Renewed in God's beauty!

Renewed in God’s beauty!

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” – Matthew 11:28

“Don’t be selfish,” we hear, “being a Christian means putting God and others first.” The call to self-sacrifice seems ever-present in such comments, as we are reminded that Jesus poured out his life for us, and we should do the same for him. Clearly, the Christian life involves sacrifice, but is there no room for us to think of ourselves?

One of the best bits of advice I received as I entered ministry was to remember that, “the pastor who is always available, usually isn’t any good when he, or she, is available.” The life of pastoral ministry is marked by sacrifice. It is a calling that comes with significant demands, but faithfully living out that calling requires caring for yourself, so that you have something of substance to share with the people God calls you to serve.

It is no different for any Christian. All of us are responding to the call of God, and all of us must make good choices about caring for ourselves and our families, as we do. The Bible clearly says that we are to humbly consider the needs of others, and think of others as better than ourselves. This is a call to avoid selfishness and to remain humbles. It is not a demand to neglect our wellbeing, or miss out on the beauty of life.

I once had a church member come to my office to ask me to take on a task that she felt should be my top priority. When I explained that I did not believe God was asking me to do that, and that I would be willing to help equip her to accomplish her passion, she became somewhat indignant and said, “If you have time to get coffee with your friends in the afternoon, you have time to do what I am asking!”

Of course, she was right. I had time to do what she wanted, but did not believe God was asking me to do it, and I did not sense that it was the best choice for our shared ministry. I knew how full my schedule was, and I knew I needed time to decompress over some coffee with friends if I was going to be effective at all of the other things I was doing to pour myself out in service to Jesus.

We all experience this at times. It is easy to hear the words of others, or the words in our head, and believe we should neglect things that matter to us in order to do more for the kingdom. This leads to becoming what the Bible calls, “weary in well-doing.” We are not the Savior, that role belongs to Jesus alone. We cannot do everything, and we must choose what God calls us to do, and be at peace with that.

Thankfully, Jesus himself gives us some very good news. In the second half of John 10:10, Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly!” Notice, Jesus does not say, “I have come so that they can have more to do, be exhausted, and grow weary.” He makes it clear that a core part of his mission was for us to have life, to experience life, to enjoy life. When we walk with Jesus, we are invited to participate in the wonder of what it means to truly live!

A vital part of a healthy Christian life is savoring the beauty of life, and we need to make time to experience it. It is difficult, if not impossible, to experience such life if we over-fill our schedules and wallow in guilt. We must make time to enjoy life. In fact, enjoying life is a form of praise and a statement of our faith in Jesus. We are declaring, along with God in the first chapter of Genesis, that God’s creation is good, and that Jesus gives us life!

So, here is permission to take a walk, take some pictures, listen to music, enjoy a little art, smell the flowers, spend time with friends and family, play in the sand, jump into piles of fall leaves, and a thousand other blessings that come with being alive in the wonder of Jesus! God excels in beauty and life, and liberally shares it with us. Live your life in a way that bears witness to that!

I would love to hear how you celebrate the abundant life Jesus gives. Next Monday, our focus will be on Making Time for Others. As for me, I am going to enjoy another cup of coffee, and then go photograph something beautiful! May you be blessed as well, today!

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“My child, give me your heart, and let your eyes observe my ways” – Psalm 23:26

It is hard to give your heart to someone you rarely spend time with. Not only is it difficult to a relationship without the investment, but all of the other distractions will seem so much more attractive. It takes time to share your heart, but time is a precious, often scarce, commodity.

Intimacy with God is important, for from that intimacy flows our spiritual authority. The more we come to know the heart of God, the more we can act in union with God’s justice, grace, and compassion. We become better representatives of the kingdom as we become better friends with God.

Since this relationship is so significant, making time to grow, and remain strong, in it should be a priority. Form many, it is, but making time is the challenge. We live over-committed lives that squeeze out our available time and energy. So, when someone says, “You need to make God  a priority in your life,” we think, “I know, but I don’t know how.” Too often, this is where the guilt begins and we feel like we are failing the Christian life.

I know this struggle all too well. I am sure it would seem to many that making time for God  should be easy for a pastor, but like everyone else, my life is full of time-consuming responsibilities and energy-draining commitments. Without some very intentional actions, my time with God can get diminished or lost.

So, here are some things that help me make quality time for God:

  1.  Choose a Time That Works for Your Personality - We are often told that our time with God should be the first thing we do each day. While it may be a good idea to have a centering time before you begin the day’s activities, it is more important that our quality time with God come when we are alert and can be the most attentive. I find that mornings are difficult for me, so I typically take some time for prayer and a short Scripture reading to focus my day on God, then later in the evening, when I am more awake, I set aside a larger block of time to be with God. Choose what will be the most effective.
  2. Choose a Time You Will Keep – It is most helpful to select a time when we can make a regular commitment. If you are rushing to get somewhere or finish quickly, the deeper value of the time could be lost. It is important to choose a time that will allow you to return every day, without being lost to interruptions, and that is least likely to feel like a duty.
  3. Show Up - This my seem obvious, but it is not. We are too easily led by our feelings, which quickly leads to thoughts of, “I don’t feel like making the time today,” and, “I’m not getting anything out of this right now. I think I will go do something else.” We need to overcome those thoughts a be present. Nothing may happen in our time with God on a particular day, even for a season. We want to be present, however, when it does. Treat your time with God like any other significant appointment in your schedule.
  4. Make Use of Your Daily Schedule – If you cannot make your appointment with God, make the effort to make time in other parts of the day. You can reschedule your appointment for a different time, You can exchange your typical time for a series of smaller meetings throughout the day. There are numerous options, but be cautious about neglecting the appointment all together. Your habit of making time for God can slip away quickly.
  5. Be Intentional and Avoid Guilt – Important things rarely happen by accident. If we wait to give God our time when we have it, we will probably never make the time. On the other hand, be cautious not to become legalistic about your commitment. This can lead to feelings of guilt which will undermine the time you have and make you feel like giving up along the way. God loves you, and looks forward to spending time with you. Making time for God is about planing quality time with someone we love, not fulfilling an obligation.

I pray these suggestions help you along your journey. I would love to hear the things that help you make time for God. Please share them in the comments so we all can learn together.

Last night, a violent storm front came through our region. For an extended time, lightning flashed almost continually, thunder shook the house, and massive amounts of rain fell, mixed with near 70 MPH wind gusts. It was quite intense.

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This morning, I awoke to the sounds of birds chirping as they enjoyed breakfast in our yard. The air was fresh, the foliage lush, and the flowers much more vibrant. Although it is overcast, the day is quite beautiful.

Looking over the beauty around me, I was drawn to Psalmist’s words, “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118:24) Of course, it is easy to rejoice when things are calm and beautiful, but I began pondering if I would have claimed those same words as nature turned violent last night.

If you read some of my older posts, you will see that I am a big fan of thunderstorms, so the easy answer is, yes, I would rejoice because I love a good display of lightning and thunder. As I thought about the broader definition of storms however, I realized that is where a great difficulty lies.

When life is full of obvious blessings and things seem to be going our way, it is easy to rejoice and praise God for our circumstances. When the sudden storms come and turn things upside down, dampen our dreams, and shake us to the core, that is a different story. Fear steps in and tempts us to run from the chaos, toward something that appears safer. If we surrender to that temptation, we may actually be running from the storm, and from our blessing.

Certainly, not every storm is appreciated, and acting foolishly in the storm can be a destructive choice. There is wisdom in knowing how to face a storm, and when it is the appropriate time to retreat. Such decisions are the result of sound decisions, not of fear. When we take the hand of Jesus and the hands of those who love us, we ride out the storms together. We can come through chaos to the gift that is waiting in the other side.

The rich beauty surrounding me this morning is the result of the impact of last night’s storm. The grass, trees, flowers, and plants are drinking up all of the rain that fell and turning into dramatic beauty. The intense downpour turned my yard into an avian smorgasbord. The lightning ionized the air, removing dust and other particles, and making it fresh, clean, and energized. The very shaking of eight hours ago, became a loosing of beauty now.

Few people desire storms in their lives, but many of our storms are not without purpose. Sometimes, the very thing that frightens and intimidates us, is a divine tool for re-creation and new life on our journey. Old things are shaken off so new things can come forth. Dusty places are cleansed, and the air of our spirit is energized and filled with the fresh wind of God’s Spirit.

The beautiful days are indeed, the days The Lord has made, but so are the stormy ones. In all of our days, we can rejoice and be glad, for we are not alone. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, said it best on his deathbed, “The best of all is, God is with us.” In this, and the promise of a new day, we can find hope in the midst of the storm.

Some things are simply too amazing to ignore.

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I am currently reading through the Book of Acts during my devotional time. This morning, my focus was on chapter 12, including the story of the Peter’s imprisonment by King Herod. Beginning at verse 6, the story reads, “The night before Herod was going to bring Peter’s case forward, Peter was asleep between two soldiers and bound with two chains, with soldiers guarding the prison entrance. Suddenly an angel from the Lord appeared and a light shown in the prison cell. After nudging Peter on his side to awaken him, the Angel raised him up and said, ‘Quick! Get up!’ The chains fell off his wrists.”

There are a number of amazing things in this story: the commitment of Peter to his faith, the level of persecution that commitment incurred, even the dramatic, angelic rescue. What strikes me as achieving first place on the Amazing List is, that on the night before his hearing and facing the possibility of death, Peter, in prison and surrounded by guards, is asleep. In fact, he is sleeping so soundly that the angel must nudge him on his side to wake him.

I am fairly certain, if I was in a similar circumstance, sleep would have eluded me, and the angel would find me calling out to God for help. Yet, Peter, is resting soundly, even in the face of great peril. To me, this is a tremendous testament to his faith, and trust in God. The man who once found himself sinking because he could not believe in the midst of a storm, was now now resting peacefully, in the arms of the one who drew him out of the waves.

Certainly, this story encourages me to aspire to a deep trust in God, but it also reminds me that every time I am rescued from the storm, in spite of my weak faith, that very faith becomes stronger and I can walk a little further from the boat the next time.

Too often, I admire people of great faith the way some people admire those who are physically fit. I would love be like that, but I avoid putting in the work to get there. However, just like physical fitness, if I am willing to commit to the effort and make good choices, I can build my faith like my fitness.

These are just a few of the steps I take to strengthen my faith so I can be stronger in the storm:

1. Make a regular, daily commitment to spend time with God. Include time to study the Bible, offer prayers, and listen for the direction of God.

2. Make godly choices. Every day is full of decisions. Make every effort to choose what reflects the heart of God.

3. Follow the gentle nudging of the Holy Spirit. If I feel a draw to do something, or not to do something, I make an effort to follow those leadings, as long as they are in line with God. Even if they are not from God, I am training myself to respond to the call of God, and learning to discern his voice at the same time.

4. Let difficulties lead to Jesus. It is easy to run from our problems, but running into the arms of God, will always be the better choice.

5. Stay connected to the community of faith. Through support, as well as, stories of God’s faithfulness, the faith community is a great asset in building personal faith.

There are many other steps to take but, step by step, God will build deep faith in us if we partner in that effort. In time, we too, will be able to experience peaceful sleep in the face of our greatest challenges, and in all things, we will learn to trust in the One who loves and leads us.

What things help to build and strengthen your faith?

Have you ever found yourself searching for just the right thing, yet felt like nothing quite hit the mark? As a foreign exchanges student once said to us, “It’s good, but it’s not the one.”

One such search in my life was for a journal that met my needs. As a writer, observer, and life-long learner, I find journals a valuable aid to capturing the important, and the mundane, for future reference. As a person of faith and a pastor, I find journaling a tremendous tool for spiritual growth. Such a significant tool should meet my utilitarian needs, and prompt my creativity.

I’ve gone through a lot of journals. Leather and cardboard covers, hard and soft bound, ruled and blank, I used a bit of everything. I have a few favorites and, while many were enjoyable, I never found “the one,” until last week.

My wife mentioned a journal she thought I would like a few months ago. She saw it while searching for some planner options and thought I would like it. Called the Midori Traveler’s Notebook, it was a mid-sized leather journal with customizable refills and a number of accessories. She was very impressed. I was not. It had to be special ordered, seemed similar to what I already had, and after 30 years of searching, I expected it would be just one more journal for my shelves.

I was wrong. When I finally took a good look, I began to believe it might be exactly what I wanted. I took the risk, made the order, and received what I desired for years.

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My first journal entry read, “After decades of searching for a journal that would truly inspire me, I found it! I cannot believe I did not see it for what it is when my wife first described it to me. Now, filled and ready, it awaits my stories, reflections, and insights. Poems, observations, and revelations from God are on their way. The adventure begins.”

I am not selling journals now, though some of you might find this an answer to your search as well. I am struck, however, by the significance of not giving up the quest. Jesus told his disciples, “seek, and you shall find.” He was focused on much deeper matters, but the similarities are interesting.

Sometimes, we settle for second best, or we give up on our search for what really matters. We often try a myriad of things along the way only to realize we still haven’t found the right way. Occasionally, someone comes along and points us in the right direction, but we let our past experiences keep us from seeing the truth.

Life is a journey, an adventure. There is so much to be enjoyed along the way, even our wrong choices can position us for something better. We need the voices of others, and of the Spirit, to guide us along the way, and most importantly, we must never give up!

There are already some significant spiritual reflections and discoveries in my new journal, but I keep celebrating how such a simple thing, can be a symbol of so much more. I can’t wait to see what I discover next!

May you be blessed upon your journey. May you be excited by the possibilities that lie ahead, and may you savor every moment of your adventure!

I know, you are probably thinking, “here comes another blog post where Chuck explains (read ‘confesses’) his inability to find time to write, and fails to update his blog.” Well, the truth is, yes, and no. There was time for me to write and numerous ideas to explore, yet, there was nothing I felt I could (read ‘should’) post.

I try embrace the guidance of the well-known axiom, “if you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all.” It is typically a good standard to live by if you want to live peaceably with others, and make a positive impact on the world. It was in this truth that I wrestled while you waited for another update from me. How could I post something positive and constructive when most of what I wrote was quite the opposite?

For several months, I’ve been bombarded with ideas and comments that caused my philosophical and theological skin to crawl. Much like the distracting discomfort felt after someone mentions lice, or following a surprise encounter with a giant spider, I found myself distracted, unnerved, and, I must confess, angry at the level of the emotional terrorism, deception, and shoddy reasoning I continued to encounter. I was slightly fixated, and very frustrated.

I produced very little writing that was fit to share, though I am sure my efforts were personally cathartic. By God’s grace, I was able to preach and teach without the same concerns, but my creative writing suffered greatly. I know many people say you should blog about what makes you passionate, but there are some passions that are best to keep between yourself and God.

Throughout this season, I continued to reflect on King David’s heart, as he navigated his way through difficult seasons by opening his heart to God, and expressing himself openly in that relationship. I was especially drawn to the words of Psalm 63, “When I remember you on my bed, I meditate on you in the night watches. Because you have been my help, therefore in the shadow of your wings I will rejoice. My soul follows close behind you, your right hand upholds me.” (Ps. 63:6-8).

It is all too easy to throw our anger and frustration out in the world. We may even feel quite justified in our actions, but such actions can often become accelerent on an already raging fire, wounding others in the process. Often, the best place to pour out those deep emotions is to the One who knows and understands them even before we speak, and who is able to heal us as he leads us to share such healing with others.

I still get frustrated, even a little angry. Some of the issues will be there for a while, but I am surrendering those struggles into the hands of the God who orders my steps, declares the end from the beginning, and calls me friend. The invitation to take this step greets me every day, every moment, and it is there for you as well. Together, as we place our focus on Christ, chaos will lose its grip, and we will experience more of the abundant life Jesus gives.

What can you surrender today, that will make room for more of God’s peace in your life?

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Do you ever feel like you are facing  obstacles with walls so tall and strong you cannot get past them? In spite of the oft-quoted promise that, “God will never give you more than you can handle,” the truth is that we frequently face things that are greater than we can handle on our own, but not bigger than the God who loves us, and wants to lead us to victory.

Many of us grew up believing that we were supposed to be self-made, and that life was about giving it our all. If things got really bad, we asked God for help, but then went on to do our best to overcome our circumstances. Apparently, God’s help was to make us better at what we were already trying to do.

What if God’s plan in those difficult moments was not to make us a little better or stronger than we were before? What if the bigger agenda was to invite us deeper in our relationship with him and to lean into God more? What if God’s goal was to move us away from our efforts to be independent and instead, allow us to be more dependent on him?

Yesterday’s sermon was based on the story of Joshua, and the victory at Jericho, found in Joshua 6 (listen to the message here http://cortlandumc.net/January_12-_2014.mp3). As I worked through the preparation for the message, I couldn’t help but think of how difficult it must have been to accept God’s plan for victory. Marching around the city with priests and trumpets is not much of a military strategy. Faced with an imposing obstacle, God did not ask Joshua to try harder, nor was the answer in better military planning. God’s divine solution was to march around the city in worship for a week, and then shout for victory on the last day. Unexpected, but as it turns out, quite effective.

In the book of Isaiah, God tells us, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD.” (55:8) God’s perspective is not our perspective. There is no trembling in heaven as God confers with the angelic host to come up with a response to the problem we are facing. There is no question in the heavenly throne room of who is, and will remain, victorious. God does not lose, and never plays to tie. God is the victor, and shares that victory with us.

Rather than trying harder, or focusing on our weaknesses, we are encouraged to press into the love of God and to trust him for the plans for victory. Instead of focusing on the walls before us, we worship the One who can break down the walls in a moment, and send us on to victory. The triumph at Jericho did not come from weapons, it came from worship. The answer can be found there in our circumstances as well.

This is not a passive response, where we sit back and wait for God to do something. Instead, we actively worship God and we activate our faith. We seek God for wisdom and insight, stretching our faith to meet that divine direction. Then, when it is time, we put feet to our faith, doing what God asks us to do, even if it means seven days of walking around a city.

As we trust in the Lord, leaning not on our own understanding, and as we put our faith into action, we discover that, by the grace of God, we are more than conquerors.

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I keep a small flashlight by the bed so that I can find things and get around without disturbing my wife as she sleeps. I noticed that the batteries were growing weaker, and the light a little dimmer each night, but I kept forgetting to replace them until I try to use it after we were in bed. It is no surprise then, that the last time I went to use it, the light came on, but was too dim to provide any help.

In Psalm 119, a psalm devoted to the importance of the divine teaching of the word of God, the psalmist declares, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (V.105) A few verses later, we read, “The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.” (V. 130)

The light we use to navigate our path will make all the difference in how well we find our way. The wrong light will have a significant impact on our journey. While there are many voices encouraging us to follow our own path, or to live by a substitute to the direction of God, there is no other source that can successfully lead us where we need to go.

Looking over the substitutes offered in place Of the word of God, I am reminded of a hiking excursion I took in college. Walking along the path, we passed a beautiful stream. The scenic beauty made the clear running water seem all the more inviting, and after all of the hiking, many of our group were ready to savor the refreshment it offered.

Our leader suggested we wait until we crested the next hill where would have better access. He was right, it was better, and clearer. In fact, it was in that clarity that we could now see all of the beaver dung at the bottom of the stream. The water no longer looked so appealing.

I learned a valuable lesson there: the source matters. The beauty of the stream, the depth of my thirst, even the popular opinion, were nothing compared to the source of the water.

The same is true as we navigate life. We need pure light to show us the way. It doesn’t matter how appealing or popular something is. What matters is, is it true? Just because something sounds reasonable, or loving, or nice, doesn’t mean it is truly any of those things. Just because it comes from a celebrity voice, or in beautiful words, doesn’t make it truth.

To truly see where we are going, and where we need to go, we need a standard that is beyond ourselves, something that reveals the way things really are, and who we really are, as well. Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) Real liberty, real light, and real life, come from walking in the divine direction of the word of God. There is no substitute, no matter how enticing it appears.

The word of God is a treasure. It is a pure stream from which we can drink deeply. It provides refreshing for our spirits, and clarity for our minds. Indeed, it is a lamp for our feet and a light for our path. The more we allow the Holy Spirit to unfold it in our lives, the more we will be able to see by its light.

How do you allow the word of God to enlighten your journey?

“People don’t believe the story is true. Many don’t believe that God is real, or that God can make a difference in their lives. Why should they? Do they ever get to see the transforming power of God made manifest? God is not a fairy tale, but people need to see it, to believe it is true.” This is how I began this morning’s sermon. (You can hear the entire message here after it is posted on Monday, http://cortlandumc.net/January_5_2014.mp3).

The Apostle Paul warned Timothy, the young pastor he was mentoring, that a time was coming when people who claimed to be following Jesus would have, “a form of godliness, while denying its power.” (2 Timothy 3:5). He knew, even at the early stages of Christianity, that there would be great temptation to leave behind the truth and the power of God, for something that seemed safer and easier. In our day, many hold to forms of faith, practicing rituals and attending services, but one has to wonder, “Where is the power?”

Is it possible, that we have lost faith in the story, or its Author? Do our frustrations and fears hold us back from believing in big things? Have we begun to view life through our own limitations, instead of the limitless possibilities of God?

I confess that, at times, this has been very true for me. I can easily lose sight of the promise from Philippians, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (4:13) In its place, I begin to look at my own strength and abilities, and quickly discover that I come up short. Trapped in the walls of my own ability, I begin to accept my circumstances, and try to do my best to make things a little better.

This, however, is not the life of faith, it is the life of belief, and that is not my (or your) calling! God’s invitation is to a life filled with faith in what God can, and will do. It is so much more than simply believing God exists. It is the opportunity to experience the awesome, life-transforming, circumstance-changing power of God!

A number of years ago, when I was taking martial arts lessons, my instructor had a sign he loved. It was the word “Can’t” written in bold letters, crossed out by a large red line. At the bottom, the sign read, “Can’t is a Four-Letter Word.” This was good motivation, but with God, it is the truth. There is nothing God call us to do, that we cannot accomplish in his strength.

How will people know that the story is true? It will happen as we demonstrate our trust in its authenticity, and as God begins to move in response to our faith.

One of my favorite promises comes from the blessing found at the end of Ephesians Chapter Three, “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine…” (3:20) Think about it – abundantly far more that we can ask, or imagine, and God does it through his power at work in us.

Our God is greater than we imagine, and we are stronger in him than we believe.

How do you strengthen yourself in God?

 

“I can’t wait until I…” was a mantra from my past. There were numerous markers on the path to ordained ministry. Barely would I complete one, before I was anticipating the next. Whether it was completing a phase of education, or passing another interview with the Board of Ordained ministry! I could not wait to get passed the next step.

Thankfully, another pastor who served on the Board, encouraged me to look at what I was doing. In my efforts to get through the next checkpoint on my way to my goal, I was missing much of the blessing that came with the journey. It was, and is, important to have goals and pursue them, but not at the expense of living in the moment with God.

Along my journey, one of the voices that has helped me find my balance is that of Henri Nouwen. In his book, Bread for the Journey, he reflects on what it means to cultivate the virtue of patience, “Patience asks us to live the moment to the fullest, to be completely present to the moment, to taste the here and now to be who we are.”

There is great truth in his words, and wisdom for leading our lives from reflecting in them. The real value of patience is not in the waiting, but in being fully alive and alert in the present. This way, we do not miss the treasures of God waiting where we already are.

In Psalm 34:8, the psalmist declares we should, “Taste and see that The Lord is good.” It is a call to savor the richness of God in the place he has us now. There is no place we can go, no situation we can be in, where the greatness of God’s presence is not there to enrich our lives. To hurry past the moment we are in, to get to something that lies ahead, robs us of the blessing God intends for us to experience where we are.

As we press on to embrace the opportunities and goals that await us in 2014, we must also plan to feast on the marrow of each day, each moment God gives us on the way. If we learn to experience the fullness of each moment with God, we will be training ourselves to capture all of possibility that is yet to come as we fulfill our God-given destiny.

I invite you to pray with me,

“Creator God, you planned this day before you knit me together in my mother’s womb. You chose me before the creation of the world to be adopted in your family. Help me to discover all that you have for me, today. Let me see all of the hidden treasures along my path, and more importantly, be aware of your presence with me along the way. I choose to be fully alive, and alert to the leading of your Spirit, so that I can savor every moment of this day with you. Amen.”