Fireworks, Freedom, and Faith

Fireworks, Freedom, and Faith

Tiffany Tolman

underdog

Every year, about this time, I look forward to parades, corn on the cob, matching flag T-shirts (because, yeah, I’m that girl), and fireworks displays. They’re everything that’s great about the Fourth of July.

But lately, my thoughts have turned to deeper questions about freedom and what it means to be a person of faith in America today.

America has a rich faith tradition. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were men “with firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.” Those early patriots felt so strongly about the right to choose a faith that it became the first item addressed in the Bill of Rights. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” They wanted to make sure all Americans were free to choose their faith.

But that tradition started long before those important documents were signed. My own family’s faith tradition in America dates back to the Mayflower. My thirteenth great grandfather Francis Cooke, along with his young son John, sailed to America in 1620 to practice their chosen faith, free from government force. His wife Hester, my grandmother, brought the rest of the family over from Holland in 1623 to begin a new legacy of faith.

Fast forward a few generations. In the mid-1830s, my fourth great grandfather Anson Call embraced a new faith, one unpopular with the masses. The test was on. Would Americans, those who had so recently fought for the freedoms we now enjoy, really live up to the promise? Some, unfortunately, did not, persecuting him and many others for their faith. Thankfully, the struggle didn’t last forever, and he built a life in a new part of America where his faith flourished.

In my own lifetime, I have seen, at least through a window, what it looks like to be denied the freedom of faith. When I was seventeen I visited Germany a few short months after the Berlin Wall came down. Even with my limited teenage American perspective, I still recognized the contrast between my world and the crumbling rubble, stark, gray buildings, and devastation of East Berlin. Ironically, I was in Germany on the Fourth of July that year, experiencing a deep desire to celebrate my homeland and freedom. Maybe the Wall reinforced that longing.

Today we live in a country with varied faith traditions. We don’t always agree on what faith should look like or if it’s even necessary, but we should rejoice in the fact that we are free to choose that for ourselves. And we should continue to fight for that freedom, even when—perhaps especially when—we don’t agree. Your right to faith guarantees mine.

So, this year, enjoy your corn on the cob, sweat it out at the parade, and stand in awe of the fireworks. But remember to keep the faith—whatever that looks like to you.

It’s what our Founding Fathers envisioned. It’s what people of faith value. It’s what makes America great!

Tiffany Tolman lives, loves, writes, reads, and plays through the window of faith. And that makes all the difference. Find her at th.tolman@gmail.com.

What Ramadan Taught Me About Spiritual Purification

What Ramadan Taught Me About Spiritual Purification

Katie Steed

ramadan

The more I learn about Islam, the more I admire the dedication and strength of its believers, especially during the month of Ramadan.

Ramadan is observed during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and lasts between 29 and 30 days. It is a month of intense daily fasting, prayer, and introspection, with the ultimate goal of growing closer to God through physical and spiritual purification.

As I read more about Ramadan, I found myself deeply drawn to the idea of spiritual purification. My faith in God has suffered over the past year after going through some difficult times, and I’ve been struggling to re-center my beliefs. Inspired by Ramadan and as time allowed, I decided to take two weeks to highly focus on my own spiritual purification. I am unable to fast from food and drink because of some medication I am taking, so I tried to “fast” from other things that play a big part in my life, like taking time off from social media and turning off my cell phone.

The first couple of days were quite difficult, as I kept getting caught up in my day-to-day routines and forgetting about my goal. When I’d remember to turn off my phone in the evenings to do some pondering, I found myself distracted by what I might be missing and wondering if anyone was trying to get in touch with me. I had to remind myself that spiritual health is more important than the latest photo on Instagram. My “fast” got easier every day and I was surprised at how much simpler it was to focus on my goal when I avoided those things, as I would imagine going without food gets easier and helps maintain the focus on mind (and spirit) over matter.

For the first week, I decided to get to the root of the breakdown in my faith, and that meant digging into issues that I had been purposely avoiding. Taking time to full-on face my spiritual weaknesses was painful. Admitting and accepting personal weaknesses is never a fun thing, but is necessary to progress and become stronger. I finished the week with a better sense of self, both good and bad, and a list of things I wanted to improve.

During the second week, I focused on my faith and relationship with God. Again, the beginning of the week was rough as I faced my doubts in God and some frustration I had been harboring. However, as the week went on I found myself looking forward to my quiet evenings of pondering and prayer. I was reminded of what I believe and why I value those beliefs. I can’t say that my faith is completely healed or that I have no more pain or doubts, but I am more aware and less afraid of my weaknesses, and my faith in God is in a much better place.

Ramadan ends with a three-day celebration called Eid al-Fitr (the Feast of Fast-Breaking). It includes special prayers, meals with friends and family, and gifts. I think this is such a beautiful way to end what, I would imagine, can be an extremely trying month. After only my small two-week attempt I felt like celebrating, as my soul and faith felt refreshed, lighter, and stronger. Thanks to what I learned about Ramadan, I have an improved awareness of my spiritual health and a greater commitment to keeping it steady.

Katie Steed is a graphic designer who also loves to write. In her spare time she’s either biking, reading, or traveling.

Faith in God’s Timing

Faith in God’s Timing

Karen Trifiletti

faith is like a hike

Faith in God’s Timing

Karen R. Trifiletti, M.A.

Is God Running Late?

I, like you, feel I’ve spent quite a bit of time in God’s waiting room. I could likely write a book titled An Impatient Woman’s Guide to the Universe! My tutorials began early. I recall trying to shorten a piano practice as a young girl— lunging over the keys, reaching the wall-mounted clock and moving its hands–as if changing the hour and second hand would speed up time! My piano lesson had ended, but my lesson about time had just begun.

Do you ever feel like things are taking sooo long in God’s plan for your life? Knocking has not yet yielded specific blessings or items on your spiritual hope list? Let’s face it. It’s easy to be like Uzzah–to step in and try to steady the ark of our lives–make it happen, isn’t it? (See 2 Samuel 6) But don’t such impetuous moments only seem to cause us to lose ground, waste time, or cause a mess from which our Maker must extricate us?

I’m learning that our life snapshot often looks the exact opposite of what God has promised—like a film negative in a darkroom–before He reverses it and gives us the colorful, pixel-perfect product He is producing in us and for us.

So Why Does God Wait?

Good question, right? Well, we know that the Creator is not wasting time. He’s too economical for that! My journals reflect that often He is:

  • Putting us in posture of dependence
  • Preparing us for what He’s preparing us for
  • Paving the way for us to know Him better

Posture of Dependence

Doesn’t it seem that our Higher Power often comes through after our reserves are spent, so He and not “we” get the glory?

Here’s a simple illustration: My daughter was performing with peers in a high-school performance of Seussical Musical. Several days prior to opening night, she contracted an untimely, persistent virus that stole her voice. My daughter’s peers came together, of their own accord, to fast and pray to the Father of Light for Talia to have her voice back in time to perform. Two days before the performance. No voice. The day of the performance. No voice. Dress rehearsal. No voice. Talia walked on stage with a prayer and promise in her heart. It was as she spoke her first lines that her voice returned. It’s true that God is sometimes and purposefully, “a Nick o’ Time God.”

You can probably recall lots of instances when God’s answer came through at the last minute to test and stretch your trust in Him—and on matters where the stakes were far greater, and the stage was real life. You’re not alone. Think “widow of Zarepeth” (See 1 Kings 17:10-16); “Moses” (Exodus 14); “Hagar” (Genesis 21:12-21), or of sacred stories in your own tradition. The universe’s pattern of fulfilling our hopes when we least expect it, when human help won’t cut it, or when it looks impossible, seems to be its hallmark.

It seems to be in that space in-between, when our own resources end and when God is all we have, that we learn that He is all we need—one anonymous writer said.

Preparing Us for What He’s Preparing Us for:

It seems God prepares us for what He is preparing us for—a work, a circumstance, an answer, a reward.

I think of the account of Joseph, shared in some traditions. He spent years in prison unfairly before he was placed as second in command for all of Egypt, so he could handle being second in command and be in a position to be used of God to save his family (See Genesis 39). Things changed instantly for him—once he was prepared for what His Higher Power was preparing him for. It took the pit to prepare him for the palace. Sometimes it happens that way with us, too.

One man of faith once candidly shared that he’d harbored resentment for a parent who’d abandoned him and his family when he was a child. He meditated about his predicament often and asked God to take his feelings of hostility away. He wondered why no recognizable answer came. Then, years later, it happened. He became a father himself and was playing with his son. He said, in a moment, he felt the loss his father must have felt—for he would never know the joy he himself was experiencing. His heart softened; he felt sadness and pity for his father; and his prayer was answered. This man of faith’s conclusion: Our Higher Power or Spirit of Light often waits until we are prepared to receive the answer He has to give. Until we have a place in our soul to receive it, an answer would be an unrecognized gift. God prepares us for what He is preparing us for.

To Know God, Our Higher Power

God wants us to know Him. And sometimes, that only comes with darkened skies and delayed answers.

Words to close with: “Don’t consider divine delays to be divine denials; don’t steal tomorrow from God’s hands” (JB Cowan, Streams in the Desert, Zondervan, 1977, p. 125). His timing is precise. The One we wait for will not disappoint. He’s never a minute late. We don’t need to mess with the hands on the clock like I did as a child. Our times are in His hands.

And, if I ever write that book about God’s timing, I hope it will be retitled, A Once-Impatient Woman’s Guide to the Universe!

Karen R. Trifiletti, M.A. is a mother of two, writer/author, with extensive faith-based web and print writing, training, strategic consulting, and creative development experience. Contact her at karenrose.trif@gmail.com.

People of faith respond to tragedy in London

People of faith respond to tragedy in London

Zamperini and Me: 4 Lessons on Faith

Zamperini and Me: 4 Lessons on Faith

Laurie Campbell

purim

Louis Zamperini was a person of faith, even though he lost his way at times. When I read his amazing story and watched the movie Unbroken—about how he faced trauma, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and alcoholism—I could relate. And, like Zamperini, faith has played an important role in my sobriety, and my life. However, Louis’ life was definitely more dramatic than mine has been.

Louis became an Olympic track star and then a military officer in World War II. His plane was shot down, and he survived for 47 days on a life raft in the middle of the ocean. Then, he was captured by the Japanese and tortured as a prisoner of war.

HOPE AGAINST HOPE

“To hope against all hope” means we hope for something even though it is impossible to see how it could happen. When Louis and his comrade had been adrift in the raft for several days without water, there was no rain in sight. Yet, against all hope, he prayed and promised God he’d commit his life to Him if He’d send rain. The next morning, there was a huge downpour. The very definition of faith means to believe in that which we cannot see.

TRIALS CAN DEEPEN OUR FAITH

Zamperini endured many difficult trials. We tend to think that life would be great if we didn’t have to deal with trouble and pain—if everything could just be easy. Yet, if that were the case, we wouldn’t be able to learn and grow in faith. I have often wished I didn’t have to go through the trials I have faced. Yet, I have to admit, I am so grateful for the strength and increased faith I have gained because of my challenges. “No pain, no gain” applies to faith.

FAITH REQUIRES PATIENCE

Only three men survived the plane crash, and only two lived 47 days at sea. It was Zamperini’s faith and persistence that helped pull them through. However, at some point during the two years he was a prisoner of war and frequently beaten by a guard called “the Bird”, he lost faith. He questioned how a loving God could let such things happen. After returning to the United States and getting married, he still felt like God had been “toying” with him. He began drinking heavily and got angry whenever his wife went to church. Four more years passed before Louis returned to church where he remembered the promise he had made to God before it rained. Then he went home and emptied out all the liquor bottles in his cabinet. He never had another drink. Even though it took years, Louis still managed to find faith again and it helped him overcome.

FORGIVENESS INCREASES LIGHT

For years after the war, Louis longed to hunt down the Bird to get revenge. With divine help, he finally found freedom from his prison of hatred. When he learned of the Bird’s death, “something shifted sweetly inside of him. It was forgiveness, beautiful and effortless and complete. For Louie Zamperini, the war was finally over.”* For me, it has been important to realize that my hatred for those who committed serious sins against me was only hurting myself. And forgiving them didn’t mean they were being “let off the hook.” It meant that I was being released from the strongest emotions that held me bound to them—vengeance and hatred. It takes time for us to heal and reach a place of forgiveness. When we do, we often find those dark places in our heart and mind can finally be illuminated by divine light.

*Hillenbrand, Laura. Unbroken. New York, New York: Random House, 2010, p. 386.

Laurie Campbell is a copywriter for advertising, as well as a volunteer counselor with a masters in mental health counseling. She finds photography and nature go hand-in-hand, increasing spirituality and love for God’s pretty amazing creations.

Purim: A Jewish Celebration of Faith and Courage

Purim: A Jewish Celebration of Faith and Courage

By Linda Clyde, FaithCounts.com Contributor

purim
An Enduring Story of Faith

Nearly 2,500 years ago, in the middle of two million square miles of the Persian Empire, in the city of Shushan, there lived an orphan, a beautiful Jewish girl named Hadassah, though she is better known by her Persian name, Esther.

Esther’s story of faith and courage happened thousands of years ago, but it lives on today because people are still inspired by her faith and courage.

As the Bible story goes, Ahasuerus, the king of Persia became angry with his wife Vashti for disobedience. He began looking for a new wife from the young virgins of his empire. Esther was brought before him and he liked what he saw. Soon she was chosen to replace Vashti as queen.

At the time, Esther had been raised by her cousin Mordecai, and even after she became queen, he was never far away. He counseled her as often as he could and in the beginning advised her to hide her Jewish identity.

King Ahasuerus appointed an evil man named Haman to the highest position at court and decreed that everyone should bow down to him. Whenever Esther’s cousin Mordecai was in Haman’s presence he refused to show him this respect. Haman resented Mordecai and abused his position of power by sending forth a decree to exterminate the Jews.

Mordecai went to Esther and pleaded with her to approach the king to save their people. Doing so would put her life at risk, but Mordecai believed that God had made her queen so she could save her people. Esther decided that she would go to the king for help, but before doing so, she fasted for three days and told Mordecai to ask their people to do the same.

When the time was right, she did risk her life to approach the king and shared Haman’s evil plans to annihilate her people. The king flew into a rage and sent Haman to be hung on the very gallows the vizier had built to hang Mordecai.

Esther’s Legacy of Faith Lives On

Every year, Jewish people celebrate Esther’s story of faith and courage on a holiday known as Purim. The word “Purim” means “lots” in ancient Persian, because it’s believed that Haman cast lots to choose which day he would massacre the Jews.

Today the holiday is celebrated by exchanging gifts of food, donating to the poor, eating a celebratory meal, public recitations of the entire scroll of Esther, drinking wine, and by wearing masks and costumes.

This annual celebration is an example of the power of a single story of faith to affect millions of people and live on for generations.

Without Action, Faith Is Just a Word

Most of us won’t be asked to risk our lives to save a nation, but our simple acts of faith can inspire and empower others. Even if your story isn’t passed down for 2,500 years, it can be impactful for your loved ones and your posterity—especially if you write it down.

It takes humility and optimism to believe that everything will work out. But more often, like in Esther’s story, it takes action to ensure that it does. Our faith may have the power to move mountains, but if we don’t act on it, we’ll never know what’s possible.

Stories of faith can be found in all cultures, religions, and places. Seeking them out and passing them on promotes courage in the face of adversity, and empowers the human spirit.

Linda Clyde is a believer—because she’s convinced it’s way better than being a doubter. One of her favorite things to do is spread optimism and hope with the power of words.

Lessons in Faith from Abraham Lincoln

Lessons in Faith from Abraham Lincoln

By Sarah Eyring, FaithCounts.com Contributor

president-lincoln
Abraham Lincoln is remembered as a man of honesty, courage, and kindness. What was he like when it came to religion? Was he a man of faith too?

Lincoln grew up in a Baptist family, but he was a skeptic, and though he later attended Protestant church services with his wife and children, he never joined any church. While his exact beliefs remain a bit of a mystery, Lincoln was often clear about his faith in a loving God who watches over His children.

The following messages, in Lincoln’s own words, teach us why looking to God should be as important to us today as it was to him then.

Don’t forget God.

On March 30, 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed a national day of prayer and fasting to be held the next month. He explained:

“We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which has preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. …It behooves us, then, to humble ourselves before the offended power, to confess our national sins and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.”

Trust in His timing.

In the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln responded to a letter from Elizah P. Guerney, thanking her for her kind words and prayers.

“The purposes of the Almighty are perfect, and must prevail, though we erring mortals may fail to accurately perceive them in advance. We hoped for a happy termination of this terrible war long before this; but God knows best, and has ruled otherwise. We shall yet acknowledge His wisdom and our own error therein. Meanwhile, we must work earnestly in the best light He gives us, trusting that so working still conduces to the great ends He ordains. Surely He intends some great good to follow this mighty convulsion, which no mortal could make, and no mortal could stay.”

Pray to Him for guidance and peace.

Before the battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln hadn’t been worried. General Daniel E. Sickles, a participant in the battle, asked Lincoln why that was. He replied:

“Well, I will tell you how it was. In the pinch of your campaign up there, when everybody seemed panic-stricken and nobody could tell what was going to happen, oppressed by the gravity of our affairs, I went to my room one day and locked the door and got down on my knees before Almighty God and prayed to him mightily for victory at Gettysburg. I told Him that this war was His, and our cause His cause, but we could not stand another Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville. … And after that, I don’t know how it was, and I cannot explain it, soon a sweet comfort crept into my soul. The feeling came that God had taken the whole business into His own hands, and that things would go right at Gettysburg, and that is why I had no fears about you.”

Read His word.

Lincoln is said to have read the Bible regularly. His thoughts on its teachings are simple and strong.

“In regard to this Great Book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man. All the good the Savior gave to the world was communicated through this book. But for it we could not know right from wrong. All things most desirable for man’s welfare, here and hereafter, are to be found portrayed in it.”

Lincoln learned these principles over a lifetime of challenges, failures, and successes. What have your experiences taught you bout faith?

Tu BiSh’vat—A Jewish Holiday for Us All

Tu BiSh’vat—A Jewish Holiday for Us All

By Rachel Coleman, FaithCounts.com Contributor

Tu Bishvat
I am a child of the desert and a lover of trees. I grew up with figs and pomegranates and acres and acres of citrus groves in my backyard. These trees bloomed in early spring and bore fruit all winter. I played in the secret shade of their green leaves all year long.

Then I moved to a place where winter was a gray crusty thing that often overstayed her welcome, where everything froze, and everything died, and there were plenty of days when it hurt my face to go outside. There was no secret green shade in this winter.

Nearing the end of my first winter there, I was convinced I had made a terrible mistake by moving to this frozen wasteland. And then I saw a maple tree bloom. It took me by surprise, in the still-cold air of early spring. Bright green buds unfurled, the sun shining behind them lighting them up like green stained glass. Next, leaves grew—huge—the size of dinner plates. In the heat of summer, I found shade.

Today, Jews celebrate Tu BiSh’vat, sometimes called Jewish Arbor Day or New Year of the Trees. It’s a time to plant trees, reflect on the lessons they teach, and connect to generations before and after.

I have planted over twenty trees since moving. It’s a wonder to me every year, after enduring winter, to watch the trees reawaken.

In that time, my heart has been broken. Shattered really, and more than once, hasn’t yours? Griefs, disappointments and betrayals are part of being human. No one is spared.

Sometimes after so much hurt, we walk around numb, frozen, guarding our hearts against future fractures. We push through, carry on with the business of life, steel ourselves, because we must. After all, so many rely on our strength to get things done. The world does not stop turning for our sorrows, so we bind ourselves up, compose ourselves, and do what we must to meet the unrelenting expectations.

Tu BiSh’vat is for all of us. On this day, we remember how even solid ground thaws year after year. We remember that no matter how dark or cold the winter, buds swell, tender shoots appear, leaves unfurl with complete faith in another growing season. Tu BiSh’vat reminds us that we can open our hearts again, with faith that the light will seep in, and we can soften, thaw, regenerate—and grow. Click here to learn more about Tu BiSh’vat.

Rachel Coleman is a writer, designer, and believer. Contact her at rachelandcompany@gmail.com

Kindness: Kindling for the Flame of Faith

Kindness: Kindling for the Flame of Faith

By Linda Clyde, FaithCounts.com Contributor

kindnessA Kindness Experiment

During my late teenage years I found myself working one of the checkout counters at a local department store during the holidays. It was a boring job, and one that required me to interact with a lot of people each day. Most of the people that passed through my line were mothers with young children. These moms were often harried and preoccupied as they juggled their children and went through the process of making their purchases.

The children on the other hand were doing what kids do. They were soaking up their environment. They were busy observing people and things—including me. While their parents rarely made eye contact with me, the children almost always did. I found myself engaging in a little experiment to pass the time. When I would catch a kid sizing me up, I would return the eye contact and give them a brief smile. There were a few shy ones that would hide behind their mothers, but most would instinctively smile back. It was fun, and it taught me a few things. First, that a simple smile is powerful, and second, that even small children recognize and respond to kindness—it’s contagious.

The Universal Language

Remember the last time you were deliberately kind to someone, or had someone do something nice for you? The times when we’ve been the recipient of kindness, or shown kindness to others are both powerful and memorable. It’s a universal language—one that even babies and dogs understand.

Kindness fosters love, mutual respect, and creates an atmosphere of openness and honesty in relationships. It increases our receptivity to others, and we’re even more likely to listen to the counsel and opinions of those who treat us well. It works the other way too. If you want someone’s respect, or are hoping that they’ll listen to you, add an extra dose of kindness to your interaction with them.

The Kindling for Faith

Have you ever considered how kindness is connected to faith? Even a little kindness, directed anywhere, is kindling that can start the fire of belief—in each other, in ourselves, and in humanity. When we’re kind to one another, it’s easier to have faith that the world is a good place to be. When we notice God’s kindness toward us, it builds our faith in Him, and if you’re a believer in karma, you’ll have faith that by showing kindness to others, it will always return to you.

All acts of kindness are a joy to witness and experience. They lift everyone, even those who are only watching. They help us to feel safe and comfortable in this wonderful world that we share.

When I Lift You, I Lift Me Too

Kindness is its own reward. It’s a well-known fact that when we choose to be kind that it gives us a boost too. It’s just one more reason to look for those daily opportunities to be nice, and here’s the good news—these opportunities are everywhere.

Just like dropping a pebble in water causes a ripple effect, acts of kindness ripple outward in a contagious wave of love. So get creative, share your smile, lend a hand, and be generous. The smallest acts of kindness—even a brief smile at a child—can start a loving ripple in this world.

Linda Clyde is foremost a wife and a mother of three. She is currently employed as a writer for the LDS Church. You may contact her at colossalthought@gmail.com

Finding Meaning in the Mundane

Finding Meaning in the Mundane

By Erin Facer, FaithCounts.com Contributor

mundaneEver wished you could speed through certain phases of your life? As a kid, I often imagined this possibility. I pictured using a gigantic TV remote to fast forward through the parts of life that were boring, stressful, frightening or mundane and skip ahead to “the good stuff.” Looking back, I’m grateful I didn’t have access to such a remote. My life would have consisted entirely of Christmas mornings and birthday parties; there is so much I would have missed!

Although now I can admit that wielding a gigantic TV remote might not be the best way to approach life, I sometimes catch myself drooling over the exciting lives depicted on social media or in movies, forgetting the fact that these are merely highlight reels, lives that have been distilled into a thick concentration of thrill.

It’s not real life.

Real life is made up of brushing your teeth, running late for work, and washing dishes over and over again. Real life is t-ball practices, long grocery lines and sitting at a desk from nine to five. Much of real life can be pretty monotonous. But in spending all our time wishing and waiting for the thrills and trying to evade the monotony, we attempt to fast forward through real life and begin to view the daily grind with contempt. Faith, however, provides a better perspective. With faith we find meaning in and even celebrate the humdrum of daily living.

Ironically faith, or belief in the unseen, is all about vision. Faith allows us to “see” what normally goes unnoticed. In this case, faith can help us see inglorious monotony with gratitude.

Stop Taking Life for Granted

A few years ago my family took a trip to France. While visiting a small town outside Paris, we drove past a beautiful but non-famous chateau. I was in awe. Looking around, however, I realized that no one on the streets seemed to care. They were all busy carrying their groceries, listening to their iPods, and considering their unpaid bills. For those who lived in the town, this was just another monotonous day. Incredulous, I began shouting, “You live next to a castle! Don’t you care? You’re missing it!”

I wonder if God ever feels the same way about us. Are we seeing life’s chateau? Or are we missing it?

Develop an Alternative Perspective on Growth

Sometimes things feel monotonous because we cannot see progress. We seem to be metaphorically punching a wall over and over without noticeable effect. Perhaps it’s our perspective that needs an update. A change in perspective allows us to recognize that even if the wall is not coming down, our arms are getting stronger.

See How Far You’ve Come

Even grand adventures like swimming the English Channel or hiking Mount Kilimanjaro require repetitive steps. We call this diligence, persistence and tenacity. Grand vistas and epic photo ops are exciting because they are the culmination of previous perseverance. Faith reminds us that each forward step matters. There is a majestic vista ahead of us.

By choosing to view our lives through the lens of faith, we can choose to believe that our small, simple, albeit mundane, actions matter. Rather than distract ourselves from life’s monotony, we can remember that each moment is a gift, given by God for a reason. There is always something to learn, appreciate, work at and celebrate. Why would we want to skip to the good stuff? It’s all good stuff!

Erin Facer is a graduate of Brigham Young University and proud southerner. Contact her at facererin@gmail.com

Finding Faith Through Doubt

Finding Faith Through Doubt

By Lauren Elkins, FaithCounts.com Contributor

doubt-of-the-century“The doubt of the century.”

When the Archbishop of Canterbury asked, “Is there a God? Where is God?”, the media frenzied on his doubts and labeled them with the phrase above. You can’t have doubts and lead a church!

That’s the feeling about doubt.

For example, James 1:6 reads, “But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.”

In your mind, does doubt keep company with fear and unbelief, three possible stumbling blocks for faith? If you or I had doubts, we must be in a dark place, spiritually.

Really? Must we?

If Archbishop Justin Welby has a doubt, has he lost his faith?

I believe that faith depends on, even demands, that we experience doubts.

In the hours leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus, Peter was asked about Jesus three times and three times, he denied knowing Him. After the third denial, Jesus “turned, and looked upon Peter,” as recorded in Luke 22:61.

He turned. He looked.

I’ve pictured this story in my mind. I’ve imagined the fear felt by the mortal man, Peter. I’ve imagined the darkness and violence of that night.

I’ve pictured how Jesus must have looked back at Peter. I pictured an expression of abandonment, disappointment, sadness, or maybe even disgust.

Perhaps not.

Perhaps I read it all wrong.

“And the Lord turned, and looked upon Peter.”

That’s it. That’s all that Luke wrote. There’s no sensationalized account of what transpired.

Only a few hours prior, Jesus had knelt in the Garden of Gethsemane. He had suffered. He had bled from the pain. He took the sins of the world upon himself. Now He would know. Now He could succor.

Maybe instead, with His look, he told Peter, “I now know.” Could his eyes have been filled with love and empathy? He looked back at the man Peter, at the doubtful Peter, and perhaps His eyes were filled with understanding.

Perhaps he remembered. Perhaps He recalled a time when He had grabbed Peter’s hand as he sank into the Sea of Galilee. “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

He now understood Peter’s doubts. He now understood Peter’s fear. He now understood Peter’s faith! Peter stepped out of the boat. He walked on stormy waters. He felt doubt. He began to sink.

The power of doubt comes in how we choose to respond.

The boat was certain to Peter, a vessel built to float. Jesus was a man standing on the waters of a stormy sea. If Peter had given in to his doubt, let it overwhelm him and drive him back to what he knew for certain, he would have turned back towards the boat.

Instead, Peter reached out and called for Jesus.

Some may think it’s blasphemy to have doubts in your faith. Some may think you are transgressing to question the authenticity of your beliefs.

But, an attitude of certainty may lead to an attitude of self-righteous intolerance, dogmatism, and fundamentalism.

Embracing doubt can lead to deeper understanding through a process that strengthens faith. Flannery O’Connor, an American writer and essayist, described this:

“I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith… [People] think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe.”

“Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”

Like the biblical father who said those words, Peter’s actions said the same: Jesus called; Peter stepped out; winds howled; Peter began to sink.

It was Peter’s doubt and unbelief that enabled him to grasp firmly to his faith.

Through doubt, I take on the necessary exploration of my beliefs.

I challenge those beliefs.

It is from personal doubt and unbelief that I then build the bedrock of my faith.

Lauren Elkins is a professional writer, former IT industry expert, and a mom. She also writes a personal blog and maintains a website at laurenelkins.com.

Spiritual Power Outages

Spiritual Power Outages

By Karen Trifiletti, FaithCounts.com Contributor

power-outagesSpiritual Power Outages

As a result of Hurricane Matthew pummeling Haiti, the Caribbean, and the Southeastern United States, millions were helpless to power up and many lived without light, and the ability to carry on the basic tasks of daily home and business life. Power lines on the coast were torn or aflame, hit by fallen trees and wind-sparked transmitters. And we, brothers and sisters of those caught in Matthew’s wake, have been affected deeply by the devastating impact— physically, emotionally, and spiritually—of those hit by the category three-four hurricane.

As I’ve thought about Hurricane Matthew, I’ve thought about power outages in our own, everyday lives. Times when the lights go out. When things don’t seem to add up spiritually, and our faith-light dims. Maybe the storm that strikes seems to knock out the light altogether, and we face some sense of complete and utter darkness. We feel alone. Or afraid. Or abandoned. Most of us don’t like dark. At least not dark around the clock. We crave light. We need both a power source and a light source.

I remember camping one night in the mountains. We settled into the trailer and I snuggled under the covers. The sun was down. I could see absolutely nothing. It was pitch black inside the camper. I mean pitch black. I could almost feel the darkness. I blinked, and blinked again. Surely there was a sliver of light within my view’s circumference, a tiny bit of city light cast into the trailer. But no. Nothing. Finally, I couldn’t bear it. I had to find some satisfying spark of light. I jumped out of bed and groped my way to the door. I looked around. Nothing. And then I glanced upward. I saw the glimmer of a few distant stars in a clear dark sky. Ah, a bit of light. I basked in what it meant to be under the influence of a starlit sky. I should have slept there, but I didn’t. Instead, I returned to the trailer, grabbed a flashlight, turned it on—tucking it under the covers—and slept peacefully through the night. I remember that night, the night when the dark was just too dark.

Are there times in your life when you have felt spiritually numb or powerless, some midnight hour of fear or worry or loneliness? Where you looked for the light of relief but couldn’t yet find the stars? Perhaps you discovered a loved one’s sickness or addiction, or you were betrayed by one you thought your confidante and friend. Maybe you faced enemies you could not conquer alone. Or you felt powerless over your own circumstances. Has there been a time when you felt you underwent a spiritual power outage? A night when the dark was just too dark?

I remember the story of one man, a fellow warrior, who did. His name was Jehosophat, and he was surrounded by armies he could not have defeated alone. He faced a long, dark night. He knew, though, that there was a Higher Power to whom He could turn. And he did. He identified the problem and he asked for help. He said,

“We have no might against this great company that cometh against us; neither know we what to do: but our eyes are upon [you].”[1]

He didn’t know how to execute and he didn’t want to execute. So he asked. He then did as he felt directed to do—he went down to the brook—and left the rest in the hands of his Higher Power. And he and his people were delivered. The light had overturned the dark.

Sometimes we feel we have no power except to seek the power of the universe, the power that is accessible to those who believe it’s there. There is no problem that our Higher Power is not aware of or does not know how to solve. Then we discern the direction that comes to us as we listen mindfully. Those words or impressions come as packets of spiritual power. It may be to trust a promise; it may be “to go down to our own brooks”—nearby places where God wants to do a work or help us resolve our issue. It may be to set boundaries between us and the approaching darkness. It may be to stand still and wait for further instruction. These impressions are a lamp and a light for our feet and show us where to go.[2] And as we follow those, God does the rest.

That’s the kind of power that is accessible through our faith. It’s the kind that turns on the light. It comes as we ask for it, like Jehosophat did, and as we follow through with what we receive in response. We are refined, and a brighter glory shines than before.

We can all turn on that switch to that spiritual power. Even when we can’t do anything else. We can act and not be acted upon, even when we feel powerless. We can turn to our Higher Power. And faith will light the way.

Faith counts. It provides power beyond our own. Power to extend our natural abilities, to overcome weakness, to triumph in trial, to become better and more useful, to prepare solutions around us, to give us hope, peace, assurance, comfort and direction on otherwise dark and helpless nights. We can conquer. We can triumph. We can overcome. But not alone.

How have you accessed that power in time of spiritual outage?

[1] 2 Chronicles 20:12

[2] Psalm 119:105

Karen R. Trifiletti, M.A. is a mother of two, writer/author, with extensive faith-based web and print writing, training, and creative development experience. Contact her at karenrose.trif@gmail.com.

3 Hidden Symbols of the Pumpkin

3 Hidden Symbols of the Pumpkin

By Maddy Stutz, FaithCounts.com Contributor

pumpkin
The first sign of fall isn’t an early sunset or the changing leaves…it’s the return of pumpkin spice lattes. In fact, it’s the return of pumpkin spiced anything! From scented candles to new Pinterest recipes you can easily find pumpkin sprinkled throughout hundreds of goodies, but did you know the pumpkin actually has some pretty deep meaning? Here are three things to remember while chowing down on your next pumpkin scone!

The Squash of Abundance

Remember scanning the pumpkin patch looking for the biggest pumpkin you could find? Well the bigger is literally the better, since the pumpkin represents abundance and prosperity! The whole pumpkin represents the world we live in now, and is literally filled with blessings waiting to be granted. Each seed represents an opportunity available to you in this life, and with an average pumpkin having about 500 seeds you can literally count your blessings!

Instead of tossing out your pumpkin seeds after carving a ghoulish face, go ahead and count them up! A fun activity with the family could even include assigning a blessing to a seed and watching how big your pile grows! Sometimes we get caught up in our newest problem that we don’t recognize granted blessings and answered prayers.

I Dreamed a Dream

Along with representing blessings, pumpkin seeds also represent your dreams! Whether that’s a dream for your future or one crafted while getting a good night’s rest, each seed represents a possibility.

Have you ever dreamt about a pumpkin seed? When appearing in a dream the seeds are believed to be deeply connected to your spirit or soul, providing reassurance for a decision or goal you are pursuing. To dream of a whole pumpkin is to symbolize openness to new possibilities and encourage you to try new things!

If you’ve recently dreamt of either a pumpkin or its seeds, take a moment to reflect on its meaning. Our dreams often reflect our deep inner thoughts, which can unearth emotions we didn’t recognize before. Are you about to take a leap of faith? Have you recently made a big decision, but have begun second guessing? Trust your gut, and follow your faith.

I Heard It on the Pumpkin Vine

This one may sound obvious, but the vine of the pumpkin ties directly into friendship and connection. The pumpkin receives all its nutrients from the ground through the vine, and is a connection to the world from which it grows.

Much like the pumpkin, we gain our social and spiritual “nutrients” through the “vine” of friendship. Making a connection with another person is how we grow as individuals, find deeper meaning in our lives, and stay healthy and strong. Without a strong connection to others we begin to shrivel up and lose our connection to the world we live in.

From a spiritual sense, a weak “vine” or connection to our beliefs can weaken our faith and leave us lost. By strengthening our connection with our own spirituality we can better connect with the world around us and help others find their way.

As a writer, believer, and chronic Pinterest fail-er, Maddy believes that everyone has a unique message to share with the world, and enjoys finding new ways to strengthen her faith through different perspectives.

What a Cadet Learned About Faith

What a Cadet Learned About Faith

cadet2I am a contracted US Army ROTC Cadet, which means that I am in training to one day trade in the black dot of the Cadet’s rank for the gold bar of the 2nd Lieutenant’s. This past spring, I stepped off of a bus and onto the hot, dusty ground of a major Army camp built on rolling hills and ringed by mountains. It was hot, there wasn’t any cloud cover to speak of, the terrain was rough, and our area of operation was vast: perfect for a land navigation (orienteering) course, which is where this story starts.

Since the Army is the primary land force of the military, its Soldiers should to be able to, you know, get around on land. Since we can’t always depend on GPS, everyone needs to have a basic knowledge of how to work with a map, a compass and a protractor. I was partnered with a less-experienced Cadet, and we were tasked with finding a handful of coordinate points, which were marked by metal poles with dog tags hanging from them, scattered among perhaps a couple hundred other points.

We consulted our map, developed a route plan, and off we went, carrying our map, compass, protractor, water, tactical vests and 50-pound rucksacks. We were having trouble finding our first point, and my partner was tired, so I left all the gear with her while I ran to inspect a metal pole some 200 meters away that we thought might be it. It was still the wrong one, so we decided to backtrack to our last known point. After we had shouldered our rucksacks and left the area, I asked my partner for the compass so we could check our bearing, and I heard five little words that nobody ever wants to hear:

“I thought you had it.”

I didn’t. Regular military folks often call those in ROTC “cadidiots,” which definitely applied here. We had failed to attach our compass to our tactical vests as we were trained to do which, In Army circles, is called “dummy-cording,” because it’s intended to prevent dummies like us from losing their compasses. Now, instead of looking for a two-and-a-half foot pole, we were looking for a small, green compass in a sweeping field of similarly-colored tall grass. After a fruitless search, we headed back to the starting point and told one of our leaders what had happened. He told us that if we didn’t find our compass, the Army would charge us hundreds of dollars, so we’d better give it our best shot. He gave us another compass, telling us that we should use it to get back to where we lost it.
 As a man of faith, I was praying silently in my head throughout all this. I knew that God wasn’t just going to drop the compass out of the sky and into my hand, so we had to go back over our map and our route in order to have any shot of finding the thing.

For some reason, I wasn’t overly worried, but I probably should have been: We were looking for a 5 cm x 7.5 cm green object in the middle of a huge, greenish field: the proverbial needle-in-a-haystack. We navigated back to the area where we had lost the compass, which took some time, but we found our lost compass after a careful search. We didn’t have enough time to find all of the rest of the points, but neither of us cared. We’d found the most difficult point in the whole course, and we no longer owed Uncle Sam 200 bucks.

I thanked God over and over again for His help, because I knew that things wouldn’t have worked out the way they did without him. It’s true, we used our knowledge of land navigation to make up for our previous carelessness, but I am thoroughly convinced that without combining it with faith we would have failed miserably. Along similar lines, I hope to strengthen both my faith and my land navigation skills in the future, because they certainly went hand-in-hand that day.

Mastering Technology to Foster Spiritual Growth

Mastering Technology to Foster Spiritual Growth

By Tyler Smith, Faith Counts Contributor

mastering technology3

I’ve wholeheartedly embraced the role of technology as a tool for spiritual development. For years, I wrote actively about my personal experiences and faith on blogs. I posted multiple times daily on Google+, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I found ways to use productivity apps for note taking, task management, and goal setting to aid in self-improvement. I downloaded my favorite scriptures and books onto my phone and tablet. I armed myself to the teeth with technology in my quest for personal and spiritual growth, and I was nailing it!

Then, about a year ago, I began to sense that something was wrong. I was “doing all the right things,” but I felt hollow. Despite my efforts to improve and draw nearer to God, I felt I was drifting further and further away. It was a desperate feeling, especially because I couldn’t understand why.

Since then, I believe God has helped me understand how to better seek him. Step by step, He’s guided me along a journey of calibrating my digital desires and bringing them in line with his will for me. I know that if you seek him, He will do the same for you. The hints and steps you receive from him may be different than those I needed to receive, so take these suggestions with a grain of salt. With that in mind, here are a few ways you can use technology to foster spiritual growth.

Unfollow your friends on Facebook

No, don’t unfriend them, just unfollow! I unfollowed every single of one my 600 or so Facebook friends. The result? A completely empty news feed. After a couple of weeks, my compulsion to check subsided, and I felt a restored sense of control over how I spent time using my phone and computer.

Unfollowing your friends lets you keep the benefits of Facebook without the addictive behavior. You can still visit friends’ profiles to see what they’ve been up to and use Facebook Messenger to chat. Pro tip: If you have friends or family whose posts you don’t want to miss, navigate to their profile and choose “Get Notifications.”

I still spend time on Facebook, trust me. It’s just that my mind now feels less scattered and my thoughts are more deliberate. I spend Facebook time purposefully engaging and staying in touch with individual friends. Having personal conversations away from the heated environment of comment sections can be a great way to make yourself a tool in the Lord’s hands to reach out to his children in kindness.

Use Silent Mode

Your phone has a silent mode. Use it! I turn off all notifications when I’m praying, studying, pondering, and getting ready for bed. This heightens my focus and provides uninterrupted time for me to commune with the divine. A beep from my phone is much louder than a subtle communication from God, so I decided to eliminate that possibility in order to make myself more open to receiving inspiration.

Now, if only I were spiritually advanced enough to turn off those notifications during church…

Capture beautiful moments

Use a note-taking app (Evernote, Zoho Notebook, Google Keep, etc.) to jot down strokes of inspiration as soon as you receive them. This has helped me follow through on good deeds that crossed my mind, but that I couldn’t accomplish in that very moment.

Also, put that phone camera to work! Beauty surrounds us in this world, and stopping to appreciate and share that beauty with others can be a real source of spiritual refreshment and growth. For me, taking pictures of beautiful moments has become a way to express my gratitude to God for this beautiful world. You can also share pleasant images you’ve captured with others by messaging them or posting them on social media. Sometimes it’s nice to share an uplifting thought or encouraging word with the image. Here are a few images I’ve captured on my phone in recent weeks.

Technology changes quickly, but God stays the same yesterday, today, and forever. As we seek his voice and draw near to him with purpose, He will help us learn how to use today’s technology to grow, to love, and to serve his children.

Tyler is a graduate of The Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and works in the language industry as a translation manager. You can contact him at contact@alltyler.com

Trust Your Faith Like You Trust Your Knowledge

Trust Your Faith Like You Trust Your Knowledge

By Daniel West, Faith Counts Contributor

trust faith

G.K. Chesterton, an English thinker, once wrote that “When man ceases to worship God he does not worship nothing but worships everything.” When you have a crisis of faith, do not be quick to discount or abandon your beliefs, because if you do you will just be exchanging them for another set of beliefs that may or may not be better.

There are many “gods” that people worship in lieu of Divinity. Some put their faith in scientists who believe that they have all the answers (which isn’t scientific at all) and claim that they have no need for God. Some put their faith in government and, in times of crisis, demand that all their problems be solved by it. Some put their faith in the “gods” of money, sports, celebrity, status, or power. These are only a few examples, but the commonality among all those who clamor for your attention and, yes, faith is this: no matter in whom or what you put in place of your religion, you will not be giving up faith.

No matter what you believe, it’s important to evaluate from time to time why you believe. I like to ask myself the following questions whenever I reflect on my faith:

  1. Do my beliefs make me happy? Do they improve my quality of life?
  2. How did I come to believe the way I do? What faith building experiences have I had?
  3. What could I do to strengthen my faith?
  4. Are others who practice my faith generally good people?
  5. What are the fruits of my faith? Does it help me to make the world a better place?

In general, humans have been asking themselves the same questions throughout recorded history and probably before: where did we come from? Why are we here? Where do we go after we die, if anywhere? I’ll let you in on a secret: nobody has all the answers to those questions. Not scientists, not clerics, not atheists, not Bible study teachers, not talking heads on television. To be sure, God has given us general principles and truths. We have indeed made great strides in science and technology. We still don’t have all the puzzle pieces, though, which is where faith comes in.

We all have doubts from time to time. We all have questions. It’s important to remember that this is normal and expected. I mentioned earlier that a scientist who claimed to have all the answers wouldn’t be a particularly good scientist. The same statement applies to religion. It’s okay to admit that we religious people don’t have all the answers, but we can’t let that invalidate the answers that we do have!

Just as the fact that we don’t yet have a cure for cancer is not a valid reason for giving up penicillin and the MRI, having unanswered questions of faith is no reason to give up religion. In essence, continue in the things you have learned, remember where those things came from, and hang in there!

How to Reach Beyond Your Limits

How to Reach Beyond Your Limits

Every great athlete has had to push through obstacles and reach beyond limits. How do they do it? And how can we reach beyond our own limits in our individual lives?

It takes commitment and effort from the beginning. It takes repetition, balance and strength to keep growing. It takes endurance and confidence when the road becomes rough. It takes resilience and humility to get back up after failure. And ultimately, it takes faith to believe in what once seemed unlikely or impossible. It takes faith in a higher power that will help us rise above the odds and reach our ultimate potential.

The only limits we really have are those that we place on ourselves.
How will you reach higher?