Tag Archive | Grace for Beginners

Room for Hope


A few weeks ago, I met my first grandchild, four months old and absolutely perfect.

How is it possible that the presence of one little baby can infuse such life into a heart, a family, a church? I’m amazed at how vulnerable people allow themselves to be when they see a baby. They absolutely melt. They let their guard is down. Their face crinkles, their voice goes up an octave and nobody ever cares if they look silly.

A new life brings renewed faith and the reassurance that we will continue to live on.

I think of how God in His wisdom so perfectly thought out the plan for our restoration – to have His only Son come as a new baby. In quiet innocence, not with a flash of lightening or a blazing bush or parting of seas… just humble relief.

As most of Bethlehem slept, light filled a dusty stable, and in a newborn’s faint cry God whispered Hope:

“Here is my offer of what is most precious to me – my Son. He is my presence, my peace and my promise for reconciliation and new life.”

Although a divine moment, many missed it. They didn’t realize the Savior had come. They were watching for something bigger, louder and more complicated. They were looking for a deliverer accompanied by much fanfare, who would overthrow the current government and set up a new kingdom on Earth.  An obvious Messiah, not a humble one.

But God’s heart did not desire revolution, but restoration. He did not send His Son to condemn or correct us, but to connect with us.

For God so loved the world, He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him (John 3:16-17.)

God reaching for us

God coming to us.

God came quietly,  not with a show of His power, not with flood or fire or earthquake, but instead, through an innocent babe, helpless and vulnerable. The very definition of Hope.

Holy and almighty God breathed life into the Promised One, who can be our hope for new life in relationship with Him. It’s as if God said,

“Let me show you what it is to be humble. Let me show you how great My love is for you. I want to experience everything you do, so that we can understand one another.”

Surely there must be a catch. This sounds too simple, too easy. Who gives a gift without expecting something in return? Who loves regardless of who we are, in spite of anything we have done, and without any conditions?

It’s not humanly possible. But it is divinely possible.

Divine possibility. Heaven come to Earth. The fulfillment of the promise foretold by ancient prophecy, where the Sacred transformed the ordinary in a supernatural act of redemption and restoration, making Grace available to all.

To all those with the faith to believe that there is more. That this is not all there is, that there is a realm of spirit more real and wonderful that we could ever imagine, and He is available to us.

To all those who believe that miracles didn’t just happen 2000 years ago, but that they can still happen today.

And this is the miracle:

“We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.” (Romans 3:22)

The promise we’ve been waiting for has already been fulfilled. We continue to seek, not recognizing that He is right in front of us.

We argue with minds filled with science – as if it contradicts theology – that in order to believe we must have proof.

We block the door to our hearts with a giant No Vacancy sign saying, “Still No Room.”

We insist that in order to believe we must see; yet it is only when we believe that we will truly see.

Because you have seen me, you have believed: blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed (John 20:29.)

Perhaps we do see, but we are afraid of what we may have to let go of in return.

Or maybe we think we have to clean up our lives first.

But God can redeem any heart, even a filthy stable of a heart, to create a worthy place for His Son.

For Christ can only be born in us if we invite Him in.

And while we impatiently wait for a promise, the Promised One waits patiently for our hearts.

So even if there is just the smallest corner in your heart, the tiniest part of you that still hopes, still seeks, still believes in miracles…take down the No Vacancy sign. Make room. Invite Him in.

We can be His Bethlehem this Christmas.


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Photo: Virginia Becker

Today I held a little bird in my hands. He had slammed into our front window and lay on the icy porch. He wasn’t moving and I was afraid he was dead. But I couldn’t leave him there, alone in the cold.

As I held him in my cupped hands, one of his little feet wrapped itself around my finger, just like an infant. Although nothing else moved and his eyes were still closed, it gave me hope.

So I sat there in the cold without a coat, as the voice of reason chided me for being silly.

Hah! You certainly haven’t changed. You are still the same kid who brought home strays and bandaged broken limbs. Don’t get your hopes up about this one…. Birds die every day….That’s just life.

I had to smile as I remembered the wild squirrel I had befriended as a child, the stray cats I fed, the many lost dogs who found and followed me home….and I remembered the bird I had rescued from the middle of a busy road a few years before. People honked in protest when I stopped traffic to pick up the large robin about to become road-kill, its right wing hanging useless. But that robin not only lived, he recovered and flew away healthy and whole three days later.

Surely this little bird could be saved.

When he opened his eyes and looked at me, he seemed more sleepy than fearful. I held my hands loosely around him– enough to warm but not confine him should he choose to fly away.

Then I breathed on him, hoping the heat would help him rally, and as his eyes struggled to stay open, I told him the story of the robin. And as I talked, I watched in awe as he began to warm and move in my hand.

By the time I was done with my story, he gathered his strength and flew away. Perhaps my incessant chatting was enough for him to risk death rather than hear even one more word of my encouragement.

In reality, I think there is a little more to this tale. Because I believe this is what God does for us.

I haven’t slammed into any big windows lately, but in the past, when I have been stunned by tragedy or left cold by betrayal, God has held me tenderly in His hands, gently warming my heart and breathing His spirit into me until I am strong enough to live again.

God will hold us when we are broken, telling and retelling us our story and reminding us of the promise we hold, over and over, until we believe Him.  He will keep us close, safe and warm in His embrace until the sting fades; until  we remember why we are here and are ready to fly once again.


And Jesus said “What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.” Matthew 10:29-31 – (NLT)


I was inspired to write this poem today about my little brave sparrow:



Today a sparrow hit the window, falling cold upon the earth.
As light faded, the small life lay dying;
The Master saw the creature still, and mourned.

 And Strength leaned down to lift the weak in tender embrace;
A silent prayer, a hope of warmth to save the fledgling from the cold.
Held, the tiny wings caressed and softened,  first yielding, then cradled perfect.
As the Master whispered softly of the promise of one who rose to fly again.

Divine breath blew white upon him, and the sparrow’s eyes were opened.
And grasping his Maker’s fingers tightly, the warmth of flesh and heat of breath gathered strength and  gave life.

Then the Master spoke to him:

“Little one I would love for you to stay with me, sheltered warm inside my hands… But that’s not who you are…. is it?”

Suddenly, a plane flew high overhead ,and looking up, the tiny sparrow took flight.
There was no hesitation and no looking back, for in that moment he remembered Who had created him and why.

And in honor of his Heavenly Father and considering his purpose, he soared.
For the sparrow was reborn.

Who Is My Neighbor?

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Over the last few days, I have been reading the story of the Good Samaritan and I have really been struggling with the definition of “neighbor.” Just who is my neighbor? And how do I handle people and situations that make me uncomfortable? I was fortunate to find an essay written by Spencer Perkins, who was the Director of Reconcilers Fellowship and author of More Than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel. Mr. Perkins modernized the parable of the Good Samaritan and helped clarify Jesus’ definition of “neighbor” and how it should motivate us to especially love those who are different from us, whether by race, social status, political or religious beliefs.  My next couple of blog posts cover this subject, so I wanted to share his parable of the Good Samaritan with you:


Let’s say you live in a mostly white neighborhood. You hardly deal with people of other races. You work hard, and you teach your children to love God and other people.

Now suppose you hear about an unusual teacher/activist who is going around preaching that same simple message you teach your kids: to love God and other people. But this teacher spends his time with poor people and members of the other race. You agree with what he teaches, but his lifestyle makes you uncomfortable.

Then one day you hear he’s in town, so you go to hear him teach. Afterward, you approach him to ask a question. Your question is probing and goes straight to the heart of the matter. You believe that his answer will probably be theologically unsound, so that you will embarrass him, discount his lifestyle and in the process affirm your own. “How can I be sure that when I die I will go to heaven?” you ask, going straight for the bottom line.

Instead of answering, he asks you an elementary question. “What did they teach you in church?”

You reply from memory, from the first principles you learned way back in Sunday school: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.”

He smiles and says, “You have answered correctly. Do this and when you die you will go to heaven.”

But you feel a little slighted. His answer was too simple. You think, “If we agree, why then does his lifestyle still make me feel so uncomfortable?” And you realize that the difference must have something to do with the “neighbor” part.

Needing to justify your own existence, you decide to probe a little deeper. So you ask the question—the one whose answer was as ignored in Jesus’ day as it is today: “And who is my neighbor?”

His reply comes in the form of a story:

“One evening a man was driving from his suburban home to his downtown office. Because he was pressed for time he decided to drive the most direct route, which led right through the roughest part of the inner city. It just so happened that while driving through this mostly black part of town he had a flat tire. Because his white face stuck out like a sore thumb in this part of town, he was tempted to continue driving on the flattened tire but decided it would only take a minute to change it. While he was changing the tire, though, a gang of black youths attacked him, stripped and beat him and left him half dead.

“Now it happened that a preacher on his way to evening service also had to drive through this dangerous part of town. When he saw the car up on a jack he slowed down, and then he saw the man slumped over the steering wheel. But the preacher hurried on his way, deciding that it would be too dangerous to stop.

“A little while later another man, who had been a Christian all his life and was well respected in his community, also saw the injured man, but he too decided not to get involved.

“Finally, an old black man driving a beat-up pickup truck drove up and stopped, pulled the injured white man out of the car, laid him in the back of his truck and drove him to the hospital. He paid the hospital bill and then continued on his way, never seeing the injured man again.”

His story finished, the teacher then asks you, “Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who was attacked by the gang?”

You answer, “The one who had mercy on him.”

And he says to you, “Go and do likewise.” (See Luke 10:25-37 for the original version of this story.)

When Jesus was asked, “Who is the neighbor I’m supposed to love like myself?” he didn’t say “Your family,” or “The people of your neighborhood—people who are like you.”

For all practical purposes, Jesus turned the question into a racial issue. It was no coincidence that Jesus picked a Samaritan to demonstrate the meaning of neighbor to a Jewish expert in the law. Jews didn’t see the Samaritans as their neighbors. Samaritans were half-breeds, the scum of the earth, outcasts. The Jews believed that if a Jewish person’s shadow happened to touch a Samaritan’s shadow, it would contaminate the Jew. If a Samaritan woman entered a Jewish village, the entire village became unclean.

But in this story Jesus says that our neighbors are especially those people who ignore us, those people who separate themselves from us, those people who are afraid of us, those people we have the most difficulty loving and those people we feel don’t love us. These are our neighbors. In Matthew 5:46 Jesus says, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?” Anybody can do that.

Christianity doesn’t require any power when its only challenge is to do something that already comes naturally. But it will take a powerful gospel—a gospel with guts—to enable us to love across all the barriers we erect to edify our own kind and protect us from our insecurities.

Sometimes, in my weak moments, I wish the lawyer who asked that question two thousand years ago had never opened his big mouth. But now, because he did, I am without excuse. I cannot plead ignorance to the question. Now, because of Jesus’ answer, I have to go beyond my comfort zone and embrace neighbors I would rather do without.

The answer to the question “And who is my neighbor?” has much to say about the priority we place on loving people who are different from ourselves, especially as it relates to our eternal future. Hidden behind Jesus’ simple lesson on helping others is an intense spotlight aimed right at one of our most serious blind spots—race.


It doesn’t take much imagination for each of us to figure out who Jesus would use as an example of “neighbor” in our own towns and cities:

For an Arab, how about a Jew?
For a rich white person, how about a black welfare mother?
For a poor white person, how about a middle-class black person who got where he is through affirmative action?
For a black male, how about a white male—better yet, a pickup-driving, gun rack-toting, tobacco-chewing, baseball-cap-wearing white man who still refers to a black man as “boy”?
For a feminist, how about an insensitive, domineering male chauvinist?
For a suburban Catholic family, how about the Muslim family that moved in down the street?
For the typical nuclear family of four, how about the married gay couple at the company BBQ?
For all of us, how about the unmotivated, undisciplined, uneducated poor? Or the single mother with 5 children with 4 different fathers?
Or an AIDS victim who contracted AIDS not through a transfusion but through homosexual activity or intravenous drug use?


Who would Jesus use as the neighbor if he were speaking to you?



Source: http://www.cbeinternational.org/?q=content/who-my-neighbor




Who am I that You would live in me,

That You so near to my heart know my hurt before I do?

Who am I that You would choose me?

Out of all the trillions of possibilities from my parents union –

It was me you chose.


You rejoiced with my first cry and celebrated my first words;

You applauded my first song and inhaled my first prayer;

You stood by as I took my first steps, waiting patiently while I struggled –

Insisting I could do it all myself.

You proudly cheered my victories, knowing they were Yours.

When I failed or fell You wept for me, even though the fault was my own.

And when the ones I trusted, even more than You, those closest to me –

Betrayed, Rejected, Forgot, Gave up…

Still You stayed.


Who am I that You would choose and watch and wait and stay,

When all I can offer in return is a heart crushed, defeated?

A heart You loved imperfect,

A heart You witnessed bruised,

A heart now broken open, uncluttered and emptied…

A heart with space for You alone to dwell.

“I knew you before I formed you in your mother’s womb. Before you were born I set you apart…”  Jeremiah 1:5 (NLT)

Copyright 2013 Sheila Zia


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We have a new doctor staying with us who will be working and teaching at the government hospital in Mbale. We have cooked together the last two nights, pooling together whatever we can find each day in the outdoor market. There are plenty of bananas, avocados, rice and dried beans – all safe to eat if washed very well and rinsed in white vinegar. There is really no (safe) meat available unless I’m willing buy a chicken to kill and pluck myself. Today I found a man selling three cucumbers which was an incredible find. I bought all of them. I have finally gotten used to the smells of the market, a combination of rotting meat and fish, body odor, and excrement. It has taken almost 3 weeks for me not to smell it anymore.

Each night my new friend returns from her work at the Mbale Regional Hospital with more horror stories: They don’t monitor a patient’s vital signs while they are under anesthesia; Ether (something the developing world has not used for at least 50 years) is being used as an anesthetic; mothers in active labor are sandwiched together like sardines in the hallways and not allowed to cry out. Jay tells me of one young woman softly panting “Jesus, Jesus” who is harshly scolded and told to be quiet by the nurses. Another young woman enters the hospital with a baby half delivered and trapped inside her, the hospital staff afraid to touch her because she is HIV positive. The child is just one of the many deaths she has seen today.


Each day that my friend returns from her work at the government hospital, I see her face fall a little farther – with fatigue, with despair – confused and saddened by so much suffering. Perhaps if I could see my own face, I would see the same, slow crumbling.

I remember my first week. How I felt a rising panic, wondering how I would ever get through my time here. Jay has signed up for a six-month contract. She tells me she’s “not a religious person” but wants to know how a loving God could allow so much poverty and suffering. I tell her I don’t know, that I’m still struggling to find the answer to that same question. That perhaps faith means believing that God sees the bigger picture and trusting that He knows what He’s doing. She tells me her NGO sent two pediatricians to Mbale hospital last year and they were so distraught by what they saw in the pediatric ward that they quit and required counseling when they returned home. I can imagine that.

I share with her about the child who finally broke me, and how one of the nurses told me, “You have a strong heart. Some people can’t even enter the ward, some can’t get through even one day seeing these children, but it took almost two weeks to break yours.”

And that’s just what we see in the hospitals. In town I see the crippled, the maimed and disfigured, on every corner and sidewalk like some cruel display of circus acts. It’s so much easier to look away. To look too closely is to come undone. Even the best of us are as oblivious as we want to be, safely cocooned in a protective bubble of subjective misperception, our minds too eager to twist the truth, trying to make sense of what makes no sense.

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If I allow myself to see the reality of poverty, starvation and disease, I have to make a conscious choice: To do something or to ignore it – which is inexcusable. We do have a choice. But too often we let the insignificant and petty details of our days distract us, perhaps hoping if we ignore it long enough we won’t notice anymore.
I don’t want to be anesthetized to it. It should be disturbing enough to make me gasp, to lose sleep over it. I don’t want to be immune to suffering in the hope it won’t hurt anymore. If I numb myself to not feel pain, perhaps I will become unable to feel at all.

If keeping my heart open means being hurt or wounded by suffering, then so be it.

Which brings me back to Jay’s question:
How can a loving God allow suffering?
He doesn’t. We do.

Healing in Uganda

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It is 5am and I know this because I hear the Adhan, the morning call to prayer coming from the mosque a block away. Here in Mbale, it doesn’t matter that my phone has died and I have no alarm clock. The Adhan or local rooster will wake me every morning. I am in Uganda, at CURE Children’s hospital in Uganda. Today I will meet the two neurosurgeons who perform life-changing surgery every day. The doctors round at 7:30am, then meet in the chapel at 8:00 for morning prayers. There are bibles on every other chair, tattered and worn, some missing covers. They have been well loved.

I meet the nurses and other staff. They are so kind and humble. One says, ”She is here to teach us how to do better.” The truth is, I have much to learn from them. I meet Miriam, the hospital’s Spiritual Director. I ask her what she does on an average day. She tells me, “I sit with every mother and child and just listen. The mama she has so much sorrow to share. I pray with them, with every one of them“. Miriam expresses her dismay when I tell her we have hospital chaplains, but they only come at the patient or family’s request. “Who attends to the spiritual healing?” She asks, “How can the patient heal if the spiritual is not addressed?” I agree with her and I ask her what is most needed, what is the most important thing for me to do while I’m here?  “Hold their babies, love them” she says, “No one in their village will touch them because they think they are bewitched. They need your heart and your hands much more than your head. Your presence is enough.”

The neurosurgeons are John and Peter. They have me stand behind them as they operate, explaining each anatomical structure and procedure. They do the most intricate part of the surgery in the dark. There is a light over the incision point, but they are looking straight ahead at a monitor, their hands like a typist whose fingers tap the keyboard while her eyes stare at the page. I believe they could do this in their sleep.

These doctors have every reason not to be humble, but they are. They are kind to patients and staff. There is compassion in their eyes. I am moved at how they give God all the credit for a patient’s healing. I hear Dr. John singing “How Great Thou Art” in an off-key but sincere falsetto as he works. Dr. Peter has gospel music playing full-blast in the OR and he and the staff sing while they work.

But what makes me cry is when the lights are dimmed, and before any incision is made, the entire surgical team bows their heads in prayer: A heartfelt, out-loud, specifically for this child prayer. They ask God for his help. And this is what they do before every surgery – ask God for His mercy, to heal this child. They acknowledge God as the only true source of healing, remembering that their skillful hands are simply God’s instrument. And in that moment of quiet with the lights dim, the surgical suite becomes a sanctuary, a holy place. There is a calm, a peace and an undeniable healing presence.

Each of these tiny patients has a name, a family, a story. And although state of the art neurosurgery is being done here, even more evident is the spiritual transformation taking place. These children can return home, go to school and live a productive life. No longer will they be looked upon by their community as cursed. Instead, they are a miracle.


The walking wounded. I see them every day, emotionally spent, tired of trying, and ready to give up. Physically, stress has taken its toll on their bodies and they are overwhelmed by  the demands of others. Because of their kind and giving nature, they are the ones that others rely on and constantly turn to.  And it never ends until one day it’s just too much – they  break.

This is how good people go bad. They walk out on their relationships, their  jobs, they make poor choices….sometimes they close their hearts….all because they thought that God expected all this “doing” of them.

A crucial part of our healing is to recognize that God does not expect this of us. He asks only that we put  Him first in our lives and love each another. It’s really just that simple. When we love and honor God with our lives, then the “doing” comes from an overflow, not an empty, broken  vessel.

God wants only the best for his children. He does not want us to exhaust ourselves to the point of mental and physical breakdown in order to gain his approval. We make it difficult. We forget the price for our imperfection  has already been paid. We need only accept this gift and rest in His grace.

Jan Johnson reminds us of this:

” Life is a journey of coming to know God, not achieving or gaining others approval. Letting go is both too simple and too difficult. It looks like weakness instead of strength, like losing instead of winning,..yet it is in responding to God’s call to surrender that forces me to value my brokeness as well as my strength.”

As children of God, we can be assured that we are cherished and loved. We don’t have to earn God’s love, nor do we need to punish ourselves by rushing and working and worrying ourselves to the point of collapse to prove that we are enough. God has already said that we are.

Here is a statement that changed my life. Repeat this out loud until you believe it: Who I am in Christ is more important than anything I could ever do for him.