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The Sixth Stage of Grief

May is Lyme awareness month and as has been my practice for the past two years, I feel it is only right for me to write about Lyme before the month is over.

I haven’t posted much about Lyme in recent months and I’m afraid my reason for the silence has been more emotional than physical. Although the disease is often on my mind (and in my body), I’ve struggled to actually write about it on account of weariness and, even more so, grief. And that’s what I’d like to write to you about today.

With a chronic illness like Lyme disease comes the temptation to chronically grieve. Missed milestones, dead dreams and lost opportunities are just a sampling of the causes of grief faced by someone in a chronically physically compromised body like mine. Every new pain, ailment and challenge threatens to drown the chronically ill in a violent sea of sorrow and sadness.

As a Lymie who has lived chronically ill for over ten years I have become very familiar with the burden of grief and its five stages as defined by Ross and Keller. Namely, anger, denial, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Like a ping pong ball, I have bounced between these stages, sometimes experiencing every one of them in less a day or even less than an hour if the pain and suffering is acutely severe and debilitating.

The stages of grieving aren’t a pretty sight (especially those first four) which is why I’m not proud of how much time I’ve spent in them over the past ten years but I don’t consider it wasted time. In fact, I have come to believe that grieving is a necessary and vitally important process for the human spirit because of what I have come to find is a sixth stage of the process: growth.

You see, grief is not meant to capsize and sink us in a sea of sorrow. Grief is meant to sanctify and strengthen us. I didn’t always see grief this way. I used to think that sadness and loss was a reality you simply got used to. Acceptance, I believed, was the goal. But now I see that accepting the loss isn’t where the story ends. God has a greater purpose for our grief, using it is to break down our spiritual muscle fibers, causing them to grow big and strong.

Grief is one of the painful byproducts of living with chronic illness, but it isn’t reserved for those of us with broken bodies. As humans, grief is part of our earthly experience and there’s no escaping this world without feeling it. But I’m here to tell you that there is a silver lining to grief. You need not suffer through the first four stages only to settle for acceptance. God can do more with your grief than numb it. He can use it to mold and shape you into the image of His Son. If you ask and allow Him to use your grief, God will transform it into a tool employed to accelerate your growth.

The key to experiencing the growth of grief, I’ve learned, is turning to Jesus in the midst of it.

In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4) The word mourn here actually means “to express grief or sorrow,” key word, “express.” When we express something, we are communicating what we’re thinking and feeling by conveying it through words. This is what God is asking us to do with Him  – communicate our emotions and tell Him about our grief. God does not want us to grieve alone. He longs for us to come to Jesus with our brokenness and baggage so that we can receive His Holy Spirit to comfort and console us.

Once we turn to Jesus and express our grief to Him, the blessed stage of growth can begin. He takes the pain of loss and heartbreak and uses it to purify our desires, renew our faith and restore our hope in God’s will and ways. In Jesus’ presence, we discover deep brokenness within ourselves, fractures so well hidden we didn’t know they even existed let alone needed mending. And what’s more, we see clearly that the only way to true healing and eternal strengthening is by way of uniting with Christ’s resurrection and resting in God’s supremacy.

Whether your grief is born out of a chronic illness like Lyme or a painful loss, rest assured that God has a purpose for your struggle and a redemptive plan for your hurt. He longs to turn your ashes into a beautiful garden of His grace and a testimony to His unfailing faithfulness and love.

And all He asks is that you call on the Almighty name of Jesus and let Him do the rest.  

 

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The Sent Scattering

A few weeks ago I wrote a post entitled “Scattered” addressing the issue of churches closing in response to COVID-19. In that piece I referenced Jesus’ pre-crucifixion words recorded in John 16:32, “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home.”

While reflecting on this scripture, I saw the current circumstances facing our country and the modern-day church. Like Jesus’ disciples, we too, are in trying times and, we too, have been scattered. Christians have been cut off from their comfortable life groups, regular programming and familiar Sunday morning services to experience the unknown future in solitude and isolation. (Click here to read the full post.)

But, as I previously wrote, I believe that in this scattering there will be sanctifying. In fact, I believe the purification of the church is already underway. At this very moment, broken people are, for the very first time, entering into a personal and private relationship with the lover of their soul. There is a great awakening taking place behind closed doors and it isn’t over yet. In fact, based on what we find in the Bible, I believe it’s just beginning.

So, let’s return to the Bible and turn to the ministry of Jesus post-resurrection.

After rising from the dead, Jesus dazzled His followers with some seriously shocking entrances (such as coming into a room through the wall – no door required). In both word and deed, Jesus confirmed His holy identity while pulling back the curtain on the future, giving His followers a glimpse of what was to come, namely the Holy Spirit.

Immediately before ascending into Heaven, Jesus said, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8). The disciples were instructed to stay sheltered in place but not indefinitely. Once the Holy Spirit descended into their midst they were to then leave the protection of their homes so they could travel EVERYWHERE and tell EVERYONE about the way to truth and eternal life.

The disciples obeyed, heeding Jesus’ instructions to a T. They stayed hunkered down until they were met with “a sound from heaven like the roaring of a mighty windstorm, and it filled the house where they were sitting.” (Acts 2:2) “Then what looked like flames or tongues of fire appeared and settled on each of them. And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit…” (Acts 2:3-4)

What happened following Pentecost was a second scattering: the sent scattering.

Once the disciples received the Holy Spirit, they were transformed from fearful followers of Jesus into powerhouse proclaimers of the Gospel. Peter, the same disciple who had denied Jesus during the first scattering, became so bold and brave that he stood right up and addressed a crowd of skeptics who were convinced that the disciples were just plain old drunks. In response to that sermonette, three thousand doubters became believers.

In those early days of the post-Pentecostal church, followers of Jesus became united as brothers and sisters in Christ. They held everything in common, fellowshipped and broke bread together. They spent time in each other’s homes, praising, performing miracles and celebrating as more sinners got saved.

But it wasn’t all butterflies and roses. During that abundant harvest was an abundance of hardship. Standing up for Jesus put the disciples directly in the cross hairs of the enemy and his attacks were fierce.  Persecution reached a fever pitch when Stephen, “a man full of God’s grace and power” (Acts 6:8) was stoned to death. Following his murder, Saul, the chief of persecutors, gathered up arrest warrants on a mission to invade the homes of believers and imprison them for their faith. During that time, “all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1) and “preached the word wherever they went” (Acts 8:4).

What’s interesting about this moment in the church’s history is what the persecuted Christians didn’t do and where they didn’t go. They didn’t hide from the unbelievers and persecutors who might hurt, imprison and possibly kill them. Nor did they deny the truth about Jesus or try to downplay their devotion to the Risen King. Instead they fearlessly proclaimed the truth of salvation. They boldly and bravely scattered the Gospel message throughout the land, distributing the Good News everywhere they went.

So, dear Christian, what does this mean for us? How should we heed the call in the midst of the COVID-19 hysteria? How are we to move from being sheltered to sent in the face of shutdowns, restrictions and government mandates? How should we as post-resurrection, post-Pentecostal Christians embrace Jesus’ command to go everywhere and tell everyone about the way to eternal life?

With each passing day, it is becoming more and more likely that our sent scattering won’t include a swift return to church as knew it and that’s okay. The believers in Acts weren’t living life as they knew it, either. Nor were they gathering in sanctuaries, meeting in connect groups or offering a stellar children’s programs. Yet none of those perceived limitations stopped the power of God from performing miracles and saving lives through the work of the earliest Christians. What the disciples lacked in organized religion they made up for in what I like to call the four F’s. Fearless. Faithful. Forward. And filled with the Holy Spirit.

  1. The earliest Christians were fearless. What’s so ironic about this particular characteristic is that, during the first scattering, Jesus’ followers embodied the precise opposite characteristic. During the sheltered scattering, the disciples were so afraid of what people would think of them and do to them for being a friend of Jesus that Peter denied knowing Christ not once, not twice but three times! Fast forward to the second scattering and Peter is standing in front of hostile crowds (including the authorities) preaching the Gospel! Retribution no longer scared him because He had encountered the resurrected Christ.
  2. The earliest Christians were faithful. Being a follower of Christ wasn’t a Sunday only event for them. Being a follower of Christ was everything to them! They were devoted to one another so wholeheartedly that they sold everything they had and held it in common. They were, as we would say today, all in. Becoming a Christian was the defining feature of their lives.
  3. The earliest Christians were forward. Shy is not a word found anywhere in the Acts account of Jesus’ followers. They were the very antithesis of shy. They were bold in any and all circumstances. It didn’t matter if the disciples were among friends or among enemies, they put forward the truth about Jesus Christ with conviction and confidence.
  4. And, last but certainly not least, the earliest Christians were filled with the Holy Spirit. It is this characteristic that empowered them to go from sheltered to sent. The impartation of the Holy Spirit was required for them to be forward, faithful and fearless. Without the spirit of the living God working in and through them, the disciples could do nothing. They needed to be unconditionally surrendered to Christ so that the Holy Spirit could be poured out and into their lives. Then and only then could they heed the call to go EVERYONE and to EVERYONE proclaiming the way, the truth and the life.

Friends, more than the reopening of a building or the relaunching of normal order, our lost world needs the simple Gospel. They need followers of Christ who have been scattered and sent to faithfully and fearlessly share with them the Good News about the blood of the Lamb that takes away the sins of the world. They need Christians who will come forward, filled with the Holy Spirit and unashamedly declare that Jesus is the only truth, the only way and the only everlasting life.

 

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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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Let Freedom Ring

The coronavirus crisis has been eye-opening to many people in many different ways.

Some have become more aware of the dirt in their home and been compelled to do more deep cleaning. Still others have been awoken to their great dependence on household paper products and have decided to start keeping a secret stash of toilet paper in the basement – just in case.

For me, the coronavirus crisis has opened my eyes to freedoms that I took for granted.

While watching governors shutter businesses, I’ve thought long and hard about the fundamental principles of life and liberty that were won with blood, sweat and tears. As senators and representatives have argued over legislation, I’ve mourned the fact that the rights brave men and women died to protect could be so easily lost.

The events of the last two weeks have certainly been saddening. Within days, America has become a country I don’t even recognize. Instead of the home of the brave and the land of the free, we’ve become the land of “social distancing” that believes it is “safer at home.” Could this be the same America I grew up in and the country I call my own?

As much as I long for our nation, and all the world’s nations, to be free from tyranny and the stifling control of government, I have been reminded during these past few weeks that earthly citizenship is temporary. Whether or not we live as free people here is not the end all be all. Whether we live as free people in the life to come is what matters.

Earthly freedom in a nation is hard to gain and easy to loseBut eternal freedom in Christ is simple to gain and impossible to lose. This is why it is of critical importance that we do not place our hope in the liberties of this world for they are temporary and can be taken away in an instant. With one virus, our rights can be entirely dissolved.

But freedom in Christ cannot be taken away.

There is no virus or government that can ever undo God’s deliverance because Jesus ensured our liberation with His own blood, sweat and tears. What He accomplished on the cross cannot be dissolved by any power on earth. When Jesus rose victoriously from the grave, He broke our chains once and for all so that we need never again live enslaved to sin and death.

There is only one way to eternal freedom and it is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. He is the true Deliverer who gives true liberty. Through Christ, we have the right to live as children of God and citizens of Heaven. Jesus releases us from the worry and concerns of living for this world and sets us free to live at peace knowing that we are only visitors on this earth. We are just passing through, taking every opportunity to tell the world about Jesus while keeping our eyes on the everlasting Kingdom of God where true freedom rings.

So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

John 8:36

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Fear Not

“You should be afraid.”

My neighbor’s words took me aback and I didn’t know quite how to respond. I was just being lighthearted, trying to infuse the coronavirus pandemic with a little “social distancing” humor. Apparently, she didn’t find my joke comical. I would have tried to pick my jaw up off the sidewalk, but I was too stunned to think that clearly. Her violent reaction to my harmless banter left me completely speechless.

When I finally found words, they were lame. “Are you seriously telling me I should be afraid?” She confirmed that she was indeed dead serious and then expounded, making it very clear that I was not only a fool – I was offensive, too.

I walked away from that exchange feeling like both the victim and the perpetrator of the crime.

The mix of emotions was unsettling and, in the hours that followed, I struggled to shake them. While replaying the scene over and over again in my mind, I felt like Kathleen Kelly in You’ve Got Mail, as she lamented her inability to come up with zingers on the spot. But it wasn’t a “gottcha zinger” that I wished I would have produced in that moment. It was a “God’s got this witness” I kicked myself for missing. I wanted to rewind time and go back to the sidewalk so I could tell this neighbor that I’m not afraid because I trust God and His perfect providence. I joke, banter and laugh because I am at peace knowing that God is in total control. There is no need to fear the past, present or future because Jesus has already won the ultimate war – the war for the sinner’s soul.

Had my facial muscles and brain been firing on all cylinders, I would have gone on to tell this woman that I learned not to be afraid of death, sickness and uncertainty in the fires of disease. Then I would have undoubtedly expounded, explaining how, two years ago, I was sixty-eight pounds, living with a “comatose” blood pressure reading that caused many a nurse to go ghostly white. I would have told this woman that, against all human logic, God carried my body throughout that storm, making it possible for me to stand before here today as a living testimony to His sustaining and overcoming power. If only I had confidently and joyfully told her that I don’t need to be afraid of a virus because I know the Great Physician!

But, more than a physical story, I would have told her about Jesus’ story that makes it possible for anyone to live free of fear – regardless of what storms they’ve faced in the past.

When Jesus hanged on the cross of Calvary, He bore all of our sins, shame and burdens. He took eternal death to the grave and, when He rose again three days later, He left it there. When Jesus resurrected, He opened the door to Heaven so that every man, woman and child can join Him there forever. And all He asks is that we accept Him and turn our lives over to Him. Pretty good trade off, don’t you think? We surrender our earthly life – fears and all – and, in return, He gives us eternal, abundant, overcoming life. Jesus graciously takes our heavy load upon Himself and gives us abounding hope and unshakable assurance instead.

Followers of Jesus can endure every earthly problem and pandemic with peace and confidence, knowing that their Savior has already overcome this world. They can smile, laugh and experience joy in the midst of suffering and uncertainty because their greatest fear – the fear of eternal separation from God – has been put to rest.

Unfortunately, I didn’t speak any of those glorious truths to my angry neighbor and since I have a feeling she’ll be social distancing herself from me in the future, I doubt I’ll ever get the chance to share what I so wish I would have said in the moment. Fortunately, God’s ability to save my neighbor (or any of our fearful neighbors) is not limited to my ability to recite a spellbinding testimony on the sidewalk. He does not need my words to do His work. And although I hope to witness to His majesty with more power, joy and love in the future, I know that He has already forgiven me for the past. The moment I sought His mercy, He extended it without delay, graciously assuring me that there is nothing added to my record of wrong that can’t be washed away by the blood of the Lamb. Nor is there anything I said or left unsaid that His Holy Spirit cannot overcome.

The more I’ve pondered the scene on my humor fail, the more I’ve been compelled to pray for my neighbor. I cannot undo what was or was not said but I can take the situation, my regret and my hopes for this woman to God. He knows my heart and He knows her. And, what’s more, He can restore, heal and deliver us both.

So, that’s my prayer for her. May God restore her soul, heal her heart and deliver her from all her fears.

 

For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.

2 Timothy 1:7