had a hard time imagining why so much churchgoing was necessary.

    It seemed highly unlikely we would miss out on anything earth shattering if we skipped a service here and there. Even a wiggly little tomboy with smudged eyeglasses could tell you who was going to come in late, who was going to make a scene taking her baby to the nursery, and which elderly deacon was going to rouse himself from a brief nap to offer a hearty “Amen!” People are creatures of habit even—and maybe especially—in the Lord’s house.

    To my way of thinking, a little absence could have made our muchchurched hearts grow even fonder. My sisters concurred. Had this ever come to a vote, we girls would have ruled the day with a three-to-two tally, but our parents weren’t the least bit interested in running a democracy.

    Our list of required appearances included, but was not limited to, Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, two-week vacation Bible schools in the summer, and two-week annual revivals in the spring and fall, both revivals having been prefaced with two-week cottage prayer meetings in anticipation of the big events. Sickness could get you an excused absence from any of these services, but it had to be verified. Holding a thermometer inside your electric blanket so you could stay home on Sunday night and watch The Wonderful World of Disney never worked. Not that I ever tried.

    As a child, I enjoyed the rhythm of familiar hymns as well as the sense of belonging I felt inside those church walls, even if I firmly believed we overdid the whole attendance thing. As a teenager, however, I became increasingly skilled at being present in body alone while my thoughts were occupied elsewhere with my peers and our many dramas. I had a healthy respect for the teachings of the church, and God seemed real enough to me while I was there, but I didn’t understand why my faith felt so compartmentalized. Where God went once I left the church building I couldn’t say. And honestly, I wasn’t all that concerned with the mystery.

    This disconnect between my Sunday morning faith and my everyday experience followed me into my young married life where, despite my childhood conclusion that our parents overdid the churching, I found myself choosing the same level of commitment to the weekly services. I still enjoyed attending church, but I could seldom carry the warm fuzzies I felt during the service any farther than the parking lot before my sense of God’s presence began to fade. The Sundays that bookended my weeks seemed to have little to do with what happened in the days that lay between them. As the years rolled by, I gradually began to wonder why this was and if it had to be.

    Thankfully, the day finally came when I was ready to admit that I needed something more. I had no clue what it was that had been missing for so long, yet I knew I had to find it.

    As it happens, God used my own children to turn the heat up under my growing desire for more. I was a married woman with a loving husband trying to raise two young teenagers when the persistent dissatisfaction I’d never been able to name began to reach a boiling point.

    During my kids’ early years, I’d been able to pull off the church-lady gig, or at least my concept of the role. I knew the Bible and I knew the rules. Thinking this would be enough, I forged ahead, confident that if my husband and I took our children to church every time the doors opened, just as my parents had done with my sisters and me, all would be well. And for the most part it was—until they hit adolescence and I came down with mommy terrors!

    My babies were growing up, and it was both exhilarating and terrifying. Everywhere I turned the culture around us was laughing at what I considered sacred and celebrating what I found immoral. Increasingly our kids were exposed to things outside our home that neither their dad nor I approved of, and it frightened me to realize the temptations they faced could potentially wreck the futures we had always dreamed of for them. I tried to placate myself. We had taught them our values. If they were strong in their faith, they would be okay come what may, right? I had already purchased this holy life insurance myself, hadn’t I? I simply needed to make sure they had taken out a similar policy. I needed to know they believed me when I said that the fullest life was one lived in God.

    Such logic should have brought peace, and it would have, if not for one overgrown, peanut-eating elephant loafing smack-dab in the middle of my living room: I had zero life experience to offer as evidence for what I was advertising. As much as I disliked admitting it, any spiritual direction I was offering my kids came strictly from the biblical head knowledge gained through my years in the pew. I was merely regurgitating what I’d heard my whole life.

    In short, I was a hypocrite!

    Though the news came as quite a surprise to me, the ugly truth was undeniable. An Internet dictionary offers the following spot-on definition of my true state in that telling moment: a hypocrite is “a person who pretends to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc., that he or she does not actually possess, especially a person whose actions belie stated beliefs.”1 Bingo. If I were to be honest, the faith I was experiencing wasn’t satisfying my deepest longings at all. My picture could’ve been pasted right beside that entry. Say “cheese,” Church Lady.

    Even as I came face to face with the realization that I couldn’t pass on something I didn’t have, I was also painfully aware that young people are like mini lie detectors, capable of spotting anything short of the whole truth and willing to call you on it. I’m reminded of the time I came through the living room all dressed up for a big event, whereupon my grade school son looked up and announced, “Wow, Mama. You do not look fat in those pants.” Obviously, Phillip had heard this subject discussed in his few short years on earth, and, just as clearly, there had been other times when I had looked fat in my pants. But enough of What Not to Wear. My point is, children can sniff out insincerity like a bloodhound and see through hypocrites with their eyes closed. My Big Faith Advertisement must have sounded as weak in their ears as it did in mine.

    This sobering realization about the lameness of my own faith stared me down without blinking and prompted some serious soul searching. Why wasn’t my faith satisfying? Why was it that my God and I were friendly acquaintances at best? Why didn’t I know this One I called my Savior? Worse yet, why didn’t I love Him? Oh, I liked Him well enough. I appreciated the gospel, and I was grateful for the promise of a secure eternity, but love this Jesus in the here and now? Not really. In light of all my years of churching and being churched, I wondered how on earth that could be true. And why did some people seem so passionate about Jesus then all I could muster for Him on my most spiritual day was a healthy respect?

    I knew people who talked about Jesus with the kind of affection normally reserved for a flesh-and-blood person. Me? I could sing “Oh, how I love Jesus” as heartily as everyone around me (albeit off-key), but deep down I knew that I could just as easily be singing “Oh, how I love watermelon” for all the fervency in my aching faking heart. My fellow southerners and I have a saying we’re fond of using to encourage someone to be honest. “Tell the truth and stay in church,” we’ll warn. I’ve always thought the line was funny, but I wasn’t laughing as I compared my empty profession of love with the words of Jesus Himself in Mark 12:30: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (niv). I knew I didn’t love Him that way, and I didn’t have the slightest idea what to do about it. Coming clean with my Jesus-loving church members about the state of my faith didn’t sound at all appealing.

    Have mercy! If this is all I had to advertise for my abundant life, I realized I was going to have a hard time selling God to my kids, or to anyone else for that matter.

    Flypaper Faith

    With that, the nagging concern over my lackluster faith that had dogged me for years became a desperate need to find out what I was missing. I was no longer willing to settle for the distance that separated me from the God I’d heard about and prayed to from my earliest memory. I think of that turning point as my Flypaper Epiphany.

    When I was growing up, most everyone I knew used flypaper to combat the bothersome insects that populate our southern summers. Flypaper seems to have lost its appeal over the years. But back in the day, these sticky pieces of vertical yellow tape, each about a foot and a half long and a couple inches wide, hung beneath carports all over our Louisiana Delta and as near as possible to the main entrances of our houses.

    Flypaper is coated with sweet-smelling glue and designed to be so sticky that should a pesky fly encounter it while heading into the house, said insect would be immediately detained and permanently affixed to its surface. I can assure you that flypaper lives up to the billing. I once got my hair caught on the stuff, and I thought for sure Mama was going to have to shave me bald-headed to remove it from my crowning glory.

    Eternal life isn’t a gift from God; eternal life is the gift of God.
    —Oswald Chambers

    I don’t remember the exact day I sat staring at John 17:3 (I do know it was shortly after I identified myself as a hypocrite), but I’ll always remember the challenge I heard in Jesus’s own words: “This is eternal life, that they might know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” That scripture was familiar to this church girl, but the hope I heard in it was brand spanking new. For the first time I saw in those words a way to get off the spiritual merry-go-round I’d been riding my whole life and strike out on the biggest adventure of all time: to actually know God. I saw this as the way I would learn to love Jesus, to crazy love Him.

    In my new plan God was the flypaper, and I would be the fly. The mission: to throw myself at Him and stick for eternity! The rest of my life began with a single prayer and an honest admission that surprised neither of us:

    “I admit it. I don’t love You like I should, but I want to love You. Help!”

    Choosing to Love Jesus

    I finally admitted that I had nothing to offer God. Zero. Zip. All I could bring was my weak, broken want-to. Here’s the beautiful reality: it was enough. If you want to love Jesus, it’s enough for you too!

    The embarrassing truth I had avoided all my life—that I didn’t really love Jesus—was the very admission He would use to ignite my lukewarm heart. Who knew?! All I had to offer was a desire to love Him, but it was enough. Okay, to be accurate, I couldn’t even say that I wanted to love Him. It was more like I wanted to want to love Him, and still it was enough. He accepted my passionless heart and began to breathe on it, and a new way of living began opening to me.

    I’ve had so many women tell me personal stories about their faith, and I’m always struck by how similar they are to my own. These sincere believers believe in God and they’re trying to follow Him, but they admit to having little to no sense of intimacy with Him. They long for the passion they see in the Bible, but they’re resigned to going through the motions without it. If this resonates with you, if you’ve been trying to ignore a certain dullness to your faith, please hear me. You aren’t asking for anything that God doesn’t want you to enjoy and Jesus didn’t die to give you! I’m walking proof that you can fall in love with Jesus by learning to whisper a simple prayer that meets with His wholehearted approval: “I don’t love You, but I want to love You. Help me!”

    Taste the sugar-sweet words of Ephesians 1:3–4: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world.”

    God chose to love all of us, but He gave us free will to decide whether or not we would return that love. The type of honest prayer I’m advocating means admitting that our want-to is broken and asking God to teach us how to love Him well.

    Have you been waiting for your heart to spontaneously combust into love for Jesus? If so, you have your cart before your horse, and I’m here to testify through firsthand experience that it’s a frustrating way to ride and produces scant forward progress. In 1 John 4:19 we’re told that “we love, because He first loved us.” In other words, you and I will never be able to bear down and deliver a passionate heart for God out of determination or self discipline, and it won’t overtake us by surprise. It will, however, ignite in our hearts when we discover the secret of feasting on God’s love in the person of Jesus Christ. Scripture assures us that He loves us not because of who we are but because of who He is.

    But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4–7)

    God put His love on eternal display by sending Jesus to save us, not because of our merit but in spite of our sin. He initiates the love affair with us.

    The blessed challenge is to continue drinking that love in as freely as when we first reached for salvation. When we feast on this extravagant love and the many gifts He poured out upon us through Jesus Christ, we receive a nutrient rich meal that nourishes His passion in us. But I reiterate, it is a decision, just as surely as the one we make when we pull our chairs up to the dining room table. No one can make this choice for us.

    So what does this decision look like? That’s the question I’m excited about answering. Let’s begin with some powerful words from Jesus, recorded in Matthew.

    Don’t collect for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But collect for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (6:19–21, hcsb)

    For the longest time I allowed the good news of this passage to be totally eclipsed by the last sentence: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” That sounded like something of a spiritual inkblot test to me, and it was one I was sure I could never pass. I was quite convinced that if God examined what it was I treasured, He would see that He wasn’t at the top of the list. In my guilt-induced anxiety, I completely missed the clear directive of the passage. These six power-packed words turned my perceived inkblot test on its head when I finally understood their decree: “Collect for yourselves treasures in heaven.” That, my friend, isn’t a question or a suggestion. It’s an instruction that begs a proactive, determined choice of action. It’s also good news, foot-stomping good news. You and I get to choose what we treasure!

    This power-packed privilege of choosing God as my treasure is the very decision I made on the day of my Flypaper Epiphany! I’ve since come to better understand the paradigm shift that occurred that day, but at the time I had no idea of the magnitude of my newly adjusted aim. I couldn’t have known that the decision to toss aside all reserve and throw myself at God with the sole goal of coming to know Him would not only open the door to the passion I was missing but also rescue me from another of my persistent struggles.


    Excerpted from Heart Wide Open by Shellie Rushing Tomlinson Copyright © 2014 by Shellie Rushing Tomlinson. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

  • MercyMe Welcomes the New

    Posted on March 3, 2014 by Family Christian

    When MercyMe lead singer Bart Millard talks about the band’s latest album, Welcome to the New, it’s with the passion of an artist rejuvenated and reborn. He’s proud of the lively, spirited rock vibe that drives many of the 10 tracks. He’s still basking in the glow of the recording sessions, where he and his bandmates left their comfort zone and stretched the boundaries of the MercyMe sound.

    But when he talks about the overarching theme of Welcome To The New, Millard gets especially fervent. And here’s why: “New” is the fruit of his real-life embrace of grace. It all adds up to a musical, lyrical and spiritual turning point—that most rare of trifectas for a beloved veteran act that’s been at it since 1994, and has four gold albums and a platinum disc to its credit.

    Simply put: If Millard asked big questions on 2012’s The Hurt & The Healer, then Welcome To The New steps out boldly with a bigger answer that he didn’t find so much as it found him. (More on that in a bit.)

    “The last album was about needing a full-blown collision with the healer—when my family was hanging on by a thread, my cousin who was a firefighter died, and I wrote the title song in 10 minutes in a concert arena, in tears,” Millard recalls. “I was thinking, ‘Why we do we go though this mess, this junk in our lives? Is there any chance that what I’m going though is not in vain?’ And Welcome to the New is the answer to that song: It’s where we landed after the collision. And we didn’t go through it in vain. I feel like the gospel has come to life for the first time.”

    You can hear Millard’s conviction in the album closer “Dear Younger Me,” a song he considers the most personally meaningful on “New.” Built around an organic, slapped percussion loop and plaintive swells of electric guitar, the song is framed “like a letter to my younger self. I was physically abused as a kid and I’ve had a chance to play this song for people who’ve been through similar things. This is the one song I hope brings a lot of healing to people.” Wrestling with how to encourage and bolster his younger self, Millard lands on this refrain: “You are holy / you are righteous / you are one of the redeemed / set apart / a brand new heart / you are free indeed.”


    Yet from start to finish, MercyMe wraps the “New” message in music that’s infectious and inventive. The track “Greater” shows the band taking delightful chances and succeeding. Imagine shades of the Lumineers, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the “O Brother Where Art Thou” soundtrack, then throw the result into full gallop under a big sky: “Bring your doubts, bring your fears / Bring your hurt, bring your tears / There'll be no condemnation here / You are holy, righteous and redeemed.”

    “If there was one song that musically and spiritually represents the place where we are, the grace message of joy, ‘Greater’ is it,” Millard notes.

    Then there’s the song “Shake,” the first hit single from “New” and a throwback to the days of INXS and their most funky, danceable material. “We thought it was a great way to kick off the record,” Millard says. “It’s a little bit of a departure from what we do.” Actually, it was a big departure for Millard when it came to showing off his moves for the music video. “I grew up Southern Baptist which means I would be banished if I were to learn how to dance,” he says, laughing. “But we figured that everyone has at least a good shimmy in them. Even my grandmother, she can shake it.” And the theme of rebirth shows MercyMe putting its best foot forward: “Brand new looks so good on you / So shake like you are changed.”

    Millard is quick to praise his longtime bandmates for their willingness to explore and expand (Nathan Cochran on bass; Michael John Scheuchzer and Barry Graul on guitars; and Robin Troy "Robby" Shaffer on drums). But he also singles out producers David Garcia and Ben Glover as vital to helping MercyMe find the footing that helps “New” more than live up to its title.

    “This was our first time working with them, and fitting along the vein of being new, we tried it and just loved it,” Millard says. “It’s like they’re an extension of MercyMe now. When you’re in a band this long, it gets to the point where you get in the room with the guys and the same stuff comes out. We just wanted someone to stretch us.”

    And stretch they did. While the Nashville studio settings were certainly familiar (Ocean Way on Music Row and Dark Horse Studios in Franklin), the process certainly wasn’t for Millard and company.

    “We would track the drums and the bass, and then each musician would create parts on their very own,” Millard says. “Some of the songs had as many as 100 tracks of background vocals, and the producers gave us an environment where we didn’t feel like we could do anything wrong. We were chasing rabbits like crazy—nothing to lose and everything to gain. It was like kids being in a garage again playing music for the first time.”

    That’s apt considering that Millard feels, by his own admission, akin to a spiritual beginner these days.

    While some Christians may understand the concept of grace with glad hearts and open minds, Millard admits that for him, it’s been a much different story. “I grew up with a legalistic background, and even though it was all about grace, there were always three more things you could do to make life better. But of course, I’d do 10: I was an overachiever. That’s why I started a band; if we weren’t giving God our best, he wasn’t happy with us.”

    That relentless drive almost finished the band as well. Burned out from giving so much of his life and energy to MercyMe, and feeling as though he fell short somehow, Millard was ready to turn in his resignation and “go work at a Home Depot or something.” That’s when an old friend—a youth pastor from the first church camp MercyMe played 20 years ago—popped back into his life with a most unexpected message.

    “He said, ’There is nothing in our life to make Christ love us any more than he does.’ And I thought that was a novel concept, but I didn’t buy it: I have a wretched heart, and I’m nothing without God. But then he said, ‘Because of the cross you are a brand new creation. You can’t worry about the heart that can’t be trusted. You have a brand new heart and mind in Christ. And I thought, ‘Wow, that’s something I never heard growing up. There’s no way I can sabotage this.’”

    So yes, Millard stayed on with MercyMe, and it’s a wonderful thing he did. Welcome To The New brings on the reboot in fine style, but not in such a way to kick the band’s loyal fans into a wholly unfamiliar space. And if the singer sounds full of joy on this new disc, it’s because he most definitely is. “We’ve never been more comfortable in our skin and focused on the message,” he says. “I am not a tortured soul on this album.”

  • Free Wallpaper for Your Mobile, Tablet or Computer - March

    Posted on February 28, 2014 by Family Christian

    For those living in the frozen north, March could not come soon enough. Hopefully it will begin to thaw out with this month of (slightly) warmer temperatures. For those in the south, well, you have been enjoying what the northerners have been praying for.

    March is an interesting month. There's the Ides of March (3/15 - which most people don't know what it is), the National Pi Day (3.14 of course), St. Patrick's Day (3/17) and what I like, Make Your Own Holiday Day (3/26).

    But March is also something a bit more substantial than just the above. For it is the beginning of the Lenten Season (40 days before Easter - read a great devotional on the Lenten season here). Many embrace this day (3/5) as a point to ponder deeper the radical love of our selfless Savior. Many embrace Ash Wednesday. Many don't participate at all.

    Regardless, whatever the Lord brings us through during the month of March, may our prayers be that we all draw closer to Him.

    As our tradition, look below for some free wallpaper to decorate your desktop, laptop, tablet, or mobile device. These are completely free to download. Just right click on the size that you need and you will be all set. To find out which size you need, click here.

    Both images are taking from our Coupon Calendars that we sell online and in our stores. Click here to find the Growth in Faith Calendar and the He Refreshes My Soul Calendar.



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  • Blog Summary for February 2014

    Posted on February 27, 2014 by Family Christian

    Here are the most popular blog posts as read by you. Thank you for following us!


    Diving Deep with Casting Crowns

    Like a tree planted by the water (Jeremiah 17:7-8) we should be digging into God's word to know Him and know who He has made us to be. We should be reaching out to the world and showing others who He is through our lives and our stories - knowing Him and making Him known.

    I caught up with Mark, Melody and Juan from Casting Crowns at a summer festival this year. I wanted them to feel me in on their new album and what has been going on in their life as a band.

    Read the full interview here.

    A Q&A with Capital Kings

    There’s no denying much of today’s music has the power to move the masses physically. Inventive beats and hooky choruses are the currency of the day. Now enter Capital Kings, a talented duo that blends pop, electronic dance music, and rap into an intoxicating musical mix that makes audiences want to move, and yet there’s a thought-provoking, life-affirming undercurrent. Capital Kings combine style with substance and introduce flash with a foundation.

    Read the full q&a here.

    Pulling No Punches - an interview with Lecrae

    From “latch-key kid” to key player in the Man Up movement, Lecrae’s life is an example of God’s transformative power – and he’s not quiet about it. In his signature straight-shoot approach, new album Gravity calls Christians to open their eyes to the weight of need in their world and share the love of Jesus as never before.

    I had gotten into trouble my senior summer. Financial trouble, trouble with other people, trouble with women – I was just running myself into a dead end. So I’m thinking, “I’m seventeen, let me do the mature, adult thing, and go to church.” Grandma was a Christian so the roots of the foundation I had established of the Christian God were through my grandmother. And that was where I needed to go. By grace, there was a young lady that I went to high school with that invited me to a Bible study. I went, and I had never seen Christians who dressed like me or talked like me, so I thought they were Martians from another planet! When I saw them, I said, “Oh you guys are human!” They loved me genuinely and that’s really what started it.

    To read the full interview, click here.

    Question and Answers with Nick Vujicic

    Being unstoppable is about believing and achieving. It’s about having faith in yourself, your talents and your purpose and, most of all, in God’s great love and His divine plan for your life.

    Millions around the world recognize the smiling face and inspirational message of Nick Vujicic. Despite being born without arms or legs, Nick’s challenges have not kept him from enjoying great adventures, a fulfilling and meaningful career, and loving relationships. Nick has overcome trials and hardships by focusing on the promises that he was created for a unique and specific purpose, that his life has value and is a gift to others, and that no matter the despair and hard times in life, God is always present. Nick credits his success in life to the power that is unleashed when faith takes action.

    Read the full q&a here.

    Francesca Battistelli - A Girl. A Voice. A Mission.

    "The more you walk in relationship with the Lord, the more you learn to trust him. I'm learning not to focus so much on the issues I think are so big right now—our bus has broken down, or someone said something that frustrated me. I'm learning to slowly let things roll off my back, to say, 'Hey, God knew about this before it happened and He's got a way out or a plan better than mine.' I've learned to stop freaking out and just trust that God knows what he's doing. He's not going to leave me in a bad place because He never has before."

    Such it is with Francesca Battistelli. Honest. Simple. Beautiful. Intentional.

    We have all been exposed to her music. Starting with "I'm Letting Go," or "Free to Be Me." "This is the Stuff" or "Strangely Dim." It doesn't matter. For every time that "Franny" opens her mouth to sing, she is opening her heart.

    Read our full interview here.

    Saying "I Love You"

    Many people say that Valentines Day is a made up holiday, put in place by the greeting card companies of the world. Well, truth be told, I don't care. It is a day to help us remember to say "I love you" to those around us. Taking the time each day to show love is certainly important, but it's also fun to get caught up in a holiday such as this day.

    So how do you say "I love you" to someone you love? Perhaps it's packing two cookies in the kid's school lunch. Maybe it's a surprise delivery of flowers for your spouse at work. Maybe it's even a call to your mother-in-law. How do you say "I love you?"

    Read the full blog post here.

    The Storm Inside - Sheila Walsh

    The chaos of life can be overwhelming, and women seem to get a heavier dose. Each day comes with its own pressures, heartaches and disappointments that slowly erode the joy, peace and closeness to God every woman needs. Chaos always feels like the enemy as it rages around us and inside us.

    In The Storm Inside: Trade the Chaos of How You Feel for the Truth of Who You Are, bestselling author and Women of Faith speaker Sheila Walsh invites you into ten life-changing, hope-filled transformations where hurt and heartache are divinely redeemed into joy and faith. With

    Read the full blog post here.

    Mandisa - Finding Freedom by Overcoming

    Coming off her most successful album ever, Mandisa returned to the studio to record her new album, Overcomer. Her previous album, What If We Were Real, has sold over 270,000 albums and featured the breakout radio hits “Good Morning,” “Waiting For Tomorrow,” and the #1 hit, “Stronger.” The American Idol alum and three-time Grammy nominee continues to be a voice of encouragement and truth to women facing life’s challenges. Mandisa also continues to have unprecedented media exposure for a Christian artist including two recent appearances on Good Morning America.

    I sat down with Mandisa at a local coffee shop to talk about new music, coffee vs. tea, family and what it means to be an over-comer. What follows is a real conversation. Mandisa, some would say is a true artist. She is that for sure, but she is so much more. She is a warrior in a huge battle. She is a fighter - fighting for the truth of the Gospel. That can be summed up with one statement from her, "There is joy unspeakable!"

    Read the full interview here.

    Skillet. The Rock Band That Doesn't Quit

    Skillet recently made headlines when their last album, Awake, became one of just three rock albums to be certified platinum in 2012, forming an improbable triumvirate with the Black Keys’ El Camino and Mumford & Sons’ Babel. The news that Skillet had sold more than a million albums in the U.S. came as a shock to all but the band’s wildly diverse horde of fans, male and female, young and old—known as Panheads—whose still-swelling ranks now officially number in the seven-digit range. This remarkable achievement was announced just as Skillet was putting the finishing touches on their eagerly awaited follow-up album, Rise (Atlantic/Word).

    As soon as the master was turned in to the studio to finish post production on the new album, I sat down with John Cooper (lead singer) to talk through what was behind Rise. As you will see, while reading this, John is a passionate man. He is passionate about his music. His wife. His family. About Christ.

    Read the full interview here.

    Matt Maher. On Being Christian.

    Matt Maher's newest album, All The People Said Amen," fuses the popularity of his vibrant live show with several new studio cuts, offering fans an assortment of writing and performance styles.

    “This project,” offers Maher, “is a real collage of who I am musically. You’ll hear intimate worship songs, anthemic praise tunes often sung and shouted aloud together in unison, and celebratory songs that inspire the whole church.”

    I chatted with Matt on cold winter day.  What follows is a conversation on who Matt is, what he hopes to accomplish and how he just wants to sing about Jesus.

    Read the full interview here.

    So which blog post was your favorite? Is there an author or an artist that you would like us to interview? Leave a comment below and let us know.

  • The Emotionally Destructive Marriage from Leslie Vernick

    Posted on February 21, 2014 by Family Christian

    Leslie

    Introduction

    Hanging On by a Thread

    It’s easy to find a plethora of good books about how to be a godly wife or what steps to take to build a successful and happy marriage. There aren’t many books written on how to wisely deal with a destructive and abusive marriage. As a counselor and coach, I have grown increasingly troubled by the advice hurting women receive from well- meaning pastors, Christian counselors, friends, and lay leaders when they seek help for their destructive and abusive marriages. Many times we’ve not understood the gravity of the problem. We’ve misdiagnosed a marriage that has terminal cancer and treated it as if it were only suffering from a common cold. We’ve also misplaced the responsibility for keeping the marriage alive by putting an extraordinarily heavy burden on a wife’s shoulders to somehow maintain a loving and warm relationship with a husband who treats her with cruelty, disrespect, deceit, and gross indifference. It’s not feasible, nor is it biblical.

    Each week e-mails flood my inbox from women desperate for answers, hanging on to their marriages and sometimes their sanity by a single thread. The details vary, but the questions are usually the same: “What do I do?” and “Where do I turn for help?” The woman’s spirit, and sometimes her body, is depressed and depleted from the distress she feels within the walls of her own home. She wants to honor God and do his will, but does that mean she must continue to allow herself to be destroyed by her husband, a man who has promised to love and protect her?

    Marriage and family are important to God, but just as important to him are the individuals within those marriages and families. God does not value men more than women, or the institution of marriage more than the people who are in it. He wants to help you know how to heal and what to do to bring true restoration to your destructive marriage. He also knows that because of the hardness of your husband’s heart, true reconciliation of your relationship isn’t always possible.

    Throughout this book you will clearly see what’s wrong and why keeping the marriage together at all costs or at any price can be dangerous. You will gain fresh insights and a new paradigm in which to understand your role in your marriage. You’ll learn strategies and be given tools so that you can find your own voice again and be able to develop the strength and courage to stand up against the destruction. Within these pages is a biblical road map to help you know whether genuine repentance and restoration is taking place, and what the specific steps are to get there.

    The Emotionally Destructive Marriage
    is divided into three parts. Part 1, “Seeing Your Marriage Clearly,” will help you distinguish the difference between a disappointing marriage and a destructive one. At the end of chapter 1, there is a self-administered test you can take to determine whether you are in a destructive marriage. In chapter 2 you will learn what a healthy marriage looks like and the three essential ingredients that are required for any relationship to flourish. Chapter 3 will open your eyes to the different types of destructive relationship patterns and why they are so damaging to you, your children, and your marriage. In chapter 4 you will see that God hates what’s happening to you. He is with you and for you and wants to help you make changes so that genuine healing can take place.

    Part 2, “Change Begins with You,” opens with chapter 5 showing you the ways you may be unknowingly enabling the destruction in your marriage to continue. You will understand how being a true biblical helpmate is very different than staying inappropriately submissive and silent about the destruction. In chapter 6 you’ll understand why trying harder in the traditional wifely ways will make a destructive marriage worse and how the common teachings on biblical headship and submission can lead to an abuse of power and entitlement thinking. Chapter 7 will help you
    build internal core strength, so that when the time is right, you will be empowered to take firm yet godly action to protect yourself and your children. Then, in chapter 8, you will know exactly what you need to do to prepare before you have a difficult conversation with your husband about his destructive behaviors.

    In part 3, “Initiating Changes in Your Marriage,” you’ll be given specific strategies to wake up your husband to his destructiveness and invite him to godly change. In chapter 9 you’ll discover how to speak up in love, using words that invite your spouse to stop his destructive behaviors and attitudes without shaming, scolding, or disrespecting him. In chapter 10 you will receive a plan on how to calmly confront your husband, together with examples of specific consequences you can implement if he refuses to listen. Chapter 11 takes you step by step through your biblical options if nothing changes in your marriage, and ways you can stay strong and God-centered in the midst of continued destructive behaviors. Lastly, in chapters 12 and 13, you’ll learn the specific changes that are required if a destructive marriage is to heal, and how you will know whether or not you’re making progress as a couple. In the closing epilogue, I invite you to read the words of an abusive man who is learning to become a better man.

    I debated whether to write this book just for women or to include men, as they, too, are in destructive marriages and feel distraught, impotent, and confused about how to change the damaging dynamics in their marriages. In the end I decided to write this book for women, but if you are a man who is looking for answers for your destructive marriage, you will find help within the pages here if you can overlook the stories and illustrations depicting men as the primary perpetrators. You can also find additional
    resources at www.leslievernick.com/the-emotionally-destructive -marriage, if your wife is the one who is the destructive partner.

    The individuals in each story are disguised except for those who have given me permission to use their real names. Some stories or characters are composites to illustrate a specific point. All are pictures of the painful realities some women must live with day after day, week after week, year after year.

    Please hear me: God doesn’t want you to hang on by a thread, my friend. He gives you a lifeline. Grab hold of it and live.

    Part 1

    Seeing Your Marriage Clearly

    The eye is the lamp of the body.
    So, if your eye is healthy, your
    whole body will be full of light,
    but if your eye is bad, your whole
    body will be full of darkness. If
    then the light in you is darkness,
    how great is the darkness!
    Jesus, in Matthew 6:22–23

    One
    Are You in an Emotionally Destructive Marriage?

    For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest;
    nor is anything secret except to come to light.
    —Mark 4:22

    Several years ago, while speaking in Hungary, I was shocked to see the new title the Hungarians had given one of my books when they translated it into their language. It was now called How to Survive a D-Minus Marriage. My sister, Patt, who had accompanied me on this speaking trip, joked with me about whether or not people would admit their marriages were that bad. But during the event, the book sold like hot cakes. Marriages everywhere are in dire straits. Christian homes are no exception.

    You may feel as if you are in a D-minus marriage and have no idea what to do. I have help for you, but first it’s important to clarify the difference between a disappointing marriage and a destructive one.


    Excerpted from The Emotionally Destructive Marriage by Leslie Vernick Copyright © 2013 by Leslie Vernick. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

  • Miss Brenda and the Loveladies from Brenda Spahn

    Posted on February 20, 2014 by Family Christian

    Brenda

    Introduction

    Make sure you are doing what God wants you to do—then do it with all your strength.
    —George Washington

    I was raised in a trailer. My parents struggled to feed and clothe me. Because I grew up without having much, I promised myself one day I’d be very rich.

    Decades later, I had built a successful business. I finally had what I could only dream of as a child—a big house, fancy cars, expensive jewelry, and all the material things I could ever want.

    At the height of success, I found myself under investigation for a crime I didn’t commit. I faced the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence. All those possessions I had accumulated and cherished I was likely to lose. I had always felt I was in control of my life and my destiny. Once I was at the mercy of the legal system, I realized I was in control of nothing.

    I lost my business, but I found another calling. I lost my riches, but I discovered riches of the spirit. I lost my faith in the system, but I discovered another faith—a faith in things that never depreciate or corrode or collapse. I found faith
    in God and the indomitable power of redemption—for myself and for a group of incarcerated women who’d been catastrophically abused by the system, by spouses, by parents, and by themselves.

    Instead of chasing the American Dream, rehabilitating these women became my career. I learned that within each of them—even the most terrifyingly brutal felons—dwelled an undeniable spark of the divine.

    Junkies, grifters, armed robbers, prostitutes, drunks, dealers, and murderers became my new social circle. They were former inmates of the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Alabama—another monolithic bureaucracy
    that warehoused the forgotten until they disappeared, returned, or died. Its motto could have been “Abandon hope.”

    They became the Loveladies. In the beginning, no name would have been more improbable. In time, no name could have been more fitting.

    This is my story.
    This is their story.
    Meet the Loveladies.

    Chapter 1: Have I Lost My Mind?

    Fear is faith that it won’t work out.
    —Elbert Hubbard

    Oh my Lord, what have I done!” I gasped. I stared out the kitchen window as six violent criminals stomped up my driveway. Hunter, my four-year-old adopted son, stood on tiptoes trying to get a glimpse of what had me so terrified.

    “Your mama has messed up big-time,” I said.

    For the last month, I had pictured this moment time and time again—but it had looked very different. In my imagination, the women would skip up the driveway, giggling and talking excitedly. I’d open the door with a loud “Welcome!” and women would race toward me, enveloping me in big, grateful bear hugs. After they’d thanked me profusely for being so wonderful, we’d sit around the kitchen table, have lunch, drink tea, share laughs, and get to know each other. But these women stomping up my driveway didn’t look like they wanted tea. They looked like they wanted blood.

    Had I lost my mind?

    Jeff, my husband, had predicted this. “You’ll get yourself killed, Brenda,” he said when I first told him my plan to rehabilitate female convicts. “You’ve had a lot of wild schemes in your life, but this is the craziest I’ve ever heard.” Yes, but a lot of my schemes had worked out, and besides, this was different. This time it wasn’t about me.

    Now six very scary women, just released from the roughest women’s prison in the country, were in my driveway.

    I thought I had figured it all out. After spending months helping female convicts at a work release center, I thought I understood them. I had spoken with the inmates, we had prayed together, and they had seemed genuine in their desire to turn their lives around and start over.

    But now I doubted everything. How could I have been so stubborn, so driven, so foolish? How could I have put my little boy in danger?

    The night before, I’d combed through their “jackets”—prison files—and discovered with horror that the parole board wasn’t sending me the nonviolent offenders I’d visited at the work release center. Instead, the women who had
    just shown up in front of my house had spent, collectively, one hundred years behind bars for crimes such as armed robbery, possession, drug dealing, prostitution, and manslaughter. I found out later that these were the hopeless cases—cases stamped cannot be rehabilitated—that all other programs had rejected. At the work release center, I helped women who were struggling to get their lives together. But the women coming to my home were so hardened, so dangerous, that the system had given up on them. These were not the women I had bargained for.

    I was supposed to rehabilitate them? For the next nine months to a year? I wrapped my arms tight around Hunter. I should have dropped him off with the nanny, but I had been running late. My heart pounded so hard I was sure Hunter could hear it beating. I didn’t want to scare him, so I took a breath and tried to find a portion of calm.

    It wasn’t that I hadn’t prepared. I’d hired a housemother, a cook, and a driver. I owned a six-thousand-square-foot house with seven bedrooms and six bathrooms on ten acres of property that no one lived in. Hob Hill was perfect: it would become my “whole-way” house for parolees as they transitioned into the real world. This is a good plan, I reassured myself.

    These women would learn a skill and receive counseling, therapy, and, if need be, treatment for addiction. Since my program was faith-based, I’d teach them about Jesus, His unconditional love, the power of faith, and the reality of redemption. Then I’d get in my Cadillac Escalade and hightail it back to my new home in a gated community a few miles away.

    I reminded myself that I was just supervising this program. You see, I’d be able to supervise it without really getting my hands dirty. I wouldn’t give up my whole life. This would be more a hobby than a vocation.

    And this is how I’ll be able to keep that promise I made.

    Much of my family had been understandably furious with me for pressing forward with my plan, but Melinda, my twenty-eight-year-old, caught my passion and crazy vision. She and I had spent the last month preparing for the women’s arrival. I bought couches, chairs, and tables for the common areas and beds, comforters, dressers, and night tables for the seven bedrooms. I painted the rooms in calming colors—blues, yellows, and every shade of purple. Each bedroom was named after a fruit of the Spirit—joy, peace, self-control, love, patience, kindness, goodness—which I’d carefully painted on the bedroom doors. Each room had color-matching comforters and thick bath towels. I’d decorated the rooms with paintings—many of my favorite getaway, the beach—and supplied them with empty frames so the women could fill them with photographs of their children and families.

    I put the word out to churches that I was looking to hire a cook, a driver, and, most important, a housemother who would run the program in my absence. I soon found the perfect housemother—Claudia. She was forty-eight, single,
    big, and strong with a gruff, no-nonsense attitude. She had spent time volunteering at the work release center. When I met with her, she told me that God had called her into prison ministry and she was ready to get started.

    I asked if the thought of working with female ex-cons frightened her. She laughed as if I’d asked the most insane question. “I’ll take tigers by the tail,” she said. “This is the work I was meant to do. I’m not afraid. It’s my calling. I know I am going to change lives. The Lord sent me to do this.”

    I hired Claudia on the spot. She was so excited that she hired a moving company to haul all her bedroom and living room furniture into the upstairs master suite and office area. After she surveyed her new home, she nodded. “This is
    where I’m meant to be.”

    Likewise I’d hired a cook and a driver.

    I could make this work. I had to make this work. For months I’d pleaded with the parole board to release women into my custody so I could help them get their lives back on track. I had told the board their system didn’t work and needed an overhaul. After all, 30 percent of the women released from Alabama prisons returned to prison within the first six months.

    They laughed at me. “What do you know about rehabilitating these women?”

    “I know that giving them ten dollars and a bus ticket is just about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. I know I can do better.”

    In Alabama, there were only two options for newly released prisoners: They’d get their ten bucks and transportation back to where they committed their crimes. In a short time they’d go back to old ways with old friends. Or they’d spend a few weeks in a halfway house, where they’d receive food and shelter but little else, then be put back on the street.

    No matter their destination—bus ticket home or halfway house—once they were released, these women had one thing in common: they had no hope. And they had no hope because they couldn’t envision a future outside of prison.
    To me, the solution was obvious. My whole-way house would be a place where they could change their lives by learning skills and receiving counseling. We would give them a picture of a future they themselves could create, one in which they could succeed.

    I have always considered myself visionary, but the parole board used a different term—delusional. Ultimately I wore them down and they finally agreed, probably just to make me go away.

    Now I realized they were trying to teach me a lesson. I was sure they were having a big laugh about it: “I wonder if that crazy redhead is scared senseless yet. How long until she calls us to take them all back?”

    I crouched lower and squinted through the window, hoping the awnings outside shielded me from the women’s view. My eyes landed on the scariest-looking woman I’d ever seen in my life. Was she even a woman? With a shaved head,
    baggy khakis, and an extra large navy-blue prison-issued polo shirt that covered her tanklike physique, she resembled a gangbanger looking for trouble. Her fists were clenched, and her eyes blazed with fury.

    Why is she so angry? Doesn’t she see how great her life is about to become? The other women were right behind her. She was the gang leader and they were her loyal followers, standing so close to each other they appeared connected—an impenetrable wall about to storm my house. A heavyset woman who seemed devoid of the fury the rest possessed stopped to gawk at my home. Shaved Head snapped her face toward her and the woman’s expression immediately
    turned grim.

    Ken, the driver of the van who had shuttled the women from prison to my place, opened the back of the truck. The women collected their belongings. One by one, each woman pulled out a brown paper sack with her name written large in black marker. A paper sack! These were all their possessions in the whole world!

    My heart sank. What about clothes? shoes? things? I hadn’t realized they’d show up with next to nothing. In my naivety, I thought they’d spend most of today unpacking their belongings.

    They were almost at the door—and I was paralyzed. Melinda, who hadn’t been watching them through the window and had no idea what awaited her, realized I wasn’t moving, so she headed to the door.

    Dear Melinda, what have I gotten you into, and why are you so calm? Of all the people in our family, Melinda was the one who had the most personal interest in my crazy dream. To be fair, my husband Jeff couldn’t be there at Hob Hill—he needed to provide income for our family, and our real estate business was located more than four hours away in Gulf Shores. But Jeff, who’d been through plenty of “harebrained Brenda schemes” before, was admittedly not a fan of my “whole-way” idea, even as he tried to be supportive of me.

    Melinda was the one who, ever since she’d been a little girl, had always been by my side. At eleven, she’d sit next to my desk and answer the phone as I filed clients’ tax returns. When she was old enough, she worked with me. When I
    started helping women at the work release center, she had accompanied me. She was just as passionate as I was to help women turn their lives around.

    I hadn’t mentioned to Melinda that these women might be different from the work release darlings we’d worked with. Apprehensive as I had become from reading the files, I still held out hope that things would work out fine. But one glimpse of the crew of ex-cons who had just shown up shook me. Melinda had spent her life trusting me. Now she was an unwitting partner in my crazy scheme.

    She opened the door wide.

    I scooted toward her. “Welcome to my home,” I blurted out, forcing a big smile.

    The women glared at me. I waited for someone to say something. Instead, they pushed into the house, squeezing through the door in one massive pile. They forced themselves past me as if I wasn’t even there.

    I wanted to stop everything and yell out an order: Get out of my house and get back in the van! Maybe I could just give them some lunch and send them off, saying this was a big mistake.

    Shaved Head came so close to me I could feel her breath on my face. I squeezed Hunter.

    “I ain’t gonna be no maid in a little white apron for you,” she spat out, her voice growing louder with each word. “What the h***’s a g**d***** white woman gonna do with us? Lady, what kinda sh** do you think you’re playing?”

    Sharon “Shay” Curry. Even though she looked different from the photo in the prison jacket (she had hair back then), I recognized her. She was a forty-five-year-old black woman who’d been in and out of prison her whole life. She’d done
    it all—armed robbery, dealing and using drugs, prostitution, attempted murder. Dear God, attempted murder!

    Shay’s nostrils flared and her eyes bore into me. I watched the other women study her. I could tell they were taking their cues from Shay. In the short time they’d been together—probably since the van ride over—Shay had become the
    unofficial ringleader.

    I knew if I didn’t win Shay over there would be no way to right this ship.

    Where was Claudia? She’d been watching as the van pulled into my driveway, but I had no idea where she’d gone. It was her job to get the women settled into their rooms—not mine or Melinda’s. Claudia, I told myself, would get the
    situation under control. She’d know how to handle Shay.

    I took a deep breath, finally answering Shay, speaking as calmly as possible: “Well, I’m gonna help you get your life in order.”

    As soon as the words slipped out, I knew I’d made a mistake.

    “You don’t know sh** about me, lady,” Shay hissed. “You’re just some crazy white lady. How the h*** do you think you’re gonna do that? What do you think you’re going to do for me?”

    My chest tightened and I felt dizzy. I scanned the room, searching for Claudia. The truth was, I didn’t have any plans beyond getting these women into the house and introducing myself. In prison, every second of the day is scheduled. I
    had wanted to give the women a little breathing room. But already Shay was in my face, angrily demanding answers.

    “What do you think you’re gonna do, lady?”

    I panicked and said just about the stupidest thing I could ever say: “I’m going to help you get your driver’s license.”

    The women burst into laughter.

    Shay looked like she’d just bit into something so vile she might be sick. “I’ve been driving my whole life, lady. I don’t need no driver’s license.”

    And then I said the second dumbest thing I could possibly say: “Well, how do you get insurance without a license?”

    There was another fit of laughter. These women had thought they’d seen it all, but they’d never met a flaming-red-haired fifty-five-year-old woman like me before. I knew they had determined right then that I was a complete idiot.

    I had an uprising on my hands. Where will we hide if they get violent? I had to regain some kind of control before Shay took over my house.

    “Oh, I forgot,” I said, managing an edge of sarcasm. “You’re all about breaking the law.” I rolled my eyes. “You’re real tough guys.”

    They stared at me, their mouths hanging open, shocked that I’d sassed Shay back. I was shocked too but couldn’t help it—throughout my life my big mouth has gotten me into a lot of trouble. But occasionally it saves the day. I was praying that was the case now. Melinda shot me a look that said, What are you thinking? Then she turned toward the women and broke the ice. “Okay, ladies,” she said, smiling sweetly, “how about I show y’all your rooms?”

    The women followed Melinda down the hallway. Some gasped at the bedrooms I had decorated for them. After years of living in a cramped dorm with 160 other women, these rooms with one, two, or three beds or bunkbeds seemed
    to them like paradise. From the corner of my eye, I saw two of them claim one of the downstairs bedrooms. I watched them stifle giggles as they ran down the hall to fetch their paper bags of belongings.

    Ken, the driver, was a director for alternative treatment programs at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). During the last few weeks he’d become an advocate, helping me prepare my house for the women. He must have
    thought I was doing fine because I had a big smile plastered on my face. Truth was, my smile was frozen. You’ve heard of people being scared silly? I was scared smiling.

    He smiled back. “I’m taking off,” he called out. “Is there anyone who wants to leave with me?” I heard some of the women giggling from the bedrooms. “No!” one called out from a bedroom. “We’re not going anywhere,” others said. Shay stood silently in the hallway, her arms folded.

    “What about you?” Ken asked Shay.

    Go, I silently begged. Tell him you want to leave. Now. I can handle these other women, but not you. Get your butt in that van. I never want to see you again. Shay scowled at Ken but didn’t answer.

    “Shay? You coming with me?”

    Stop asking and just flippin’ take her! I wanted to scream.

    “Shay?”

    There was a heavy silence. I could feel my future in that void. If she leaves, I stand a chance. If she stays, I’m doomed to fail.

    “I’ll stay,” she said, as if she were doing us all a big favor.

    And with that, Ken left me in a big house with five female ex-cons and one ringleader from hell.

    Shay and the other women headed upstairs to check out the remaining bedrooms with Melinda. As soon as they disappeared, I heard the click of a door unlocking. Claudia ran out, stopping in her tracks when she saw me.

    “Where have you been?” I asked. “I need you to help Melinda.”

    Claudia didn’t move. Gone was the tough broad who was going to take the tigers by the tail. In her place was a timid woman whose eyes were filled with panic.

    “I quit,” she choked out.

    I laughed. “You can’t quit.”

    “I just did. And you should too. You’re going to get yourself and your family killed.”

    Claudia couldn’t do this to me. I had a plan—she would run the program, the cook would cook, the driver would drive, taking the women wherever they needed to go. And me? I’d check in once in a while and make sure they were all doing their jobs. “I’m not even going to be there,” I told Jeff and my family when they expressed concern that I was putting myself in danger.

    I tried to sound calm, but I was a wreck. My heart pounded, and I thought I might collapse. I steadied my voice: “You told me God called you to work with these women. He wouldn’t just change His mind.”

    “The Lord might want me to work with prisoners, but not these prisoners! You’re crazy. I want nothing to do with this insanity.”

    I opened my mouth to beg her to stay, but she swatted her hand in the air, turned, and ran off.

    Just as she left, the cook and the driver came out from wherever they had been hiding. They too raced out the front door.

    I stood in the living room, holding Hunter tight and paralyzed with all kinds of fear. I’d always had a plan, a next move. Now, for the first time I could remember, I had no idea what to do. I prayed for guidance. I prayed for answers. I prayed that these women wouldn’t kill me.

    Was God listening to any of my prayers? Or had He quit on me too?


    Excerpted from Miss Brenda and the Loveladies by Brenda Spahn and Irene Zutell Copyright © 2014 by Brenda Spahn and Irene Zutell. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

  • Girls with Swords from Lisa Bevere

    Posted on February 19, 2014 by Family Christian

    Lisa

    You Are a Target

    Christianity is a battle, not a dream.
    —Wendell Phillips

    In a world already overrun by violence, you may wonder why I would suggest that women of all ages take up arms and join the fight. As you turn these pages, I hope you will discover the many reasons why there is no neutral territory. We do not live by the violence of a sword, but the time has come to live by the power of one.

    The first reason you need a sword is that, whether you realize it or not, you are part of an epic battle, and God does not want his daughters unarmed or caught unaware.

    The poignant need for addressing these issues head-on was brought home in an unexpected way. It was early June in the summer of 2010, and I had just returned home from traveling and speaking in five different countries in the short span of four weeks. Mind you, these were not nations clustered together, so traveling meant crossing date lines, exchanging night for day, and bouncing between the northern and southern hemispheres.

    Overcome by a persistent strain of jet lag, I was wandering a bit dazed through my second evening home when I realized I was alone with my youngest son, Arden. As I approached him, he patted the sofa and invited me to join him in watching a movie. Thrilled to have a chance to perhaps cuddle with my son, I settled myself in as close as possible and asked, “What are we watching?”

    “The Terminator,” he answered.

    Okay, before you react, stay with me. I am not endorsing the movie, nor am I suggesting that you watch it. I saw an edited TV version, and even then it was eighties awful! But amid the ridiculous hair, disjointed music, and bad acting, I found something valuable I want to share here, because it perfectly sets up the why behind the journey of this book. In case you’re not familiar with The Terminator, allow me to paint a vastly shortened version of the movie for you. It is the story of Sarah Connor, a moped-riding waitress who is living a boring, mundane life in the hope that one day love will find her. Every twenty-four hours plays out pretty much the same. By day she serves pie and coffee; by night she hopes that one of her blind dates will turn into Prince Charming. By day she works, and by night she waits.

    This predictable 1980s pattern is radically interrupted when a robotic assassin from her future shows up. Our hero, Sarah, first learns she might be at risk when she is taking a break at work and realizes a number of women who share her full name have turned up dead.

    Apparently the terminator, a.k.a. Arnold Schwarzenegger—actor, former governor of California, and ex-husband of Maria Shriver—has time traveled, and anyone bearing the name Sarah Connor is his target.

    There seems to be no way this cyborg assassin can possibly fail. Not only does he possess the strength and processing capabilities of a robot; he also is loaded down with the latest in automatic weapons. In addition to all this technology, he has in his possession what would have been the height of eighties data, a sheet torn from the white pages, which supplies him with the phone number and address of all the Sarah
    Connors who reside in his target area. As the futuristic terminator systematically works his way down the list of Sarahs, our heroine becomes a bit concerned.

    After work she returns to the apartment she shares with a friend only to learn via an answering machine that yet another blind date has canceled, so Sarah heads out to a club. That way, if the threat is real, she will be able to hide in a crowd. It isn’t long until the terminator is on her trail, and after a brief visit to her apartment, Arnold shows up at the club with guns blazing and begins wreaking mayhem. Chaos, bloodshed, and screaming displace bad dance moves as everyone scrambles to escape. But wait, there is yet another player in this dark drama.

    You see, at the same time as her assassin from the future shows up, her protector from the future makes his presence known while extending Sarah this compelling invitation: “Come with me if you wanna live.” With the choice so obvious, it doesn’t take Sarah long to decide: she wants to live. Sarah runs from the bar, jumps in a car with a total stranger, and the two of them try to escape. But the terminator assassin
    is relentless. A high-speed chase ensues. Bullets shatter the car windows and frazzle Sarah’s nerves. No matter where they go or what they do, they just can’t seem to shake her futuristic assailant.

    This mild-mannered waitress and wannabe girlfriend has no idea why this epic battle rages around her. As bullets fly and cars crash, her protector begins to tell her who she is. He explains that in the future she is a legend and that an entire army wages war equipped with the foresight and strategies she recorded and passed on to her son. In the future she is part of a heroic fight against the enemy of all humanity.

    Sarah just can’t buy that she is a player in this absurd story and is confident there has been a case of mistaken identity. There is no reason for her to be viewed as a threat in the present or the future! In an attempt to bring clarity and some sanity, Sarah counters the claim of her protector from the future. She isn’t a hero…she is just a waitress! She doesn’t even have a boyfriend, so certainly there’s no son! This nightmare is all a grave mistake; she’s been confused with someone else!

    But her guardian insists that she is, in fact, Sarah Connor the hero and that his mission is to equip and protect her. Understandingly overwhelmed and suddenly undone, Sarah yells out, “I didn’t do anything!”

    To which her future guardian counters, “No, but you will!”

    At that moment, sitting with my son on the couch, I was arrested.

    This line from decades past, “No, but you will!” crashed into my present with the realization that our enemy often knows who we are before we discover who we are. And it is high time we each realize the two things Sarah learned that night.
    Lovely One,
    1. You are a target.
    2. You might be a hero.
    I say might be, because the choice is ultimately yours.


    Excerpted from Girls with Swords by Lisa Bevere Copyright © 2013 by Lisa Bevere. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

  • The Holy Land Key from Ray Bentley

    Posted on February 18, 2014 by Family Christian

    Ray

    These Are the People the Prophets Saw

    The Holy Land Key is not a book that renews familiar debates over a prophetic time line or argues for or against a particular interpretation of John’s Revelation. We will not try to narrow down the most likely candidates for the Antichrist. It is important to read prophecy carefully, to handle its interpretation with great care, and to anchor all our conclusions in God’s Word, but we also want to explore some new territories in Scripture that have prophetic
    significance.

    In the chapters that follow, we will look at certain passages of Scripture from a Hebrew perspective. We also will study what God has written in the heavens and what the Bible says about these heavenly revelations. We will look at the testimony of history, we will study the Jewish calendar and the biblical feasts, and we will even find startling insights based on research done by NASA on blood moons. Paul wrote in Romans 1 that we are without excuse if we fail to see God and His character in the signs that are clear in His creation. God has left signs for us in more places than we can imagine. It would be a mistake to ignore any of them.

    God’s Covenant with His Chosen People

    One of the clearest and most enduring signs is God’s unbroken relationship with the Jewish people. The people living today in the Holy Land are the people the ancient prophets saw in the end times. They are the descendants of Jesus’s family and of His disciples. They are living evidence of God’s plan to gather His people back to Israel after two thousand years of exile.

    Israel is a witness to the world. It is not an exaggeration to say that when we look at Israel, we are looking into the eyes of God. When we look at Israel, we see God’s intentions for the world. We will explore this further in the chapters that follow. We also will look at patterns throughout history that open our eyes to what the very near future holds. Some of the patterns that most clearly reveal God’s plans as well as His heart are found in the Hebrew calendar and the timing of the feasts of the Lord listed in Scripture. The significance of these Jewish holidays is far greater today than was the original purpose of each feast.

    Further, it has been revealed that the timing of the feasts—right down to the specific dates—coincides with repeated cycles of astronomical events and patterns. The full meaning of this correlation remains to be seen, but it is significant that God confirms the testimony of history, of the Scriptures, of religious observance, and of the signs He has put in the heavens. All these together point to the coming—and the return—of the promised Messiah. Ultimately, they point to Israel’s destiny and to the destiny of humanity. The Jews were given the predictions of the ancient prophets long before the Christians inherited those Scriptures along with the New Covenant of God’s Word. It is important to look carefully at the way Jews understand the written testimony of the Hebrew prophets. Familiar prophecies from thousands of years ago are being fulfilled today in Israel. It is no overstatement to say that God’s plan is being moved forward by committed Jews, and this, too, is a revelation to us. God called Israel the “apple of His eye” (Zechariah 2:8). That never has changed, and when God looks at His chosen people today, He sees His plans unfolding at the end of this age. When we look at Israel, we see God’s intentions for the world. I will introduce you to modern-day Israelis who—no matter if they are Jewish or Gentile, Christian or otherwise—are answering the call of God on their lives. These current-day brothers and sisters of Jesus have much to show us of the ways and the heart of God.

    But the people of Israel and their work to restore the Holy Land is only a start. In addition, we will look at the signs of what God will bring to pass on earth. This includes a study of the heavens, the way time is recorded, and more. A  guiding principle here is to identify and learn from patterns that are repeated throughout Scripture and described in 1 Corinthians 15:46: “However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural, and afterward the spiritual.” What God does in the natural realm is a picture of what He is doing in the spiritual realm. God reveals His plans and His future work, including what is in store at the end of the age, first in the natural world.

    Bringing Prophecy to Life

    Prophecy and its interpretation are a fascinating study. You can get lost in the words of God’s ancient messengers, studying their dreams and visions and seeking to piece together the larger picture. It is important to know what God has said through His prophets. However, we need to avoid the tendency to study prophecy with a sort of academic detachment that separates us emotionally—and spiritually—from the impact of what God is doing on earth. Prophecy is a biblical teaching to be lived out. We need to bring prophecy to life by connecting it to our lives and the lives of
    others.

    By getting to know people who live in the Holy Land (Jews, Christians, Israeli Arabs, and Palestinians), we are drawn into more than just the facts of prophecy. We go beyond end-times theories and encounter the people who are involved in the fulfillment of prophecy. These descendants of Jesus are witnessing events He prophesied when He lived in the same land two thousand years ago.

    More and more, Christians are taking action by joining with God’s people of Israel. The Israelis witness daily what God is doing in their ancestral land. They are eyewitnesses to the unfolding of God’s work. You and I—and all people of  faith who join with Israel in an active way—are part of the prophetic story. A Jewish friend who helped me go much deeper in my study and understanding of prophecy opened my eyes to this truth.

    Ron Nachman, the mayor of a small Israeli city in the West Bank, took great risks to help rebuild Israel after the Jews started returning to their homeland after 1948. He read the Hebrew prophets and studied the ways their visions were becoming reality in the Holy Land—the land he was committed to help restore.

    Men such as Ron see the solidarity of Christians who work alongside Israelis as an important sign of prophecy being fulfilled. The people living in Israel are already on the scene of God’s culminating work on earth: the return of His Son to claim His own. As God brings this age to a close, Israelis are having their eyes opened to God’s dealings with humanity. It is not simply the building of a nation, protecting Israel against the enemies that surround it, or arguing the issues related to territory and boundaries as part of the so-called Palestinian question. All those are important,
    of course, but there is a growing sense that developments are taking place that transcend political, military, and nationalistic concerns. These are spiritual issues and spiritual concerns shared by Jews, Arabs, and Christians alike.

    For years we have seen the Arab-Israeli conflict dominate the headlines. As I was writing this book, Israel was criticized for sending aircraft into Syria to destroy missiles supplied by Iran and stored near Damascus. The missiles were said to have a two-hundred-mile range and were en route to Hezbollah fighters. Hezbollah, a sworn enemy of Israel, typically operates in Lebanon but also has joined the fighting in Syria’s civil war.1 Global tensions have focused in and around Israel since the rebirth of the Jewish state in 1948. Just about everything concerning Israel—even its
    right to exist—remains the focus of international debate in spite of decades of negotiations, wars, shifting boundaries, and treaties.

    What Are Israelis Hearing from God?

    Many of the signposts we have missed in our past study of prophecy come clearly into view only when we study Scripture in tandem with committed Israelis. How do the people of Israel read the signs of the times? What do they anticipate for the future as they face the hostility of enemies bent on their destruction?

    To study prophecy apart from the people who live in the Holy Land is similar to studying a road atlas and pretending you’ve visited the Grand Canyon or Yosemite National Parks. Reading words on a page is only one of the steps in learning the deeper meaning of prophecy. The prophets delivered their prophecies to people who needed to have their eyes and hearts opened to God’s plans. None of this has changed since the days of Isaiah and Jeremiah. God has not changed His plans, nor has He stopped speaking to His people—as we will see.

    Many of the people I am working with in Israel are hearing from God. He is opening the eyes of His people to the reality of His power, His involvement in world affairs, His never-ending love for His people, and His plans. He is setting things in order to bring about His kingdom on earth, just as His prophets foretold.

    In The Holy Land Key you will be introduced to contemporary Israelis—from national leaders to local leaders to ordinary citizens. You will begin to hear from God just as those in Israel hear from Him. Let’s start making introductions.


    Excerpted from The Holy Land Key by Ray Bentley with Genevieve Gillespie Copyright © 2014 by Ray Bentley with Genevieve Gillespie. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

  • And Life Comes Back from Tricia Lott Williford

    Posted on February 17, 2014 by Family Christian

     

    Tricia

    October 2012

    Gas tank: full. Cell phone: charged. iPod: stocked. I drive up I-70 toward the mountains. A decision of classic, spontaneous impulsion on my part. Once I’ve decided I want to do something, I want to do it today. This is no exception.

    Robb and I weren’t a perfect match. We were different in every way. But maybe the differences make the perfect match. He liked a planned agenda; I thrive on spontaneity. He was a filer. He put everything in its place. I am a piler, and I can’t find anything once it leaves my hands. He liked to visit the same restaurants and order favorite dishes; I like to try new places and taste new things. He went to bed at the same time every night, just after the nightly weather report at 9:17 p.m.; I come alive at night, often thinking and writing and creating into the early morning hours. He was deeply invested in the decisions of the government and any election; I am apolitical and often handed him my ballot since it mattered so much more to him. He believed in the thrill of competition; I enjoy the commercials and believe in the gracious social merits of the game. I always have a book in my hands; he was nonliterate. Not illiterate, but nonliterate; he hated to read. We parented differently. I read books, conduct Internet research, post on parenting blogs, and study consequences based on love and logic. He wrestled on the floor, tickled and roughhoused, and earned respect by saying things like, “Dude, just obey. I’ve pooped bigger than you.”

    But we both loved road trips and loud music on the iPod. (I like mine louder than he preferred.) We loved having people in our home (although I could quickly and seamlessly add a chair to our dinner table while he preferred a guest list in advance). We both loved serving people; I would listen and learn their favorites and their fears, while he
    would grab his tool belt and fix any problem at hand.

    Years ago I stopped trying to make us match—him the same as me, me the same as him. I learned that his relationships, although far less verbal, were in no way inferior to mine; they were just different. His experiences and his preferences were different from mine, but they were equally valuable. The ways he chose to love me were, in fact,
    loving me. The face of love depends on one’s willingness to understand two vernaculars of the same language. We were not the same.

    We didn’t always understand each other. And we made a great team. In the passenger’s seat is the white paper bag with handles. It looks like it could come from a candle shop or a quaint boutique. No one might guess that it holds the canister of my husband’s ashes.

    I drive on a two-lane road that becomes more winding, less crowded, and finally utterly secluded as I arrive at a lake just below the mountain’s highest elevation. I turn off the car. I step out. The air is crisp and silent. I button my coat, grab the handles of the white bag, and click the remote to lock the car as I walk toward the water.

    Part 1
    I Will Love You Forever

    Life was rich. No matter what the future held, this was a marvelous moment.
    —Madeleine L’Engle, Two-Part Invention

    October 2009

    As I scrambled with the many dishes on the stove and in the microwave, two-year-old Tyler cried because he wanted to sit in his chair, twenty-five minutes before it was time to eat. Four-year-old Tucker needed, needed, needed to be in the kitchen with me, standing at my feet, asking to help.

    Please. Help. Please.

    Tyler wanted to be held. Then Tyler wanted to wear his Superman shirt. It could not be found. He could not think of eating without it, so he organized a search party, looking high and low. When we found it, he didn’t want to wear it. He put on a Power Ranger costume instead. Meanwhile, Tucker endlessly blew the pinwheel he had made at preschool, sending spit flying all over everything and everyone. That’s fun, just before dinner.

    The kitchen door opened from the garage, and the familiar jangle of car keys exploded into boisterous, joyful shouting. “Daddy! Daddy!” The boys tumbled over each other in their race to greet Robb, which became a fest of shoving and blaming and claiming. I stood by the stove, stirring the spanish rice to accompany the chicken enchiladas in the oven. I watched the greeting unfold, aware of two things: he was finally home to help referee such scenes, and we would have our own hello once the hubbub settled. I could leave them to their wrestling match. Sure enough, they dispersed as quickly as they had commenced, spinning and bouncing like pinballs.

    “Hey, babe,” he said as he came behind me, one hand on my waist, one hand holding the mail. I gave him a quick kiss over my shoulder.

    “Hi, love. Welcome home. How was work?”

    “Eh, you know. Work.” He flipped through the mail, sorting the wheat from the chaff. “How was the day here?”

    “Eh, you know. It was the day here.” I pulled the enchiladas out of the oven, balancing the casserole dish in one hand, clicking the beeping timer off with the other hand, and giving a quick, upward exhale to blow my bangs out of my eyes.

    “Anything you need help with before dinner?”

    “Yes, you can pour drinks and have them go potty and wash their hands.” (Perhaps in another life stage I won’t say “potty.” Lots of grownups say “bathroom”—so I’ve heard.)

    “Boys! Go potty and wash your hands! Time for dinner!” He headed up the stairs and returned in a frayed T-shirt and athletic shorts. He wore shorts 350 days of the year, even when there was snow on the ground.

    Robb and I had a silly joke between us. About trivets. Really, that’s what marriages are made of: silly little nothings that add up to a decade of important somethings. As you probably know, a trivet is the little doodad that goes under a hot plate or dish to keep the heat from scorching your table or countertop. Robb insisted on calling it a trinket. I insisted on calling it by its name, trivet.

    I carried the hot dish to the table. “Could you hand me a trivet?”

    “You mean a trinket?”

    “No. I mean a trivet.”

    “Sure, babe. Here you go. Here’s your trinket.”

    “Thank you for the trivet.”

    “Trinket.”

    “Trivet.”

    We did this, I kid you not, every single time one of us set the table for dinner. It was a nightly dialogue, a playful banter. The trinket/trivet debate. One night he said, “You know, when I’m dead and gone, you’ll look at that trinket and smile. You’ll remember me, and you’ll call it a trinket.”

    “Doubt it.” Lower my vocabulary standards? Hard to wrap my mind around that.

    The dinner scene unfolded with arguments over washing hands with soap and water versus sanitizer and whether dinnertime is an appropriate opportunity for such shortcuts. There were spilled drinks and excessive napkins. Any semblance of real conversation was replaced instead with interruptions and incomplete sentences. Someone wise once said, “Where two or more are gathered, someone will spill his milk.” I envisioned my family dinner table looking so much more collected than this.

    Tyler didn’t want to eat at all; he simply wanted out of his chair. No dice, kiddo. You have to take the three obligatory “thank-you bites.” That’s the rule. And he could have his share of yogurt and grapes. I support the idea of children eating what the adults are having, but sometimes I don’t want to argue and negotiate every bite of the one meal we all eat together each day. Some might call me a short-order cook. I’m willing to risk the name calling. I prefer to describe myself as a mom who doesn’t want to argue incessantly and in the end throw away food that her son doesn’t want to eat. Bring on the kid-friendly side dishes.

    Tucker got in trouble for shouting potty words at the table. He didn’t need to go. He just thinks he is hysterically funny. We try to discourage these syllables as appropriate dinner conversation, so he spent a few minutes in time-out.

    Robb tossed in some adult humor for me—his teammate and captive audience. “Listen, Tucker. We need to redefine your mission statement. There is about to be some corporate restructuring around here, and I don’t think you’ll be pleased with your performance review.” I smile in spite of myself; I couldn’t have said it better. Time for a disciplinary action plan, I’m pretty sure. We’ll consult with the board.

    Oh, wait. We are the board.

    “Tuck, when you’re ready to use polite words, you can come back.”

    “Can I come back now?”

    “Are you ready to use polite words?”

    “No.”

    “Then you can keep sitting on the steps.”

    Tyler had no interest in dinner, his meal, his chair, or his life as he knew it. He wanted Mommy. In his whiniest, most tearful voice, he cried for me. Since I was enjoying my enchiladas, as much as I could in such an environment, Robb tried to encourage him to eat instead. “Tyler, can you eat your chicken? This is Daddy’s favorite chicken. Very favorite. Taste it.”

    “No. Mommy. Mommy, mommy, mommy.” Cry, cry, cry.

    Tucker announced from the living room: “I’m ready now.”

    “Okay, come join us.”

    He announced upon his arrival that he had to go potty now. Robb and I exchanged glances over the table: to allow or not to allow? We were still freshly out of the potty-training graduation ceremony, so we were reluctant to keep the boy from going when he said he had to go. Go. Now. Quickly. Then eat. Now. Go.

    Tucker yelled from the bathroom, “Soap! Soap! SSOOOAP!” It was hard to know if he was yelling at us or at the soap. Especially since he didn’t need a single bit of assistance when I arrived at his side to help him reach the soap. He was fine, thanks.

    Tyler cried.

    Enchiladas, anyone? Are you kidding me? Is it time for bed yet? And then the negotiations started. Because try as I may, dinner almost always ends with a negotiation.

    “Boys who eat their dinner can have a cookie.”

    “I want a cookie!”

    “Did you eat your dinner?”

    “No.”

    “Then no cookie.”

    “But I want a cookie!”

    “Eat your grapes or your chicken.”

    “I want a cookie.”

    “I want Mommy!”

    I want a stiff drink.

    Robb raised his voice above the din. “Boys, enough. Mommy fixed this dinner for you. Stop complaining. Start eating.” What is it about the dad’s voice? It evokes a moment of trepidation, just enough to make them remember who’s boss. He is. And he says I am.

    In an adult moment above it all, I whispered to him, nearly in pig Latin, “I made chocolate raspberry trifle for dessert. I’m not sure they’ve earned it. I’m pretty sure we have. After their baths and bedtime, let’s eat it. Just us.” In the end they didn’t eat their dinners, chicken and grapes notwithstanding, so they didn’t get their cookies. But we held the promise of delayed gratification: our dessert to come after bedtime. Everything tastes better after bedtime.

    After dinner we took a family walk around the neighborhood, down the street and around the corner to the path with the mountain view. With four wheels and a handle, our sturdy Radio Flyer had a large capacity: jackets, sunscreen, water bottles, one boy or two climbing in and out, the ever-growing collection of rocks and pine cones, and alternating rhythms of whining and laughing. We put a lot of miles on those four wheels, one evening stroll at a time.

    We arrived home once more, and after the choreographed tag team of baths (Robb handled the bubbles, soap, and shampoo while I handled the fluffy hooded towels and the jammies); after the goodnight songs, the bedtime stories, and one hearty round of “I’m thankful for” (Robb was thankful for me, I was thankful for umbrellas, Tucker was thankful for his soccer ball, and Tyler was thankful for crinkly, wrinkly eyeballs); after the prayers and kisses and glasses of water and night-lights and more water and the list of just-one-more things, they were in bed.

    I came slowly down the stairs, feeling spent and poured out, wishing I could muster more energy to stay up late and maximize the remaining quiet moments of the day.

    He unfolded his reclining chair and opened his arms. “Come here, baby girl.”

    I climbed, knees first, into his chair, then turned myself to find the spot that had taken us a while to map out, the one I’ve now known for years—the nook-and-cranny puzzle pieces that fit the two of us into a chair made for one. He groaned as I sat down on his lap, as if the bulky weight of me were too much to hold. One of his favorite jokes.

    “I really wish you wouldn’t do that when I sit on you.”

    “I was just being funny.”

    “Well, that’s not funny.”

    “You’re grumpy,” he teased.

    I craned my neck to look at him.

    “Yes, it’s possible that I am. You’ve been here for slightly more than one hour of this day, thank you very much, and I have spent the entire day navigating an obstacle course in which I am Public Enemy Number One. What you saw tonight was only one of today’s meals. At lunch today Tyler was angry because he didn’t want me to cut his spaghetti noodles. But he doesn’t know how to eat them otherwise, so then he was also angry because he was hungry. During the same meal Tucker was just as angry. I don’t really know why; it’s hard to keep track. At naptime Tucker was angry again because I wouldn’t let him jump on the bed. Simultaneously, Tyler was irate because he couldn’t wear his shoes to bed. I found both of them running across the length of the coffee table and launching themselves into my chair. Olympic training, right here.” I pointed to the coffee table, their running track.

    “Do you know something else? At one point I actually heard myself tell Tyler that I didn’t like him very much today. I told him I didn’t like him! For crying out loud, who was the adult in that situation, anyway? ‘I don’t like you,’ I said. My mom coached me through that one. She said, ‘He doesn’t understand yet. You’ll want to change that sentence by the time he’s five. For now, it bounces right off.’ Apparently her own mother used to say she was going to give her back to the Indians. So I guess it’s all relative. Still, I earned no points for Mother of the Year today. This day had angry written all over it. So, yes, perhaps I am grumpy. And by the way, you didn’t exactly keep your cool at the dinner table tonight, either.”

    He pulled my shoulder gently into the crook of his arm, softening me. He rested his scruffy chin on my head. We fit so perfectly. My voice quieted. “I’m pretty sure they will be disappointed tomorrow when they wake up to learn I am still their mom and I still live here.” With my ear against his chest, I listened to the vibrations of his voice. “Well, I’m glad you live here. You’re stuck with me. And them.” “Thank you. You’re not allowed out of this.”

    “Neither are you, baby girl.” He poked my knee for emphasis and then rested his hand on the curve of my worn, gray sweatpants. “They’re in bed now anyway. At the end of the day, they always go to bed.” “In bed” is relative. I could still hear Tucker making that silly clicking sound in his throat, which he had just discovered and was abundantly proud of. “In bed” is not asleep. But it is a step in the right direction.

    “Can we just be quiet, please?” I asked Robb, immune to the irony that I had been the one doing all the talking in that most recent tirade.

    “Can I watch baseball?”

    “Can I read my book?”

    “Yes.”

    “Deal.”

    “Dessert?”

    “Um…yes.” Isn’t that what we’ve all been waiting for?

    With dessert served in the deep ice cream bowls we found on clearance at Kohl’s, I moved back to my own chair—the oversized, comfier, more realistic place for me to sit for the duration of the night. Several chapters and innings later, it was time for the weather segment of the evening news—9:17 every night. Robb moonlighted as a closet meteorologist. He had installed two weather stations in our home, apps on his phone, and updates on his desktop. He was routinely one click away from the five-day forecast. I found this nicely helpful in my decisions about shoes and cute cardigans, since I would otherwise pay no attention to the weather until I was uncomfortable enough to notice it.

    My goodness. Sometimes we seem so old. What happened to the two who watched movies late into the night and boasted the occasional 2 a.m. run to Taco Bell? We used to have more to say to each other. Dinner conversations, chats on that walk around the neighborhood, pillow talk late at night—we always had a few more things to say. Where have those conversations gone? Are we too comfortable? Are we too familiar? Maybe we’re just too tired.

    He followed his meticulous routine of locking every door, turning off each light, then double-checking that each door was locked. Leaving him all the practical tasks, I checked on the sleeping little boys. I straightened this one’s blanket and found that one’s teddy bear. I stroked the tall one’s head; I rubbed the small one’s back. I kissed this one’s fingers, that one’s eyelids.

    I breathed a prayer over them. “God, arm them with strength. Make their way perfect.”

    Little do they know that I love nothing more than them. They are as big as I love.


    Excerpted from And Life Comes Back by Tricia Lott Williford Copyright © 2014 by Tricia Lott Williford. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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