Combien ca coute? Reflections on worth and value, from Saint Paul de Vence

North of Antibes and west of Nice is a hilltop village known as Saint Paul de Vence. It is an absolutely charming place that has been a haven for artists like Matisse, Miro, Picasso and Chagall.

Hilltop cemetery Saint Paul de Vence

In fact, Chagall was buried in a picturesque cemetery located at the very end of the town’s main footpath. It is not hard to imagine how painters could naturally derive creative inspiration from this location in the beautiful Alpes-Maritime area of the region of Provence. Even today, the narrow cobblestone footpaths are lined with boutiques selling various forms of art. One doesn’t mind getting lost in this mesmerizing labyrinth where medieval charm and timeless artistry co-exist.

At the threshold of this village, there is an establishment called La Colombe d’Or (Golden Dove), which opened in the 1920’s, first as a café, then later as a small hotel.

La Colombe d’Or Hotel

In its early days, there were times when guests could not fully pay for their food or lodging. Many of these guests were aspiring painters, and in those instances, the owners would accept a drawing or painting as payment. As the years went by, more than a few of these artists actually became successful. They gained recognition and their works accrued value. Decades later, and with the passing of these famous painters, the walls of La Colombe d’Or evolved into collages of highly priced masterpieces. The once ordinary artworks that those cash-strapped guests gave in exchange for accommodations are now valued more than the hotel itself. If I were to point to a painting in the reception hall and ask the manager “Combien ca coute?” (how much is it), I’m sure the he would say, “It’s not for sale, Madame.” (And he would probably be thinking, “No way, crazy tourist!!!”)

Art Galleries in Saint Paul de Vence

I am not an art connoisseur. In fact, I only know a few important names in the field. I vaguely understand how art is appraised but I’m quite certain it has a lot to do with the artist who created it. Although my eyes may be initially drawn to a painting’s content, composition and other aesthetic details that I find attractive, I realize that it is the signature in that one corner that primarily determines the value of what I’m enjoying.

What is value? Oxford Dictionary defines value as how much something is worth. How much are we willing to pay for something we value? How much are we willing to sacrifice for someone we love? We may not all be appraisers of art but whether we realize it or not, our daily decisions and actions, our joys and struggles in life, are totally influenced by our ongoing assessment of value and worth within us and around us. In a way, we are always asking ourselves, “Combien ca coute?”

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life. John 3:16

View of Provence, from Saint Paul de Vence

On Calvary, that first Good Friday, Christ showed us how much we are loved and valued. He bore the penalty that should have been ours, and paid the ultimate price for our salvation.

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to his grace Eph 1:7

If you have been a Christian for a long time, I’d encourage you to ask the Holy Spirit to not allow this precious truth to become too familiar, like a painting you’ve seen so many times such that you’ve lost interest in it. Open the pages of God’s Word and pray. Come closer to the Master and see His signature in this loving work of redemption. Do not let this be just another holiday. Seek solitude, reflect and linger, as there is so much more to be amazed at. Though Christ’s work on the cross is finished, the Author and Perfector of our faith is very much still at work. Let us ascribe greatness to Him, whose work is perfect, whose ways are just (Deut 32:3-4). The hands that created us, the hands that were crucified for us, the hands that are now molding us into the image of Christ, can and will hold us securely forever in awe of Him. Let us remain in the shadow of the Cross where grace is inexhaustible. There are always deeper alcoves of intimacy to which He invites us.

Stone fountain that marks the old market square, Saint Paul de Vence

If you have never given your life to Jesus, please do not hesitate any longer. The timing could not be better as His people, flawed as we are, prepare to celebrate the One event that makes all the difference both in this life and beyond.  Jesus’ death and resurrection has everything to do with God’s immeasurable love for you and for the world. Turn the eyes of your heart to Jesus. No matter what your past has been, it is in Him and only in Him that every human being finds eternal value. He invites you to taste and see for yourself how through His love and grace, our lives of worthless scribbles and sketches find meaning and purpose. He creates in us a new heart and He signs His name by giving us His Holy Spirit as a stamp of ownership. It is His own declaration that we belong to Him and therefore we are valued; not because of what we’ve done, not because of any inherent beauty or righteousness in us, not because of anything we have, but simply because of who He is. It is His signature that matters.

I have been walking with Jesus for many years, and even though I fail many times, His grace never does. I am not perfect at all but I am also not the same person that I was years ago, because He is faithful and wise in using whatever is best to refine my heart and character. And when anything or anyone (including the devil) tries to rob me of my identity, or purchase my greatest affection and asks “Combien ca coute?”  My Lord and Savior himself will reply, “No way! She is mine.”

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Gal 2:20

View of the mountains (pre-Alps) from Saint Paul de Vence

And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain?
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love, how can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

No condemnation now I dread
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine!
Alive in Him, my living Head
And clothed in righteousness divine
Bold I approach the eternal throne
And claim the crown, through Christ my own

Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

By Charles Wesley (1738)

A moment in Montmarte

“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

Gal 5:1
The Carousel at Sacre-Coeur

Montmarte is an artsy and colorful district in Paris that was once home to painters such as Renoir, Picasso and Van Gogh. This place remains a favorite of locals and tourists for what it offers as far as street cafes, shops and sights. It was a beautiful morning when my friend and I rode the funicular going up the butte with Sacre Coeur Basilica at its pinnacle. This is the place to savor and photograph some of the best panoramic views of Paris. After a series of selfies, we climbed down the 270 steps, pausing at times to take in the lovely scenery a little bit more. As soon as we reached street level, our shopping expedition officially began.

Aside from well-known boutique brands that can be found elsewhere in Paris and Europe, Montmarte is home to local small businesses that sell unique items. We were there on a Sunday, so in addition to the usual stores and establishments, the Marche aux Puces was in full swing. Although I’m not a flea market expert, I still found it amusing to simply look around.

Marche aux Puces
Whimsical Kitchen Tools and Gadgets

After scoring a bargain at Fragonard Parfumeur and purchasing some clothing items, we happily concluded our productive Montmarte morning. We decided to take the Metro back to our hotel to drop off our “souvenirs” before heading out for lunch. At this point I was carrying a big brown shopping bag on my shoulder. After inserting my ticket at the station, and physically pushing the turnstile to get to other side, my shopping bag got stuck behind me against one of the horizontal bars. Now we all know that the purpose of a turnstile is to ensure a unidirectional flow of people. In other words, a fully functioning turnstile (like this was) could not rotate backwards in the opposite direction. It was practically immobile with my shopping bag wedged in.

The situation became even more horrific when I realized that building up behind me was a line of people who didn’t look particularly excited about getting delayed or having to switch to the other queue. (There were only two turnstiles on that particular platform and thank God the other one didn’t have an American tourist stuck in it.) I essentially caused a 50% obstruction in the flow of pedestrian traffic in a popular subway stop, on a pretty busy Sunday. I’m certain that the total duration of my entrapment was not even a minute, but it felt like five long embarrassing minutes to me. My quick-thinking friend inserted another ticket, enabling the turnstile to rotate again in the forward direction, which then set me and my bag free and unharmed.

View of Paris from Sacre Coeur Basilica

I blog about being temporarily trapped in a turnstile not just because I find it hilarious (in retrospect); but perhaps that one brief moment could serve as a tiny metaphor for many of the bigger struggles we find ourselves in. The lesson for me has nothing to do with shopping in and of itself, but it has everything to do with the condition of my heart and choices that I make.

“Keep your heart with all vigilance; for from it flow the springs of life.”

Prov 4:23

First of all, I was amazed by how easy it was to get stuck. Sometimes we have no idea how vulnerable we are. I view this as a gentle reminder to never presume that “I have arrived” in character, faith or spiritual maturity. The truth is I can always be ensnared by sin with one squeaky turn of my self-centered will. Secondly, the root cause of my physical entrapment was a load that I placed upon myself. I was not a victim of other people’s choices. I picked each and every item that filled the bag I was carrying. These reflections prompted a series of questions:

  • What objects of affection have I yet to surrender to the sovereign will of Him who first loved me?
  • What is my heart attached to that hinders me from knowing His grace in every aspect of my life?
  • What do I need to be emptied of in order to live in the fullness of His joy?

Whatever must go, whatever must be abandoned to have Jesus – he’s worth it. He’s worth it now, and he will be worth it into eternity.

God Does His Best Work With Empty, by Nancy Guthrie

The synoptic gospels tell the story of a rich young man who came to Jesus, with a desire to know how he could earn salvation. “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” was his question (Matt 19:16). Based on his self-evaluation, this human being believed that he had already obeyed ALL the commandments of God. He thought he could secure his place in eternity by doing more. He was not at all prepared to hear that what Jesus wanted was for him to give up ALL.

At this, the man’s face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

Mark 10:22
Sacre Coeur Basilica

Jesus knew that this man’s heart was enslaved by his love of wealth. The problem is not the wealth, but his worship of it. Out of compassion, Jesus shed light into his blind spots by asking him to let go of ALL earthly possessions. Our Lord was not being harsh. He was being kind in that he longed for this person to realize that his heart, which he thought was in full obedience to God, was actually in awe of something other than God. This means that contrary to his self-assessment, he really hasn’t loved the Lord with ALL his heart, soul and mind.

As we begin this new year, perhaps our prayers ought to focus on asking the Holy Spirit to reveal to us what we need to be emptied of. Let us pray for the grace to let go and lay everything at His feet, so that our hearts can delight in fullness of joy in Christ alone.

You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Psalm 16:11

God calls us to remember: a prayerful pause at the Cotswolds

Psalm 105:4-5

Seek the Lord and his strength;
    seek his presence continually!
 Remember the wondrous works that he has done,
    his miracles, and the judgments he uttered.

Arlington Row in Bibury, The Cotswolds, UK

In the middle of England lies this treasure known as the Cotswolds – pretty little villages that once flourished because of the wool industry. These towns span a huge land area that has been officially recognized for its extraordinary beauty, otherwise known as AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty). A trip to the Cotswolds is an opportunity to see some of the loveliest sceneries that England is known for. As a matter of fact, an image of the Cotswolds, specifically that of a row of cottages in Bibury, Gloucestershire, is featured on the inside front cover of every British passport.

We hopped on a tour of the Cotswolds in the afternoon of Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral. It was a very quiet day without the huge volume of sightseers from all over the world that this major tourist attraction usually receives. In a span of six hours, we saw for ourselves why countless others have fallen in love with this piece of England. Aside from the unparalleled charm, which Steven Spielberg himself realized upon selecting the town of Castle Combe for the movie War Horse, to me there was, likewise, a kind of aura or a peaceful nostalgia that makes these villages special. It felt as though someone pressed the PAUSE button at some point in their history. There are no new developments, no modern amenities that would ruin the ambiance created by the limestone cottages, thatched roofs, old bridges, and running brooks. The surroundings simply invite one to walk (or sit) and relish the beauty of the past.

Castle Combe, The Cotswolds, UK

But why recall the past when nothing can be done about it? Isn’t the present all that matters? Author Corrie Ten Boom survived a Nazi concentration camp. In today’s language, one could say that war interrupted her normal. She became acquainted with lots of suffering, pain and loss, and yet because of her faith in God, this is what she had to say about the past.

“This is what the past is for! Every experience God gives us, every person He puts in our lives is the perfect preparation for the future that only He can see.”
― Corrie Ten Boom, The Hiding Place

In the bible, there were many times when God commanded His people to remember what He has done. Prayers of psalmists are filled with words recalling both the mercies and judgments of God. Bringing to mind who God is and how He manifested his love and sovereignty in the past is meant to be a source of strength to those who serve Him. It would be pointless, though, to draw encouragement from the past if God is not absolutely faithful and true. If there is the slightest chance that He might have a weakness or that His love for us may change, how is remembering helpful? But because the God that we worship is steadfast and unchanging, we can and should derive comfort and courage in looking back and pondering all that He has done, lest we forget how amazingly good He has been. He who has loved the world from the very beginning, continues to do so.

Psalm 25:10

All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,
    for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.

The Chipping Steps in Tetbury, The Cotswolds, UK

In the old days in Tetbury, to reach the market, people climbed up the chipping steps carrying sacks of flour and other goods to be sold. As I was climbing up those same steps, I kept looking back and taking photos of the picturesque view behind me. It was not at all because I disliked the view in front of me. (Remember, this is the Cotswolds. Picturesque is everywhere). But it gladdened my heart to see that each step that I took forward, lengthened the path behind me and broadened the perspective that my little camera phone could capture. And I was grateful for that, just as I am thankful for all that He allows the eyes of my heart to see when I look back at the seasons of life through which He has taken me.

So what has the Lord reminded you of lately? What is it that you need to ponder? What holy remembrance has His Spirit renewed in your heart?

Press the PAUSE button, and let the memories lead you to a place of prayer.

Psalm 77:11-12

I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
    yes, I will remember your wonders of old.
 I will ponder all your work,
    and meditate on your mighty deeds.


Roman ruins and reflections on fear, pride, and humility

Parade Gardens, Bath UK

“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what  will be done,

and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”?

It has been already in the ages before us.”

Ecclesiastes 1:9-10 ESV
Holburne Museum, featured in the Netflix series Bridgerton

My husband and I ventured outside of the US for the first time since the COVID lockdown. The idyllic English countryside was our goal and Bath, in Somerset, was our home base. It was my second time to delight in this wonderful city surrounded by seven hills (just like Rome and Lisbon) and blessed with natural thermal springs. A 90 minute train ride westward from London’s Paddington Station transported us to this picturesque place, from which Jane Austen derived inspiration to write a couple of her books. Authors, artists, influencers and movie producers have all found something in Bath that is worth their time and investment.

No doubt the most famous attraction here would be the Roman Baths where one discovers layers of history that have been unearthed through careful and costly excavation, preservation, research and restoration. Natural thermal springs in this area have been in use since Celtic times. Then around 300-400 AD, the Romans established an impressive and sophisticated complex to house and host a thriving community. It’s a conglomeration of a health and wellness spa, a religious center, a marketplace, among other facilities. This was Aquae Sulis; and this was the place to be in 4th century AD!

The Roman Baths

Winding through the tunnels of exhibits, visitors find their way into a little cavern of coffins and gravestones. Surely it was not all grand and glorious in Aquae Sulis. Like with any segment of history, people dealt with pain and loss, illness and death. (Interestingly, the soldiers already had a system for securing their funeral plans.) Looking more deeply into what went on in those days and who was revered, it becomes obvious that darkness prevailed as well.

Part of the temple facade. People worshiped the sun god sulis minerva among other gods

Nowadays, Christians express a huge amount of fear about the world becoming so bad. Parents are anxiously wondering how their children could live out their faith in a society growing more and more hostile against Christianity. Grandparents shake their heads in disbelief of current realities and sadly long for how things were, when the world seemed kinder and safer. It is not my intention to validate or refute these feelings. My goal is to simply draw attention to the fact that our God who is the Alpha and Omega, the Author and Perfector of our faith, in Whom we live and move and have our being has always been and will always be on His throne and He remains in charge.

“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us,”

Acts 17:24-27 ESV

Let’s not miss what the Apostle Paul was saying here about God’s power to determine the time and place of our existence, so that we would seek Him and find Him near. The bible tells us that rebellion is as old as Adam. Human arrogance – our natural tendency to think of ourselves more highly than we ought (or wiser than God), is ancient. It is not anything new. Although we are shocked with disturbing news about our culture and society every minute, God isn’t.

His saving grace, through the finished work of Christ remains the unfailing hope of all generations. The power that raised Jesus from the dead is not a bit diminished by the passing of time. Our King has complete knowledge of the glory and demise of civilizations, the growth and downfall of institutions, and He alone acts in perfect wisdom for what is best for His own Bride, the Church, at every point in time.

We saw a parade to culminate the Jane Austen festival!

As we were walking around the city, my husband said, “You should write a book here, just like Jane Austen. The title should be Humility and Inclusivity” (as opposed to Pride and Prejudice, which she did not write while living in Bath, but the 2005 movie was partially filmed in Bath). I knew he was kidding but it made me think of how often as believers, our reflex reaction to the changing world around us is tainted with pride and has so little of the humility of Christ, whom we profess to follow. Fear becomes our fortress and we (perhaps subconsciously) start building a cultural “moat” to keep out all who are not like us, and to keep ourselves safe within walls that we presume to call faith. But our true fortress is Christ Jesus, who so loved the world and whose arms are wide open to all who would come to Him. We so easily forget that our Shepherd will surely protect us while we step out in faith and love one another radically. There is no safer place than being in the will of God, no matter how uncomfortable or perilous that calling could be.

So let us be encouraged that we are called to faithfulness right where we are today. He will equip us. He will sanctify us till our hearts delight in Him alone. Suffering is certain and it serves as His merciful reminder that this is not our home.

“Nevertheless, I am continually with you;
    you hold my right hand.
 You guide me with your counsel,
    and afterward you will receive me to glory.”

Psalm 73, 23-24 ESV

Who is this?

Matthew 21:10 And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?”

It is Palm Sunday today, a day that Christians all over the world remember Jesus, riding on a donkey, entering the gates of Jerusalem, where he was welcomed by multitudes waving palm branches, and shouting “Hosanna”. It was no doubt a glorious moment although short-lived as it was followed rather quickly by his suffering and crucifixion. Nonetheless, at this point he was celebrated by the people as a miracle worker, teacher, even a prophet. (“This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” Matt 21:11) But the greatest truth about who Jesus is was yet to be revealed in the days to come.

Who do you say that I am?

The people who followed him during his life on earth were likewise challenged with this question. Just a few chapters earlier in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus himself asked his disciples: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Matt 16:13-16 Wow! Peter gave such a bold and accurate declaration of his Rabbi’s identity, even though he probably did not completely understand what that meant and how Jesus would eventually demonstrate the fullness of his identity, through his death and resurrection.

Who is Jesus?

The question is as relevant today as it was then. In a world plagued with wars, viruses, rising oil prices, financial hardship, natural calamities, political divide and multiple levels of human conflict, one’s personal response to this question still has the greatest impact in both life and death. This week is a good time to reflect on (or wrestle with) this as we commemorate the most significant events in human history – Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. I am certain that many of us are carrying heavy hearts these days. But even as we are drowning in the enormity of our human suffering, our response to the question of who Jesus is ultimately defines who we are and determines the direction of our lives.

Who is Jesus is not just a question that an unbeliever must make up his mind about someday. It demands a reply even from those of us who claim to know him. It is possible that our lenses of faith have been blurred with doubt, apathy and indifference. We need God’s word to wipe them clear so that we can see Jesus again for the holy, righteous and faithful king that he really is, instead of the harmless idea that we have fashioned him to be. As the human heart is prone to wander, we should pray for the Holy Spirit to redirect our love and our passions back to him who purchased us with nothing less than his own blood. Wherever we are in our journey, the truth of who Jesus is will be worthy of our deepest repentance and highest praise.

The apostle Paul was very much aware of such joy in knowing Christ that he said: “Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Phil 3:8 And this is how he beautifully described Jesus in his letter to the Colossians. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.  And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.  For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,  and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. Colossians 1:15-20

What the apostle Paul penned in a paragraph might take me a lifetime to fully comprehend. But I believe there is absolutely no better way to spend an entire lifetime than in pursuit of Him who died and gave His life for me. One day there will be a gathering of those who know Christ and are known by him, clothed in white robes and waving palm branches in heavenly worship of the Lamb who was slain. There will be no question about who he is for every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Revelation 7:9-10

Canyons, crevices and the cleansing of our hearts

He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. Colossians 1:13-14

What is the first place you think of when you hear the word canyon? If you’re American or if you’ve been to western United States, The Grand Canyon in Arizona would most likely be your answer. Why not? It is after all THE most famous hole in the ground, which is why it receives close to 5 million visitors annually. But have you ever heard of a slot canyon? I am not a geomorphologist and I don’t claim any expertise on this subject. But my husband and I just had the opportunity to visit the Antelope canyons within the Navajo Nation in Page, Arizona, so I learned a few things about this interesting landform.

Slot canyons are found worldwide, in geographical areas with little rainfall. Here in the US, the ones we know of are in northern Arizona, southern Utah, New Mexico, and California. A slot canyon is vaguely defined as a long, narrow, deep and tortuous channel or drainageway with walls of sandstone, limestone and other sedimentary rocks. I was reading up on the Antelope canyons and admiring the photos on the website of the local tour company way before our trip but I later realized nothing could have adequately prepared me for the experience. What I saw exceeded my expectations.  From the beams of sunlight that find their way through the narrow slits above me, creating natural hues of orange, red, yellow, pink and purple; to the variable and sometimes undulating shapes of the sandstone walls, which, at certain points are literally next to you – everything exudes our Creator’s majesty. It is incredibly beautiful, fascinating, and almost otherworldly. I noticed though that because of the irregularly-shaped spaces inside, there are segments and crevices that remain in darkness.  They are either too distant from the openings where sunlight penetrates the canyon, or they are positioned at an angle that creates shadows and prevents them from being illumined. However, when flash floods occur as they do during the monsoon season, water can rapidly fill every inch of the canyon. There is no corner, crevice, slit, hole, that cannot be reached and washed with the gush of rainwater.

Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy. Prov. 28:13

I believe the same is true of the human heart and that many times, we shelter sin and shame in our own secret crevices. We can understand how this could be the daily reality for someone who is unaware or unyielding to the grace of God. However, this is not only true of unbelievers. Although justified once and for all through Christ’s victory on the cross, believers in Christ are works in progress who continue to wage war against sin.

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:8-9

As followers of Christ, we have tasted and seen God’s mercy and compassion. We read in Scripture about the tenderness of our Shepherd’s heart towards the weak. But do we understand the crucial role of repentance in the work that the Holy Spirit is doing in us?  I think that for most of us, we intercede much and confess very little in our personal and corporal prayer life. If we paid more attention to what we say, it sounds as though we seek His provision more than His pardon. We desire to be fed and clothed more than to be forgiven and cleansed. And we know what the bible says about our words – they merely reflect what’s in our hearts. We all have much to learn from the psalmist David, who rightfully lamented over sin and earnestly sought God’s forgiveness.

Have mercy on me O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgression. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! Psalm 51:1-2

Repentance is not an item to legalistically check off some list of what makes one a good Christian. Repentance demonstrates our total dependence on Him against Whom we have sinned and continue to sin. For a child of God, repentance is born out of a heart that has been softened by grace and is secure in the love of the Father; a heart that cannot bear for any of its parts to remain hidden in the shadow of self, unchanged by the glory of His light. The closer we lean into the heart of our Master, the sooner we are able to recognize sin and bring it into the light of His mercy. Genuine repentance enlarges the portals through which His grace flows abundantly. When His Spirit leads us to repentance, God allows us to feel His sorrow over sin, and creates in us a deep desire and thirst to be washed and cleansed by Him who shed His blood in Calvary. The more we linger in His presence in prayer and reflection, the more we are awed by the preciousness of Christ, and the lesser things we were foolishly holding on to are swept away in a flood of grace.

I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins. Isaiah 43:25

No one ever visits a slot canyon to sprint through it. Not only is that dangerous. It is also an absolute waste of an extraordinary opportunity to appreciate the unique beauty of this piece of God’s creation. In the same way, we shouldn’t rush through seasons of repentance for they are seasons of great grace. It’s when the grain of wheat falls deep into the earth and dies, in order to bear fruit. It’s when our prodigal thoughts and ways find their way back home, and humbly rest at the feet of Him who purchased us by His blood. There is nothing so freeing as being forgiven by Him who knew no sin. He who desires unbroken fellowship with us, is also the One who sanctifies us. It is therefore with faith and confidence in the Lamb who was slain that we pray:

Search me O God and know my heart
    Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting!

Psalm 139:23-24

Sometimes He uses mountains

As we drove through the highways and switchbacks of Zion National Park in Utah, I found it impossible to not be awed by the magnificent mountains that unfolded before me at every turn. It was my first time to set foot in Utah and I had no idea that I would find some of the most breathtaking landscapes here. Looking up, I could see unique and interesting shapes on the peaks, such as the west temple or bridge mountain or the watchman. The spectrum of colors that varied depending on the amount and direction of the sunlight, is no less fascinating. There was red, pink, orange, white, gray black, with some green from the trees that are scattered throughout the mountainsides or in thin strips outlining some of the rock layers. The photographs I took could never adequately capture the splendor that my eyes and my heart enjoyed.

For a brief moment, I asked myself how God could create these beautiful and diverse landscapes. And the Holy Spirit reminded me instantly – He spoke. That’s it. He spoke and the world came into being.

Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him! For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded and it stood firm.

Psalm 33:8-9

Now why is this still important for me to reflect on after decades of being a Christian? Because I forget. And because He knows that I forget, yet loves me unconditionally, He never gets tired of reminding me. Sometimes He uses mountains.

In the gospels, we read that there were quite a few events throughout His life and ministry when our Lord Jesus went up on a mountain. Matthew tells us that Jesus went up to a mountain to teach, and that’s where we find the sermon on the mount. The sermon began with the Beatitudes in chapter 5, (which I would love to blog about another time) all through chapter 7. Jesus covered a lot while on that mountain – enough to fill three chapters of Matthew’s gospel. And we see chapter 8 opening with “when he came down from the mountain…” (Matt 8:1). I wondered what it was like to be among his listeners, standing on a plateau or sitting on a rock or resting under a tree while learning from the Master.

We come across another mountaintop event when Jesus was transfigured and demonstrated His glory to three of His closest disciples – Peter, James and John. On that day, and on that mountain, the voice of God the Father himself spoke to human ears, and was heard by ordinary men. (Matthew 17:1-8). Appropriately so, the disciples fell on their faces terrified. But when Jesus touched them, they heard the most comforting words from their Rabbi – Rise and have no fear. Words that our gentle Savior still speaks to us today.

Jesus also retreated to the mountains in order to spend time with His Father in prayer. In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. Luke 6:12 This verse refers to a particular time of prayer that took place just before Jesus made a very important decision; that of selecting the twelve men who would be His apostles. Clearly, Jesus was purposeful and faithful in setting aside time to be with His Father. If it was that precious to Jesus, shouldn’t it be precious to His followers, too?

I see how mountains can really be useful in pointing my heart to God. They help me remember what God has said and done. They invite me to recall what Jesus taught and how He lived. I came to this place with a mountain of cares. I have been praying that God would strengthen me because far more challenging times are up ahead. I have realized that the strength that I seek is not found in these mountains themselves but in the God who created them, the God who still uses them for His glory, the God on which they stand firm. Like all of His creation, my very existence is meant to display God’s glory, and my steadfastness as a follower of Christ depends on Him alone. He says to me and to you, “Rise and have no fear.”

As we pack for the flight home and I recharge my phone battery that has been repeatedly drained in my efforts to photograph the beauty that surrounds me, my heart has likewise been generously recharged by His loving presence in the grandeur of His creation. I’m leaving these lofty mountains today with a refreshed soul and a renewed perspective of how great my Father is, and I pray this truth will equip all of us as we journey in the valleys of daily life.

“Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” Revelation 4:11

This hard place in which you perhaps find yourself is the very place in which God is giving you opportunity to look only to Him, to spend time in prayer, and to learn long-suffering, gentleness, meekness – in short, to learn the depths of the love that Christ Himself has poured out on all of us.

Elisabeth Elliot

Rain clouds for my retreat

“Dark clouds give water when the bright ones do not.” John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress

I had great plans for a lakeside retreat in western New York. I picked a nice hotel with great reviews, and booked a room with a balcony overlooking the water. So I ran some errands, delegated tasks, rearranged schedules to free up myself for two days. And after I got done taking my mom to a routine medical appointment, I took off for the two hour drive, already anticipating some long reflective walks by the lake, and hours of quietly reading my bible on the dock under full sunshine.

Nope! That was not going to happen. A steady rain became my constant companion throughout my drive to Chautauqua Harbor Hotel. Though I found my room lovely and the atmosphere serene, I was still unsure how God would use my time there. But  God did what He always does – He redirected my disappointed heart to Him.  He called me to repentance for letting the dark clouds of everyday life discourage me and diminish my view of who God is.

We live in challenging times and dark clouds loom on the horizon of our personal and communal realities. No one (who is alive) is spared from trials and hardship. In a letter to fellow believers, James wrote  “Count it all joy my brothers (and sisters) when you meet trials of various kinds.” (James 1:2). How does one count it all joy? Does this mean I should try my best to ignore the pain and convince myself to remain happy no matter what? That’s not what James meant. Positive thinking has never been and will never be the antidote to suffering. Imagine if I had chosen to respond with strong optimism, and disregarded the real status of the weather, and I sat on the dock in summer outfit and beach slippers, complete with a straw hat and huge sunglasses, in the middle of pouring rain and thunder.  That would be insane. It would also be highly arrogant of me to think that clouds could get whisked away by my relentless insistence on having more sunshine.

“For you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” James 1:3

While our human nature is focused on avoiding suffering, James points out that steadfastness is the fruit that results from trials, and this is important enough for us to consider it pure joy when we are tested. Trials bring us to a state of complete dependence on God. Through trials, God corrects our self-centered vision and allows us to rightly gaze at all that He is, which is all that matters – His goodness, holiness, mercy and power. Suffering also enables us to look at ourselves through the lens of humility so that we can see without a doubt, that apart from Him, we can do nothing at all. (John 15:5)

Knowledge of God’s word is essential to our growth and maturity, but knowledge alone does not produce steadfastness. Fellowship with the body of Christ is truly life-giving, but that’s not where steadfastness develops. Nothing else brings forth steadfastness more powerfully than the dark clouds of trial and suffering. Underneath these clouds, we realize that what we need the most is in fact the One who loves us the most. Underneath these clouds, our hearts are transformed and made steadfast by the One whose steadfast love never ceases. Underneath these clouds, we need not suffer alone. When it seems the clouds are here to stay, we can be most certain that Jesus is all the more here to stay.  Such intimacy with Him is reason enough to rejoice.

And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. James 1:4

I’ve come to see that when, by His grace, my heart seeks Jesus more than it yearns for the sunshine of earthly security, happiness and freedom, even the darkest clouds have no power to steal my joy. Steadfastness doesn’t mean I am unshakable on my own. Steadfastness means I am unshakeable in the arms of my Savior and Lord.

“Can you find a promise that if we follow the Lord Jesus Christ, life is going to be fairly easy? I do not think we shall find even one. But we shall find ever so many promises assuring us that however things are, we may count on strength to make us brave and peace to keep our hearts at rest.”
― Amy Carmichael

The fullness of His knowledge and the fragments of my mind

Who has directed the Spirit of the LORD,
         Or as His counselor has informed Him?

With whom did He consult and who gave Him understanding?
         And who taught Him in the path of justice and taught Him knowledge
         And informed Him of the way of understanding?

Isaiah 40:13-14

Lighthouse in Wellington, NZ

Isaiah 40 has been a beacon of light to me during 2020. In the ESV bible, the title of this chapter is Comfort for God’s People. From a historical perspective, the author did have an immediate audience in desperate need of strength and endurance. Well that describes how I’ve felt since the spring of 2020 – in constant desperate need of strength and endurance.

There are multiple portions of Isaiah 40 that spoke powerfully to me. It was no surprise though that one of the main truths that carried me throughout the year is the greatness of our God and the fullness of His knowledge. Isaiah 40 was a reminder that there is absolutely nothing that God does not know. Unlike me, He does not need anybody to teach Him anything. The psalmist describes God’s understanding as infinite or beyond measure (Psalm 147:5) He who put the stars in their place surely does not need my opinion on how to run the world. (Yes, there were times when I made suggestions). My role as His child, is to trust my Father who lacks nothing at all.

There is something (or someone) else in my current situation that God used to deepen my faith in the fullness of His knowledge. As some of you know, my husband and I are taking care of an elderly parent who has dementia. My mom is definitely still the kind and pleasant woman she has always been, but her thought patterns are very different now. There are days when her mental framework is very fragmented, able to process only bits and pieces of information. She may ask about something totally random, like a classmate from her high school days or a dish from our native land. Every now and then she would insist on doing something that is no longer safe for her and these are the waters we tread carefully. Overall, I find myself becoming more selective of what I relay to her, not because I’m keeping any truth from her but simply because she no longer has the full capacity to handle what she could handle before. I have to consider, will this be helpful to her or will this confuse and overwhelm her?

One night it suddenly occurred to me, that this must be what it looks like as far as the fullness of God’s knowledge and the fragments of mine. I am His creation and child, to whom He has graciously imparted everything I need for me to love Him back and live for Him daily. As 2 Peter 1:3 says, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godlinessthrough the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence”. But compared to His knowledge, mine are bits and pieces, like an unfinished puzzle.

I frequently find myself telling my mom things like, “It’s okay, you don’t have to think about that anymore.” Or “You don’t have to worry about this. I’ll do this for you.” Or “Let me take charge of this so that you don’t get stressed about having to remember.” Similarly, I know that God also gives me only what I can handle. He does not withhold out of cruelty but out of love. Because in reality, there are times (perhaps many times) when I do not know what I do not know.

The only appropriate response to this truth is humility. Humility that leads us to surrender the bits and pieces that we hold and worship Him whose greatness Isaiah proclaimed. Humility that creates that holy discontent – that thirst, that draws us to drink of the Living Waters (John 4:14). Humility that opens the eyes of our hearts to the truth that nowhere could strength and endurance be found apart from Him who endured the suffering that should have been ours (Isaiah 53:4).

There is one book that I read twice in 2020 and I highly recommend it. The title is “Awe: Why it matters for everything we think, say or do”, written by Paul David Tripp. My husband and I read through it together while traveling in New Zealand in February (right before the lockdown!). I picked it up again and studied it throughout the fall, via weekly zoom meetings with a group of ladies from our church. In this book, the author presents Isaiah 40 not only as comfort literature but worldview literature. And I can see why, because the greatness of God and the fullness of His knowledge ought to be THE focal point, THE lens through which we view all things – suffering included. How foolish of me to settle for distorted lenses that exalted the bits and pieces that I know.

I pray that we would face this new year with God-given lenses of faith. I plead for grace to lay aside our fragmented perspective of what normal should be or how the world should look in 2021. After all, the source of all comfort, the source of all strength and endurance remains All-Powerful, All-Present and All-Knowing. He is unchanging and He is my Father who is Sovereign yesterday, today and tomorrow. Happy New Year!

Mountains in Tauranga, NZ

To whom then will you compare me,
    that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
    who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
    calling them all by name;
by the greatness of his might
    and because he is strong in power,
    not one is missing.

Isaiah 40:25-26

Resting on His sovereignty

The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD;
he turns it wherever he will
. Proverbs 21:1

Fall at Squires Castle, North Chagrin Reservation, Ohio

I saw this bible verse posted on pastor and author David Platt’s FB page and at once I felt deeply comforted in my heart. I think I’ve mentioned before that when I think of God, one of the main things that truly amazes me is His sovereignty. Sovereignty is God’s power to do all that He decides to do. Job proclaimed this clearly when he said to God –

“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” Job 42.2

When I think about how God is loving, merciful, faithful, gracious and forgiving, it is such an encouragement to know that whatever it is that He wills is exactly what would take place. But seeing that Job, the righteous man of the Old Testament who loved God and yet suffered in ways none of us ever will, most beautifully expressed the meaning of God’s sovereignty adds so much depth to this concept. A depth that most of us are intimidated to even explore.

Several years ago, I came across this quote from Charles Spurgeon:

“The sovereignty of God is the pillow upon which the Christian rests his head.”

I say yes and amen to this yet there are many times I can’t seem to find that pillow. When challenges confront me, even though they represent only a smidgen of a fraction of what Job went through, I still look to find rest in the old rotten pillow of control. I thought I threw that stinky pillow away. Apparently, it can always find its way back to my bed, when I worry about me or those around me; and even when I worry about those who are or will be in authority over me.

The author of Proverbs 21 believed that God’s sovereign hand works in the heart of a leader. At that time, they had kings as leaders. In fact the main author of the book of Proverbs was a king himself who had both strong and weak moments during his reign. But here in this verse, he acknowledged that even the most powerful man is under God’s control. We can believe this even today, because as we have seen in biblical history, (and even contemporary history), this has less to do with the king and has more to do with the King of Kings. In God’s mighty hand, any king’s heart is but a stream that He can direct wherever He wishes.

Watkins Glen, Gorge Trail

Our world is overflowing with anxiety and believers are not exempt. I’ve come to accept that as long as I’m in this body, my human nature will never give up trying to be in control. Yes, Christ has victoriously and completely paid the price and freed me from the penalty of sin, but His word reminds me that I am daily dependent on His grace and the work of the Holy Spirit for my heart to be changed into trusting Him in all things. And the all things totally includes relying on God’s sovereignty over those who have earthly authority over me. This does not only pertain to government leadership. This also has implications in relationships that we did not choose such as the family we were born into, as well as relationships, positions, and affiliations that we ourselves chose, like marriage, career, church membership, citizenship and others. It is not my intention to minimize the horror of abuse that one might have suffered in any of these situations. Neither do I imply that it is all right to be complacent because God is in control. Not at all! (In my last blog, I marveled at how God used courageous women in Exodus 1&2 to carry out His plan. No complacency there whatsoever). My heart’s desire is simply to bring our gaze back where it belongs: in Christ who is above ALL authority.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Matt 28:18 

Let us place our hope in Him who is Sovereign over the universe that He created.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.  And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. Col 1:15-17

He invites us to come and rest in Him. So grab that pillow and sleep well….

“Nothing in all the vast universe can come to pass otherwise than God has eternally purposed. Here is a foundation of faith. Here is a resting place for the intellect. Here is an anchor for the soul, both sure and steadfast. It is not blind fate, unbridled evil, man or Devil, but the Lord Almighty who is ruling the world, ruling it according to His own good pleasure and for His own eternal glory.”
― A.W. Pink, The Sovereignty of God