Peace in Crisis (Hero Southwest Airlines Pilot)

Text: Mark 4:35-41

“Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way.” —2 Thessalonians 3:16

Many are saying she had “nerves of steel,” marveling at her composure during a midair crisis. Tammie Jo Shults, a follower of Christ, is the Southwest Airlines pilot who managed to safely land a torn up commercial airplane when one of the engines blew shortly after take off. The explosion blew out a window, killing a passenger. Then Shults, one of the first female fighter pilots in the US Navy for F-18 fighter jets, was able to land the damaged aircraft 30 minutes later. She is being hailed a hero after saving the lives of the other 143 passengers onboard. “God sent his angels to watch over us,” said one thankful passenger.

Shults, a graduate of MidAmerica Nazarene University, once said that sitting in the captain’s chair gives her “the opportunity to witness for Christ on almost every flight.” MNU Director of Alumni Kevin Garber chimed, “Her strong faith combined with her tenacity and persistence kept her calm in the face of a terrifying situation.”

It’s not always easy to stay calm under pressure. There’s a familiar line in Rudyard Kipling’s poem that reads, “If you can keep your head when all about you men are losing theirs…then you will be a man my son.”

In Mark 4, we see the disciples in the midst of a vicious windstorm. The furious squall is threatening their very lives. As waves break over the bow of the boat, where do we find Jesus? Asleep on a cushion in the stern! The disciples are unnerved. Perhaps you can identify with them here. Maybe there’s been a time in your life when you felt Jesus was sleeping through your peril. Why is Jesus doing nothing when I am in so much duress? Shouldn’t He be as frantic about this situation as I am? Doesn’t God care? Is He insensitive to my plight?

The frenetic disciples awakened him, crying, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus rebukes the wind and says to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased. There was a great calm, when Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?”

I believe that one of the greatest witnesses to our faith is seen in how we handle pressure situations. How we manage a crisis will reveal a whole lot more about what we truly believe than the anecdotes on our social media profiles.

Jesus wants us to have courage and calm in the storm. In John 16:33, he says, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” If we truly believe that Jesus has already overcome anything we face, His words will affect the way we navigate through the stress.

James, the Lord’s brother, offers some great advice for those trying to navigate through perilous times. He reminds us that God has a bigger-than-life purpose for allowing trials and troubles. They make us “mature and complete” (James 1:4). The Greek word James uses in this text for “perseverance” (James 1:3) is hupomeno, derived from two Greek words: hupo (under) and meno (remain). For us to experience God’s refining purposes in our lives, we need to remain steadfast while under pressure.

Those disciples must’ve learned something from Jesus in the boat that night, because we see them later looking more like Jesus when faced with a crisis. In Acts 12, Herod laid violent hands on some of the early church leaders. He killed James, the brother of John, and had Peter arrested and thrown into prison. With his life in jeopardy and future uncertain, what do we find Peter doing?

He is sleeping.

Yep, Acts 12:6 tells us the night before Peter was to face trial, “he was asleep,” fastened with chains between two soldiers. He doesn’t know what comes next. He doesn’t have any control over this situation. And here we see Peter looking just like Jesus did during that dangerous storm back in Mark 4. The disciple has matured. He is facing life with that kind of peace that Jesus promised—real peace!

That peace is always afforded to you, Beloved. Whatever you may be facing today, face it by leaning into the promises of God. Your past is redeemed. Your present is in His grip. Your future is secure. You might as well look more like Jesus going through the storm.

PRAYER

Heavenly Father, thank you for the peace that surpasses understanding. We can’t explain it, but we can surely attain it. It’s the peace you offer every one of your children. Help us to know that peace in whatever life may bring. Give us that DNA of Jesus to face the crisis with composure. For your glory, and in your grace, Amen.

Questions for Reflection and/or Family Discussion:

  1. How do you tend to handle stress? Do you thrive, panic, numb it with something, hide, etc.?
  2. What complaint did the disciples have about Jesus (Mark 4:38)? Have you ever felt this way?
  3. How had God helped you handle your fears and frustrations during difficult times?
  4. In what area of your life is faith lacking?
  5. In what ways can you lean more into the power and authority of Jesus this week?

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The Illusion of Control

Text: Joshua 5:13-15

“Cease striving and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” —Psalm 46:10 (NASB)

My first child was born two weeks before 9/11. As we watched those fateful events unfold in our nation that day, I remember feeling a tremendous amount of anxiety about this new venture called parenthood. I looked down at that little tiny life in my arms and fretted over the kind of world that she would grow up in. I became overwhelmed at the thought of ensuring that nothing bad would ever happen to her. I needed to protect her. I needed to be in control of circumstances and be able to manage the future, so that every outcome would be entirely—safe.

I learned quickly that parenthood brings with it an enormous weight of responsibility to protect, provide for, and nurture. What I didn’t learn so quickly was that my quest to be in control of the future was nothing more than an illusion. Sure, there would be many sensible things that I could control in setting my kids up for success, but so much of life’s unfolding drama would be beyond the grip of my control.

It can be a haunting feeling for many of us to not be in control—especially those of us who feel the incessant pressure to fix everything for those we love. Truth is, sometimes we just can’t fix the brokenness of life, or the madness of this world. As much as we’d love to be in control, it’s a mere fallacy.

That reality doesn’t have to be haunting for us. In many ways, it can be very liberating to let go of the illusion of control. Such was the case for Joshua when faced with a challenge greater than his ability to overcome. Joshua became the leader of the Israelite tribes after the death of Moses, and was responsible for leading God’s people into the Promised Land. Standing in his way is the mighty city of Jericho, with seemingly impenetrable walls. This general finds himself under-resourced and ill equipped to take such a fortress by human accounts. Victory won’t come from mustering up enough will power or digging down for more grit—it comes from a place called surrender.

The passage says that when Joshua was by Jericho (Joshua 5:13-15), he lifted up his eyes and saw a man standing before him “with a drawn sword in hand”—clearly a militant posture of readiness. A man with a sword in his hand is usually prepared to use it. He’s ready for a fight! Joshua went to him and said, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” And he said, “Neither, but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” This is an “aha!” moment for the general. It’s a theophany—a visible manifestation of none other than God himself, and the drawn sword is not just the sign of impending victory, it’s the demonstration that God alone is in control of the affairs. It’s an expression of His sovereignty.

Joshua’s response is the only kind appropriate for such a revelation: “And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped,” conceding himself in a posture of—surrender (Joshua 5:14). Then Joshua gets some very unorthodox instructions from God about how to approach the problem—things like marching around walls for seven days, blowing loud trumpets, shouting, and watching walls inexplicably fall down!

Right now, you might be in a place like that Old Testament general at Jericho, where God has brought you face-to-face with something bigger than you are so that you could come face-to-face with Him. Maybe it’s time to relinquish that illusion of control, that fallacy of being the general in your own universe, and give it all up to God. Maybe it’s time to surrender. Maybe it’s time to get out of the way and let God take charge. Maybe it’s time for real worship—that which yields ourselves in utter reliance and absolute dependence upon Him for everything concerning our past, present, and future.

PRAYER

Heavenly Father, I acknowledge that I am not giving you control. I can’t give you something I never had to begin with. I surrender my illusions of control—the fallacy of thinking that I ever was in control. Forgive me for trying to be the general in my own universe. I give back to you what is rightfully yours—Lordship over everything in my life. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection and/or Family Discussion:

  1. Do you enjoy thrill rides in which you have no control? Why or why not?
  2. When has something in life scared you because it was beyond your control?
  3. When have you experienced a peace that comes with giving up the illusion of control?
  4. In the context of Joshua’s encounter, how would you define the word worship?
  5. Is there an area of your life that God has revealed that you need to surrender?

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The French Officer Who Swapped Places with a Hostage

Text: 1 John 4:7-21

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” —John 15:13

Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Beltrame has become a hero throughout France, known for his self-sacrifice, patriotism and Christian faith. The 45-year-old Lieutenant Colonel was killed during a hostage standoff with an Islamic extremist, after volunteering to trade places with a female hostage in Trèbes, France. While being awarded the Legion of Honor at his funeral, the nation’s highest honor, French President Emmanuel Macron compared Beltrame’s sacrifice to those of France’s World War II heroes and said his example would “remain etched in French hearts.”

Beltrame offered his life to stop death. His courage beckoned him to save life, even at the price of his own. A person well acquainted with Beltrame said, “Only his faith can explain the madness of this sacrifice which is today the admiration of all.” His mother attested that when she heard the news that a gendarme had swapped himself for a hostage, she immediately “knew it was him,” noting he’s always been like that.

Two thousand years ago, the Son of God stepped into a hostage situation with a willingness to swap His life for others. Sin had taken the human race captive, holding us hostage to our own demise when Jesus gave up his life as a ransom for our freedom. He came to set us free… from ourselves (Romans 3:23). Our sin deserves the punishment of death (Romans 6:23), the very punishment that Jesus absorbed in our place on the cross (1 Peter 2:24).

After taking our sins upon himself, Christ died and rose again for our justification so that we might have life eternal—sin-overcoming, death-defying, here and beyond—life without end.

When Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends,” he was giving Christianity its very fundamental core. Sacrificial love is what gave Christianity its DNA—love that is undeserving I might add. “Where Love is, God is,” proposed Henry Drummond. In our devotional text, John’s epistle says it beautifully:

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” —1 John 4:7-12

The apostle goes on to charge that anyone who says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, is a liar. The unmistakable hallmark of those who truly follow Jesus is this DNA of love—By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:35). God is love (1 John 4:8)—He’s always been like that—therefore when his people walk in love, their DNA takes on the identifiable likeness of Jesus (1 John 4:7).

D.L. Moody noted:

“The world does not understand theology or dogma, but it understands love and sympathy… If we have got the true love of God shed abroad in our hearts, we will show it in our lives. We will not have to go up and down the earth proclaiming it. We will show it in everything we say or do.”

May this love, His love, become so much the DNA of our lives that despite all of our shortcomings and failures, and beyond our promulgated belief systems, the world will know that we have been with Jesus—that God abides in us and his love is perfected in us (1 John 4:12). Think about that as you seek to abide in His love this week.

PRAYER

Jesus, thank you for becoming my ransom on the cross—exchanging your life for mine when you died to take the punishment of my sins. I didn’t deserve your mercy or that kind of love. But LOVE is what you are—it’s what you’ve always been. Teach me how to love others with the same measure that you have loved me. For this is what it means to have your love perfected in me. In your name, I pray, amen.

Questions for Reflection and/or Family Discussion:

  1. Apart from Jesus, who has sacrificed the most for you in life?
  2. When has love been a great motivator in your life?
  3. Though Christianity was born out of a radical, self-sacrificing, and humble expression of loving others, why do you think many in our generation find it hard to see God as LOVE?
  4. Why, and how, should God’s love motivate you to love others?
  5. Is there someone you have had a hard time getting along with that you need to ask God to help you love this week?

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Jesus Knows What He is Riding Into

Text: Matthew 21:1-11

“Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” —Luke 19:38

Have you ever been guilty of misinterpreting a situation? How many times have you said to yourself: If only I had known then what I know now? The old saying “hindsight is always 20/20” certainly has relevance in our lives, as it did for the disciples when Jesus came riding into Jerusalem during his triumphal entry (John 12:16).

Palm Sunday is the day we observe that triumphal entry. In the Christian tradition, Palm Sunday serves as a preparation of one’s heart for the agony of Jesus’ passion and the joy of His resurrection. It’s the beginning of Passion Week (Holy Week)—that fateful week in which Jesus entered the holy city to face his cross. Here our Lord would drink the cup of suffering. By the end of the week, he would be betrayed, arrested, tortured, and crucified. His followers would be confused, disoriented, and scattered. But not this day…

This day, riding on a donkey, Jesus entered the city and is greeted by ecstatic crowds waving palm branches in celebratory honor. The adulation! The applause! The political rallying! They loved him on this day but were suddenly ready to kill him by Thursday! How fickle this crowd would prove to be. Within a few days, many of those same voices shouting “Hosanna” would turn to raging howls of “Crucify him! Crucify him!” (Luke 23:21)

Momentarily, while the crowds are enamored with Jesus, the disciples are probably feeling pretty good. It seems like everything is falling into place for a new earthly kingdom to emerge. Jerusalem is welcoming their king. The people are anticipating a Messiah who will rescue them politically and free them from societal oppression—to overthrow the Roman Empire and reestablish Israel’s power in the world. But God is up to something so much bigger.

Jesus is about to turn the whole system upside down.

He rides in on a lowly donkey. Now a donkey is hardly the stuff of a royal motorcade. Yet some 500 years prior to Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem, the prophet Zechariah had already prophesied this event would take place precisely in this fashion (Zechariah 9:9), adding to over 300 other Old Testament prophecies Jesus fulfilled.

In the ancient Biblical world, a leader rode on a horse to declare war, but on a donkey to signify peace. Jesus didn’t come with violence. He didn’t come with bloodshed. He didn’t come with hostility. He came in humility and servitude—to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). He didn’t take life; he gave up his own life to save the world.

Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. —John 15:13

Once the crowds saw no more political capital in Jesus, they turned on him overnight. But Jesus knew what he was riding into. He came to suffer and die for the sins of the world. By triumphing over the grave, the risen King of glory has established a kingdom that is not of this world—but a Kingdom that has conquered this world!

Sometimes God’s plans don’t make sense in the moment. His infinite ways can never be constrained by our finite understanding—though He can certainly be trusted.

Jesus knows full well what he is riding into in your life. He knows the hurt, the loneliness, the grief, the betrayal, the anger, the doubt, the despair, the exhaustion, the weariness, and the constant struggle. He knows all the madness. Yet your King lives, beloved—and he will indeed triumph over every last bit of it. Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

King Jesus, I worship you! You didn’t enter your holy city on the back of an intimidating warhorse, but humbly on a lowly donkey. You knew what you were riding into—the hostility of a lethal multitude—yet you came in peace. You died for my sin; you conquered the grave and disarmed the power of death that holy week. You laid down your life to save mine. You are worthy of my praise! I will sing of your goodness and continue to declare your deeds to the next generation. Your kingdom come! Your will be done, here on earth as it is in heaven. In Your name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection and/or Family Discussion:

  1. Can you share a time you couldn’t figure out what God was doing in your life, only to understand more clearly later?
  2. What strikes you most about the imagery of Jesus riding in on a donkey?
  3. If Jesus were to ride into Washington, D.C., on a donkey today, what do you think the headlines would read?
  4. What kind of reaction do you think the religious leaders had during Christ’s triumphal entry? (John 12:19) Why do you imagine they were so threatened by Jesus?
  5. Jesus knows full well what he is riding into in your life, and he’s not the least bit intimidated by any of the drama. How can you find rest in that this week?

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When It Feels Like You Are Sinking

Text: Psalm 69:1-18

“When you go through deep waters, I will be with you.” Isaiah 43:2

Have you ever felt like you were going to drown? In the early 90s I was preaching a series of revival meetings in West Virginia. Some fellows from the church decided to take me whitewater rafting on Class 4 rapids, a more advanced level of river rafting. Upon hitting a boulder, four of us were thrown from the raft and into the raging current. I was tossed around under water for several seconds—which seems more like minutes when you are powerless to get to the surface—bouncing off rocks and carving up my flesh.

I thought my life was over.

Then, the wrath of the river had a merciful moment as it spit me back out to the surface. As I gasped for air, I never valued oxygen more than that moment in my life.

It’s a scary feeling having such a powerful force of nature overtake you, leaving you helpless to save yourself. Sometimes the stuff of life can carry that imagery. It did for David as he wrote Psalm 69. “Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck,” he cried. “I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.”

David lamented feeling weak and weary—all his energy spent, his throat parched from crying out as he waited for God to rescue him (v.3). Numerous were those who “hated him without cause” and “attacked him with lies” (v.4). Even the drunks at the local pub made their songs about him (v.12). Yet David brought his plea before God. In verses 13-18, he expresses his humble reliance upon God for salvation: “my prayer is to you… answer me… deliver me… let not the flood sweep over me… hide not your face… draw near.”

His prayer appeals to what He already knows about the character of God: “for your steadfast love is good” (v.16). Though David feels like he is drowning in a flood, without a foothold, he still knows he can reach upward and trust what God has scripturally, historically, and consistently revealed about Himself; God abounds in “steadfast love” and “saving faithfulness.” For David, it was a time of rejection with man, but acceptance with God. He was overwhelmed by the temporal frustrations of life, yet overcome by the inexhaustible grace of God.

Centuries later, the Son of David heard the cries of a drowning disciple (Matthew 14:22-33). Peter had zealously stepped out of a boat one stormy night, bidding that Jesus would permit him to walk on water. I love that we never see Jesus rebuking Peter for his bold request to do the impossible! He stepped in faith. Then his vision drifted in fear. When he took his eyes off of Jesus he began to sink. He cried desperately, “Lord, save me!” And Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Eventually the waves will calm. The winds will cease. The waters will subside. But the one constant will always be the steadfastness of God’s love:

Higher than the mountains that I face
Stronger than the power of the grave
Constant in the trial and the change
This one thing remains

Your love never fails
It never gives up
It never runs out on me

Because on and on and on and on it goes
Yes it overwhelms and satisfies my soul
And I never, ever, have to be afraid
‘Cause this one thing remains

In death, in life, I’m confident
Covered by the power of your great love
I know my debt is paid, there’s nothing that can
Separate my heart from your great love
(*Bethel Music)

God’s intransient love for us—it can never, will never cease. “Though you have changed a thousand times, He has not changed once,” said Spurgeon. We can surely endure anything by pondering His permanence and fixing our eyes on Him. Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

Heavenly Father, thank you for your enduring faithfulness. Even when we come into deep waters, your steadfast love can still be trusted. Though the rapids may come up to our neck, and the current overwhelms, you will indeed rescue. You will not hide your face. You will always draw near. Always. Thank you for this promise! In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection and/or Family Discussion:

  1. When was the last time you felt helpless, or overwhelmed about a situation?
  2. Have you ever grown weary in waiting for God to rescue you from something?
  3. In Psalm 69, we see David shift from focusing on his overwhelming problems to praise in God’s intransient character. What can we learn from this?
  4. How did David demonstrate humility before God? (Psalm 69:5, 10-11)
  5. In what ways can you turn your problems into praise this week?

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Ebenezer: Stones of Remembrance

Text: 1 Samuel 7:1-14

“Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us.’” —1 Samuel 7:12

“Right now I’m having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time. I think I’ve forgotten this before,” comedian Steven Wright once quipped. The older I get, the more I appreciate the living canvas of memories. I’m often intrigued by the things I remember with great detail versus the things I can only vaguely recall. It’s interesting to me that the Bible seems to encourage selective memory.

There are some things God wants us to let go of in regard to the past.

The Apostle Paul practiced his own rendition of selective amnesia: “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Philippians 3:13). Through the prophet Isaiah, God said, “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” A few verses later, God admitted that even He will not recall certain things: “I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins” (Isaiah 43:18-19, 25)—this only through Christ’s blood on the cross (Matthew 26:28, 1 John 1:7-9).

Then there are things that Scripture admonishes us to never forget.

We are to “not forget the works of God” (Psalm 78:7). We are to “forget none of His benefits” (Psalm 103:2). We are to “remember His covenant forever, the word which He commanded to a thousand generations” (1 Chronicles 16:15).

In 1 Samuel 7:1-14, during a time when Israel experiences revival under the leadership of Samuel, the nation repents of their sins and begins to seek the Lord. Samuel gathered the people at Mizpah where they confessed their sin, and he offered a sacrifice on their behalf. As they gave their hearts to repentance and renewal, the enemy attacked, but God “thundered” with supernatural help. He threw the enemy into a severe panic and they were routed before the Israelites. Israel’s victory over the Philistines was decisive, and it was a long time before the Philistines thought about invading Israel again!

To commemorate that divine victory, Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen, naming it Ebenezer; saying, “Thus far the LORD has helped us” (v. 12). Ebenezer meant “stone of help.” Thereafter, every time an Israelite saw this stone, it would serve as a reminder of God’s power, provision, and protection. This stone marked the spot where the enemy had been routed and God’s promise to bless His repentant people had been honored.

Early in our marriage, my wife took a spice rack and converted it into a “memorial” rack for our very own Ebenezer stone collection. To this day, that rack hangs in our kitchen, lined with many stones representing victories God has given us over the years. Occasionally I pick up some of those stones and remember—at times with a tear and at times with a smile—how God has taken care of us over the years. Those stones make for great testimonies that we are able to share with others.

In Stones of Remembrance, Daniel Amen says: “Memory enables us to bring the joys, dreams and lessons of yesterday into today. As we recall God’s faithfulness, we remain centered and growing, and we move forward with a sense of purpose. Memory allows us to keep our loved ones close, even when they are far away. It assures us that our personal history and experiences matter—that we have something valuable to teach the generations to come. This is the way God designed our minds to work—to remember. It’s been that way from the very beginning.”

What can you erect in your life that will cause you to remember what great things God has done, and to share those testimonies with future generations? Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week!

PRAYER

Heavenly Father, help us to be a people who forget the things we need to forget, but remember the things we need to remember. Teach us the kind of selective memory that is healthy for our soul, glorifying to you, and edifying to others. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection and/or Family Discussion:

  1. What do you remember most about your early childhood?
  2. Over the course of your life, what victories has God given you that stand out the most in your memory?
  3. Why do you think God doesn’t want us to forget His works in our lives?
  4. In what ways can you memorialize what God has done in your life?
  5. What can we learn about the importance of repentance and confession from 1 Samuel 7? How does it correlate with victory? Is there a need for this in your life right now?

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The Ugly Dachshund

Text: Ephesians 2:1-10

“For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago” Ephesians 2:10

Growing up, my wife always had an affinity for dachshunds. We adopted a “dachsie” for our one-year anniversary and wiener dogs have been a part of our hearts ever since. One of my favorite classics is the old Disney film, The Ugly Dachshund, about a Great Dane who thinks he’s a dachshund. Because Brutus has grown up in a litter of dachshunds, he struggles to act like the big dog he was designed to be. His owner must take him through a training regimen to help him realize his regal pedigree as a Great Dane—a quite comical unfolding.

A misguided sense of identity leads to all sorts of dysfunction in our lives. It will cause us to make idols of the things we mistakenly find our identity in—favorite sports teams, entertainment icons, social branding, popularity, academic achievement, or career success. We can even mistakenly place our identity in being a religious person or a “good” Christian.

Jesus came not just to forgive us of our sins, but also to restore our lost identity.

He rescues us from the idolatry of making our identity about performances or appearances. He reminds us that our identity does not emanate from the place where we were born. It’s not about what has happened to us along the way. It’s not found in our history of successes or failures.

Our identity, originating out of God’s outrageous love for us, is about being created in His image and shaped for His pleasure. We are His work of art, eliciting boundless joy and unremitting cheer. That’s the ancient root behind the phrase describing how God rejoices in His creation (Psalm 104:31).

In Genesis 1, we not only see God’s order of creation, we also see His response to what He made. Five times God stands back, as it were, and gives an account of His creation. Each time it says, “And God saw that it was good” (vv. 4, 12, 18, 21, 25). Later, after all was finished and man and woman were created in his own image, it says, “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.”

You were designed for a unique purpose—a very good purpose. The Bible says, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb… Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Psalm 139:13, 16 NIV).

But because sin had marred that original design, we were dead in our transgressions until redemption made us alive with Christ and raised us up to be seated with him in heavenly realms (Ephesians 2:1-6). Jesus has restored our lost identity! “For we are God’s masterpiece… created anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago” (v.10).

This is your true identity beloved: You are uniquely handcrafted by God, created for goodness, redeemed from the past, made alive with Christ, regenerated by new birth, sealed by the Holy Spirit, called to a royal kingdom purpose, seated in heavenly places, and destined for eternal glory!

Don’t be a victim of identity theft. Remind yourself, and perhaps your adversary, who you are in Christ Jesus today.

PRAYER

Heavenly Father, all of your works are good. All of your creation is good. May we find our identity in the glorious redemption of Jesus and not in some fleeting worldly substitute. Help us to be reminded of where we have been seated with Christ and to live from that reality. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection and/or Family Discussion:

  1. When have you found your identity in something other than Christ?
  2. In Ephesians 2, what three characteristics mark the identity of a person without Christ? (2:2-3)
  3. What describes God’s action in restoring what was lost? (2:4-9)
  4. Why do you think Paul spent so much time reminding believers who they were in Christ?
  5. Have you been a victim of spiritual identity theft? Ask the Holy Spirit to identify any areas in your life where this may be true, and to reclaim the “real” you.

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Billy Graham & the Question God Will Never Ask

Text: Matthew 25:14-30

“His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’” Matthew 25:21

This past week our world lost a faithful lamp. The Reverend Billy Graham, known as “America’s Pastor,” passed away in his Montreat, North Carolina, home. He was 99-years old.

The Gallup organization, which releases a yearly survey of the “Ten Most Admired Men in the World,” named Graham the dominant figure in that poll over the past half century—he was included 42 times, including 35 consecutive years. The famed evangelist appeared on the covers of Time, Newsweek, Life, U.S. News and World Report, Parade. In his lifelong ministry, the son of a dairy farmer preached to more than 210 million people in more than 185 countries and territories. His book “Peace With God” reached millions in 38 different languages. He had personal audiences with many sitting US presidents from Harry S. Truman to Barack Obama. The United States Postal Service has said that Graham was one of the few Americans who could have mail delivered that simply reads his name and the country: “Billy Graham, America.”

In 1996, Graham was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor Congress can bestow on a private citizen. Even his adversaries and skeptics have recognized that this country-boy-turned-worldwide-gospel-ambassador lived his life in such a way to only hear the applause of One. An early contemporary and friend of Graham, Charles Templeton, after abandoning the Christian faith said: “There is no feigning in [Billy Graham]: he believes what he believes with an invincible innocence. He is the only mass evangelist I would trust.”

Graham seemed to live his entire life with a laser focus on one day hearing the words I’m sure became more than audible last Wednesday:

“Well done, good and faithful servant!”

There is nothing else worth living for. Success, achievement, ambition, fame—even benevolence and altruism; apart from God’s pleasure is a chasing after the wind. Nothing in the entire world can compare with coming to the end of our days and hearing those words of our Master: “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

Living for those words gives us an inviolable peace in our hearts, an indomitable love for our enemies and skeptics, certainty in troubled times, and an unadulterated devotion to the ONE we live and breathe to worship.

Oftentimes when one lamp goes out, the world feels a little darker. But we need to remember that God is faithful in every generation. The Lord is never going to ask you: Were you as influential as Billy Graham? He’s not measuring your devotion next to that of anyone else—He’s measuring your devotion by the faithfulness you show in those small things right in front of you (Matthew 25:21). Though you and I may never be mass evangelists, our little lamps matter just as much as Billy’s did—in the way we parent, treat our spouses, love our neighbors, serve the less fortunate, or practice integrity in the workplace. May our labor of love be driven by the anticipation of one day hearing those words of eternal sustenance: Well done, good and faithful servant!

Jesus has some encouraging words for those who live from that center: “You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matthew 25:23 NIV) Or as one translation rendered it, “Well done… Let’s celebrate together!”

PRAYER

Heavenly Father, we mourn the loss of a great hero of the faith. As it did in life, may Graham’s legacy in death also inspire many others to fight the good fight, love their enemies, pray for their critics, and live for the pleasure of One. Help us to see the small things in our daily walk as opportunities to practice great faithfulness. Help us to approach the little things with big love. In doing so, our lights will shine brighter than we could’ve ever imagined. Teach us how to live our lives in such a way as to one day hear those words: Well done, good and faithful servant. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection and/or Family Discussion:

  1. If you were to go away for a long time, who would you entrust to look after your things and why?
  2. How would you define the word “faithfulness”?
  3. In Matthew 25:14-30, why do you think the man in the story entrusted his servants different amounts? What were the master’s expectations of his servants while he was away?
  4. Why was the master so hard on the servant who hid what was entrusted to him? Does this seem harsh to you? Why or why not?
  5. In what way do you think you could better use something that God has given you to further the kingdom of heaven on earth?

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Cultivating the Soil of Your Heart

Text: Luke 8:4-15

“As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.” – Luke 8:15

Last spring, my 10-year old daughter and I got a variety of seeds and planted them in our yard. Living on such a hilly terrain, it’s kind of tricky getting anything to grow here. But we tried. Well, hardly—we just dug some holes and threw in some seeds.

The results were consistent with those of the past—nothing doing.

With neighbors planting the same kinds of seeds and seeing things sprout all around them, it would be silly for me to blame the seeds; although that would be the easiest thing to do. The truth is, I just didn’t put in the work to cultivate the ground. Though I didn’t do what a savvy gardener would do, I still expected to get the same kind of results. Didn’t happen.

In Luke 8, Jesus teaches about the Parable of the Sower, or perhaps better titled the Parable of the Soils. In this story we see the sower, the seed, and four different soils. What all four had in common was the sower and the seed. What was dissimilar was the condition of the soils.

The seed is likened to the Word of God. That which fell upon the path is like the heart that is hardened by unbelief. It cannot produce anything because the seed never gets under the surface. That which fell upon the rock is where the soil was thin, lying upon a stony shelf (much like the landscape in my yard!). The seed may go in the ground but there’s no real depth. It cannot take root. Jesus likened this to the person who receives God’s Word superficially, but after a time of testing they fall away. Seed that fell among the thorns describes a ground that is fertile, but perhaps too fertile. Thorns grow there as well as grain. The life of the word is choked out “by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.”

Then there was the good soil, both fertile and free of weeds. They are those who, hearing the word, “hold it fast in an honest and good heart.” They bear fruit with patience.

Same sower, same seed. The only divergence in fruitfulness had to do with the condition of the soils.

This narrative about farming has been given many scholarly interpretations and explanations. One of the surest inferences is that the heart of the matter is the heart of the matter. The condition of our heart has direct correlation with what our lives produce—whether the issue has to do with true repentance unto salvation, or spiritual fruitfulness in the life of the believer.

God’s Word is still active and alive today. The word of the Lord endures forever (1 Peter 1:25). We have the same seed that those early disciples had. Our lives can indeed bear the fruits of spiritual maturity and kingdom growth. And though salvation is solely a matter of what God does for us, the Bible makes it clear that we have a responsibility in tending the soil of our hearts:

Though the Holy Spirit is responsible for producing the fruit in our lives, we are responsible for pulling out the weeds. Weeds of pride, selfishness, greed, lust, and envy will surely destroy any fruit that God wants to produce in us. Thorns of anger, resentment, and unforgiveness are sure to choke out the fruits of the Spirit.

To give God a soil that He can work with, we may have some gardening to do. Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

Heavenly Father, we are well aware of the cares of our lives. We feel the weight of them every day. We ask you to reveal places where we need to do some weeding in order to cultivate our hearts to be a fertile soil you can produce fruit in. Holy Spirit, help us to identify weeds that may be choking life out of us and teach us how to hold fast the word of life in an honest and good heart. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection and/or Family Discussion:

  1. When have you planted something fruitful (literally or figuratively)?
  2. In what ways have you seen this parable at play in today’s society?
  3. Do you remember the time in your life when the gospel first began to take root? Explain.
  4. What role does the Holy Spirit serve in helping us to cultivate a fertile soil for God’s fruitfulness in our lives?
  5. Getting weeds out of our hearts may sometimes entail confession and repentance. Is the Holy Spirit revealing to you anything that needs to be dealt with?

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Our Refuge in The Storm

Text: Psalm 31:1-24

“Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord!” Psalm 31:24

As a child growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, I experienced my share of snowstorms. When the snowplows came through the mall parking lots, they would push the snow into piles around the street light poles. We would subsequently shape these frosty mounds into little quinzees. These makeshift fortresses became places of refuge during fierce snowball fights.

Psalm 31 begins with David saying, “In you, O Lord, do I take refuge.” The Hebrew text in this passage carries the meaning of fleeing for protection, to put trust and confidence in a fortress, or to seek a house of defense.

David needed such a place of refuge. This particular psalm was written in a time of great distress and grief. He’s facing a plot against his life. His friends have all abandoned him. He’s drained and weary—at the end of his rope. He’s become a “reproach” to his neighbors and an “object of dread” to his acquaintances (v.11).

David feels… forgotten.

He likens this feeling to “one who is dead.” He’s not just having a bad day. This is a long wintry season of distress. You ever had one of those?

Despite this cold season, David has deep trust in the character and “abundant” goodness of God (v.19). He did not ask God to rescue him because he thought himself to be good, but for Your name’s sake (v.3). He is confident that just as God has been a faithful refuge in the past, so He will be again. Why? Because God will always act for the glory of His name and He will never leave His servants in a pit of shame (v.17). He believes in God’s steadfast love—that God will not let anything—anything—touch him that cannot be redeemed for good (vv.7, 16, 21). This led him to submissively say, “My times are in your hand” (v.15).

David has words of encouragement for us in such seasons of distress (v.24):

Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord!

God has never changed. He is still faithful today. We can confidently expect Him to act on our behalf as well. Let not the enemy undermine your confidence in the goodness of God’s character and the faithfulness of His steadfast love. This psalm began with a desperate plea but ended with unbridled praise—an unyielding declaration of trust in His God in a severe time of trouble. God wants to be our quinzee in the storms of life. He wants us to find refuge in Him during those times of distress and uncertainty. He meets us in that place where we feel forgotten, and we know that we are not alone. Take courage as you seek to abide in Him, beloved.

PRAYER

Heavenly Father, be our Refuge in those winter storms. Remind us of your faithfulness. How abundant is Your goodness, O Lord, which You have stored up for those who fear You. Let us have great confidence in Your unchanging nature. Help us to be of good courage, to have our hearts strengthened with grace, and to be emboldened by hope. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection and/or Family Discussion:

  1. What served as a childhood refuge for you?
  2. When have you experienced a season like the one David faced in this psalm?
  3. Have you ever felt forgotten by God or friends?
  4. Why do you think David had courage in such a time of distress?
  5. In what ways can you turn your pleas into praise for God’s unfailing love?

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