Finding Beauty in the Ashes of Life

The sin debt was stamped “paid in full.”

“To all who mourn in Israel he will give: beauty for ashes; joy instead of mourning; praise instead of heaviness. For God has planted them like strong and graceful oaks for his own glory”—Isaiah 61:3(TLB).

Photo by Carol Round

Bright yellow daffodils began to appear in late February in northeastern Oklahoma. Because of the mild winter weather, trees are budding, snakes are slithering and mosquitoes are buzzing.

While I don’t welcome the snakes or the bugs, I love the sight of flowers and trees announcing the upcoming spring weather. Even without a harsh winter, these sights bring renewed hope, especially for those, like me, who are struggling.

Out for a walk recently, I spotted a cluster of sunny daffodils sprouting from a tomb of rocks around a large oak tree in a neighbor’s yard. The contrast between the yellow flowers and the gray and brown mottled surface of the rocks drew my attention. The flowers, pushing their way through the harshness of the stone, reminded me of God’s promises.

In Isaiah 61:3, God promises the Israelites that He will give them beauty for ashes, joy instead of mourning and praise instead of heaviness. They faced challenges, but God offered hope.

In the midst of our trials—the fear, the uncertainty, the weariness, the suffering, the mourning—we can take heart in God’s promise to give us beauty for the ashes of life. We can find the beauty in these hardships if we seek Him. In 1 Chronicles 16:11 we read, “Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always.”

When Things Go Wrong, God Still has a Plan

“A person’s steps are directed by the Lord. How then can anyone understand their own way?”— Proverbs 20:24(NIV).

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For nine months, I argued with God. I didn’t want to move from the area where I’d lived for 35 years. I’d taught school there for 30 years. Planning my retirement, I wanted to write newspaper and magazine feature stories for local, state and national publications. I’d also planned to grow my professional photography business of 20 years. Substitute teaching was also on my to-do list.

A broken relationship a month before retirement left me questioning my future plans. When God revealed He had a better plan for my life, I sold my house and moved almost 75 miles to a community where I knew very few people. God had a better plan for me.

As an idealist, I often daydream about the perfect day and life without interruptions. However, that’s not reality. We can’t plan for life’s intrusions. We can’t control what others do. We can’t choose the things popping up to delay our plans.

What does the Bible say about planning?

If you’ve ever had a day when nothing goes as planned, you can relate. Sometimes, it’s a minor upset that cause the greatest problems. It’s easy to get angry, to feel as if the world is against you or to give up.

When I was younger, I had a daily and weekly to-do list. My self-worth was tied to checking off each item of my plan. When life interrupted, I wasn’t too happy. My attitude reeked of self-importance. I thought I had to prove, through my accomplishments, that I was a worthy human. Then, Jesus got ahold of me—and I’m so glad He did.

Now, when nothing goes as planned, I don’t panic. I don’t get upset by the delays, and I don’t worry about the things on my list left undone until later. As a reformed control freak and people pleaser, I’ve learned to patiently wait on God, trusting He has a better plan for my life.

What Happens When We Procrastinate?

“Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you’”—Matthew 25:11-12(NIV).

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Did you know there’s a Procrastinator’s Club? They’ve never met because they keep postponing their meeting. We can laugh about putting things off. Some procrastinate because the project is daunting or boring. Others find better things to do. There are, of course, those who have procrastinated so long the pile of tasks grows into a mountain they’re afraid to tackle.

People procrastinate for different reasons. Psychologist Joseph Ferrari, Ph.D., identifies three basic types of procrastinators:

  • Arousal types, or thrill-seekers, who wait to the last minute for the euphoric rush.
  • Avoiders, who may be avoiding fear of failure or even fear of success, but in either case are very concerned with what others think of them; they would rather have others think they lack effort than ability.
  • Decisional procrastinators, who cannot make a decision. Not making a decision absolves procrastinators of responsibility for the outcome of events.

If you’re a procrastinator, can you relate to any of these? While I don’t consider myself a procrastinator, I do delay doing things I consider unpleasant, unimportant or not interesting.

Someday will be here sooner than you think.

We let things in our life pile up for various reasons, but in today’s world of social media and technology devices, it’s easier than ever to succumb to procrastination. We become distracted by the frivolous and foolish.

Why We Need Reminders of God’s Faithfulness

“Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen, and called its name Ebenezer, saying, ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us’”—1 Samuel 7:12(NKJV).

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In a recent column, I made a mistake. I’d forgotten the importance of double checking facts, but a reader, who pointed out my error, reminded me I had been careless. In a hurry to finish, I’d accepted what someone else had written—and I had quoted—as correct.

After I thanked him for emailing me, I had to smile. Why? Because the pointing out of my mistake was perfect timing for the topic God had already laid on my heart.

Several months ago, I received a thank you note from a group of women who had heard me speak at a conference in May 2016. While I’d forgotten the event in the midst of life-changing circumstances, the arrival of the card was perfect timing. I needed a reminder of what God had done in my life and what He was doing through me to encourage other women in their walk with the Lord.

It was a reminder of God’s divine aid.

God’s timing is always “on time.” However, we often forget His faithfulness in the midst of our struggles. So did the Israelites. In scripture, we see examples of reminders. In Joshua 4, after the Israelites had crossed the Jordan River through God’s supernatural provision, He commanded them to set up 12 stones as “a memorial to the children of Israel forever.”

In 1 Samuel 7:12, the prophet Samuel set up a commemorative stone and named it Ebenezer to serve as a reminder that “thus far the Lord has helped us.”

What does faith look like to you?

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”—Hebrews 11:1 (NKJV).

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While comparing prices in the cereal aisle of a local store, I overheard two women discussing the state of our country—the bickering, the unrest, the demonstrations, the unknown. Their conversation revealed they are Christians. However, their faith in God wasn’t evident.

Then, a few days later, I saw the following posted on a church marquee: “What does faith look like?”

Hebrews 11:1 gives an excellent definition of faith. It’s substance. It’s evidence. Faith is believing the Word of God and then acting upon it, in spite of how we feel or how things might appear, because of God’s promises.

The substance and evidence God’s Word says it is.

Pastor James MacDonald, Harvest Bible Chapel, says we can’t embrace the realities of faith until we rid ourselves of faulty notions:

  • Faith is not a head-in-the-sand position. McDonald says, “It isn’t denying, ignoring or hiding from the obvious or inevitable. It’s not pretending something is real when deep down you really don’t believe it. That’s fear, not faith.”  Fear is the opposite of faith. When we live in fear, we are living in denial of the hope that God will take care of us no matter what trials we face.
  • Faith is not anti-intellectual. Says MacDonald, “It’s not a warm feeling that requires you to check your intellect at the door. That’s feeling, not faith.” It’s so easy to let our feelings dictate our lives and forget what the Word says. Philippians 4:6-7 tells us to “be anxious in nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God which surpasses all comprehension will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
  • Faith is not a shallow, positive mental attitude. MacDonald adds, “It’s not a platitude to ‘just follow your dreams.’ Nor does faith ignore pain and embrace optimism, regardless of the evidence. That’s foolishness, not faith.” That’s why regularly reading and studying scripture, attending church and fellowshipping with other believers is so important.

No Other Commandment is Greater Than These

“‘And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’” The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these”—Mark 12:30-31(NLT).

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For over 11 years, I’ve sat down at my computer each week to write this column. It wasn’t part of my retirement plan after leaving education in 2005. But God had other plans.

Although I grew up in the church, I didn’t have a personal relationship with God until my late 40s. I’ve never regretted accepting Jesus as my Savior and Lord. There have been times, however, when I wanted to give up. Trials have left me drained but Jesus has sustained me.

When I grow weary and want to quit writing, His Holy Spirit encourages me through the feedback I receive from readers. Writing for His glory is a labor of love.

We can’t love the unlovable on our own.

Love is the answer to the current discord and hate in this world. If we claim to be Christians, shouldn’t our life reflect the light of His love? If we claim to be Christians, shouldn’t we love everyone, even the unlovable among us?

Love everyone? What about the person next door who disturbs the neighborhood by constantly yelling at his children? What about the neighbor who leaves trash scattered across his lawn, distracting from the beauty of the area?  What about the grumpy one who never speaks, even when you try to establish a relationship? I admit it’s not easy and I sometimes fail.

Are You Ready for a Change?

Change is difficult even for the most self-disciplined of us.

“We never give up. Our bodies are gradually dying, but we ourselves are being made stronger each day. These little troubles are getting us ready for an eternal glory that will make all our troubles seem like nothing. Things that are seen don’t last forever, but things that are not seen are eternal. That’s why we keep our minds on the things that cannot be seen”—2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (CEV).

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 Pickthebrain.com

January is almost over. If you vowed to make changes in 2017, have you made any progress? Change is difficult even for the most self-disciplined of us.

It’s easier to get stuck in a rut than it is to get out. I believe most of us have been there. We get comfortable in our routines—our comfort zones—and we’d rather remain where we feel safe. Getting out of the boat means we’re vulnerable.

Remember Peter. As Jesus walked on the water toward the boat full of disciples, Peter said, “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” Jesus replied.

Peter stepped out of the boat. Even though he could see Jesus walking toward him on the water, his fear of the strong winds led him to take his eyes off of Jesus. What happened? His faith deserted him and he began to sink.

In Matthew 14:31, we’re told, “Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ He said, ‘why did you doubt?’”

Doubt can hold us back from making changes in our lives. We focus instead on the “What ifs.”

  • What if I fail?

  • What if I make the wrong choice?

  • What if others think I’m crazy?