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The Last Word

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It can be easy to get caught up in the minutiae that make up most of our days. They nibble away through each hour telling us that we’ll have time later to make that phone call or visit, write that letter or apology. We got caught up in the dailyness of life, of making our points as we can, of wanting to be heard, and sometimes in getting the last word.

Some of us have no need to “have the last word” as they say. We keep our dearest opinions to ourselves and play our cards close to the chest, but even so there can be times when we feel so strongly that we step out of that role and attempt it. And it seems that increasingly often more and more people are seeking to have that last word, to insist on their opinion or right, but what does that goal mean?

According to the Collins dictionary, it means the following:

“If someone has the last word or the final word in a discussion, argument, or disagreement, they are the one who wins it or who makes the final decision.”

Collins Dictionary

This desire or tendency does not seem to be one we need to be taught. It appears to be part of the human DNA since we so often see it in young children as they play together or compete for the toy they want or the person’s attention they seek. Parents and teachers seek to train us to manage that tendency and it seems to work for some, but others are still going strong by their teenage years and beyond. A quick stop at any social media site or news outlet will show you that we live in a time when winning at any or all costs is all that matters to some (even if winning means destroying someone or something else more precious than the thing being fought for).

Are we so lost in the minutiae that we have forgotten the power we wield when we put those “last words” out there?

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Are the words we speak or shout at others, ones that we would be able to hear and find some value in them? Would they cause us to think more deeply, consider a new perspective, alter an old bias or would they stoke the embers of old wounds, prejudices, and anger that would produce in us the same response we hate so much from someone else that is directed toward us?

Have we forgotten that we will need to give an account for our words – if not in this life, in the one hereafter? We so easily toss them around at times that it would seem we very well may have forgotten that reality.

Matthew’s Gospel gives us a clear reminder:

“But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.”

Matthew 12:36 (NIV)

We may well have forgotten that what falls from our lips speaks to what fills our hearts and swirls around in our minds.

We can be brought to immediate attention by the last words of someone who is leaving us either for some assignment or in death. It is then that we will often pause to consider what we most want to say. We don’t want to miss reminding that person that we love them or perhaps that we are sorry for something that we have not addressed before that moment. But it is much harder to remember that none of us can say or know when what we say will be the last words someone else will hear. Whatever we may say at such a time will likely be remembered for longer than we might imagine.

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If we seek a model for someone who made every word count, every word matter, and had no regrets when his last words came, surely, they would be that of Jesus. Every Lenten season, every Good Friday, messages focus on the last words He spoke as He hung on the cross. But we must not forget that He knew that his time was short and over and over again, Jesus spoke the words that He wanted us to know mattered. He spoke the words He wanted us to know were the guideposts for how we were to live when He no longer walked the earth. They pointed the way that He knew we would stumble in without his help. Those last words from the cross, those final words said so long ago are ones that we still savor, but in the years before that one we can glean so much wisdom and discernment for how, when, and what words we choose to say or write and whether they merit the value of being the last words we will ever be known for.

Perhaps if we immerse ourselves more in Him and his words the need to be right and win in every discussion and argument can be harnessed and brought into subjection. And if we can do that, then our words will speak life instead of death to the person hearing or reading them.

“The words you read in Scripture aren’t just encouraging or inspiring. Those descriptions of heaven aren’t just colorful phrases. Those teachings of Jesus aren’t just good ideas or principles. They are real life, both now and to come.”

Margaret Feinberg in The Sacred Echo

If we immerse ourselves in his words, they will begin to echo in our hearts and minds and then we may hope to have our words align more with his words, our heart beat with things that matter most to Him, and we will learn when we are to be silent, when we are to speak, and when we are to stand for the cause of his kingdom.


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Hazards of Success

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Success is highly valued in the world today no matter what country, culture, faith, company, ministry, or person. Only the criteria for what would constitute success varies in the list noted. Even as believers we are tempted to chase that illusive benchmark. Some look at quantity as evidence while others insist that quality is the most important. In both cases, we get stuck because how much is enough and what does quality look like?

I wonder why success matters so much to us. If I were to survey a group of people, I would likely get a variety of answers. The real answer might not appear in the list, however, because success is often sought in order to confirm to ourselves that we are enough or we are valuable or we are important. If those roots are true, then success will likely be always just beyond our reach since we will never achieve enough to be certain of who we are, why we are, or what we have done.

Clearly, none of us set out to pursue failure or mediocrity, but the desire for success can be a fickle lover that tempts us to forget the source of our value and purpose if we ever knew it. It can also seduce us into believing that if we achieve anything that somehow it came from us rather than from a gracious God who blessed us and whatever efforts we used to reach some goal set before us. That is but one hazard of success.

Success can also lead us into greater temptation to compare ourselves with others. This is always full of snares. We either determine we are less than or not good enough compared to some other mortal who has as many flaws as we do or we fall prey to seeing ourselves as better than the model we chose to compare ourselves. It points to another example of a hazard.

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When success is the primary goal, we make relational choices that are often based on whether or not these persons will add to or help us get to the target goal. In doing so, we may well ignore or overlook a host of warning signs that let us know the relationship may not be good for us. Without consciously acknowledging it, we use the other persons for our own benefit without much regard for him or her. We also expose the reality of our own selfish self-centeredness.

All of these hazards and more can cause us to place our trust in the wrong things and people. If we have read very much of nearly any part of the Bible, we see how common it is for us to fall prey to such hazards. In the Old Testament despite God’s favor and provision for his chosen people, time and again foreign cultures are hired to provide protection and God needs to allow His people to discover their faulty choices. In the New Testament we see the religious leaders of the day trusting in the law and phylacteries when the fulfillment of the law stands in front of them.

Too often we can be tempted to look to someone or something other than the Lord to lead us to success and save us from calamity. We are not so different than our Old Testament brothers and sisters who didn’t seek a personal relationship with God as central/primary and see Him as their leader and source and instead chose flawed earthly kings. They forgot (as we often do) that they were to be citizens of an eternal heavenly kingdom above an earthly one they were trusting.

I recently read a Bible commentator who put it this way:

“Cut off from God’s kingship, the people of God are left with only private religion and personal ambition. God is the king, however, and will not long tolerate seeing his people destroy themselves.”

When we get weighed down by the headlines around the world or our own personal lives and hope for a solution and peace, perhaps the psalmist still says it best:

“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.

They collapse and fall, but we rise and stand upright.”

Psalm 20:7-8 (ESV)

And, by the way, only the Lord’s standard will determine the criteria for success in our lives!

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The Whisperers

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Blackberry Farm, Walland, TN Photo by Pam Ecrement

God gives some a special gift.

This gift allows the one possessing it to tame or train an animal using non-threatening body language and gentle words rather than reliance on physical contact.

Those who possess this gift are known as “whisperers”. Within them lays an intuition and heart that understands at an unusual level.

In 1998, a movie was released that depicts this perfectly. The movie was The Horse Whisperer. In it, a young adolescent girl and her horse are seriously injured in an accident. Both the girl and the horse have been deeply traumatized by their own injuries as well as by the death of the girl’s friend who had been also riding alongside them.

The girl’s physical injuries are significant, but the internal damage to her heart and spirit are even more severe. Her beloved horse has such grave injuries; the veterinarian believes the horse needs to be “put down”. Not only is the horse physically wounded, but also he is like his rider, wounded within his heart and personality.

It becomes clear to the mother of the girl that her healing is tied to that of the horse. This leads her to search for a horse whisperer that can bring healing to both the horse and her daughter.

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Photo by Pam Ecrement

As the movie unfolds, the gifting of the horse whisperer is tested and fascinating to behold. Little by little he intuitively uses his gifts to begin to bring the horse to a greater level of wholeness, but the girl’s heart takes longer to heal. The trauma shared by the girl and the horse creates a fear that overwhelms each of them in their relationship with each other.

I never fail to be touched by the story as it unfolds on the screen.

When I was still working, I met with a woman whose life had been shattered by a car accident. One of the tools we used to help her face the accident was this movie, shown in very little segments. Not only had her body been traumatized, but also her heart and her spirit.

Many of us may have seen the movie or heard of other whisperers with various animals.

The truth is that many of us, humans, have been wounded and traumatized. What about us? Are we in need of such a whisperer as well to gently tend to our hearts and spirits?

I think so.

Jesus gives us a model of what that might look like. He saw the wound. He heard the words, but He heard beyond what He saw and heard. He looked deeply into the heart and spirit of the person and saw what others missed.

Did Jesus have discernment beyond any we have ever seen? Of course He did, but there was something else perhaps.

Jesus had a God-listening heart!

He was in communion with His Father at a level few of us can imagine. The Father who made each person and knew each one at a depth no one else could know surely spoke to His heart and revealed all to Him.

Because of that, His words were never trite, superficial, filled with religious prattle, or inconsequential.

The ordinary men He called to be His disciples appeared pale by comparison, especially at the outset. But over time after Jesus’s death, resurrection, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, we begin to see a change in them. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit begins to train them to see beyond what is clearly in front of them, to have faith for what they could not believe on their own.

Maybe they were developing God-listening hearts. I think the Lord was fine-tuning their listening so they could be more like Him. Perhaps that was central to what His Kingdom was and is to look like while we occupy waiting for Him.

In this world of self-centeredness, frenetic activity, and quick fix solutions, what could serve as a more phenomenal witness of Christ within us than to be one with a God-listening heart?

I think a God-listening heart hears differently because it hears not only what is spoken by the person or seen in the person, but also what is left unsaid or only touched upon.

To respond to that which the God-listening heart reveals is perhaps the greatest love gift any of us can receive. And such love transforms and heals, comforts and grants courage in the face of trials.

Do I have a God-listening heart?

Do you?

Jesus is not physically here, but He is inside of us. I think He is calling us to have such a heart as His. Such a heart hears the checkout clerk at the grocery store differently, hears the seemingly casual conversation with the neighbor more astutely, and hears the heart of a friend when few words were spoken.

Are you a whisperer?

Let Jesus develop a God-listening heart within you and watch how He loves through you!

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Blackberry Farm, Walland, TN – Photo by Pam Ecrement

Don’t Fill in the Blanks

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It happens so easily to us…

Sometimes it can happen when we are enjoying coffee with a friend. Conversation is flowing back and forth and then our friend hesitates and doesn’t continue with where the conversation was headed. The unfinished communication can leave us hanging and wondering. If we know the person well, we may ask about it but often we will not take that risk and later we start to fill in the empty spots in that part of the conversation with various speculations.

It can happen when we sent a note to someone and there is no response. The silence leaves us wondering if the note arrived, struck the wrong tone, or any number of other thoughts that might crop up. We are ripe for doubts about the relationship and whether or not we matter or are valued by the other person. Depending on what we do next determines whether we draw a little line in our hearts that make us less open to the person in the future.

There was a time not so many years ago when the pace of life was slower. Friends would “sit a spell” and visit on front porches over iced tea or lemonade. The fine art of writing letters gave opportunities to express yourself in depth without interruption. Back then even the handwriting and the paper used gave us a sense of the person and we often saved the letters to reread when we felt a need to reconnect with the other person’s heart or thoughts. Those were the “good old days.” But invention and options changed and before we could even catch up, we were moving from a phone that hung on the wall in our kitchens to a phone we could hold in our hand that could connect us to the world in seconds.

Communication became quicker and easier, but it wasn’t necessarily better. We started to catch up with each other in sound bites with abbreviations that not everyone knew. There was more and more room for misunderstanding and temptations to fill in the blanks of incomplete sound bites.

Be honest – how do you react when you send a text message or video clip and get no response?

Incomplete communication or silence when we have reached out stirs up our inadequacies and offers us lots of space to start having doubts. And it doesn’t just happen in personal relationships. It happens in our various groups and organizations, when we watch or listen to news of any kind, and even in our ministry connections. We start to fill in those empty spots with our own questions, uncertainties, and disappointments.

And it can happen in our relationship with the Lord as well.

Photo by Pam Ecrement

“While many sounds can hurt our ears, I think silence is the most painful because it can hurt our hearts. In the silence, we are tempted to fill in the blanks in our life, our future, and our relationship with God. And that’s dangerous. In the silence, we are tempted with doubt and fear, and, worst of all, we may resort to godlessness that sprouts from trying to make things happen on our own. Meanwhile, we’re prone to make agreements that are not founded in truth. Thoughts like God is not good, God is not trustworthy, and God does not care sink into our souls. Like a barbed hook, they don’t leave easily. Once the wound is inflicted and the hook ensnared, the infection of disappointment and disillusionment sets in. Before we know what has happened, anger surfaces, followed by guilt. In an effort to handle the guilt, anger, disillusionment, and disappointment, we draw a line. After all, lines are simple. Lines are straightforward. Lines make us feel safe.”

Margaret Feinberg in The Sacred Echo

It can and does happen in potentially any and all relationships. Trust erodes and the next attempt at interaction comes from a little distance and as a result adds to the dissatisfaction and the gap widens and the line gets reinforced and with it a callus starts to form on our hearts.

We become self-protective. We decide it is better not to pray so we aren’t disappointed more than we already are.

“I won’t ask God for anything he won’t give.”

“I won’t ask God for anything too specific.”

“I won’t ask God for anything too personal. Too meaningful. Too miraculous.”

“That way, neither God nor I have to cross the line. The line of self-protection works perfectly, except for one little problem: whenever we draw a line with God it’s as if something inside of us dies.”

Margaret Feinberg in The Sacred Echo

If the habit continues as it can easily do, we can find ourselves in a very dry and desolate place. We tend to isolate ourselves from others as the process is occurring and then lament that no one cares about us. We don’t reach out to others as we once did. We skip going to the group gatherings we used to attend. We sit by ourselves in a concert or congregation and each time we make those choices, we die a bit more inside and our hearts become more callused and can harden as well.

It’s not unique to this time and place. We see that many like David or Elijah believed they were alone, and God had deserted them along with everyone else.

The good news is that God continues to try to reach our hearts.

“…when we draw lines with God, he does not draw them with us. He is committed to breaking us out of our imprisoned thinking and renewing our minds and hearts and spirits with the truth. God wants to set us free and often he will use others to do it.”

“He wants to erase the lines, even the hidden ones, and bring redemption and restoration. No place is off limits for God. No hurt, pain, or disappointment is beyond his healing power.”

Margaret Feinberg in The Sacred Echo

That is truly good news, but there is another piece we need to recognize as well. If we drew lines that resulted in our hearts that made them callused or hardened, He longs for us to own that truth, confess that, and repent of shutting Him out. Scripture makes clear that He will pursue us, but He will not knock down the door to our hearts. Only we can open them to the Shepherd’s gentle knock.

“Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you;

    therefore he will rise up to show you compassion.

For the Lord is a God of justice.

    Blessed are all who wait for him!”

Isaiah 30:18 (NIV)

Chasing Shadows

When Adolf Hitler and the Nazi war machine began to roll across the European continent in WW II, their confidence was high and one country they believed they could count on was the Netherlands. The Dutch of this country were considered by the Nazis to be Aryan brothers and they expected they would fold into the Third Reich easily. But there was one thing they had not considered or counted on – Dutch Christians across the nation considered a higher power than they and refused to yield to the evil schemes and demands of the Nazi war machine. The Dutch Christians stood on the biblical principles they held dear and many of them lost their lives in doing so. They not only sought to fight back with military weapons, but also fought back by developing a network of people who risked all to hide the Jewish people among them and later the Resistance fighters that needed a safe place to hide.

Lynn Austin’s newest novel, Chasing Shadows, gives us a glimpse into some of those people and that time period. The title refers to those people who were hidden for protection and could only risk slipping from barns, haystacks, and all manner of hiding places at night for a bit of fresh air or food. They are referred to as the “shadow people” in Austin’s novel.

This compelling story weaves together a series of characters in ways only God could arrange, or Lynn Austin could conceive. Their paths intersect in unexpected, often challenging and dangerous ways. The de Vries family is central in the story and their journey spans from June 1939 through the fall of 1945. Lena, wife, and mother, is a character any woman can identify with as she seeks to keep her family safe and provide for them amid danger and lack of provision for daily life increases each year. Other family members you will meet are Pieter, her husband, Ans, the oldest daughter, Wim, a son, and the youngest daughter, Maaike.

Lena and Ans are two of the three women who are focal points of the unfolding tale. Their lives change immediately when the Nazis invade their beloved Netherlands in ways neither of them expect. The third woman, Miriam, is a young Jewish woman, who has immigrated with her father from Cologne, Germany to the Netherlands to escape the rise of the Nazi hatred of all Jews. You sense the anguish and sorrow she and her father felt as they fled Germany and left the rest of their family behind who trusted the Nazis would never do what Miriam and her father believed.

One of the powerful themes of the story is how faith is challenged and evolves for each one of the characters in the story as it unfolds.

Lena and her family have been active in the church where her father serves as the pastor, but Ans has been eager to shun the simple farm life of her family and her uncertain views on their faith to move to a nearby town. Miriam has not been active in her Jewish faith traditions nor well versed in the Torah. But the challenges each of the characters face allows God to open their eyes in new ways to discover what they had not believed or taken for granted previously.

Tests come for each one that means they are left alone to wrestle with God and what they believe, and it makes it easy to pause and consider (as a reader) how any one of us would respond in the same kind of places.

When standing for your faith and godly principles mean risking your life, it puts faith to a test unlike others that life hands us. It makes how we love others (even our enemies) come front and center into focus and examines whether we are willing to lay down our lives for others we may not even know. Together these tests reveal how much scripture we have heard and hidden in our hearts and how the hymns we have sung have echoed in our spirits. In trying times these are the things the Holy Spirit can bring to mind to lead and strengthen any one of us.

This book will keep you turning every page as you deal with the uncertainty of what will happen next with each of these characters and others you will meet. The fate of each will not be clear until the book ends.

Let me leave you with a quote from near the end of the book that gives you a glimpse of how the faith of one character changes. The quote comes as she sits in church after the war has ended and begins to reflect on who she was and who she became on the journey you read in Chasing Shadows:

“As she listened, the past came rushing back to her – the discontent she’d once felt in church, her restlessness and longing for something different. And with those memories came a flood of guilt. How arrogant she’d been to say that the church didn’t make a difference in people’s lives. She’d had no idea how God was working in their minds and hearts. She’d chafed at sitting here week after week, but the words and songs had worked their way deep inside her just the same, and she’d found them rooted there when she’d needed them so desperately.”

Lynn Austin in Chasing Shadows

Let us never underestimate the power of scripture and worship music that can seep into us even when we have discounted them, but also let us take every opportunity to soak more and more into these things – and never take them for granted.

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