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One of our favorite things to do as parents is surprise our kids. We rarely tell them our plans ahead of time, especially when those plans include taking them out for a “special treat”.

So, for example, we’ll have plans to stop at one of their favorite places – Sonic – for slushies. But before we leave the house, they start begging for a piece of their stale, 8-month-old, leftover Halloween candy.

Since we know what’s coming, the answer is an easy, “No!”. Since they don’t know what’s coming, they think we’re the meanest mom and dad ever! They don’t understand that this “No!” is actually allowing them to truly enjoy one of their favorite treats on the planet.

As parents, we know this principle to be true:

Sometimes we miss out on the best stuff because we’re too full of the mediocre.

Now Sonic just happens to also be the home of one of my favorite “special treats” – Cherry Limeade. I just can’t get enough of that tangy, sweet flavor!  Every time I get one, I drink it nice and slow because I want it to last as long as possible.

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The problem is, I also want that tangy, sweet flavor to be the same on the last sip as it was on the first.  And that never happens, because of these:
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The advertisements and photos make ice cubes look so appealing. They look like they are going to make your drink so much more refreshing and filled with awesomeness!

But in the end, all they do is water down the good stuff.
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Thousands of years ago, as part of His plan to rescue humanity from the mess we’d gotten ourselves into, God chose a family – which became a nation – to become His people.

Because they were His people and because He promised that His all-powerful, completely fulfilling and providing Presence would be with them, He gave them a long list of “No’s”.  He’s a good parent, after all, so He knew that:

Sometimes we miss out on the best stuff because we’re too full of the mediocre.

In other words, they didn’t need to fill their lives with the ice cubes of jealousy or the desire to take the things other people had. They didn’t need to work and work and try and try to get ahead.

They were in the hands of the Owner of the universe, the Creator of it all, and He had repeatedly proven to them that He would care for them. They already had everything they ever needed in Him!

They didn’t need to fill their lives with the ice cubes of lying to protect or build themselves up. They didn’t need to use His name to buff up their image or get attention. They didn’t need to strive and fight to get above those God had put in authority over them.

The Sovereign, all-powerful God had a perfect plan for them and they could trust that He was working in every circumstance. They could trust that as His precious children, they were already becoming everything He had planned for them to be.

They didn’t need to fill their lives with the ice cubes of bitterness or rage when they had been wronged and they didn’t need to fill their emptiness with misplaced intimacy.

Their Father’s love for them was complete and completely fulfilling and He would be faithful to heal their every hurt.

And they didn’t need to give their time, energy, passion or devotion to the idols of this world – to the ice cubes of status, wealth, comfort, achievement, or control. They didn’t need to elevate anything in this world to first place in their lives, thinking He wasn’t enough.

He was enough and the satisfaction He was offering them was infinitely greater than anything they could find elsewhere.

Today, thousands of years later, we, as His people and His dearly loved children by our faith in Jesus, are faced with the same choice.

The ice cubes of this world look so appealing, but they’re still the same old mediocre junk, so my good, good Father has given me a firm “No!”.

Because there’s only so much room in my cup. And all those ice cubes do is take the place of the good stuff, and in the end, melt and leave me with a watered down relationship with Him.

He really is the good stuff. Actually, He’s not just the good stuff, He’s the BEST STUFF EVER. He’s the special-est treat of all special treats. And He’s offering me – and you – completely unlimited refills.

So, fill up!

And skip the ice.

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Gold.

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I was not born to be a runner. It may be my “athletic activity” of choice, but only because it’s all this clumsy, uncoordinated body of mine can manage. At times, even the simple exercise of quickly putting one leg in front of the other can be a little too much for my awkwardly-outward-pointed feet.

But even if I was “athletically gifted”, my chances of excelling at running are still very low. Because I was also born with this other problem:

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Run or sit?  Run or sit?  Sit.

And drink coffee. Ahhh.

I do, however, manage to put my laziness aside a couple times a week and get out for a short run. And a couple times a year, I give in to peer pressure and even sign up for a race. (Yikes!)

This year, our friend Sid convinced me to run a 5K in Philadelphia.  I knew this would be way out of my league, but, hey, why not?

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I was a little nervous as the race began, but my pace was good and I seemed to be passing people left and right.  My confidence level was soaring!

But less than a mile in, reality hit me. Hard. I had started out way too fast, it was a hot day, everything in my body felt like it weighed a million pounds, and I just wanted to stop.

And then I looked up and saw the race leaders, floating by me with smiles on their faces, already on their way back toward the finish.  Ugh.

In spite of being sure I was going to die if I continued, I pressed on and made it to the finish line, glancing over at a time of around 27 minutes as I passed the clock. Not my best time, but not bad!

After finding Sid, we went to get our “official” times at the booth. I typed in my bib number and “10:34” appeared on the screen. I was confused and wondered if they were only giving mile splits for some reason? But Sid’s screen showed his full time, so I looked a little closer:

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Yep, that’s me. First place overall, 1st out of 699 with a time of 10 minutes and 34 seconds!

Obviously this was a glitch, but I thought it was hilarious, so I turned to Sid to celebrate my victory!  The timing official, however, was not so amused and proceeded to bring me to another booth where they tried to convince me that I had cheated or somehow run the wrong race.

Thankfully, they finally let me go, promising me they would fix the problem. But for the next few hours, anyone who checked the race results saw this:

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I was a world record-holding celebrity!

It was my 15 minutes of fame.

Just like I was not born to be a runner, I was also not born a “good” person. I may have put on a “good” act for many years of my life, but the truth is – I’m human. And that means that the majority of the decisions I have made or will make are based on getting what I want or making myself feel good. Even my most selfless decisions will always have at least a tiny root of “What’s in it for me?”

And because of that, I struggle. My selfish nature causes me to struggle with God, with others, and even with my own self. With the right advice, training and equipment, I may be fairly successful for a short burst of time – but it’s always hot out and I will always hit that wall. Hard. And the weight of my sin will feel like a million pounds.

But, there’s this guy ahead of me, leading the pack, already on His way back.  In fact, He already crossed the finish line.

Jesus did something I could never do – He lived a perfect, sinless, and completely selfless life before God.  The Bible says He was “tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)

He then willingly went to the cross, taking every ounce of my selfishness upon His shoulders, so that something amazing could happen: So that I could walk up and type in my number and see His perfect, world record setting time – with my name on it.

Because, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

His gold medal gets put around my neck.  Not because I tried really hard. Not because my good deeds outweighed my bad ones. Not because I was better than “those other people”. Not because I succeeded in any way or because I ever will. But simply because I heard Him call my name and I walked up to the podium, bowed my head and accepted it.

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There are many days where I hear the voices of doubt and the feelings of defeat trying to tell me that this can’t be true – I must be cheating or somehow trying to run the wrong race!  And so many times I want to cry “Unfair!” – because how could it be?

But I’m reminded over and over again that grace is not something I could have ever earned and nor is it something I can ever earn more of.  The race has already been won and now, instead of focusing on my losses, my failures, or my flaws, it’s simply time to celebrate the victory I have been given in Jesus.

And this time there’s no glitch.

“But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:57)

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Dunk?!

We sat with our life jackets buckled, paddles in hand, and minds filled with excited (and maybe a tiny bit of nervous) anticipation as a Nantahala River Guide gave us our official instructions.  It was finally “rafting day” of our North Carolina vacation and even though almost everyone in our group had done this before, it was good to get a refresher on the basics: like how to hold the paddle (T-grip only!) and where to sit (“Crack-on-crack”, of course).

But one piece of advice caught us by surprise. 

The Nantahala River is famous for its fast flowing freezing cold water and steady, moderate rapids – making it a perfect trip for tourist beginners who want to get a taste of the “white-water scene”.  But, like many of its counterparts, the Nantahala also has a reputation for being dangerous – even deadly.

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And so, some of the most important instructions involve what to do if you or someone you are rafting with falls out of the boat.  The funny thing is that many of these recommendations seem to be the opposite of our human instinct!

For example, if you were to have the unfortunate experience of falling out of your raft, your instinct might be to put your feet down and try to stand up. Instead, though, you are to float on your back with your feet out of the water until the others in your raft can get to you.

Along those lines, if someone in your raft does take that accidental polar plunge, it’s now your responsibility to pull them back into the boat.  There are several ways to do this: Hold a paddle out to them, grab them by the life jacket, or dunk them.

Wait, what?

You could hear the nervous laughter go through our little audience – “Ha ha, he’s totally kidding, right?”  Our un-white-water-educated brains could not comprehend this!

“No, I’m serious!” he said.  “If you’re struggling to pull someone up, pushing them under will allow the life jacket to do what it was designed to do – propel them up and out of the water, giving you that extra boost you need to get them into the raft.”

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As I read the words of Jesus, I find that He spent a great many of them preparing His people for what was to come.  When He told the disciples about His departure from this earth, they were understandably nervous!  But then He told them that it was actually going to be to their advantage that He go away.

Wait, what?

“Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:7)

Just like those original disciples, we often have a hard time wrapping our limited minds around what God is doing. In fact, our biggest questions often come down to, “If God is in control, why does He allow bad things happen to His people?” and “If God loves me, then why is my life so hard right now?”

I’ve been right there with you in those questions. I’ve experienced the plunge into those raging waters that felt like they were going to consume me. And at times I’ve even felt that rather than rescuing me, God was actually pushing me further under.

But it’s in those desperate, weak and sinking moments where the Helper – the Holy Spirit – goes to work.  That’s where, like that life jacket, He begins His job of propelling us upward.

Because it’s the helpless who know they need an Advocate.
It’s the hurting who will cry out for a Comforter.
It’s the lost who will admit their need for a Guide.
It’s the broken who will listen to the Reminder of God’s mercy and love.
It’s the weak who will depend on His Power.
It’s the dead who know they have no hope except to be brought back to life in Him.*

It may go completely against our human instinct, and of course the Spirit’s work is not limited to us being “down”, but sometimes that extra “dunk” is exactly what allows Him to propel us right out of the pit!

Thankfully, none of us actually needed to apply our rafting guide’s advice that day – we all stayed safe and (relatively) dry in the boat.  But, there was no hesitation in keeping our life jackets tightly buckled and our minds prepared for what might be headed our way.

So maybe the next time I feel like I’m sinking, instead of going into panic mode, instead of trying to put my feet down and stand on my own, I’ll simply surrender and allow my Helper to do His thing.

Because it turns out that dunk may be to my great advantage.

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*John 14:16-17 (NIV/ASV), John 16:13, John 14:26, Romans 15:13, Titus 3:5-6

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Rush

I can think of very few times over the past several months (wait – maybe years), where life hasn’t felt like a big rush. My “urgent” to-do list only seems to grow and between school drop-offs and pick-ups, kids’ activities, errands, ministry life, trying to squeeze in some exercise (and an occasional conversation with my husband), there’s so much pressure to just GO GO GO.

Even our vacation here in the mountains of western North Carolina has felt rushed. There’s just so much we want to do and see!

But the other day we went to a place where “rush” is fairly impossible: Parson’s Branch Road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  This 8-mile “primitive” road takes about an hour to traverse and is only passable with a 4-wheel-drive vehicle.

What makes Parson’s Branch stand out from other backcountry roads is that it includes 18 fords.  No, not Fords (the vehicle make) or fjords (a narrow arm of the sea surrounded by steep cliffs), but sections of a road where a stream or river flows over the road – and you (in your 4-wheel-drive vehicle, of course) get to drive through it!

So, as you drive along, this beautiful, winding mountain stream repeatedly crosses your path. And 18 times, you get to “ford” it.

One of the most thrilling things is to drive fast through these crossings, causing water to spray up high out of both sides of your vehicle. Of course we tried this at least once – and what a rush!

But at one particularly picturesque crossing, I told Tim to stop the car so we could all get out and get the “full ford experience”:

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Walking through the ford was breathtaking – and not just because the water was freezing!  It was just such a unique and refreshing feeling to plant your feet in a spot in the middle of the road and let the stream flow over and around them.

Now THAT’S a rush.

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As believers in Christ, streams of living water are constantly crossing our path. Every day we have the opportunity to pause, plant our feet, and soak up God’s word.

But if you’re like me, there’s a huge temptation to just speed through our days – to skip the fords and take the fast route instead.

My life was changed drastically three years ago when, after following Jesus for over 15 years, I finally sent all of my excuses packing and just started doing it.  I started spending time in His Word every morning.

I started traveling on the “Parson’s Branch” road of life. I made the conscious choice to exit the superhighway and take the much slower road, where I have to say a whole lot of “no” to a whole lot of things and where I don’t accomplish nearly as much as I used to, but where I allow the streams of living water to cross my path every day.

But even in that, I’ve found another dangerous temptation: To speed through those “fords” hoping for the “rush” of a tweetable quote, a power verse, a new insight, or just something “thrilling” that sprays the water up high and carries me through to the next ford.

And when I rush through my time with Jesus like that, I’m missing out on the “full ford experience”. I’m missing out on the refreshment of planting my feet in that stream, allowing His words to flow over and around me – no matter how “boring” or “I’ve-read-this-passage-a-thousand-times” they may seem.

There’s a popular worship song out right now – maybe you’ve even sung these words:

Spirit of the living God
Spirit of the living God
We only want to hear Your voice
We’re hanging on every word”*

We sing this and we mean it – we want to hear His voice!  But are we really hanging on every word?  Because He’s given us hundreds of thousands of them, right there in front of us, just waiting to be soaked in.

Or are we only looking for the “rush” of something “new” and “cool”?

God’s word (and every single word of it) is like that stream – it’s alive and active and flowing from a constant, unending Source.

So get off the highway and exit onto the slow road. And once you get there, remember to stop and take it in – take His Word for what it is, whatever it is at that crossing, and soak it up.

Over time you’ll find it’s a rush unlike any other.

*from “Spirit of the Living God” by Vertical Church Band

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Duh!

I’ve never been the sharpest tool in the shed when it comes to “getting” things. In fact, many obvious (to the general public) things seem to fly right over my head.

“Duh!” was a word that got thrown in my direction more than once (okay, a lot more than once) as I was growing up.

It may not be what the “cool kids” say anymore, but since my ability to “get” things hasn’t improved all that much, I still hear it in my head on a regular basis.

Like a few weeks ago when Tim and I were walking with our three girls.  Our youngest, Anna, was “too tired to walk another step”, so her Daddy picked her up and started carrying her on his shoulders.

As we walked along, having a lively discussion about our summer plans, I looked over at Anna and noticed that instead of using her arms to hold on to Tim, she was using them to tickle his ears and to turn the top of his head into a drum.

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I smiled for a brief second at the cuteness, but then my joy turned to panic. Oh my goodness, she’s not holding on to him!  She could fall!

And before I even knew it, these words came out of my mouth: “Anna! You need to hold on tighter to your Daddy!”

Of course, my freak out quickly ended with a realization:

DUH! Tim is a good dad! Why in the world would I ever think that our three-year-old’s ability to stay safely on his shoulders depended on her?

The problem was that I just couldn’t see it. From my limited perspective a few feet behind them, I could not see his hand gripped tightly around her leg, keeping her securely on his shoulders, no matter what her arms were doing.

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So often this very same limited perspective occurs in my relationship with Jesus.  And maybe this happens to you, too.

We pray. We ask. We wait. We expect. We want to see God work in our lives. We want to feel God working in our lives.

Unfortunately, what happens ends up looking more like this: Let’s say we ask for peace. Then, when we do not feel peace the way we expected to feel peace, we say, “God is not working in my life”.

But, duh!  Do I really need to see or feel something to know it’s happening?

The truth is, I rarely just feel God. Rather, I know what He has said in His word and I trust that He is faithful to His word. Which means I know that He is with me. Which means I know that His Spirit is working in my life.  And therefore I feel Him.

And so, when I ask for peace – instead of trying to muster up some feelings of peace from within myself, instead of sitting around waiting for it to happen, instead of living in defeat that it’s “not working”, I remember what my very good Father has promised. That “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” (2 Peter 1:3)

I already have the peace I am asking for. And the funny thing is that when I remember and acknowledge that simple truth (duh!), I then feel the peace.

“His divine power” at work within those of us who have trusted Jesus to be our Savior is not dependent on our ability to see or feel that power. And, “That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead.” (Ephesians 1:19-20)

Whether or not you see or feel it, THAT power is at work in you.

In his notes on the miracle of the resurrection, Charles Spurgeon remarks at how blind the religious leaders and so many others in that time were in not believing that Jesus had risen from the dead.

But he follows it up with a challenge that we, as followers of Jesus today, can’t ignore: “Blinder yet are they who believe that Jesus rose, and yet do not put their trust in Him.”*

Duh!

If we believe that God had the power to raise Christ from the dead – how can we not believe and trust that He is still using that very same power in our lives, even if we can’t see it?

I’m so glad our God is not a cool kid standing there holding His hands up, staring at me and saying that dreaded word.  Yes, it’s all so obvious to Him, but He knows that we don’t always “get it”. And He never gets annoyed with us, never condemns us, and never tires of patiently leading us by His Spirit into all truth.

Whether we feel it or not.

*Spurgeon’s Devotional Bible, notes on Matthew 27:65-66

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