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“Ooh! He’s so cute!” The four-year-old preschool class passes around my stuffed lamb excitedly. We’re learning the names of animals in Spanish class, and today’s animal is ‘el cordero’ = the lamb.

“What color is el cordero?” I ask the class. Hands shoot up eagerly. These kids know their colors in Spanish. “Yes, Joshua?”

“Blanco!” shouts Joshua confidently.

“Muy bien! Very good. And who can tell me about the lamb? What does it feel like?”

“It’s SUAVE! Soft!” grins Kyleigh, stroking the stuffed animal.

“That’s right! Did you know that Jesus is called ‘El Cordero de Dios’ – the Lamb of God?” Ten pairs of eyes are fixed on me and my white stuffed lamb. “In Bible times, if people did something wrong, they would give a lamb as a gift to God, to tell Him they were sorry. And they would ask God to forgive them. And do you think God forgave them?”

“Yes!” chorus the preschoolers.

“But when Jesus came, He was called the ‘Lamb of God’. And He took away all the bad things we’ve done when He died on the cross and came to life again. So now if we do something wrong, we just have to tell Jesus we’re sorry and ask Him to forgive us. And does God forgive us?”

“YES!”

“Aren’t you glad you don’t have to drag a big smelly sheep to church every time you do something wrong?”

Charlotte giggles as Caleb makes a bleating sound like a lamb. “Baa! Baa!”

Watching the preschoolers color their lamb pictures, I have to smile. Trying to explain Jesus as the Lamb of God to a group of 4-year-olds is not easy. But it’s given me a new understanding and appreciation of what it means to be forgiven – not because I deserve it, not because I’ve earned it, not because I’ve “paid” for it. Forgiveness is a free gift. The Lamb of God has come to bring forgiveness, so that I can forgive, and so that I can be FREE!

Have YOU received the FORGIVENESS offered by the Lamb of God?

Going Vertical!
MJ

The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!
John 1:29 (NLT)

THE THIEF

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“Hello? Hello?”

An eerie stillness met me in the semi-dark apartment as I tentatively pushed the door open. Maybe my roommate had come home early from her babysitting job and forgotten to close the front door…

But then I saw that the back door was open too. Something was not right.

“Anyone here?” Peeking around corners, throwing open closet doors, jabbing behind the shower curtain, I explored every room in the house. But when I saw the clothes strewn on the floor in my bedroom, boxes pulled out from the closet, and my jewelry box dumped out, I couldn’t deny it any longer.

Someone had broken into our apartment.

“Anything else missing?” Officer Mills asked, checking his report. “Electronics? Laptop? Cash?” I answered his questions mechanically while a detective dusted for fingerprints and snapped photos, and his partner interviewed the neighbors.

“No, I don’t think so…” Then I remembered. My iPad. I almost always took it to work, using it in my classes to show videos, enter grades, or plan lessons. But that day I didn’t need it and had left it home, plugged in next to my bed… I rushed back into my room. Of course, it was gone. That and one gold watch and two valuable necklaces of my roommate were all that were taken.

Finally the detective and the police officers left, my parents and the neighbors went home, and my roommate Maira and I were left alone in the house. Though we locked and barred all the doors and checked all the windows several times, I still didn’t feel safe. Strangers had broken into our home, rifled through our personal belongings, and stolen things from us! I tried to imagine them pulling socks and underwear out of my dresser, dumping out my desk drawers, escaping out the back door… It gave me chills.

“We need to pray.” I didn’t FEEL like praying. I was still in shock. Yet more than the loss of the iPad and the jewelry, it was the loss of my sense of safety and security that I was concerned about. Maira and I had specifically chosen this apartment because it’s in a quiet, safe neighborhood. We’d never felt concern for our well-being here. Until now. Now I was starting to get angry – angry at the enemy who comes to “steal, kill and destroy” (John 10:10). I couldn’t let him steal my peace. It was time to fight back.

“Jesus, we declare Your peace in this place. This is YOUR house, and we are YOUR daughters. We know we are safe in Your hands.”

As we agreed in prayer, I felt a strange calmness. He is still here. I don’t understand why this happened. I don’t like it. It doesn’t make sense. But I have to trust that God is still good.

Yes, I’ll double-check the doors tonight to make sure the deadbolt is secure. But I don’t have to live in fear. Because even if I get robbed again, I know my Daddy’s holding me. My peace is not dependent on my circumstances. It’s based on the security of my relationship with Him. And that’s never going to change.

Going Vertical!
MJ

“In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, O Lord, will keep me safe.”
Psalm 4:8 (NLT)

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I hate running. Sorry, but it’s the truth.

When I hear friends talk about the “adrenaline rush” of running a half-marathon, I’m convinced that they’re not fully human. What normal human being would willingly put themselves through the punishing physical torture of pounding the pavement mile after mile? It’s not right.

Now I consider myself to be in pretty good shape. I rarely eat fried food, desserts, or red meat. I enjoy biking, or walking forest trails, and I have even been known to jump “double-dutch” with my students at recess! But recently I was appalled that my favorite black dress pants have started getting a wee bit too snug. So with the motivation of fitting in my bridesmaid’s dress for a friend’s wedding next month, I drag myself out of bed this Saturday morning, put on my tennis shoes, and head outside for some exercise.

There’s a refreshing hint of fall in the air, and I fill my lungs deeply as I start off on a light jog. After just a few minutes, however, I’m already panting for breath. I tell myself, “I’ll only go to the next lamp-post, and then I can stop.” But at the next lamp-post, I decide that I’ll go to the lake. “I’m almost to the end of this street,” I think when I get to the lake. “I’ll just round the corner and go a bit more.”

By this point, old ladies walking their poodles could easily overtake my painfully slow pace. And I avoid eye contact with any serious runners I encounter, embarrassed at my wheezing and puffing. My lungs feel like they’re going to explode, and my legs feel like jello.

Around the bend, I finally see it – the river pier. Out of somewhere deep within me comes a sudden final burst of energy. I find myself picking up the pace. “I’m almost there! I’m actually going to make it!” It seems there should be a marching band and helium balloons in honor of my accomplishment. At the end of the pier, I pause for a moment to soak in the morning sun sparkling over the still water. For one who despises running, I’ve just proven that miracles do happen – I CAN run.

Now this isn’t one of those underdog stories where I suddenly am able to compete in the Ironman triathlon. I doubt I’ll ever really ENJOY running. It still seems like cruel and unusual punishment. And it’s definitely not in my nature to keep doing something that’s painful and uncomfortable.

But I hate to say it – running is actually biblical. Paul writes in I Corinthians about “running to get the prize”. He says he “beats” or “punishes” his body, because it’s all part of his training (I Cor. 9:27). I can relate to that. Multiple times during my short run, I came very close to stopping. I started to feel sorry for myself, and felt like I “deserved” a break. It would have been so much easier to just stop.

Don’t we often feel that way when we’re faced with hard things? That nasty co-worker who seems set to make your life miserable. The difficult child who tests every boundary you set. The family member who knows exactly which buttons to push to get you riled up. Jesus never promised us that life would be easy. In fact, He assures us the opposite – “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, NIV).

Life is tough sometimes. But we can’t just sit it out because it’s too hard. So we press on. We forgive those who have offended us. We confront in love. We ask for grace in our difficult relationships, not responding out of anger or hurt, but out of a heart of forgiveness and freedom. Not because it’s easy. But because our Coach, our loving Heavenly Father, has already run the path ahead of us. He’s cheering us on. And it’s His whisper in our hearts that says, “Just a little bit more. You can do it. You’re almost Home.”

Going Vertical!
MJ

“Like an athlete I punish my body, treating it roughly, training it to do what it should, not what it wants to. Otherwise I fear that after enlisting others for the race, I myself might be declared unfit and ordered to stand aside.”
1 Corinthians 9:27 (TLB)

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“So, what have you learned about Jesus today?” Ed, the leader of the small group Bible study, looks around the circle expectantly. The air conditioner hums. The girl from Kyrgyzstan fixes her eyes firmly on the carpet. The two Taiwanese girls intently study their printout of the story. The Polish girl twists her hands in her lap.

This handful of international students have come to learn more about who God is and what the Bible says. We’ve been looking at the story of Jesus healing a man with leprosy in Mark 1. While the guy from Ukraine seems to have had some exposure to the Bible, the girl from Kyrgyzstan said at the beginning that she didn’t know anything about Jesus. So we’ve been reading over the verses slowly, explaining words or concepts that may be new to non-English speakers.

Finally the enthusiastic young Ukrainian next to Ed speaks up. “I learned that Jesus can heal people. Just by touching him and speaking!” He beams at the rest of us. Others follow his lead.

“I learned that Jesus has compassion,” someone offers. “He cares about everyone,” another pipes up.

“What about you, Andrea?” Ed asks. The tall blond girl from Poland had been eagerly asking questions during the study. Now her voice is quiet, slow.

“I feel… that Jesus is real.”

No one moves. I feel my heart pounding. My breathing sounds loud in the heavy silence.

“I don’t know why,” Andrea continues, as if she can’t believe it herself. “But right now, I feel that Jesus is real and He’s alive.”

After the study ends, Andrea seeks out one of the American college students to talk more. And that night Andrea makes the decision to give her life to Jesus.

When next week’s study comes around, Andrea excitedly flies around giving out the paperback New Testaments, drawing in people who are hanging around outside. Her excitement is contagious. “You need to come to this study! You need to read the Bible and learn about Jesus!”

No one has to ask Andrea to tell others what she’s experienced. She’s met Jesus, the One who shows compassion, the One who heals and transforms. And she wants to tell everyone about Him!

What about you? Have you had an encounter with the living Jesus? What has He done for you? Don’t keep it to yourself – give it away!

Going Vertical!
MJ

“Freely you have received; freely give.”
Matthew 10:8, NIV

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“As I watched my father’s mistress put her suitcases in his car, an animal rage came over me. I felt I could tear her apart with my hands.” Yagmur, tall and elegant with perfectly styled blond hair, spoke evenly to the audience in the church, but the pain of that childhood memory was evident. “That day I made a decision to hate my father for the rest of my life.”

Yagmur’s mother was also angry, and took out her anger in the form of physical abuse toward her daughter. “As a young girl, I had scars and bruises all over my body from my mother’s beatings. I hated my father for his unfaithfulness. And I hated my mother for her helplessness.”

“Every day my mother told me I was ugly and stupid,” Yagmur continued. “Faith comes through hearing. And I started to believe in what I was hearing.” Escaping to her room and pulling the blankets over her head, Yagmur would dream of being a beautiful princess in a long, sparkling gown. And she would imagine her mother and father smiling at her, proudly. She longed for their love.

Immediately after college, she married a charming and passionate young man, desperate to escape the abuse and pain of her home life. But soon another nightmare began. Her husband began beating her too, accusing her of unfaithfulness, demanding to know why she was a few minutes late coming home from work.

Then one day her husband held a knife to her throat, insisting that she jump out of an eighth-story window. Yagmur clung to his ankles, sobbing and pleading for her life until he let her go.

In desperation, Yagmur fled to the U.S. to start a new life. But when her second husband’s drug abuse got out of control, she found herself becoming more and more hopeless, wanting to end her life. “There is hatred and pain everywhere I go,” she thought in despair. “I can’t escape.”

Eventually Yagmur found a job working for a Christian company. Wanting to impress the boss, she joined the early-morning Bible study at the office. They were reading the story of Jesus’ encounter with the adulterous woman. Yagmur couldn’t help blurting out, “Why did he forgive her? She was not worthy to be forgiven!”

“None of us are worthy,” a co-worker explained. “But Jesus forgives us because he loves us. Even if that woman had been the only person on the earth, Jesus still would have come to earth for her and died in her place, because he loves her.”

“I was that unworthy woman,” she recalled. All the shame of her childhood, the memories of being called ugly and stupid, the feeling of being worthless, the abuse of her marriages, the abandonment and emptiness and thoughts of suicide – it all culminated one day in a desperate cry in the office restroom. “Help me, God! Have mercy! I need You!” As she dried her eyes and walked to her desk, she wondered if He even heard her.

Before she could even get back to work, Yagmur’s boss called her urgently to his office. “I’ve never done this before,” he explained hesitantly. “But I feel Jesus prompting me strongly that I need to tell you something. He says that He has heard your prayer in the bathroom. He saw you when you were a little girl. He’s been with you all this time. And He loves you and forgives you.”

Yagmur crumpled to the carpet, weeping. “Do you want Jesus to be your Lord and Savior?” Her boss was asking kindly. “YES! YES! YES!” She sobbed. Finally she had found the love she had been searching for.

Eventually Yagmur was able to forgive her father and mother for all the pain they caused her for so many years. And today Yagmur has a ministry of bringing hope and healing to girls and women around the world, through TV programming and radio broadcasts. “You are loved. You are valued. You are beautiful,” she tells them. “God has a plan for your future. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to give you a future and a hope.” She knows it is true – she is living proof.

Going Vertical!
MJ

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine.”
Isaiah 43:1b (NRSV)

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It’s a simple thing. Something I’ve done thousands of times. But today it takes all my energy to turn the key in the ignition of my car. The first attempt twists my wrapped and splinted wrist in a way that sends shooting pain towards my elbow. I drop the injured hand to my lap and wait a few seconds for the throbbing to subside. Then I awkwardly stretch my left arm across my body and around the steering wheel to turn the key with my left hand. The engine finally roars to life, and I slump back in my seat, relieved. I’m sweating and I haven’t even left the parking lot yet.

I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but sometime in the last few weeks I must have strained my wrist when lifting heavy trays of food or carrying stacks of dirty dishes at my summer catering job. The little every-day activities – chopping an avocado for guacamole, swiping my card for a Guatemalan brew at my favorite coffee shop – have suddenly become difficult and painful endeavors. And now I’m supposed to wear a splint to keep the wrist still and allow the joints and tendons to recover.

What amazes me is how this little pulled tendon in my wrist has such rippling repercussions. Each time I turn a doorknob or pour a glass of orange juice, my neck and shoulder muscles automatically tense up, my body tilts to shift weight to the left side, and my limbs contort in unnatural positions to avoid unnecessary strain on the “weak link.”

It gets me thinking of that passage in the Bible where Paul is comparing the followers of Jesus to a human body. He explains: ‘The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” …If one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (I Cor. 12:21, 26, NIV).

Just as the rest of my body can’t ignore my injured wrist and go on with life as usual, so I can’t ignore the hurts of my brothers and sisters in Christ, fellow members of the Body. The book of Hebrews tells us to “remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Heb. 13:2, NIV).

So how can I help support the “weaker members” of the Body? I can pray for the pastor imprisoned in Iran, as if his chains were around my ankles. I can write to the widowed woman in Vietnam, reminding her that she is not forgotten. And I can put my arms around the tired young mom who sits two rows behind me in church, being a friend and a listening ear when she feels discouraged and alone.

Is there a hurting member of the Body that you can pray for, support, and encourage today? Give away what you’ve received! Share the GOOD NEWS of hope and healing with someone else today – so that the Body can be whole and healthy and working as it should!

Going Vertical!
MJ

“But God has put the body together, …so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.”
(I Corinthians 12:24-25, NIV)

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The brilliant Cartagena sun beat down on the scattered group sitting on folding chairs in the open patio. A bird called, breaking the stillness. My stomach rumbled, and I glanced discreetly at my watch. How many more hours until dinner?

I was nineteen years old, in Colombia on outreach with my Youth With A Mission team. Several of the YWAM students at this Cartagena base had significant financial needs, and we were joining them in a day of prayer and fasting.

“God, what can I possibly give? I don’t have anything.” My mind kept wandering as I shifted in my chair, waiting to hear something.

Give that chapstick in your pocket to Gina. The thought came suddenly, unexpectedly. I glanced over at the Colombian girl to my left, who I’d just met this week. Surely I’d heard God wrong.

“But God, she needs money. She doesn’t need chapstick.” I shook my head and tried to clear my thoughts.

Give the chapstick in your pocket to Gina. I couldn’t ignore the nagging prompting. Give her the chapstick. Give the chapstick to Gina.

Feeling completely ridiculous, I reluctantly rose from my seat and slowly approached Gina. “God, do I really have to do this? It’s not even new! Isn’t she going to be offended that I’m giving her a tube of used chapstick? She’s going to think I’m stupid…”

Gina looked up inquisitively when I tapped her on the shoulder. “Um, I know this is weird, but…” Face flushed, I fumbled in my jeans pocket, my fingers closing on the plastic tube. “…I felt like God told me to give you this,” I muttered, thrusting it into her hand.

Her eyes widened as she looked at the tube, opened it, sniffed it, applied some to her lips.

“You won’t believe this, but I’ve just been sitting here, thinking about how I need chapstick. It’s such a small thing, but my lips have been so dry… And vanilla is my favorite scent!” Gina smiled at me through tears. “Gracias… Thank you so much.”

Slipping back into my seat, I sighed with relief. I hadn’t just imagined it. God DID speak to me.

“Did God REALLY say….?” It’s one of the Enemy’s oldest tricks in the book. Since the Garden of Eden, he’s tried to plant seeds of doubt in our minds. “Did you hear God right? Are you sure?”

In John 10:27 Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice.” We are His sheep, and He DOES speak to us. The more we listen and obey, even if it seems like a small thing, the more we can hear Him clearly. When I question my ability to hear my Heavenly Father, I remember that day in Cartagena many years ago. and a tube of vanilla chapstick. And I remind myself that I’m His sheep, and I CAN hear His voice!

Going Vertical!
MJ

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