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Luke 16 starts and ends with one of Jesus’ stories, and both have the same theme.

Story one: A man’s about to be fired for wasting his employer’s money, so he calls in the debtors and tells them to change what they owe his employer, thereby cancelling some of their debt so that when he is fired, he knows there will be people who’ll want to be generous to him and welcome him into their homes. Though the man was acting dishonestly, Jesus uses this as a lesson to us: We should use worldly wealth to make friends, so they’ll welcome us to an eternal home (Luke 16:9). Can you picture the people you’ve blessed in your lifetime, waiting to welcome you into heaven?

Story two: A rich man lived in luxury, while a poor man named Lazarus was often put at his gate (Luke 16:20). Imagine this beggar – his body covered in sores; too ill to move himself, so he’s put at the rich man’s gate in the hope he’ll be fed. Even the dogs lick his open sores, but the rich man does nothing. When both men die, they’re sent to different places: Lazarus to the arms of Abraham (Luke 16:22), and the rich man to a place of great pain. “Father Abraham, have some pity! Send Lazarus over here to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue. I am in anguish in these flames” (Luke 16:24). The rich man’s so used to asking for what he wants and getting it, but not anymore. He had the good things in life while he lived, Abraham tells him, but Lazarus had nothing and now he’s being comforted. There are no more chances for the rich man; no one can cross from one place to the other. That must have heightened his anguish, and finally he shows some compassion. If Lazarus can’t cross over to help him, could he please go to earth for his five brothers? “I want him to warn them so they don’t end up in this place of torment” (Luke 16:28).

What I want you to take away from this second story is that there really is a place of torment. I was told about the rich man and Lazarus at primary school, but no one explained it was a true story. Only the night I became a Christian did I feel convicted that it was real. When the preacher said: “Imagine you’re locked in a room. It’s hot and there’s nothing to cool your hands,” that story came alive for me; they weren’t just words on a page anymore. Then the preacher explained that when Jesus came along, He could make all our wrongs disappear (Isaiah 53:6). For the first time I knew that following Jesus led to heaven, but the alternative led to that fiery place of torment.

Only God can bring His words to life in your heart, so I’ll put these questions to myself and you can consider them too if you like. How am I living my life? Am I using my resources (my time, my words, my finance) to bless others? Will those I’ve blessed be waiting to welcome me into my eternal home? And am I still grateful to Jesus for taking my punishment, so I’ll never have to experience that place of torment?

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February 6th – Save the Date!

Nothing to do with me; I’m not getting married or anything. No, February 6th is the day that “In Bloom” is released – a second book by Kayla Aimee. I would have bought this anyway, but because I’m on Kayla’s Email list, I was invited onto her launch team, so … a book for free, + I got to read it before its release, and (an unexpected bonus) a Facebook group where we all interacted with each other. The Facebook group really made it, as Kayla took the time to post videos for us, talking through the book in sections. It’s very special to hear directly from the author, E.G. did you know when you record books for Audible, they slow your voice down so it ends up sounding nothing like you? That’s something I learnt.

So, what can I say about “In Bloom”? I looked forward to it because I so enjoyed Kayla’s first book, “Anchored”, about the birth of her premature daughter Scarlette. One positive about “Anchored” – it was a story with a beginning, middle and end. This follow-up is more teaching than a storybook, but teaching on a relevant subject – our desire to be accepted, and the insecurities so many of us grapple with. “In Bloom” looks at several of these, from outside influences to the things that go on in our own heads. Kayla’s very funny and shares intimately about her life, all with the aim of helping us discover our self-worth. You’ll love the stories throughout about Scarlette, 5 years on from when she was born.

If I was writing this review on my own, I might have recommended “In Bloom” to readers under 40 because of her references to the 1990s, but older women on the launch team have said how much they’ve loved it. (Actually, it doesn’t matter if you’re like me and have never seen “Mean Girls” or read “The Babysitters’ Club”. If Kayla’s personality and sense of humour are what drew you into her first book, you should appreciate this one.) I also would have labelled it as Christian, but some on the team aren’t practising Christians and have still given positive feedback, so I’ve been proved wrong on both counts.

“In Bloom” releases on February 6th. If you preorder a print copy from Lifeway, they’ll send you another free to give to a friend, but that may only apply if you’re in the US. It’s also available on Amazon, so whoever you are, if you’re interested, why not give it a try?

More from James Stuart Bell: “Life-Changing Miracles” Book-Review

I’m grateful to Bethany House for giving me a review copy of this book – another offering from James Stuart Bell. His compilations of stories are always encouraging. I particularly liked this one because it isn’t a constant stream of health-problems and God coming in at the eleventh hour to heal people. Instead there are a great variety of modern-day miracles, from God directing a lifeguard to Him supernaturally stopping the rain.

“Life-Changing Miracles” is a book full of different people and their experiences with God. On the whole, I’d recommend it.

A Story of Two Cultures: “All Saints” Book-Review

When people have asked me: “What’s the book about?” I’ve said: “It’s about a struggling church who helped refugees from Burma”, except now that I’ve read it, I realise I got it completely upside-down. Imagine your church is on the point of closing, you’ve prayed for pews to be full and that you might have an impact in the community, and suddenly a group of refugees double the size of your congregation come looking for a church to call home. This is a story of two cultures coming together. There are some of the issues you might expect, and some adjustments that surprised me. So many times, God’s hand in the situation is obvious – His keen interest in everything, down to the smallest detail.

I think you’ll appreciate “All Saints” if you care about social justice and communities working together. You don’t have to be a Christian to enjoy it. In fact, a man who’d made no commitment to Christ read a news-article about them and was so impressed, he turned their story into a film while this book was being written. I wish it was in cinemas here in the UK. It sounds like it would be very inspiring.

Best Read in Small Doses: “Gifts from Heaven” Book-Review

I might have called this “God’s Answers to Prayer”, rather than “Gifts from Heaven”. I chose it because last year, I reviewed “Jesus Talked to me Today” (also by James Stuart Bell) and really enjoyed it. This is the same format, with numerous short stories of how God intervenes in people’s lives. I found the second half more inspiring than the first; “A Precise Prayer for Healing” and “Race to the Bottom” really stood out, but a good proportion of these stories were health-related and It can be demoralising to read so many accounts of health-problems.

I looked forward to my complementary copy from Bethany House, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend reading this from cover to cover. Probably his previous offering had more appeal because it was about children.

King

I’d like to focus on an encounter Jesus had just before He died. My loyal blog-readers might know that one of my favourite books in the Bible is the gospel of John. I love the detail John goes into and how he takes the time to find the good in people.

* * *

Jesus is brought before Pilate – the Roman governor. After some protest, he takes Jesus into his palace and asks: “Are you the king of the Jews?”

“My kingdom is not of this world,” says Jesus. “If it were, My servants would fight to prevent My arrest by the Jewish leaders.” Just these couple of verses highlight how much it cost for Jesus to sit on that heavenly throne. In order for God to lift Him up, He needed to lower Himself and die a barbaric death on a cross. He needed to do that to bring people into His kingdom. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to Myself” (John 12:32).

“You are a king, then!” I imagine Pilate sneering.

“You say that I am a king,” Jesus responds. “In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth.” Not only did Jesus pay a high price for His kingship, He was born with that price on His head.

I could leave you there hanging, but I’d rather share Pilate’s change of heart. Having had Jesus beaten, Pilate returns to the Jewish leaders and washes his hands of the case. “I find no basis for a charge against Him.”

But the leaders insist: “He must die, because He claimed to be the Son of God.” Now any sneer is well and truly wiped off Pilate’s face, and it’s back inside with Jesus for more questions.

“Where do You come from? … Do You refuse to speak to me? … Don’t You realise I have power either to free You or to crucify You?”

“You would have no power over Me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed Me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” I believe that was the moment when Pilate was transformed – when he realised Jesus was more than just an exceptional human being.

John confirms it was at that point that Pilate tried to have Him released, but the Jews are firm. “Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.” Pilate may have had run-ins with his employer in the past. Perhaps knowing his job was on the line was enough to tip him over the edge. Whatever the reason, he allows Jesus to be crucified, but has a sign fastened above the cross which reads (in several languages): Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews.

The priests aren’t in favour of this and try to contest it, but finally, Pilate stands by his principles. “What I have written, I have written.”

* * *

The full dialogue is in John 18:28-19:22. Perhaps it can encourage you that even if fear or pride have got in the way, God’s forgiveness is on offer. It’s not too late to turn around, and stand up for what you believe in.

Angels

There were angels throughout Jesus’ life. Gabriel visited Mary before He was conceived; a heavenly host bedazzled the shepherds at His birth; He was cared-for in the wilderness; strengthened at Gethsemane; an angel told of His resurrection, and maybe angels are with us in our lives more than we appreciate.

Several months before she died, my friend’s grandmother had a beautiful encounter. It was the middle of the night and there was no one else in the house, but she heard music. She got out of bed and stood in the hallway, thinking my friend had left a radio on that would disturb their neighbour. She was about to go upstairs when she realised it wasn’t earthly music at all; it was angels singing. She recognised the hymn, but couldn’t remember it later. All she knew was that angels had come to her.

I was honoured to be asked to sing at her funeral, and as I said in the song:
My hope is that one day in heaven we’ll meet,
And my hope is, forever we’ll be
With the angels, singing Your praise
.

As you can probably tell, Dilys (or ‘Nanna Dil’, as I called her) is very much-loved and will never be forgotten.

A Time to Give and a Time to Keep

In a Jewish wedding ceremony, a groom would suddenly come for his bride during the night; no one knew when to expect him. With this in mind, Jesus paints a picture: Ten young females, five wise and five foolish, waiting to attend the wedding. They carry lamps to light their way when they go to meet the bridegroom. Some of them think to bring extra oil.

They all wake up to the news he’s on his way! The dopey ones (whose oil has run low) say: “Let us have some of your oil!” but the others realise there may not be enough to go around, so they’re refused. Off they go to buy some more oil and while they’re gone, the bridegroom arrives and the feast starts without them. They’re too late!

Maybe you never do this, but I’m a writer. I like to imagine different scenarios. What if one of the girls, out of love for her friend, pipes up: “Yes, here. You take my lamp; I’ll go and buy some more oil” … What would happen? She would miss out on the wedding.

* * *

This story shows me there are some things we have to do for ourselves. Let’s take that oil as a symbol of faith in Jesus. We can’t rely on somebody else’s faith to give us right standing with God. It’s no good saying: “I’m a member of this church group,” or: “I come from a Christian home.” When you stand before God, it’s your light He’s going to be looking at.

Maybe you think it’s impossible to give too much, but be careful not to do so much for others that you disqualify yourself. I’ve heard of people going into something on-fire for God, but then they’ve suffered because their dedication to the task has overtaken their desire for Him. A. W. Tozer cautions against becoming so engrossed in the work of the Lord and forgetting the Lord of the work. It’s important to acknowledge God, to remember that He gave us the ability, and to let Him refresh us and give us a heart of wisdom so we can serve Him more effectively.

Selfishness

One of the highlights of my week is helping out with Open the Book – an organisation that partners with Bible Society to bring Bible-stories to children in primary schools. We have various volunteers throughout the town and we’re in most of the schools now.

This week, we’re telling the children the story of Peter and John at the temple gate, healing a lame man in the name of Jesus. Its point is that Jesus cared about everyone, even those who were ignored by others.

I thought I’d give us the same message we’re giving the children – to think what we can do, today or tomorrow, to help somebody. “Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). Isn’t that a good way to combat the selfishness in the world?

“Jesus Talked to me Today” Book-Review

“Jesus Talked to me Today” is a collection of over 40 short accounts of God moving powerfully in children’s lives. I was very glad to review this for Bethany House; there are some lovely stories in here. My favourites are the ones about the giant angels and the pink vanity set, but if I read it again, I would probably change my mind!

You’ll like this if you’re the sort of person who’s uplifted by other people’s stories of what God’s done for them. As you read, you could feel one of two things: Thankful and encouraged to ask God for similar displays of His power in your own life, or sad and discouraged about your situation. This book leaves the impression that even at your most broken, God is willing to come in at the eleventh hour and turn things around.