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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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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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It’s no secret to those who know me well that I like to be in the spotlight. As a young girl, I would practice gymnastic routines in my backyard, imagining the roar of the crowd as I won Olympic gold for my country. Or I would pirouette in front of my parents’ floor-length mirror, pointing my toes just so, trying to hold my head erect with that graceful look of the ballerinas I saw on TV. And my performances in school plays, to small audiences of proud parents and squirming siblings, seemed to be just stepping-stones to my glittering future career as an actress on Broadway.

But the spotlight’s not on me tonight. As I slip in and out among tables of happily chatting guests in the candle-lit reception hall, scooping up dirty plates and refilling water glasses, I try to be as unobtrusive as possible. The black dress shirt, black pants, and long black bistro apron of my uniform are intended to help me blend in rather than stand out. As a server for a local catering company, my goal is to be unnoticed, so that all eyes can be focused on the star of the show – the bride.

As I scrape leftover food off salad plates and lug bags of trash outside to the dumpster, navigating the hot kitchen with bustling cooks and scurrying servers, I have to smile to myself. God certainly has a sense of humor. For a girl who loves to be admired and appreciated, it’s challenging to be in a job with very little recognition or appreciation.

A verse suddenly pops in to my head – “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.” It’s from Luke 17, and Jesus is making the point that when you’re working as a servant, you don’t expect thanks or reward for your efforts. Jesus Himself was our ultimate example of this attitude of humility and self-sacrifice. The Bible says that He came “not to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45).

What would make the omnipotent God of all Creation take on fragile, weak human form, and put up with the pettiness and potential pain of life on planet Earth? What made Him confident enough to kneel in the dirt to wipe the grime off Peter’s and John’s and even Judas’ feet? Jesus knew that His identity didn’t come from others’ praise or recognition. One week the crowds were ready to crown Him as the conquering hero, the next week they screamed for His death. But Jesus knew that “the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God” (John 13:3). His identity was secure in WHO He was and WHOSE He was.

“Thank you, Smiley.” My internal reverie is broken by the kind voice of a gray-haired gentleman in a meticulous black suit.

Concentrating on trying not to spill as I pour water into his glass, I’m momentarily taken aback. I didn’t realize I was smiling. But his comment makes my night. “You’re welcome!” And I can’t help grinning even wider. Though it’s certainly nice to be appreciated, tonight has been a good reminder that my value doesn’t come from the recognition of others. My value comes from my identity as the beloved daughter of my Heavenly Father. And that is definitely something to smile about.

Going Vertical!
MJ

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“Lai Lai! Hello! Come!”

Eager hands grasped at my suitcases and tugged on my arm, yelling their offers of assistance. The taxi from the East Asian airport had dumped me within view of the train station with my two 70 lb. suitcases, one rolling carry-on, and a backpack – all stuffed to the limit with gifts and teaching supplies. But as soon as I stepped out of the taxi, I was bombarded by eager porters and pedi-cab drivers. Finally I gave in and accepted the help of a bicycle-pedaled cart.

Loaded down with multiple bags and one weary traveler, the cart wove between speeding taxis, fleets of bicycles, and crowds of pedestrians. Closing my eyes, I tried not to think about the seemingly inevitable collisions.

Miraculously, we made it across the busy street unharmed. The hair-raising trip had taken just a few minutes. Thankful to be safely at my destination, I pulled out a couple of bills from my wallet to pay.

“Bu, bu, bu!” The driver shook his head vehemently. Apparently there was a misunderstanding. I thought he’d said 2.5 Yuan, but he’d asked for 250 Yuan! In my town in the northeast, 2 Yuan would get you anywhere you wanted to go on the bicycle-pedaled carts. But 250, just for taking me across the street?? That was a rip-off!

He wouldn’t budge, no matter how much I protested. Soon a curious crowd gathered, shouting encouragement to the driver. “That’s right! Tell her! Don’t let this foreigner get away!”

Physical and emotional weariness from the long hours of travel and very little sleep were making me cranky and irritable. I couldn’t believe that no one would help me or defend me. Finally I snapped. Angrily I threw the 250 Yuan at the driver and stormed off.

Tears streaming, I stumbled over the broken pavement, lugging my heavy suitcases. Looking around desperately, all I could see were Asian faces. All the signs were in Mandarin. I couldn’t even tell if I was in the right place. For all I knew, the taxi driver and the pedi-cab driver had taken me to the wrong place. How would I ever find my train?

There was nothing to do but sit down and cry. A few of the hurrying travelers stopped briefly to gawk at this bedraggled American girl, collapsed on a pile of suitcases in the middle of the pavement, bawling her eyes out. But no one stopped to ask what was wrong or to help. I felt so utterly alone.

“Are you OK?” The voice sounded like it was in a German or Dutch accent. But it was in ENGLISH! Looking up, I saw a tall, blond young man.

“No, I’m not OK!” I sniffled, wiping at my nose with the back of my hand. I poured out my whole story to him, ending with, “And I don’t even know if I’m in the right place! I can’t find the entrance to the train station!”

He smiled gently and pointed over my shoulder. “But it’s right behind you.” Surprised, I turned around to see a very clear entrance just a few feet from where I was sitting. How had I missed it earlier?

“Thank you so much!” I turned back to my new friend… But he was gone. He had been there, standing right in front of me, now he’d completely disappeared! I scanned the crowd, but there was no sign of a tall blond man in the sea of Asian faces.

Was it an angel? Or had he just melted into the crowd? Whoever it was, I knew with great certainty that God had sent him to me. At my moment of desperation and helplessness, my loving Heavenly Father had given me a reminder that I am never alone. He is watching me. He sees me in my distress. He is able to rescue me. And He will do the same for you.

Going Vertical!
MJ

“In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears.”
Psalm 18:6 (NIV)

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