Genesis 21:10-11 Therefore she said to Abraham, “Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, namely with Isaac.”  And the matter was very displeasing in Abraham’s sight because of his son.

Ishmael was precious to Abraham. In Genesis 17:18-20, Abraham asks that God make Ishmael the son of promise. In Genesis 21:11, we see that Sarah’s demand that Ishmael be sent away displeased Abraham because of his son. Genesis 16 tells us that Abraham was 86 when Ishmael was born. Genesis 21 tells us that Abraham was 100 when Isaac was born. God spoke to Abraham and verified that Ishmael must be sent away. Isaac was the son of promise. Ishmael was 14 years old when sent away.

In life, we must be willing to let go of the precious to receive the promise. We must be willing to release what we value to receive God’s best. Often, we miss the promise because we refuse to surrender the precious.

There are times that what is precious to us is also poison to us. The precious today poisons the promise of tomorrow, distracting our focus and draining our resources. The precious may be a poison relationship. The precious may be trying to save a wayward child. The precious may be a job with a big paycheck. The precious may be a mortgage beyond our means. The list is limitless. Only through self-examination can we identify the precious blocking the promise.

God doesn’t always require that we release the precious, but He does require that we always be willing to release the precious. With both hands desperately grasping the precious, we have no hands free to receive God’s loving promise. Be willing to release the precious that you might be available to receive the promise.

Isaiah 43:19 Behold, I will do a new thing, now it shall spring forth; Shall you not know it? I will even make a road in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

A survivor of a small plane crash found himself floating in the ocean. He’d been afloat for hours with no life vest, surviving by floating on his back. After so many hours, he was exhausted and thought the end to be near. In the darkness, he saw something coming toward him. It looked like a predator, so he slapped at the water, but still it came. As he slapped outward, expecting to be attacked, his hand struck wood. It was driftwood, arriving in the nick of time, as a flotation device, saving his life. He gratefully grabbed hold. What had been scary was now prized!

Later in his ordeal, he spotted land! Ecstatic, he started to kick his legs. After expending much energy, he realized that the wood he was grasping was being swept out from the shore by the outgoing tide. He had to make a choice – hold on to the wood and continue to float or let go of the wood and swim for shore, taking the risk that he may not be strong enough to make it. If he let go and was not strong enough, he would have plenty of time to think what a fool he’d been to let the blessing go. If he didn’t, he’d have plenty of time to wonder what might have been if he had swam for shore.

He let go of the wood. He realized that this blessing was a passing blessing, not meant to be permanent. Though scary and risky, he knew that, in order to reach the shore, he had to let go.

How many times does God send a passing blessing to help us stay afloat and we, in fear, try to make it a permanent blessing? God sends a job to allow us to raise our family, but, when the family is raised, we cling to the job, while the tide of time sweeps us along, floating in an ocean of empty things and missed purpose.

Not all blessings are meant to be a permanent part of our life. Some blessings are meant to be passing. Some people are meant to come and then go. Seasons will change. Situations change. Circumstances change. It’s an undeniable truth of life.

Each of us face times in our life when we are challenged to “let go of the driftwood”. We reach a time when we feel unfulfilled, knowing that there is more to life. God may be sending a clear message that the blessing we’re clinging to was never meant to become our permanent home. We know that possessions are not purpose.

God promises that He will do a new thing, make a road in the wilderness of our anxiety, make a river in the desert of our fear, but we must first know it! We must trust that the same God who sent the driftwood to keep us from drowning will make a way in the wilderness and provide refreshment in the desert. But we must choose to let go.

Not all blessings are meant to be permanent. Sometimes, they’re meant to be used, appreciated, and then released, in anticipation of the next blessing to come. Had the man in our story never let go of the log he would have almost certainly died. Instead, he let go, found himself exhausted, never made the shoreline, floated on his back yet a while longer, and was rescued by a fishing boat that sped him to a dock where a waiting ambulance sped him to the hospital, barely in time to save his life.

We must choose to believe that God is making roads in the wilderness, rivers in the desert. We also must trust when God prompts us to let go of what is holding us back and tells us to swim. God doesn’t promise that the shore we see is the one we will reach. He simply promises that He will bring us safely to the shore.

What passing blessing are you clinging to as permanent today?

Hebrews 6:1 Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God

Growing up, we had a doorpost leading into the kitchen where Mama and Daddy measured our growth. They’d put our back against the doorpost and, using a ruler or a book, they’d carefully make a mark. The difference between the lower mark and the higher represented our physical growth.

As a child, I knew I was growing. The fact that my pants legs were too short and looked like I was preparing for a flood served as evidence. Though I saw this evidence, it was still a great feeling when Daddy pulled that ruler away and we turned to see a mark higher up on the doorpost. There is the old mark and here is the new mark. Growth had indeed taken place. I was able to clearly compare a past growth mark to my current state.

Some never make that mark. Some never engage in self-examination. Some never drive a clear stake in the ground and declare it as the baseline for determining growth.

As we approach the changing of the year, this is a great time to take that measure of our current spirit. Between today and tomorrow, I’ll be sitting, probably more than once, and taking stock of my current spirit. I’ll look at the measurement I took last year and I’ll compare to the current measure. God will reveal growth. How much higher is the mark this year than the mark last year? Based on this mark, I’ll lay out a plan of daily activities, with periodic milestones. I’ll set calendar reminders and post reminders in highly visible places.

As we close this year, take a moment to back up against the doorpost of your mind and allow God to reveal a measure. Consider the state of the spirit within. Let Him place a mark. We can’t measure the growth if we never take the baseline measure. How will we know we have grown if we have no mark to compare?

Get clear on the current state of spirit. Strive to clarify and focus. Consume spiritual nourishment and exercise spiritual gifts. Be amazed, at the end of 2019, to step back and look at the growth experienced through God’s leading and grace.

Psalm 103: 1-5 Bless the Lord, O my soul; And all that is within me, bless His holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, And forget not all His benefits: Who forgives all your iniquities, Who heals all your diseases, Who redeems your life from destruction, Who crowns you with lovingkindness and tender mercies,  Who satisfies your mouth with good things, So that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

As we approach 2019, I happened to be reading Psalm 103. In it, David is giving thanks to God for the blessings in his life. I find his order of thanksgiving for the benefits of God interesting. In math, there is a concept known as “order of operations”. When presented with an equation, there is a certain order that we must follow to solve the equation and arrive at the right answer. Many fail to respect the order of operation and end up with an incorrect answer, genuinely frustrated because they thought they had the right answer.

David follows an order of Thanksgiving here. It’s a flow, much like the mathematical order of operations. He starts with thanking God for the benefit of relationship and communion with Him. This is always the place to start with God. We must always start with heartfelt appreciation for the forgiveness and restoration of relationship that we find in Christ. Without this restoration, nothing else matters and we ultimately end up with an incorrect answer.

Next, David thanks God for healing him of his sicknesses. We too must thank God for our health. How many health risks has God removed from us, sometimes without us even knowing we were at risk? How many times has He healed without us knowing we needed healing? Ask any person struggling with health and you will quickly realize that health is a blessing. For those of us who wake up in health, whatever the state, it is a blessing that is denied others. We must be thankful for His blessing when we are able to rise in the morning and spend another day serving Him.

Next, David thanks God for redeeming his life from destruction. We too must thank God for redeeming our life from destruction. How many times has God redeemed us? Who knows? Some redemption takes place without us knowing we’re in trouble. How might life be different if God were not in our life? God restores and redeems. He is slow to anger and quick to redeem. The Bible states that pride goeth before destruction. God grants us humility, so we might avoid pride.

David continues to thank God for His loving kindness and tender mercies. We too must thank God for love, kindness, and mercy.

Finally, David thanks God for the good things that satisfy the appetite. Notice the last thing in this order of thanksgiving is earthly, physical, “body satisfying” things.

In the order of thankfulness, food and things are not worth much without love and kindness. Love and kindness don’t mean much when our life is in a state of destruction. An ordered life doesn’t hold much enjoyment when our health is failing. Great health and all the rest mean nothing without the highest order of the operation – a relationship with Almighty God through Jesus.

We spend so much time on the last operation. We focus so little on the first. Yet, the first is where all the others start their cascade. In 2019, let’s focus more on the relationship and communion with God and let the others flow from this first operation.

Luke 2:14 “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”

On this Christmas morning, as I reflect on the Christmas story, the birth of Jesus, and the greatest gift ever given, I’m struck by the instructions given by the heavenly host just before departing the shepherds on that glorious night. Glory to God in the highest first… then peace and goodwill toward men.

How often Christmas becomes about the tree, the dinner, the presents, the in-laws. While certainly beautiful decorations and nice presents are fun,and gathering with family and friends can be nice, God instructs us to bring (at the least) two gifts on Christmas day, He doesn’t leave us guessing – We are to first give glory to Him for the wonder of Christ’s birth. That is our first focus on Christmas morning – praise and glory to His name for the gift given long ago.

After we give Him glory, we are to bring out the second gift – Peace and Goodwill to those around us. This is a choice and completely independent of whether anyone else shows up with their peace and goodwill or not! This is not a gift swap. This is a time for us to give regardless of what we receive.

This peace is to be to ALL, not just those we like. This Goodwill is to be to everyone, even the person who said ugly things about our sweater last year. The peace and goodwill is another worship to God. It is a second worship and, by it’s very practice, Gives Glory to God in the Highest! We are accomplishing the first command, while exercising the second command. It sounds oddly reminiscent of Matthew 22:37-39 – Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ We love God by loving others. We give glory to God when we love others.

Today, bring the two greatest gifts. Before anything else, Give Glory to God in the Highest. Then, continue to give Him glory and praise by bringing Peace on earth and Goodwill to all men and women, everywhere you roam.

Merry Christmas.

Luke 2:49 And He said to them, “Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?”

In context, Jesus asked this of His parents when they found Him in the temple talking with the scholars. They’d found Him missing and understandably were scared that their child had wandered off. They admonished Him and this was the answer He gave.

This is a question every believer must answer in our walk with the Lord – “Why did you seek Me?” What do we hope to find? What does following Jesus mean to us? Who is He in the “everyday” of our lives?

Believers will inevitably hit rough water… sickness, financial problems, family crises. It’s a fact of life. Jesus is not bubble wrap for our comfort. Why did we seek Him? Rough waters allow us to grow into a deeper understanding of why we sought Him. Hard times challenge our faith. Pain and grief cause us to grow into more intimate relationship with Him. It’s when all our worldly safety nets are failing and our earthly anchors are coming loose in the storm that we seek God desperately and with a brokenness of heart that receives the seeds of His change.

Yet, we don’t like these rough waters. We fight them. It’s during these times that Jesus asks us the second question – “Did you not know I must be about My Father’s business?” Think about this question. This is Jesus’ eyes looking directly into our soul. Talk about a showstopping moment.

What is the Father’s business with us? It is to change us into the image of His Son. It is to cause us to serve one another. It is to grow us in relationship with Him. It is to get us to trust and draw closer. It makes sense then that, given the fact that rough waters, tribulations, and persecutions cause us to draw closer, that Jesus will allow into our lives exactly these things.

Why did we seek Him? To obtain a deeper and richer, more fulfilling relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Well, since this is our goal, why does it amaze us when Jesus goes about doing just this in our lives? Why does it amaze us when our faith is challenged? Did we not know that He would be about His Father’s business? Did we believe we could seek and find, yet never experience the business side of our walk? We knew He must be about just that. If nothing changed after we sought Jesus, did we really find Him?

The questions still echo down through the ages to every believer today. Jesus wasn’t just asking His mother and father. He asks us, when we become frustrated with life and it all seems too much – Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?

Why indeed? Did we not know these days would come?

Luke 2:8 Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.

Just another ordinary night with the sheep… as the shepherds walked to the fields where the flock grazed, I can imagine that the conversation swirled around the ordinary things in life. One may have been commenting on how his knee was acting up. Another may have been lamenting that he was unable to find a wife. Another hadn’t slept well and it was going to be a long night. Miracles happen every moment. Every heartbeat is a miracle. Every baby born is a miracle. Every breath is a miracle. Walking is a miracle. Reading is a miracle. Remembering is a miracle. Ask a paralyzed person if walking is a miracle, a blind man if seeing is a miracle, a person losing memory to Alzheimers disease if remembering is a miracle – the answer will be a resounding yes. Albert Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” What if we started living life as though everything was a miracle? What if every breath became a reason for thanksgiving? What if we viewed every person as a miracle straight from God? What if every plant, animal, and even the stones on the ground became a source of fascination for us? Too often, we wait for the angel choir to begin singing. We expect a star to appear above our heads. We willfully remain blind to the miracles all around us. We refuse to see the blessing in every breath. There’s a great probability though that we won’t see an angel and no heavenly host will sing to us. We must choose to see the miracles all around us. In this Christmas season, choose to appreciate the miracle of family and friends, choose to embrace the miracle of independent thought, even when we don’t agree with the thought. Choose to love our neighbor, even when he doesn’t look or worship like us. Choose to love our body, with all it’s aches and pains and wrinkles. Choose to rejoice in the miracle that God loves us, even when He knows us better than we know ourselves. Miracles are found in our ordinary moments. Blessing arrives one breath at a time. As Albert Einstein said – we choose how we will see life… Choose to see everyone and everything in life as a blessing, a miracle straight from God this Christmas season.

Luke 10: 38-42 Now it happened as they went that He entered a certain village; and a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word. But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.” And Jesus answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Christmas can become a very stressful time when we allow it. There are decorations to hang, gifts to purchase, plays to attend, business to finish, family situations to navigate, food to fix, and the list goes on endlessly. Many are the givers and more are the receivers. It can be a frantic time.

Though not technically a Christmas story, the story of Mary and Martha is indeed a story that plays out in families and organizations at Christmas time. Everyone knows a Martha. Martha is frantically trying to decorate the perfect house, buy the perfect gift, take the perfect Christmas photo, and be all things to all people. Yet, Christmas holds little joy. It holds far more resentment. There’s resentment of a sibling not doing a perceived part or a spouse not “stepping up”. Thoughts race about overwork and under-appreciation. Anger simmers. Joy slips away. This plays out year after year in human gatherings everywhere.

Yet, Jesus is very clear. Choose Joy. Choose the best part. Choose to maintain joy in service to others. He says that Mary has “chosen” the good part. She has chosen to focus, not on the world and all the “have to” items in it, but on the things of God. 

Do we choose to be Joyful at this time of the year? Do we serve with Joy? Is the money, present, decoration, or photo what we’ll recall? Or will we recall the warmth of a grandparents hand, the hug of a child, the laugh of a newborn, or the unplanned picture of silly happenings? 

This year, choose to be Joyful in all that Christmas has to offer. Start with Joy at Christ’s birth. Each cookie baked, each concert attended, each card addressed – be sure that Joy is present. If it is a requirement, an expectation, or drudgery, reframe it to something Joy-filled and Joyful.

It’s easy to become Martha – worried and troubled about many things. Jesus says that we must choose the good part. We must choose to have a smile in our hearts that matches the one on our lips. When it all becomes more trouble than it’s worth, we need to consider why we’re doing it? Who are we serving? Others…. or our ego? 

Service, absent the indwelling of Joy, is a gift to no one. Joy is a gift received, even while it is being given. Christmas is about choosing the good part – Joy, Peace, Love – while we serve one another.

Matthew 7:3-5 And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Too often, we’re lightning quick to find the fault in others. The term “toxic” is thrown around these days. We speak about how an environment is toxic or a person is toxic. We talk about toxic relationships. We tear down a person we perceive did us a grievous wrong… never stopping to ask – what was my part?

What a powerless place to live… in a place where someone else holds all the influence and we are simply living at their toxic mercy… poor, poor me.  

Taking personal responsibility for every situation in our life is true power. Power is found in realizing that we are not at the mercy of a “toxic” situation. Ultimately, it’s our responsibility to manage our relationships in such a way as is nurturing to our souls and not toxic. This is true power. This is true self control. This is true growth.

We need not complain about how someone is treating us, when we have not first determined how we demand to be treated. What is allowed once will be repeated. We teach others how to treat us. 

Who then is the toxin? Is it the person acting on what is allowed? Or is the toxin the person allowing the act? It takes a lot of courage to admit that we bear a large part of the  responsibility for how we are being treated. Few possess such courage. It’s easier to tell others to go get fixed, than to look inside and ask, “Why must I tear another down to feel more powerful? What am I communicating that is giving others the idea that I approve toxicity in my life?” 

When we constantly find toxic people in our life, tolerate toxic behavior, frequent toxic places, perhaps we are our own toxin… Perhaps, no one else is really to blame.