A Gnatty Plague

Each morning, my boys and I engage in a ritualistic dance as we head out the door. Arms waving in frenzied motions above our heads, we feverishly hop-skip to the car, twirl beside the doors, and fall breathless into our seats. Pulling out of the driveway, we roll the windows down and wave our arms in the air–a bizarre adieu to the neighbors who must be thinking…we should really invest in a privacy fence.

While our neighbors might be confounded by our early morning motion madness, there is a perfectly good explanation for the cavorting–namely, gnats. Each night, seemingly millions of little gnats surround our home, swarming around the screen door and congregating in the dewy condensation on the cars. Our frantic arm waving, hopping, and twirling is all an attempt to push through the flighty insects without them zooming into our mouths–or up our noses. These gnats are a pestilential problem…an annual plague that disperses only when the temperature falls.

Until recently, when I read the story of the Exodus, I always thought the Egyptians were kind of wimpy. I mean, getting all fussed over a plague of gnats? Please…Yet God has a sense of humor, and it sometimes leans toward the ironic. As I open the front door each morning and prepare to fling myself into the teeming mass of what our “pest control specialist” calls midges, I totally get it. Gnats are a plague. Albeit, a seasonal one.

Pondering the gnats led me to a realization beyond the fact that I need to stop spraying for spiders (because they eat gnats). Like the gnats, our everyday worries can become a plague–pervading our thoughts, disrupting our focus, and leading to pointless feelings of both consternation and agitation. When we worry about the small stuff, we not only miss out on the blessings God is trying to give to us, but we also forgo opportunities to be God’s blessing to others. How so?

As a United Methodist pastor’s spouse, I’ve moved around a lot. My family and I are always transplants in communities, and that can be a hard thing. Sometimes I worry when facing new opportunities to get to know people where we’re dropped. I think that my clothes are too shabby, my chin wobbles too much, and I’m really too much of a book nerd. All of my little worries consume me to the point where it feels easier to just shut the door on the idea of peopling and stay home. Yet how much I would miss if I let those unfounded fears have their way!

I would have missed opportunities to make new friends. I would have missed opportunities for God to refresh my soul. And I would have missed opportunities to lay some paving stones in the building of God’s kingdom.

Our daily gnat-like worries can rob us of joy, leaving us isolated, overly self-focused, and often cynical. Our God wants more for us than that. He wants us to rest soundly in the knowledge that, whatever life throws our way, he is there–the Rock on which we stand. I love this passage from the book of Isaiah:

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Have you ever come across a rock bigger than God? I am going to guess not. Though life can throw us for a loop, “trouble don’t last always.” God reminds us, just as he reminded the Israelites long ago, that he’s bigger and stronger than any worry we might have. And his plan for us is greater than any of our fears.

So how are we to live? Look at how Peter puts it:

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Living a life of joy is the greatest expression of love for God that we can offer the world. I’m not talking about Pollyanna-ish optimism, I’m talking about a deep-rooted sense of peace that springs from God’s spirt which dwells within our souls and pours out of us in genuine expressions of love for others. It might be turning a conversation around when it becomes overly pessimistic. It could be praying with someone who needs to know that there is another human being in this world who cares about what is happening to them. It might be participating in a service project with a glad heart, rather than grumbling under your breath as I have been wont to do. A carefree life isn’t free of cares, but a person living a carefree life in God understands that he cares for us more than any of our fears. And that should give us hope.

Like the gnats that gather around our home each summer, so we will have seasons of worry. There will be illness, budgets will be stretched thin, loved ones will make questionable choices, we will fail at many things. Just a I can’t banish the gnats, so we can’t banish our worries. But we can make a conscious choice not to be consumed by them. We can turn to God, our Rock and Caregiver, and cast those cares on him. We can live carefree, knowing that God cares so much for us.

Blessings and Peace,

Sara

Here We Go Again…

It’s three weeks into a new school year for the Snyder household, and we are settling into the routines that define us during this season–early morning band practice, Friday night football games, weekend marching competitions, after school clubs…and regular homework. I love the rhythms of school life, partly because, as a child of educators, it’s all I’ve ever known. There’s a familiarity in the routines that comforts me, a structure that I depend on. Yet for this generation of students, there is something darker and more insidious that disrupts the familiar cadences of learning–the threat of school violence.

I was reminded of this awful reality last night, as my phone gently buzzed alerting me to a new message. To be honest, when I saw it was a school message, I dismissed it as yet another reminder to order a 2024 yearbook–seriously, the school must own stock in a yearbook company for the amount of marketing they do! It wasn’t until my 14-year-old shoved his phone in my face that I realized it was something much more significant. Apparently, there had been an online threat of violence toward the middle school, where my 14-year-old attends. While the school was working with law enforcement and did not believe students were in imminent danger, precautions were being taken to ensure everyone’s safety. Needless to say, my son was anxious.

We spent the next 20-30 minutes discussing the situation, as we have in previous instances where threats of violence have been made. He mentally walked through each of his classrooms and listed ways that he could protect himself in each room were the school to be breached–a calming mechanism that makes him feel like he has some agency over a truly terrifying possibility. We talked about the fact that there would be an increased police presence at the school today, and that most mass shootings happen without warning. Finally, we told him that if he felt unsafe or too anxious to learn, to call us and we would bring him home.

If you’re not horrified yet, you should be. Because this isn’t the first time we’ve had this conversation. And I know from talking to other parents that similar conversations happen across the country with increasing regularity. In the past, I told my sons that there was nothing to fear. These situations were an anomaly, not the norm, but that is no longer true. We can’t promise kids they’ll be safe in school. And kids know that.

Today’s teachers are routinely trained in how to respond to an active shooter, and they, in turn, train their students in class. At the elementary level, barricading classrooms has been turned into a perverse game. Ask any kindergartner, and they’ll likely tell you what to do if a “bad guy” comes into their room. When my 16-year-old was that age, he was told by his teacher to throw books.

As adults, we try to bury our heads in the sand when it comes to school violence, but our kids don’t have that luxury. They’re on the front lines, and our yelling at one another about gun legislation versus mental health resources versus making schools a “hard target” only exacerbates the problem because nothing gets done. Nothing changes. So our kids plan for what they consider to be an eventuality. When a gunman shows up, how can I save myself?

This is so far from the kingdom God wants to build here on Earth, and it appalls me that we, as Jesus followers, have let it get this far. How can we, as parents/grandparents/mentors/community leaders allow society to turn a fundamental human right (getting an education) into a source of trauma? And what do we do to change it?

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Scripture tells us that we are to be a people of peace. “Embrace peace!”, the Psalmist writes. “Happy are those who make peace,” Jesus tells his followers, “Do your best to live at peace with all people,” Paul writes to the Romans. But to do so, we must put aside enmity and discord and look for the common humanity that exists between us all. Somewhere along the way we’ve forgotten (or maybe never understood) the fact that we are all God’s children, and therefore, dearly loved. None of us is perfect, but none of us is wholly bad either. And yet, we often characterize those we disagree with as being somehow diabolical, forgetting their humanity and the fact that they, too, are made in the image of God. Our children are never going to be safe if we keep viewing each other in diametrical terms, because dichotomy does not breed peace, only more division. At some point, we must put down our weapon of politics to find real solutions to real problems. How do we create a society in which all of our children can grow in safety? This should be a meaningful conversation in our communities at the local, state, and federal levels, and the question cannot be answered with political talking points. It will take compromise…and love…to get there.

Earlier this week, I read the following quote in a sermon given by Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s stayed with me, and I think his insight is as relevant today as it was nearly 50 years ago.

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I’m compelled by the idea that love is a “creative force”…something powerful and alive…like a cleansing fire burning through a wood to rid the landscape of decay, or stormy waves crashing into and eroding a rocky cliff to make something new. Love is not passive; rather, it is an active agent working good in the world. And it is the path to peace. When we harness the power of love and use it to help others, we bring God’s kingdom closer. Love allows us to see the humanity in others. Love allows us to humbly admit that we have made a mess of things. Love allows us to empathize with those who have lost loved ones to tragedy, to the extent where we will not rest until we ensure that no one else suffers in the same way. Love allows us to hear the opinions of others and to understand the motivations behind them. Love allows us to do hard things, to have hard conversations, to keep journeying on a hard path. Love allows us to understand that some people need extra help, and that we, as a people, have an obligation to help them.

My 14-year-old spent his bus ride to school this morning composing a letter to one of our U.S. Senators. He knows that his opinion will not be popular with our elected official, yet he believes that his voice should be heard. And I agree. Our kids should be given agency over their own safety. They should be given a voice in the dialogue about how to make school a safe place where all can learn, because they’re the ones living with the threat of school violence. And as those who support children, we need to be a safe place for them to communicate their feelings. We need to let them know that they can come to us to share their concerns, and we need to be willing to put aside our own feelings/fears/opinions/perspectives to really listen to what they have to say, even if they just want to talk through ways that they can feel safe in a classroom.

Blessings and PEACE,

Sara

Expect God to Get Here Soon

This past Sunday, Christians around the globe gathered in churches scattered far and wide to celebrate something big–the birth of the church. On Pentecost Sunday, we remember the remarkable story of the Holy Spirit roaring like a hurricane throughout the room where the apostles were gathered, branding them as holy vessels with a tongue of fire above their heads, and giving them the ability to speak in many different languages. On that day thousands of years ago, God showed up in a big way. God sent his Spirit…the Advocate…the Breath of God…to fulfill the promise Jesus made to the disciples before he was raised to heaven.

“…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Acts 1: 8

As the disciples spoke, the Spirit was set loose–opening the minds and hearts of countless people from all over the known world to the gospel message.

At its core, Pentecost is a celebration of the Holy Spirit and of God’s awesome power to fulfill each and every one of the promises made in Scripture. It’s a celebration of hope –the hope that we have in God’s mighty power to act in this world and to build his kingdom here…on Earth as it is in heaven.

But lately, I’ve had a hard time reconciling the Pentecost story to the world in which we live. There’s too much hate. Too much evil. The news of yet another massacre of innocent children at a school broke something within me. To be honest, God and I are still processing the rage I feel at this senseless act of violence, and my despair that we, as a people, keep allowing such tragedy to take place. I don’t know what the answer is, but I believe that we, as American citizens, are accountable for the lives of these children. We have chosen the tribalism that is American politics over the sanctity of life beyond the womb. And far too many Christians bow before the alter of nationalism rather than the alter of Christ. My own teenagers see the world as a fraught, chaotic, and confusing place, and they feel great anxiety as they seek to navigate what seems to be a swirling, churning ride. Studies would suggest that my boys are far from alone in this sentiment, as many kids and teens prefer to cocoon at home rather than entering a world that seems so tumultuous.

While cocooning is tempting in time’s like these, it’s not what God wants for or from his people. As the Spirit threw open the doors behind which the disciples hid during Pentecost so they could share the good news of Jesus Christ, so, too, the Spirit calls us forth into the turbulent waters of the world today to share the message of God’s love. It’s not easy. There’s much that stands in the way. But where God wills, the Spirit makes a way, as Paul affirmed when he was in the midst of stormy seas on his way to Rome.

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Paul had been arrested in Jerusalem, but he appealed to Caesar. The journey to Rome was fraught with peril, but Paul used each stop along the way as an opportunity to spread the good news. When Paul’s ship becomes swamped in a terrible storm at sea, his traveling companions (some of whom were seasoned sailors) panic. They’re sure they’re going to drown. Yet Paul invokes the Spirit of God, assuring them that he still has work to do, so the Spirit will lead them safely to shore. “I believe,” Paul tells his shivering shipmates, that “God will do exactly what he told me.” Acts 27:25 And, of course, he does.

Scripture is a wonderful gift. It’s a record of God’s love for all he created, especially his children. Scripture is full of the promises of God, and time and again God shows up to fulfill each and every one of those promises. Paul got to Rome, and he shared the message of Jesus’s love with some of the top government officials of the day. God showed up for Paul throughout his journey, even when all hope seemed to be lost.

Some days, it’s easy for me to feel like God has abandoned us. That he’s washed his hands of his belligerent children who seem compelled to throw away his gifts of grace in favor of selfish destruction. But Scripture tells a different story. Scripture tells us of a loving Father who relentlessly chases after his wayward children, ultimately sacrificing everything he has in order to bring them home. Our God doesn’t give up on us. And he doesn’t stop acting.

The psalmist writes:

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The story of Pentecost is the story of God showing up. So let’s be brave, my friends. Let’s be strong. Let’s lean into the storms raging in our communities, our nation, our world, and allow the Spirit to lead us. Let’s be the hands and feet that bring good news to the brokenhearted. Let’s speak to others in words of love. Let’s offer grace to those whom we disagree with. Let’s forgive those who have wronged us. Let’s show mercy to those whom we feel are misguided or wrong. Let’s offer food to the hungry, and care to the homeless. Let’s listen before we speak, and give room to those who need to talk. Let’s greet others with kindness. Let’s open our hearts to empathy, and show compassion for those whose journey looks different from ours. Let’s sit with those who mourn, and encourage those who are struggling. Let’s push our leaders to be better and to do better.

Most importantly, let’s expect God to show up in the midst of the chaos. And let’s be ready to follow when he does.

Blessings and Peace,

Sara

When I in Awesome Wonder…

Today, we find ourselves entering the home stretch of the Advent season. Christmas is in three days and, per usual, I am in manic mode. There are gifts to finish purchasing, stockings to stuff, menus to plan, and goodies to bake. In all of my self-inflicted hustle and bustle, I sometimes forget to pause and reflect on why we celebrate Christmas in the first place. Holidays can easily devolve from celebrations to chores if we’re not careful, and there are times I have teetered on that ledge–or nose-dived right off it!

This year, as part of my Advent practice, I decided to reflect on the writings of the minor prophets: specifically, the books of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. These three prophets lived and worked in the post-exilic period, after the Israelites had returned from Babylon. There was a lot of work to do–the land was in ruins. So this group devoted themselves to putting the pieces of their nation back together. It was busy work and, as happens in the midst of busyness, the people were neglecting God again. The prophets were there to remind them that, although the work of rebuilding the nation of Israel was important, most important was their continued faithfulness to God and his law. Kind of like our to-do lists, right?

And yet, I have found, that when we set aside our “must…keep…pushing…through” items and focus our souls on God, he shows up in such unexpected and remarkable ways that we can’t help but, as the hymn proclaims, stand in awesome wonder. My moment of awesome wonder came in my kitchen a few days ago, as I was sitting on the little wooden step stool my husband’s grandfather made long ago and which has become my Bible time stool. I was reading through the book of Malachi. Like his contemporaries Haggai and Zechariah, Malachi was urging the people to remain faithful to God, and chastising them for prioritizing other tasks and only giving God the left-overs of their daily lives. But Malachi was also speaking beyond the present, prophesying a time to come when God would judge between the faithful and the faithless, setting aside a people to call his own. Chapter four of Malachi ends this proclamation:

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I quickly turned the page to see what would happen next, and was flummoxed to discover that there were no more words. What?! I thought to myself. That’s it? Truth be told, there’s one more verse–it says God will come and strike the land with total destruction. (Malachi 4:6) Quite the exclamation point! But I want to focus on the proclamation–the promise of Elijah before the day of the Lord’s arrival.

As I flipped ahead through the next several pages of historical commentary in my Bible, somewhat disgruntled by the lack of resolution on the author’s part, it dawned on me…Malachi ends abruptly because the story’s not done. Flipping quickly to the book of Matthew I sat, stunned, as I looked at the words before me. For the first time ever, I was awed, not by God’s word, but by a genealogical list of names.

Normally, when it comes to biblical genealogy, I just skim through it. But what stunned me, what awed me, weren’t the names themselves, but the fact that God had been continuing the story for generations, even after the prophets in Scripture had gone silent. Malachi spoke of the coming of Elijah in 430 B.C., and in the first-written synoptic gospel around 60 A.D., we have John the Baptist, an Elijah-like figure, living in the Judea wilderness and preaching a gospel of repentance in preparation for the coming of the Lord.

The final word in the Old Testament is a promise of the Lord’s coming. Then there’s silence. Time moves on. One generation gives way to the next. Nations rise and fall. Yet the minutiae of life keeps moving, like a time-lapse video, different figures blurring together as they move in an out of the same scene. Years pass…hundreds of them in which people are born, in which they live and laugh and love and cry, in which they die and are laid to rest with all of those who have gone before. And the Earth keeps turning.

It’s quiet. It’s ordinary. Until one day, in an ordinary time in an ordinary place, an angel delivers a message to a young man and a young woman that will change everything. While many people had long ago stopped expecting God’s promises to be fulfilled, God hadn’t forgotten. From Malachi to Matthew (and Mark and Luke) God had a plan, and what we celebrate at Christmas is the fulfillment of that plan.

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This, then, is what fills me with awe. That God came in a moment when it was least expected–in a time when many had likely written off his promise of a messiah as a myth or legend–a story of hope to be shared, but not really to be anticipated. God continued the story…for thousands of years! And it’s a story he’s continuing to write–his words etched into the hearts of all those who love him–his promises yet to be fulfilled.

As the shepherds did on a night long ago, I stand (or sit) in awesome wonder of God’s work. I’m overwhelmed by the depth and breadth of his faithfulness. For me, this Christmas is about hope. The hope that God is faithful, that all of his promises will come to fruition in his time and in his way. God never gives up. He came when everyone least expected it, and in a way that no one could have foretold.

My prayer for you as we enter the Christmas season is that you, too, will have an experience of God that leaves you standing in awesome wonder. Are you looking? Are you waiting? Fear not! God will come.

Blessings and Peace,

Sara

Miracle vs. Magic

There’s a certain glow that comes with Christmastime–a soft-focus lens on the world that is suddenly strung with warmly hued lights. The air seems suddenly scented with pine, and we all breathe a little fuller in the crisp cleanness of it. Carols ring around us, Bing Crosby’s velvety baritone proclaiming “in the air, there’s a feeling of Christmas.” People greet one another with festive good cheer, and our hearts grow with love for all of our fellow human beings.

It’s an illusion, of course–a Hollywoodesque production of a holiday season in which we aspire to something greater than ourselves. Like a child listening intently for the gentle paw of reindeer hooves on the roof, we want to believe in the magic of Christmas. And sometimes we find it. Those moments of Yuletide perfection where the world itself seems to still in its constant revolving and we feel something–some joy or love or peace or hope that has been buried deep within our souls. And we give thanks, ascribing it to some sort of ethereal holiday being–Dickens’s Ghost of Christmas Present, perhaps. But it’s not magic that brings us joy or love or peace or hope this season. It’s a miracle. And that is what we, God’s people, are called to celebrate.

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There’s a big difference between magic and miracle. Magic is a practical art–a learned skill used to confound, delight, and even awe. Based in mystery, magic is illusory. And a good magician never reveals her tricks. In contrast, a miracle is a divine encounter. While it can be mysterious, it is not shrouded in mystery. A miracle is a revelation–God revealing Godself to humanity in a way that no human being could ever replicate. When we experience a miracle, we know it can only come from God. It’s not magic, it’s divine.

The Christmas story is a miracle. God sent a part of his Triune self into the world to redeem all of humanity. He sent his son, not as a mighty warrior, but as a helpless babe, to live among us. God came to experience all of humanity, from start to finish, and to gather it all back. As 1 John says, God sent his son to give us life. He used the miracle of the virgin birth to deliver a miracle to all of humanity, and he did it because he loves us. God loves us. God loves me. God loves you. So much so that he made his dwelling among us. That’s the miracle.

But there’s another miracle to the Christmas story, and it’s one that takes us beyond the cradle to the cross, as Jesus, God’s voice, the one who spoke all of creation into being, sacrifices his life so that we might live. And, oh, what life we are given! In miracle upon miracle, Jesus doesn’t stay on that cross. He doesn’t make his home in the grave. He rises from the tomb, he rolls the stone away, and in doing so, Jesus casts off the shackles of death for all of us, offering life eternal to all who call on his name! It’s not magic, it’s a miracle. God, through Jesus, triumphs over the grave. And in doing so, God makes a path for us to triumph over death, too.

As John writes:

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This, then, is what we are to revel in during the Christmas season. Not magic. But miracle. How can we not share this good news? How can we not, like the shepherds, run through the streets proclaiming this miracle of all miracles? Love has come. Salvation has come. Life has come. This Christmas, as we gather with our friends and family, as we deck the halls, as we bake cookies and watch Hallmark movies, as we carol and revel, as we wrap presents and stuff stockings….let’s take some time to remember the miracle. And let’s look, really look, not for Christmas magic, but for the miracle of God With Us.

Blessings and Peace,

Sara

Prickly Pears: The Judgement Dilemma

A little while ago, my husband called me on his way home from church and told me that a good friend would be stopping by as he made his way through town. We live right off an Interstate highway in the middle of Missouri, so it’s very easy for people to just pass through. My husband was really excited, almost giddy, that his good buddy would be coming by, as he doesn’t always have a lot of opportunities to just hang out with his closest friends. I, however, was less than enthused–not at seeing our friend–he’s great. But the boys’ school things were scattered across my office, the TV console was dusty, there was dog hair everywhere, and the kitchen counter was piled with a weird assortment of old newspapers, holiday mailers, Halloween candy, dog medicine, a tin of dominoes, and, I kid you not, a couple of glow bracelets. And that doesn’t even take into account the boys’ areas. All I can say to that particular domain of the house is, teenage boys are gross.

So, to say I was enthused about an unexpected guest would be a stretch. All I really felt at the moment my husband called was a huge heaping spoonful of not good enough. And that prickly pear sensation grew within me as I realized that very soon, I was going to be judged.

Do you know that prickly pear sensation of imminent judgement approaching? It’s like when the cartoon character standing on the sidewalk looks up and sees a grand piano falling from a sixth story window right above him. He knows he’s doomed, but all he can do is stand and watch. The thought that someone is going to judge me sends my amygdala into overdrive (the brain’s emotional processing center) and makes me what to hunker down under the covers, defeated by my own insecurity and wallowing in a wave of self-pity. You would think, as someone who works with a team of editors, I would have gotten beyond that by now.

As a woman, I think I’m not alone in my irrational fear of being judged. History has not been kind to us in that department. I remember a highly intelligent and successful woman telling me once that I fear people judging me because they are. Like, that’s just the way of life for women. But I wonder…is that really true? Or are we all so caught up in our own insecurities that we see perceived threat around every office mixer/bathroom stall/PTA meeting/Zoom conference?

But regardless of whether the judgement is real or perceived, the fact remains that we can get a little to a lot nutty over it, and miss out on some God-orchestrated blessings. While I was frantically running around the living room folding blankets, digging random socks from the couch cushions, organizing counter junk into piles, I felt God telling me to chill out. Our friend was not going to judge my housekeeping abilities, and if I kept stressing about it I was going to completely miss the joy of spending time in fellowship with a friend–which, as we all know, is a true blessing. I remembered the above Scripture, from Galatians, in which Paul exhorts believers not to seek after human approval, but to seek the approval of God.

I think it’s safe to say that most of the things I worry about being judged over matter zero to God. I mean, can you imagine asking God if your jeans make your muffin-top stick out too much? I think the response would be, “Get over yourself and clothe those in need.” The same with the house. While I worry about what people might think about being covered in blankets of dog hair, God is more interested in the billions of people on Earth living in poverty with no blanket of anything to cover them. Getting stressed over being judged is self-centered, and God calls us as disciples to be Christ-centered. Jesus didn’t judge those whom everyone else judged, and he didn’t particularly care that he was being judged by those he called hypocrites, snakes, and whitewashed tombs.

When I let fear of judgement influence my decisions, I’m likely trying to please others and not God. I’m also likely completely missing something God has placed before me, be it a blessing or a task. It’s not that we shouldn’t care what people think–Paul exhorts the early Christians to always try and present Christ in a positive light to others–it’s just that we should care about what God thinks more. We are God’s representatives; therefore, our concerns should be whatever God’s concerns are. And if we’re focused on God’s concerns, there will be neither time nor space for fears of judgement.

Instead of worrying about a semi-messy house, I give thanks for shelter and the people who share the mess with me (and cause most of it, boys!). Instead of worrying about how people are going to judge my appearance when I lead worship at church, I give thanks for the opportunity to share my love of God with others. Instead of worrying that the bus driver thinks I spend my day eating bon bons and sipping chardonnay because I’m still in my robe when he gets to our neighborhood, I give thanks that God has opened career doors for me so that I can use the skills he gave me to make a living from my home office. And instead of worrying that all of the other moms at PTA meetings think my kids are weirdos, I give thanks for the precious gift of my children, who are really weirdos.

In the end, I can’t change how people perceive me. But I can change my response to that. And I can ask God to show me the way.

#saramsnyder.com Scripture from Bible Gatewayhttps://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=psalm+19%3A14&version=NIV

Blessings and Peace,

Sara

NIV Radiant Virtues Bible: A Review

The NIV Radiant Virtues Bible

A few weeks ago, I received a review copy Zondervan’s new NIV Radiant Virtue Bible from Bible Gateway, as a member of their Blogger Grid. (#BibleGatewayPartner) I can’t ever turn down a Bible, and I was excited to see the newest take on the perennial classic–the Good Book. Here’s a short video that will tell you more about it.

According to the publisher, features of the NIV Radiant Virtues Bible include:

  • Full text of the accurate, readable, and clear New International Version (NIV)
  • Hundreds of highlighted Bible verses relate to the key themes of faith, hope, and love
  • 12 blank calendar pages on thicker paper for planning out a year of activities
  • 52-week guide, rotating weekly through the key themes
  • Each week’s suggested activities include an encouraging devotional reading and prayer, a piece of coloring art for reflection, and a journaling prompt to help you dig deeper
  • Reading plans for a month or a year
  • Full-color art throughout
  • 66 key verse illustrations, one at the beginning of each book
  • Shareable full-color verse artwork on thicker paper with perforated edges
  • Journaling space throughout
  • Double-column format
  • Satin ribbon markers
  • Words of Jesus in red
  • Exclusive Zondervan NIV Comfort Print typeface
  • 8-point print size
NIV Radiant Virtues Bible

In a word, this Bible is beautiful, and perfect for those who are interested in exploring their faith through Bible journaling. Some features I love include a 12-page calendar at the front of the book that allows you to keep track of what you’ve read, as well as how it impacted you. I also appreciate the artwork throughout the text. It’s very contemporary, colorful, and useful for meditation. There is ample space to journal, and there are numerous journaling prompts that can help a reader reflect on God’s Word. Moreover, there are colorful bookmarks and Scripture cards in the back of the text that can be shared with others–and they’re lovely!!

The Bible itself is lightweight enough to carry around, and wide enough to actually be able to write in. There are pages to color, if that’s your thing, as well as some guided meditations.

In the past, I’ve been pretty critical of the male-centric contributions to Zondervan Bibles, so I was really pleased to see that the majority of artists contributing to this Bible were women. There’s no Biblical study in this text, as the emphasis is on meditation and reflection. However, this is a Bible that can be a great encouragement for anyone feeling the need to draw closer to God.

NIV Radiant Virtues Bible

Blessings and Peace,

Sara

All Shall Be Well

One of my favorite Christmas hymns is Michael W. Smith’s “All is Well”. If you haven’t heard it, here’s a link to a lovely version on YouTube. While I know there are those who might feel it’s a little early to think about Christmas, I find myself drawn right now to the simple assurance this song brings…simply that because God is, then all is well.

This idea that all is well because God is present comes from a quote by English mystic theologian Julian of Norwich, who lived in the mid-to-late 1300s and early 1400s. She spent much of her life in seclusion, living in a small room within a church where she prayed and contemplated God. Throughout the course of her life, Julian documented many spiritual visions, one of which came as she was pondering the nature of sin, and grieving the idea that all sin might have been prevented if God had so chosen. In today’s terms, we might paraphrase that Julian was asking the eternal question of faith: Why do people have to suffer?

The answer which came to her is one that has provided much comfort to believers for nearly a thousand years. Julian heard Jesus say, quite clearly, that it was necessary for there to be sin, but that all shall be well…

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This refrain was repeated three times: all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. What a powerful mantra! And what an extraordinary exclamation of faith, to stand before a world that seemed to be falling apart (the plague, civil unrest, economic crisis) and proclaim that all shall be well because Jesus said so.

I think we, in this present moment, can draw a lot from Julian of Norwich’s brazen declaration of God’s goodness. We look out on a world where all does not seem to be well–far from it, in fact. Personally, I have found the crisis in Afghanistan, the devastation from natural disasters, and the continuing pandemic to be heartbreaking. Time and again, throughout the course of each day, I find myself turning to God and asking, “What can I do?” I feel powerless in the wake of so much tragedy.

But then I think about Julian of Norwich. I consider her vision. And this reminds me that we serve a God of vision. God takes a long view of history–he sees past the present to a future I cannot even mathematically fathom. From the dawn of creation God has had a plan, it’s a journey that both begins and ends in a garden, a path of reconciliation and redemption that culminates in a new heaven and a new earth where there is only light and love. And we are a part of this plan, a small brush stroke in the greater masterpiece that God is painting throughout time and space. We are invited into the vision, even though at times, it might seem like the vision is obscured, to stand at the precipice of calamity and say, with conviction, that all shall be well.

Consider Abraham, that pillar of faith. In his letter to the Romans, Paul lifts Abraham as the model of visionary leadership. When all was not well, Abraham believed that God would fulfill his promise and make Abraham the father of many nations, and it was credited to Abraham as righteousness. Paul says that:

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Abraham believed the vision, and he acted on it. He left his home, he traveled to an unknown land, he took Isaac up that mountain and prepared him for sacrifice. (I know, that one’s a struggle for me, too!) Time and again, when he should have thrown his hands up and said, “I give up!”, Abraham acted on the vision God had given him, even though he never saw the full manifestation of it.

Like Abraham, we are called to go into a world where everything is hopeless and to believe anyway. And, like Abraham, we must decide to act not on what we can do, but on what God said he would do. For some of us, that might be making monetary donations to organizations that provide relief to refugees and victims of natural disaster. For others, God might be calling us to pack up and go volunteer our hands and feet in an area where help is sorely needed to rebuild or heal or provide meals or shelter. Still others of us might be inclined to volunteer within our communities to help new neighbors settle in or be present with neighbors in need. There’s a lot we can do to further God’s vision, and no act is too small–look at what happened when the Israelites walked around a block!

I’ve been researching some ways to help Afghan refugees and victims of natural disasters. In fact, when I was writing this post, that was going to be the focus. I was going to give you concrete ways you could provide aid in these two areas. But God’s vision isn’t about how I think you might help or who I think you should help…it’s about how God is actually calling you to help those he has placed on your heart. I would encourage each of us to prayerfully consider how God might be calling us to act in our communities, and our world, to further his vision. And then to take the first step–whatever that looks like for you. Pray. Act. Repeat.

God invites us to plant the seeds of his vision, so that one day, who knows how far ahead, future generations might benefit from it. In that way, we help ensure that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.

Blessings and Peace,

Sara

The Garden of Salvation

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Haphazard. Functional. Low-Maintenance. These are all terms that describe my philosophy toward gardening. I know, as a life-long Midwesterner I’m supposed to have soil running through my veins. But the truth is, I just don’t really care for it. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in gardening as a theory. I’m always hopeful when spring arrives and I scour the farmer’s market looking for little green tomato shoots and florals bursting in vibrant colors. Like all diligent townfolk, my husband and I plunk down the obligatory chunk of change to fill our trunk with flowers and produce and return home with the best of intentions for off-setting our carbon footprint.

But then we look around the yard..and the flower beds need to be cleared of last year’s detritus, and it really is unusually hot for a spring afternoon, and maybe that side of the house gets too much sun for these hydrangeas, and the topsoil in the garage is too hard to work with, and wouldn’t it be lovely to just go take a walk or read a book or watch a ballgame?

In the end, as my tomato saplings begin to wilt in the spring heat, I make a mad dash to the vegetable bed, shove them into the ground, sprinkle them with some tap water and wish them well. Three months later, this is what you’d see on a visit to our backyard.

This is not the “garden of salvation” James was referring to in the opening Scripture. This is doing the least amount of work required to get a harvest. Although I prefer to look at is as encouraging plants to be self-sufficient, I wonder sometimes if the garden of salvation being cultivated in my life looks a little more like this instead of the beautiful topiary of love, joy, hope, grace, and mercy God intends it to be. Sometimes I do the bare minimum when it comes to my faith development–a haphazard prayer while I’m firing up my computer for work, a random Scripture reading as I’m waiting for the coffee to brew, a few minutes of focused worship on Sunday morning before my mind drifts off to grocery lists, schedules, or wondering why on Earth my son would wear long songs with shorts. Sometimes, my spiritual practices lack the discipline necessary to cultivate a garden of salvation. And this is exactly what James is warning his readers about in his apostolic letter.

James tells his readers not to get thrown off course.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other. Act on what you hear!  James 1:22-24 (MSG)

James exhorts his readers to submit to God with humility, and to let this Master Gardener cultivate a garden of salvation with his Word. But we can’t produce a harvest in our salvation garden by doing the bare minimum. As James says, we can’t just talk a good game, sharing Jesus-y hashtags and posting Scripture pics. We have to act. We have to dig our hands deep into the gardens of our souls and pull out by the root all of those things that take us away from God. We have to take the time to water, to sit with God’s Word and meditate on it. We need to give our souls the breath of God by spending time meaningfully communicating with him, both in prayer, study, and worship. And if we do these things, then we create an environment in which God’s garden of salvation can grow. We will be, as Isaiah says, a well-watered garden.

And what will be harvested in our garden? Only the best God has to offer! There’s love, of course. And peace. Forgiveness for sure. Gallons of grace and mounds of mercy. Justice like a rolling river. Righteousness like a never-failing stream. And the abundance! We will have such a cornucopia of God’s goodness that we can’t help but share it with others, which is James’ final command in chapter 1.

Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world. James 1:27 (MSG)

James does not mince words–the apostles believed that the end of days were imminently approaching, and they didn’t have time to mess around with conversational niceties. But it’s important to note that the actions James called his readers to engage in were not about making others feel ashamed or judged. Rather, James commanded his readers to reach out in service to the least of these, and to offer them the fruits from the garden of salvation, recognizing, of course, that the world is corrupt, and encouraging them to continue to practice good gardening habits so they could minister in a world that does not always follow God.

I think the same advice holds true for us. We are not to take up our pitchforks and go tearing around our communities lambasting people for perceived ungodliness. Rather, we are to fill our carts to the brim with the harvest of our salvation garden and freely pass out the produce to those who most need it. And, we need to go to the gardener over and over again, letting him tend to our souls so that once our cart is emptied, we have enough to fill it again.

Blessings and Peace,

Sara

God as Cheerleader

I’ve always thought of myself as something of a cheerleader. Not the pom-pom waving, pyramid building, performance artists kind you’d find on the sidelines at football games–that would require going to a football game and jumping around– two things I’m not known for. My cheerleading is more in the form of casual encouragement. You know…a short uplifting text or note of support. An open smile and genuine compliment in conversation. My goal is to try and believe in people, to see their potential and encourage them to go for it. But while I like cheering others on, I never really thought about God doing that with us. Sometimes I think I picture God as the Queen of England. Not a well-coiffed nonagenarian who’s prone to wearing bright hats, sensible shoes, and carrying a matching handbag, but as a very reserved and rigid being who is uninterested in overt displays of emotion, especially the kind of overenthusiastic outbursts one might witness at a sporting event.

But then I read the following passage from Romans 12:

Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic—be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord!  Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. Romans 12:11-12

Paul’s exuberance in serving God, and his commendation that all God’s followers adopt a like attitude made me wonder. What if God is a cheerleader? As God’s people, Scripture tells us that we can embody some of his characteristics. (Gen. 1:26) We can cultivate good fruit (Matt. 7:17), like the fruits of the Spirit. (Gal. 5:22) And if we are to serve God with great gusto and cheer, perhaps those qualities come to us from God himself. Look at how The Message puts it:

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I love the dichotomy here between being burned out and keeping ourselves fueled and aflame. Sometimes, in our quest to keep busy, we douse the flames of our faith. We get so run down, even in service to God, that our flame goes out. But Paul tells the early church members to be alert–to be on guard for burnout and to do those things that add fuel to our spiritual fire. And with this we are to remain cheerfully expectant. It’s interesting that the word which comes before expectant is cheerfully. What does that even look like?

Ten years ago, we went on our first extended family trip to Disney World. Our boys were about 2 and 4 years old, and while they understood in theory that they were going to be doing something really cool, they didn’t quite get it. To help them understand how special this trip was, we put up a Countdown to Disney calendar in their bedroom. Each night, before they went to bed, we pulled off one more page from the calendar. Even if the boys couldn’t understand exactly what the “happiest place on Earth” was, they were pumped that they were going in only 10 more sleeps! By the time we finally got to “1 more sleep “, they were downright giddy. When I think about their enthusiasm over a trip to central Florida, it helps me to understand the phrase cheerfully expectant more fully.

Paul is essentially telling us that to be cheerfully expectant is to be downright giddy about what God is going to do in our lives. More than that, I think God acts as a cheerleader pumping us up for it. When I read this passage not too long ago, it was as if I heard God clapping and calling, “You go, girl! You’ve got this!! Come on! You can do it!!!”

Hearing that voice, that enthusiasm, that cheer–it empowered me. It helped me to be cheerfully expectant about the work God had done, is doing, and will do in my life. And it made me want to share this encouragement with others, which I promptly did through the power of texting.

The gospel of Matthew tells a story about the healing of a blind man. When Jesus saw the man, he told his disciples to call the man forward. The disciples respond by saying this to the man:

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I love this! Tall about cheerful expectation!! The disciples called to the blind man–they didn’t whisper, they didn’t lean down and murmur, they called (i.e. spoke loudly) to him. The disciples were excited! They knew something amazing was about to happen. It was kind of like an awards show, in that a name was called for a big prize and lots of people cheered. But this awards show was much better produced than any awards show we might watch. Jesus called the man’s name and the disciples acted as God’s cheerleaders, leading the man to the one who could give both healing and restoration. Doesn’t it make you want to clap, too?

This is the cheerful expectation that we are supposed to live into, as well. Like the disciples, we are to go into the world seeking out those whom Jesus is calling. We’re supposed to be cheerleaders, encouraging them and assuring them that Jesus is calling. But we are not doing this alone. God is there, right in the middle of the action with us, cheering us onward as we seek to share his message of love and hope and grace with others. So wherever you go this week, whatever life puts in your path, however God is asking you to serve him, listen. Can you hear God cheering you on? He’s calling to you, encouraging…”You go, my Beloved one! You’ve got this!!”

Blessings and Peace,

Sara