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Missing Person

Nieko Lisi went missing on September 30, 2011.

He was eighteen years old when he told his parents that he and a friend were going to take a drive to nearby Buffalo, NY. But instead of going to Buffalo, Nieko drove his friend to Michigan and then went on alone to Tennessee where his truck was found stripped and abandoned five years later.

Although Nieko went missing almost a decade ago, his family has never stopped looking for him. To this day in April 2020, his mother continues to search for her son and for answers to his disappearance. She persistently presses police, urging them to keep his case open while doggedly keeping Nieko’s missing face on the minds of Tennessee residents by posting billboards near the location where his truck was found.

Yet, despite years of digging, excavating, scouring and investigating, no one knows where Nieko is. Not one tip has led to a single arrest. Not one piece of evidence has assisted the police in putting together the puzzle of his disappearance.

I’ve seen Nieko’s billboard dozens of times, studied his face and read those big red words “MISSING PERSON.” And every time I do I can’t help but think about the pain his mother must experience not knowing what happened to her child. The mental and emotional torment is more than I can begin to comprehend. How does she sleep at night? How does she smile during the day? How does she keep hope alive that her missing son will one day be found?

As I drove past Nieko’s billboard this afternoon, just like I have so many times before, the sight was transformed in my mind’s eye. Suddenly, instead of just one billboard, I saw hundreds of thousands of billboards, each one pleading for the safe return of a missing child of God.

It was a spiritual vision unlike any I’d ever witnessed. Across the landscape I saw the pictures of my wayward friends, relatives and acquaintances who are missing from God’s family fold. They wore smiles on their faces but, inside, my heart was breaking knowing that these lost souls are in grave danger and don’t even know it. They are in desperate need of being found yet so many of them don’t even realize they’ve gone missing.

On the billboards that God revealed to my heart, I saw the depths of our Heavenly Father’s all-pursuing love. Even when the child has been missing for decades without a trace, God never loses hope that one day His beloved son or daughter will hear His call, see His signs and come home. No matter how old His child is or how stubborn they are, God never stops searching for them. He refuses to give up on His kids. Whether the child is eighteen or eighty one, God relentlessly pursues the heart and soul of each and every one of His missing children.

Beloved, remember that God sees your wayward loved ones and knows them each by name. He has watched them take their every step and can pinpoint exactly where they are hiding at this very moment.

Although your missing person is spiritually lost right now, they are not a lost cause. God has not given up on them and so we must not give up on them either. Keep praying and keep believing that by the amazing grace and all-sufficient love of God your missing person will one day be found.

“What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go out to search for the one that is lost? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices more over that one sheep than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray. In the same way, your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.”

Matthew 18:12-14

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God Wins

In our culture of ever-changing buzz words, “new normal” has become the latest to take center stage. It comes on the heels of “social distance,” “flatten the curve” and “stay safe.” I’ll admit, I wasn’t particularly fond of any of these phrases but the “new normal” tops my list of worst word offenders and I’d like to tell you why.

Let’s start by talking about “new”. When something new comes along there is a change from the old and change isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, change can be good. When there is a change from a wrong way of living to a right way of living, change is indeed very good. When we read in the Bible that God is doing a “new thing” and that Jesus gives us “new life” we can see that the change being made is going to introduce something altogether glorious.

But the “new” we hear discussed on the news and by politicians is cut from a different cloth. While our nation’s leaders are discussing a “new normal,” they are releasing hardened criminals from jail while, at the very same time, jailing peaceful prayer warriors. As a “new normal” is being bandied about, churches are forced to shut down while the government protects abortion facilities so they can remain open for business. Further down the line, we are being told that the changes to our way of life will include injecting humans with man-made chemicals and even branding them for a future that includes “cryptocurrency.” This sounds like a Matrix movie but, tragically, this is real life.

You don’t need a PhD to realize that this “new normal” has nothing to do with God’s hope and a future. It has nothing to do with revival, restoration and rebirth. Clearly, this “new normal” that our worldly leaders are attempting to implement is not on God’s terms. It’s on the enemy’s terms.

In opposition to God’s glorious “new normal” is an enemy named satan who wants to destroy it. Satan has His own evil definition of “new” and there is nothing life-giving about it. Let’s take a look at a few of the characteristics of this hell-bound “new normal”:

  • Normalizing sin.
  • Replacing government with God.
  • Living in Fear.
  • Living in isolation.
  • Living enslaved to corrupt earthly leaders.
  • Being restricted from fellowship, public worship and congregational meeting in churches.
  • Empowering death and trampling life.

We know what satan’s mission is: kill, steal and destroy. He salivates at the thought of crushing the church. A “new” landscape without a steeple or a cross is his dream. He loves the thought of silencing God’s people and, in our free nation, implementing a “new” normal that includes the persecution of Christians. For ages, he has been working behind the scenes to end public prayer and ramp up the promotion of murder, crime and violent chaos.

Does this sound like a the “new normal” you want for your future?  

Although the enemy has captured control of the airwaves and certainly has some very influential worldly leaders in his grips, we know how this story ends. The enemy’s “new normal” will not win. Even now, he is acting on borrowed time. Even though he appears to be advancing, his evil plot is doomed to fail because Jesus has already staked claim to the victory.  

Now, I know you might be wondering why, if God has already won, we are seeing such a proliferation of evil and strong advance of the enemy? I asked this same question and took it to before God in hopes of an answer. To my great delight, He replied with these words: “Because dawn is coming – and it is always darkest right before dawn.”

What we are watching unfold before our very eyes is a spiritual war for the very heart of our nation and world. There is a great awakening under way and the enemy has employed every demonic force and weapon of evil in his arsenal to fight back because that’s how threatened he is. The evil actors are getting louder and more hostile in response to the seeds of redemption that are being harvested all around the world. But, try as they might, satan and his evil one’s can’t stop the new life revival God has started.

While speaking to His disciples, Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28) Those words are as true and applicable to you and I today as they were the day Jesus first spoke them. It’s true that the enemy is a fierce and persistent fighter but, rest assured, he will not have the final say. Because Jesus live, we know God wins. 

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Recognizing Jesus

One of my favorite post-resurrection accounts of Jesus is found in John chapter 21. Let’s return to the scene.

It’s nighttime and five of Jesus’ disciples are itching for something to do. Simon Peter decides he’ll go fishing which sounds like a fantastic idea to his four friends. And, with that, the five gather their nets, jump in a boat and hit the salty seas.

But there’s a problem. The fish aren’t biting. The disciples wait all night and into the morning, but they still don’t have enough fish for breakfast. That’s when they see a man standing on the sandy shore of the beach. He’s far away – maybe a hundred feet or so – but he seems to understand their predicament and, what’s more, he has a solution. “Cast your net on the other side,”he says.

Since the disciples aren’t having any luck doing it their way, they figure why not take the advice of the stranger on the beach? So, they lift their nets and cast them off the opposite side of the boat. And that’s when the incredible happens. In no time at all, the net fills up with so many fish the men can’t even muscle it up out of the water and onto the boat!

It’s at this miraculous point in the story that John looks up and across the water. And that’s when it clicks. The man on the beach is Jesus. “It’s the Master!” John says. Without missing a beat, Simon Peter throws on his clothes (he had been stripped down for work but that wouldn’t be any way to greet his Lord and Savior) and flings himself into the ocean. His excitement is uncontainable! Meanwhile, the other men begin rowing their little boat hurriedly across the sea and back to shore to join in the post-resurrection reunion.

When the men make it back to the beach bearing 153 big fish, they might assume that Jesus will be using their bountiful catch for the meal but, to their surprise, a tantalizing feast has already been prepared. While they were waiting for the fish to bite, Jesus was at work by the fire, browning their protein and carbs for the brunch.

The disciples never actually confirm that the man on the beach is Jesus. No one asks, “Umm, hey, Jesus, I mean sir, uh, I just want to just double check something…. you’re really the Messiah who was just crucified and rose from the grave three days later, right?” They don’t make such inquiries because they don’t need to. The men were sure this was really Jesus because they recognized His face from a hundred yards away. They had no doubt it was their Messiah because, when they heard and heeded his instruction, they experienced another one of His indescribable miracles. Because of their great love for Jesus, their hearts were open to receiving and responding to His surprise visit.

I love this picture of Jesus with his disciples, don’t you? His gentle instruction. Simon Peter’s passionate devotion. The abundant catch. The breakfast spread. The whole scene is a glorious picture of Jesus’ pursuing love and faithful friendship that delights in making surprise visits.

Now, just because Jesus has ascended to Heaven and isn’t preparing your omelet on the seashore doesn’t mean that He isn’t showing up unannounced. Jesus, in the form of His Holy Spirit, still takes great pleasure in making surprise visits. The question is, do we recognize Him?

While studying John 21:1-15, I discovered that the disciples’ actions and attitudes reveal three key principles for recognizing, receiving and responding to Jesus. Let’s look at them:

First, we must look up and out. Until John looked across the water, he didn’t know that the man on the shore was Jesus. And the same is true with us. Jesus still shows Himself to His followers today. His Spirit is active and moving all around us but we must have our eyes open and gaze focused outward in order to perceive Him.

Second, we must keep our ears attune to His voice. While out on the water, the disciples weren’t listening to the news and they most certainly didn’t have ear buds in. If we want to hear Jesus, we could benefit by following their example and keep our ears and minds free from competing noise. Oftentimes, our own inner dialogue is the greatest distraction from hearing the voice of Jesus. Therefore, we must guard our minds from ourselves and from the outside world, intentionally filling our mental space with thoughts that are true, right, pure, lovely and admirable. “If anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8) Then, when the voice of Jesus comes (and it must assuredly will come), we will be prepared to receive it.

Last, but certainly not least, we must love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind and soul. When you love someone, you can recognize them from afar. When you love someone, you can watch them walk from a hundred yards away and know that it is them just by the way they swing their arms. It is this love and devotion that positioned the disciples to be attune to their Saviors voice and familiar with the distant sight of His face. Love sent Peter jumping into the water. Love left the disciples in holy awe and wonder.

How are you doing when it comes to recognizing Jesus? Are you regularly receiving His surprise visits? Are you responding with sold out surrender and devotion?

Jesus is still appearing and if you look, listen and love, you won’t miss a single surprise visit.

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While it was still dark

If you’re like me, you tend to move on quickly after a holiday. Take, for example, Easter.  The build up to resurrection Sunday, marked by a number of special days on the Christian calendar, lasts for weeks. And then, after the big day, the celebration comes to an abrupt end. While dining room table decorations come down, I often find that my spiritual streamers get packed up, too. I move on from the empty tomb of Jesus and return to “life as usual.”

But the resurrection of Jesus is worth celebrating 365 days of year. The good news found in the closing chapters of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John’s gospels is worth exploring all year long, not just on Resurrection Sunday.

And so, with that truth in mind, I invite you to join me in the gospel of John and linger a bit longer in the message of Easter.

“While it was still dark.” That’s how John begins his account of the very first encounter with the risen Jesus. Before dawn even reached the break of day, Mary Magdalene was already at Jesus’ tomb, bearing oil and spices to mourn and honor her Messiah. She never expected the tomb to be open and empty. Nor did she understand what prophecy said. But she was compelled by undying love and devotion to be as near to her Lord as possible – even if “near” meant seated outside the sealed grave.

Although physically, emotionally and mentally, Mary was in the dark, her soul was drawn to the Light of the world. Christ’s miraculous power captivated her. Even from the grave, His spirit called her. What she had seen and learned from her Teacher before His crucifixion convinced her that Jesus was who He said He was: the Savior she had been waiting for.

Of course, we know that Mary did not come to find a dead body but a resurrected King!

When Jesus first spoke to her, Mary didn’t recognize Him through her crying eyes. But the moment He said her name, her tears of sorrow were transformed into tears of joy. Her Savior was alive! Her Messiah was risen from the grave!

Mary’s encounter with the resurrected Jesus is incredibly noteworthy and not just because it’s the first to be recorded in the gospels. It is even more remarkable because the miraculous meeting took place in a day and age when women were not given any special privileges. At that time in history, women had limited religious standing according to the law and yet Jesus chose to reveal His risen life to Mary before anyone else.

Why was that? Could it be because her faith was so sure that she sought Her Savior even in the dark? Or maybe she was blessed with such an extraordinary glimpse of Christ because she went looking for Him, even when she didn’t have the advantage of light to help her see?

Even when the evidence was against her, Mary still believed in Jesus. Even when she thought her Messiah was still in the grave, she faithfully followed Him. Before Mary had confirmation, Mary had confidence that God would keep His promises. And, in response to her unwavering faith and unshakable belief, Mary was abundantly blessed.

May it be so for you and me.

 

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance.

John 20:1

 

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A Word from the Lord

The following is a word from the Lord I received on April 9. Although spoken directly to me, I believe it is not for me alone. I believe I am meant to share it with others who are in a season of concern, anxiety and worry so that they can be comforted and encouraged by truth. If you are feeling burdened and weighed down, I pray that this word speaks to your heart and renews you with hope and peace. 

Dear child,

Long before you had this problem, I had your solution. You didn’t even know you were going to be in this dilemma. But I knew and that’s why I prepared for your deliverance. This situation is not catching me by surprise. I saw this coming from light years away.

I know this case looks hopeless to you now but, rest assured, no one’s is. Remember, I brought new life out of a sealed grave. Trust me, child, there is nothing I cannot do. There is no problem I cannot solve; no brokenness I cannot fix; no hurt I cannot heal; no soul I cannot resurrect.

I am not asking you to devise the right strategy or develop the perfect plan. That’s my job, not yours. I’m the only one who knew you were going to be in this mess and I’m the only one who can get you out. Which is why all I’m asking you to do is trust me. Lean not on your own understanding and trust me. Depend not on your own ideas and trust me. Look not to your own intelligence and trust me.

I will show you the right steps to take – and not a moment too late. I will make the directions clear – and all you have to do is pay attention. Keep your ears attune to my voice and your eyes fixed on my Son’s empty grave. As long as you’re focused on me, you can’t go wrong.

I promised you life and I am always true to my word. You can depend on me to make your path straight through this storm because that’s who I am and what I do. I am the way maker, the miracle worker and the promise keeper. I am the light that will never leave you in the dark.

Do you trust me? Will you bank entirely on me? Give me your word – you know you already have mine – and I promise you, child, I won’t let you down.

Love,

God

 

“Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding;

in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.…”

Proverbs 3:5-6

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Scattered

Today, April 5, 2020, is Palm Sunday and not a single church in my area opened its doors to honor the Holy Day. They’ve all closed up their sanctuaries in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Now all services and ministries are online, streaming from any and every device.

When the shuttering of churches first happened, I couldn’t understand why every body of believers rolled over so willingly to the government’s “strong suggestion.” As Christians in China risk their lives to smuggle Bibles into their country and hide in their basements to read them, Christians in American voluntarily capitulated. Only a few pastors put up a fight. Most barely even batted an eyelash.

What happened to heeding the words found in Hebrews 10:25-27: “Don’t stop meeting together with other believers, which some people have gotten into the habit of doing. Instead, encourage each other, especially as you see the day drawing near.”  Why didn’t anyone defend the sacred practice of meeting together? Didn’t they think about the message this sends to the enemy? Won’t shuddering the church shatter the mission of the church to minister to hurting, fearful, broken people? How can we be light in the darkness when we’ve turned out the church lights and locked the door behind us?

These questions and others were heavy on my heart when I opened the Bible and turned to my daily reading which just so happened to be in John chapter sixteen.

In this particular passage of scripture, just days before His crucifixion, Jesus gives His disciples a heads up, warning them about the trials and troubles that will soon come. After the men confirm that they believe what Jesus says is true, Christ tells them, “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered…”

It was that last word that caught my attention. “Scattered.” Until this time, Jesus’ followers had been in their own little comfortable clique. They went out two by two to perform miracles. They traveled together by boat. But a time was coming when they would be “scattered.” Spread out. Strewn about. Separated. 

Isn’t this precisely what’s happening to the church?  Connect groups and life groups have been spread out into their apartment complexes. Greeting teams and worship teams have been strewn about in their neighborhoods. Pastors have been separated from their flocks. The whole church has been scattered.

But Jesus didn’t stop there. He then went on to explain that this scattering would be each to his “own home.” Now if that doesn’t sound like what’s happened to the church then I don’t know what would!

Can you imagine it? The disciples were about to experience the horrific crucifixion of their Messiah. They were about to be questioned and possibly persecuted for being followers of Jesus. They were about to have their faith in God tested unlike ever before. And right before all these trials arrive, Jesus warns them that they will be sent into the solitary confinement of their own homes to endure them.

In isolation is where the followers of Jesus would be still and trust in who God is. In solitude is where their faith would be solidified. It wasn’t on the boat. It wasn’t on the hillside with the loaves and fishes. It wasn’t while waving palm branches and singing Hosanna. Christians became “the church” of the resurrected Jesus at home and all alone.

Looking through the lens of previous Biblical history has transformed my perspective on the modern-day church and what God is doing within its scattered walls. By dismantling the familiar rituals and routines of church, a deeper and richer faith is being discovered. In the resting of small groups, Christians are being given the opportunity to relish the quiet and be refreshed in the stillness.

The enemy might think he’s winning but we, God’s people, know the truth. We have not been defeated but deployed. We have not been shattered but scattered.

And in this scattering, there will be sanctifying. In this shuttering of doors there will be an awakening of souls.

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The “Good Stuff”

Mark 2:8 is what I call an “on the way to” text.

What is an “on the way to” text, you ask? An “on the way to” text is one of the many Bible passages that often gets skimmed over on the way to the “good stuff” (ie: the miracle, the healing, the loaves and fishes, the water into wine). These scriptures aren’t the most quotable Bible verses and are rarely chosen for topical sermons. They aren’t memorized by children in Sunday school and aren’t the choice scriptures for plaques, greeting cards and journal covers.

But “on the way to” texts aren’t throw away verses. They are fundamental to understanding, comprehending and appreciating the fullness of God’s Word.

So, let’s take a look at one.

The text we’re going to dive into is found in the second chapter of Mark and recounts Jesus’ healing ministry. As we learn in verses 1-7, Jesus is in Capernaum, preaching to a large crowd inside a house. There were so many people crammed into this home that there was literally no room for anyone else to enter in, which proved to be a problem for a paralyzed man and his four friends outside. This man was desperate for the healing touch of Jesus and since desperate times call for desperate measures, his friends decided to deliver the man to Jesus by way of the roof.

When Jesus saw the paralyzed man being lowered into the house, He was moved by this awe-inspiring display of faith and said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” This should have been a beautiful, redemptive moment but the uptight religious leaders weren’t feeling the love. In their minds, they began judging Jesus, claiming that He was blaspheming.

Now, this is where a cursory read of the story could result in missing what I think is one of the very best verses in the whole chapter. As the hypocritical teachers were thinking to themselves – just thinking, not even saying a single word out loud– Jesus discerned their thoughts as Mark records in verse eight: “Immediately Jesus knew in His spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts.”

Pause and reread that verse again.

Isn’t that incredible? Immediately Jesus knew the thoughts of His observers. It didn’t even take Him a minute to figure out what was occurring in their minds! The second they had a thought, Jesus knew it in His Spirit. Before they opened up their mouths to speak or had a chance to furrow their brows in judgment, Jesus knew their every question, curiosity, wonder and accusation. They could not hide a thought or feeling from Jesus because He looked right through their exterior and saw into their hearts.

The second half of Mark 2:8 recounts what I would call a “drop the mic” moment. After we learn that Jesus knew the thoughts of the teachers of the law, He goes on to ask them, point blank, “Why are you thinking these things?” Can you imagine it!? One moment you’re thinking something and the next moment the most incredible preacher, teacher and speaker you’ve ever heard – the man who claims to be the Messiah and very Son of God – is calling you out for questioning His authority? And you never even said a word! That’s what the crowd in Mark chapter two were experiencing.

As the rest of the scene unfolded Jesus expounded on His knowledge about their thought lives and, more importantly, their spiritual lives.

First He asked them which is easier, to tell a paralyzed man that his sins are forgiven or to tell that man to pick up his mat and walk? No one in the crowd responded which might have been because Jesus didn’t give them a chance to or because they were still so stunned no one could speak. Either way, Jesus quickly moved onto healing the paralyzed man’s physical body and ordering him to pick up his mat and go home. Which is just what the obedient, able bodied man did, leaving the suspicious crowd dumbstruck and amazement.

If you’re like me, your history with this particular passage of scripture has been primarily focused on verses five and eleven. “Jesus saw their faith” and “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” I used to consider these verses “the good stuff” because they comfort me with the truth that Jesus sees faith and rewards it! (Yay!) He heals in response to faith. This is good – and true – news! But it isn’t the only good news and good truth found in the first twelve verses of Mark two.

Tucked into verse eight is a reassuring nugget of comfort worth feasting on: Jesus knows our every thought.

Just as Jesus saw into the minds and spirits of His listeners during His earthly ministry, He sees into our minds and spirits to this day. When we’re doubtful, He understands our questions and concerns. When we’re worried, He hears our fears. When we’re depressed, He feels our deepest pain.

Without ever saying a word or speaking a prayer, Jesus knows our every thought and feeling. We cannot hide from Him physically, mentally, spiritually or emotionally.

The fact that Jesus knows your every thought might be disconcerting to you – especially if you’re trying to hide sin from God. It’s true that Jesus sees every sin you have ever and will ever commit but the good news is that He saw them before He died to save you. Long before you ever knew which sins you would commit and when, Jesus knew every one of them and willingly sacrificed His life to pay the penalty that was due to you. He wiped your slate clean by crucifying the very power of your sin nature. Then He rose again to give you new, abundant, righteous, eternal life.

Once we invite Jesus into our lives and surrender our sinful, rebellious hearts to Him, we can take comfort in the good news that He knows every part of us. We can rest assured that we are never alone because He is always with us, interceding on our behalf when we can’t find the right words to say and comforting us when we are too chocked up to even speak.

“On the way to” the miracle, the Gospel of Mark reminds us that Jesus, our Redeemer, Counselor, Savior and Friend knows our every thought and loves us just the same. If you ask me, that’s remarkably “good stuff,” don’t you agree?