The Last Dance: What Will Yours Look Like?

Text: Ruth 2:1-23

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” — Romans 8:18

Like millions out there today, I was inspired by “Air Jordan” in the 80s and 90s, and often dreamed I could “be like Mike.” I loved to come home from school and play hoops for endless hours. When Cindy and I were newlyweds, some of our date nights involved going to the local park where I would practice “fade-aways” for an hour and she would grab my rebounds. Yep, that girl is pretty amazing!

Though I never was able to dunk a basketball—I don’t think I drank enough Gatorade!—the sport has been a meaningful part of my life. Basketball was one of our first sports ministries to at-risk youth in Florida juvenile detention centers during the late 90s, and it’s a big component of our summer camps for prisoners’ kids and disadvantaged children in East Tennessee. It’s also been a touch of heaven bringing mission teams to the Dominican Republic to do sports ministry with the kids on a basketball court we built for an orphanage a few years ago.

Because so much of my basketball passion was fueled by Michael Jordan, the hype surrounding ESPN’s new documentary The Last Dance has stirred many hoop memories for me. In 1995, When MJ returned to the NBA after a brief retirement, I mused along with the rest of the world: Can he still compete at the same level? Can he still win? Could he silence all the critics who doubted the possibilities? Well, not only did he win, his team dominated the league while showcasing one of the greatest basketball teams to ever take the court. The “Last Dance” revealed that the best was still to come, despite all the tension coming from the skeptics and doubters.

Are my best days behind me, or in front of me?

This internal question is something many of us ponder as the drama of our lives continues to unfold. In this devotional series, we’ve been looking at the book of Ruth the last couple of weeks. During a time of famine, Naomi and her family had left the Promised Land and went to Moab, where she would face unimaginable tragedy—losing her husband and her two sons. It was a season, surely, when the widow must’ve questioned whether her best days were now behind her. She even renamed herself “Mara” (meaning “bitter”), describing what her life now felt like. Her homecoming is one of sorrow and grief. What she didn’t know was that God was orchestrating a “last dance” that would give rise to a redemption story for the ages.

Naomi and Ruth faced agonizing hardship, but with God, hardship never spells hopelessness. As widows, they benefited from an ancient tradition that helped those affected by poverty (Leviticus 19:9-10). The law commanded farmers in Israel to “cut corners” in harvesting, for the purpose of leaving behind some bundles of grain for the less fortunate in the land. It was a win-win social assistance program intended to help farmers have a generous heart while giving the poor an opportunity to actively work for their food in a way that restored their dignity.

Ruth, demonstrating a hard-working spirit, set out to glean in the fields to support Noami and herself. Whether directly from God himself (Ruth 2:12), or through a human channel “in whose sight I shall find favor (Ruth 2:2),” her faith expected to see God show up (Hebrews 11:6). Despite being a Moabite and a foreigner, she was wiser than many in Israel when it came to recognizing the Lord’s hand in her labor (Colossians 3:23-24, Galatians 6:9, Psalm 128:2, Psalm 90:17, Proverbs 14:23). Her faith is seen in the way she works. James would be proud! (James 2:14-26)

The beauty in Naomi and Ruth’s last dance is seen where faith and hard work intersect with divine intervention. Their story—as does the story of your life—has a redeemer. As Ruth’s faith is thrust into action in the barley fields, she “happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the clan of Elimelech” (Elimelech was Naomi’s deceased husband). The odd construction of this sentence in the original text is deliberate. In colloquial English, we would say, “As her luck would have it…” But the statement is ironic. The storyteller intentionally uses an expression that forces the reader to sit up and muse how Ruth just “happens” to land in the field of a man who was not only gracious (Ruth 2:2) but also a kinsman who had the right to marry Ruth after the death of her husband (according to Jewish law). As the story plays out, we see that Ruth’s arrival at Boaz’ field has nothing to do with sheer coincidence or happenstance, but indisputable fingerprints of God’s providential hand.

Suddenly, the future is looking much different for these two women who have suffered agonizing misfortune. Why? Because a redeemer is now in the picture, and this changes everything, as we will conclude next week.

Tragedy. Loss. Unemployment. Financial hardship. Sorrow. Grief. Depression. Addiction. Anxiety. Sickness. Pandemic. These stories are all told differently when a redeemer is present. Your Redeemer lives, beloved. No matter what kind of hardship or setbacks you have experienced, be assured that your best days are still to come. Your next dance—last dance, or whatever you want to call it—will be full of favor and beauty, but not due to luck, coincidence, or human sufficiency; it will be brilliant because of the fact that The Almighty is the Choreographer and HE upholds you. He will never leave you nor forsake you in this dance. You can trust His next steps!

PRAYER

Heavenly Father, what a picture of hope for the battered and weary soul. You always have a plan and a process. It’s a process that we can trust because we know Your heart. Remind us this week that the best is still to come. Our redemption draws nigh because You purpose for the world to see Your glory—not just in some abstract way, but very directly and specifically on the canvas of our lives. Increase our faith. Stretch our hope. Ignite our prayers. Kindle us with a passion to serve you in this hour with great expectancy of the redemption to come. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. When have you ever faced danger in doing what you thought was right? When has your faith put you in a vulnerable situation?
  2. How did Boaz’s foreman describe Ruth (Ruth 2:6-7)? What character traits of Ruth stand out to you?
  3. What specific instructions did Boaz give to Ruth, and how did she respond to him (Ruth 2:8-11)? In what ways is faith different from optimism or mere wishful thinking?
  4. Judging from the events in this story, what character traits does God honor in His people? What is a step you can take this week toward developing your character?
  5. How have you seen God’s providence at work in your life? How could you demonstrate your thankfulness to the Lord for His provision for you?

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When Feeling Bitter With Life

Text: Ruth 1:19-22

“Indeed it was for my own peace that I had great bitterness; But You have lovingly delivered my soul from the pit of corruption, For You have cast all my sins behind Your back.” —Isaiah 38:17

Have you ever had a crisis of faith? If God is so good, then why did this happen to me? How do I believehopepress on, when I have known such indescribable pain and loss? That’s where we find Naomi in her return to Bethlehem (Ruth 1:19-22).

When Naomi set out for Moab years earlier with her husband, Elimelech, she was filled with such high hopes and vibrant dreams of what her life would look like. Yet in Moab, all she seemed to encounter was a series of disappointments and hardship. She loses her husband, and then both of her sons. Impoverished and bereaved, she finds herself on a painful journey back to her homeland, along with her widowed daughter-in-law, Ruth. It’s hard for Naomi to see that God is near in the wake of such sorrow, loss, and devastation. “I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty,” she says. “Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”

The wounded widow is referring to the meaning of her name, which means “pleasant.” She tells her people, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.” Mara means “bitter.” In a sense, Naomi is trying to rewrite the story of her life based on the cards she has been dealt. Like many of us do from time to time, she is not associating her name with her God-given identity, but with what has happened to her. Her pain has errantly become her identity.

Disappointments are not meant to define us. You are NOT what has happened to you. Too often that’s how life unfolds; we feel branded by our hardship. In her grief, which can be very messy, Naomi presumes that God is punishing her. She laments that the Almighty has dealt her a very bitter hand. Notice the wordplay on God’s sovereignty (“Almighty”). It seems that Naomi is charging that because God is sovereign over all things, He didn’t have to let this happen. But He did… so it’s an indictment on His goodness—thus the crisis of faith.

Naomi can’t see the bigger picture in this particular chapter of suffering. As we keep reading the next chapters, we see God’s blessing and favor materialize, and Ruth playing a key role in the rehabilitation of Naomi’s faith. God demonstrates his grace, goodness, and faithfulness in manifold ways. Naomi’s bitterness will soon be turned to joy, as her life will illustrate the power of God to bring something good out of bitter circumstances.

How about you, beloved? Have circumstances derailed your faith? Have you allowed what has happened to you come to define you? Has bitterness distorted your interpretation of what God is up to in your life at this moment? Despite our own misinterpretations about God’s plan and our indictments about His intentions toward us, His redemption always tells the story rightly in the end. His grace narrates the drama more completely—and it’s always in our favor (Hosea 6:1, Isaiah 61:7, Job 42:10, 1 Peter 5:10). Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

Heavenly Father, thank you for your goodness despite our often misinterpretations about what you are doing. We are too near-sighted to see the bigger picture of what Your redemption is painting on the canvas of our lives. Help us to trust in your goodness, and wait patiently for the redemption that is sure to come. Thank for your grace and favor, which will ultimately speak over all of our disappointments and sorrows. Weeping may endure for a moment, but joy comes in the morning. We worship you because YOU are worthy. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. In what things do most people in our society seem to find their identity?
  2. Why did Naomi call herself Mara (Ruth 1:20-21)? Why do we so easily accept what has happened to us as our identity?
  3. Have you ever charged God with ill intentions, or questioned His goodness, because of something that happened in your life?
  4. How does the relationship between Naomi and Ruth speak about how God uses others to bring about redemption in our stories?
  5. Rather than finding your identity in the things that have happened to you, what can you do this week to find your identity in the redemptive story that God will one day tell more rightly—completely—about your life?

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Orpah Kissed Naomi, But Ruth Clung to Her

Text: Ruth 1:1-18

“For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” —Ruth 1:16

I used to think of myself as a football fan (American football, not soccer!), that is, until I moved to Tennessee. Once I found myself surrounded by such diehard college football enthusiasts, I eventually learned that I’m not really a true fan (fanatical follower), just a casual spectator who enjoys the game. There is a huge difference.

The casual spectator can watch a game without experiencing any animosity toward an opposing team. On the other hand, the fanatical fan experiences a whole different spectrum of emotions during and after the game. They will carry their passions from the game—its hostility withal—to their workplace for the rest of the week! Husbands and wives with divided team loyalties might even have to sleep in different rooms following a game! A true fan doesn’t just watch the game; this person will live vicariously through their team’s identity, even claiming to “bleed” that team’s colors.

I eventually realized that, when it comes to football, I’m not in the same league as fanatical followers.

In this week’s devotional passage, we see a similar contrast. In only four short chapters, the book of Ruth reveals an epic love story, depicting unwavering faithfulness and relentless devotion. Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, had been sojourners in the land of Moab after a severe famine drove them out of Judah. But now, years later, Naomi’s husband and her two sons have all died, leaving Naomi and her Moabite daughters-in-law widowed, vulnerable, and without any support.

The three of them set out for Naomi’s homeland together when we get to a pivotal scene in the Scriptures. Naomi, recognizing the difficulties that lay ahead, gives her blessing for the two women to return to their native mother’s house in Moab. Ruth 1:14 tells us that Orpah kissed Naomi goodbye, but that Ruth clung to her. Picture this devotion for a moment. Ruth desperately wraps her arms around Naomi and adamantly refuses to let go. Though her mother-in-law urges her to let go and turn back, she will not.

The word translated as “clung” in this passage means: to stick to, adhere to, cling to, join with, stay in close proximity to, and which yields the noun form for “glue.” The same word is used when Moses told the Israelites they were to “hold fast” to the LORD God because “this is your life and the length of your days” (Deuteronomy 30:20). It conveys the ideas of loyalty and devotion, as it is used in Genesis 2:24 to associate how a man shall leave his father and his mother, and “cleave” to his wife. It emphasizes the basic meaning of being intimately joined to another and of being identified with another, even as Ruth was now committing to no longer being “identified” with the Moabites but primarily with Naomi, her people and her God.

Ruth’s act of clinging to Naomi is a reminder to all of us that even in times of seeming abandonment and despair, God calls on us to cling to Him with all of our intimate devotion. Orpah’s kiss was respectful and considerate, but also showed how easy she found it to turn back in the face of difficulty. It’s one thing to be a casual fan of Jesus—a fair-weather worshiper; it’s an entirely different “ballgame” to cling to Him in times of adversity—famine, loss, unemployment, sickness, pandemic.

Alexander Maclaren writes that as Orpah goes back to her home and her idolatrous gods, “She is the first in the sad series of those, ‘not far from the kingdom of God’ (Mark 12:34) who needed but a little more resolution at the critical moment, and, for want of it, shut themselves out from the covenant, and sank back to a world which they had half renounced.” Matthew Henry, referring to Orpah’s apparent resolution to do but failure to follow her words with actions says, “Strong passions, without a settled judgment, commonly produce weak resolutions.” Henri Rossi notes that Orpah’s good intention is not enough, “For nothing less than faith will do in order to enter into relationship with grace… It is possible to have a very amiable character without having faith. Faith makes a gulf between these two women who are so similar in so many ways. Confronted with impossibilities, the natural heart draws back, whereas faith is nourished on impossibilities and so increases in strength.”

True faith leads us to abandon our idols, give up our gods of self-sufficiency and illusions of control, and turn to the one true God as our only hope. True faith will inevitably make a distinction between the casual, “cultural Christian,” and the markedly devoted follower of Jesus Christ. That’s what is so precious about the faith Ruth displays—it’s full of resolution, clinging, and submission. Naomi is everything to Ruth because Ruth now cleaves to Naomi’s God (Ruth 1:16). She now “bleeds” a newfound loyalty to the King of kings and the Lord of lords. This changes everything. Unlike Orpah, her decisions are no longer dictated by a path of ease and comfort, but dictated by a path of what glorifies her God.

A kiss of outward profession to Christendom may be an act that appears sincere (Matthew 26:48, 49 Luke 22:47, 48), that is, until you see it contrasted with what real and true devotion to Jesus Christ looks like. In this moment of your life, does your association with the Divine look more like a respectful kiss (going through casual religious motions), or more like a fanatical-and-desperate-all-out clinging to Christ as your only path forward in life? Think about this contrast as you seek to abide in Him this week.

Unsure about what it means to be “saved by grace” and have a real, personal relationship with Jesus? Go here for answers. God is closer than you think.

PRAYER

Dear God, I don’t want to give you a casual kiss of appreciation from time to time. I want my life to be spent relentlessly clinging to the Lord Jesus Christ with wholehearted abandon. Teach me what unreserved devotion looks like. Confront my fears, my trepidation, my pride, my complacency, and my hesitation. I don’t want to turn back to the land of idols. Lead my heart in a path of repentance forward. Holy Spirit, free me to live wildly and passionately for the God I love, and the Savior I worship. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. What is one of the nicest things someone has ever done for you?
  2. What kind of relationship did Naomi have with her daughters-in-law? (Ruth 1:8-10)
  3. What could Ruth expect for her future when she decided to go with Naomi to Judah, and how did that involve faith? How does Ruth’s commitment to the God of Israel offer hope and encouragement to you?
  4. How would you describe a person merely going through religious motions versus a person fully devoted to the Lordship of Jesus Christ? In his teachings about discipleship, why do you think Jesus talked about “counting the cost” and “taking up your cross” as part of the process?
  5. In what way might your faith sometimes resemble Orpah? How can it look more like the devotion of Ruth?

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A Good News Heart in a Bad News World

Text: Psalm 112:1-10

“He is not afraid of bad news; his heart is firm, trusting in the Lord.” —Psalm 112:7

Nobody likes bad news, although I did have quite an affinity with the “Bad News Bears” of the 70s when I was a kid. I think that film resonated with me due to my love for baseball intertwined with much dysfunction I experienced in childhood. I could truly relate with those outcasts, though the hard-drinking, grumpy coach in the movie had nothing on my real Little League coaches who smoked marijuana during our practices.

I would’ve never imagined back then that my “baseball” future would entail sharing the Gospel with kids all over the world through a global sports ministry. God has certainly redeemed the game of baseball in my life!!!

Psalm 112 speaks of a person with a Good News heart in a bad news world. Because this worshiper “fears the Lord,” and “greatly delights in His commandments,” he “is not afraid of bad news; his heart is firm, trusting in the Lord.” Charles Spurgeon noted, “He is neither fickle nor cowardly; when he is undecided as to his course he is still fixed in heart: he may change his plan, but not the purpose of his soul.”

Living with a fearless heart isn’t about being oblivious, impervious, in denial or dismissive of reality. It’s about having the utmost confidence in the One Who still speaks to this present storm, and trusting His heart when things are spiraling out of your control. Bad news might come to us from our family, the doctor, the economy, the unfaithful, the culture around us, or from politics. Yet the one who fears the LORD will not be afraid.

Too often we have the right theology, but not the right doxology. Though our mind knows the lyrics to that historic creed, we still find our heart singing a song of anxiety and panic. We tend to go “off-pitch” when our circumstances are in disharmony with our faith. We might know all the Sunday School answers, and yet still recoil at the pressures of the real life test. The psalmist wants us to be sure—“His heart is steady; he will not be afraid” (v.8)—that the Good News is greater than the bad news.

This kind of fearlessness isn’t about shrugging off reality, or retreating into some place of passive resignation, but with a very intentional and deliberate active trust in the goodness of our Father. I pray that the next time you are feeling overwhelmed with bad news, you will be reminded of all the good the Lord has promised you, and focus on the glorious redemption that is sure to headline your future.

PRAYER

Dear God, how I yearn for the steadiness that David highlights in this Psalm. Teach me how to have a steadfast heart that beats confidently in a circumstance-challenged body… a fearless calm when surrounded by gloominess and uncertainty… a Good News heart in a bad news world. Holy Spirit, liberate my soul to trust and not fret… free me to worship more and worry less. In Jesus’ blessed name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. What are the things that worry you, or unsettle you about the future?
  2. Why is it often difficult to have a Good News heart in a bad news world?
  3. Where does the godly person find his or her sense of security? (Psalm 112:7) What can this person expect in the future? (Psalm 112:8)
  4. When have you seen God redeem something bad and turn it into something good?
  5. Where might you need a change of perspective to become more like the person described in this passage?

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Coronavirus and Social Distancing: 5 Things to Remember

Text: Nehemiah 1:1-11

“As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.” —Nehemiah 1:4

For this week’s Abiding In Him devotion, I want to share with you five things we can remember during an unprecedented time of social distancing due to the Coronavirus.

1. Remember how God defines His Church.

With church doors temporarily closing all over the country, it’s important to remember that the New Testament “church” was never defined as a building, a service time, or a particular denomination. Even though these may speak to aspects of how we gather “as” the church, they don’t define the church. Church isn’t something we go to, it’s WHO WE ARE as God’s body—practically His hands and feet in a broken world. The inconvenience of the Coronavirus gives us an opportunity to pause and remember WHO WE ARE as “salt” (a preserving agent) in the world today (Matthew 5:13). We are thankful for the technology of Zoom and WhatsApp that has helped us to continue to fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ, but we’ve also had time to have refreshing conversations about church as our identity, and not merely just a place in which we gather. Jesus is building His Church. HE is the UNCONQUERABLE King advancing an UNSTOPPABLE kingdom, of which the gates of hell will never prevail against. His throne hasn’t been rattled by this Coronavirus—it remains UNSHAKEN (Hebrews 12:27). Be encouraged by that, and remember WHO YOU ARE as His beloved.

2. Remember that discipleship begins in our homes.

According to scripture, parents are to be the primary disciplers of their children. In some ways, that idea can get lost in our Western Christian paradigms. This is a great time to be mindful that God never intended for you to outsource the discipleship of your children to “the trained professionals.” Take this time to get into God’s Word together. You don’t need to have all the answers to questions that arise from your Bible discussions together. In fact, your kids will respect your example more when you admit that you don’t have all the answers about the infinitely complex Creator of this universe. With such a BIG GOD, there is supposed to be room for wonder and mystery. It’s those who think they have all the answers that reveal their perception of God is very small, especially if God can be entirely explained by such finite human minds. The enigma of Isaiah 55:8-9 reveals that our God is so much bigger than our limited comprehension. David never considered the size of Goliath because he knew the size of his God was beyond comprehension. You are a disciple-maker right now, right where you are. That’s the mission of the Church. You can be about your Father’s business in your own home. Git-R-Done!

3. Remember the lostness of our world.

This week, I read that in Iran, a person dies from Coronavirus every 10 minutes. Let the thought of tens of thousands of people dying and slipping into eternity break your heart—especially as it pertains to those who are lost without Christ. Nehemiah’s heart broke for the things that broke God’s heart. I wrote a book about this called “Shapers.” When Nehemiah had his heart broken, he didn’t spring into his construction and renovation project immediately. He spent four months in isolated prayer. His social distancing prepared him for an unimaginable work that later contributed to reviving a whole nation. Once he was catapulted from that prayer chamber, in God’s right timing, all of the provision (the king’s throne) of the kingdom of Persia stood behind him. God gave him the favor of a pagan king with unlimited resources to do the job. Imagine the kind of gospel influence that can emerge from this present crisis when the church is catapulted back into everyday societal norms with a renewed missional focus. We have a much bigger throne behind us than a pagan king!!! Pray for God to break your heart for what breaks His, and to give you a renewed vision for how you can be His witness to gospel-destitute souls.

4. Remember that there are still ways to serve our neighbors and the marginalized, the underserved, and those at risk, even when we are “social distancing.”

Compassion hasn’t been canceled. Kindness hasn’t been canceled. Generosity hasn’t been canceled. As part of our normal programs throughout the calendar year, Breakaway Outreach helps to provide holistic supplementation (including meals, nutrition, and hygiene) for at-risk children affected by economic insecurity in our area. As Coronavirus affects closures to schools and after school programs, we are working creatively with others in our network to make sure no kiddos go hungry or get neglected of wellness resources. I’ve been inspired by many stories of altruism this week—churches utilizing their buildings to serve children of healthcare professionals who are working tirelessly around the clock, college students going grocery shopping for vulnerable elderly folks so they don’t have to risk leaving their homes, young people organizing donation centers to get food and supplies to low income families who don’t have the privilege of being able to stockpile goods. There are ways we can serve others without being exposed to large crowds. This requires getting quiet before God and letting Him speak into our hearts about how we can creatively flesh out compassion and generosity in such a time as this.

5. Remember to pray through a scriptural lens.

Many people have been asking, “Why is God allowing this?” Though our tendency may be to pray for God to just miraculously take away this plague and all of the inconveniences and suffering it brings, it’s also important to search the scriptures and pray according to God’s Word (the final authority in every aspect of a believer’s life). Dr. Roger Barrier has written a worthy response to why God allows plagues and how we should respond through the lens of scripture (our family had a great discussion and prayer time together while navigating this post). Sometimes it was to abolish idolatry, confront arrogance, reveal sin and disobedience, or lead people to repentance. Regardless of how we interpret the reason for this pandemic, and I try to be very careful about making assumptions, we should be earnest about praying for God’s purposes to be accomplished through manifold unknowns. We should pray for God to convict hearts, reveal sin, confront our personal and cultural idols, bring hearts to repentance, and draw people to Himself. We should pray for miracles. We should pray boldly for protection. We should pray for healing where there is infection. We should expect God to show forth His power, yet not to the neglect of spiritual introspection and biblical examination of ourselves. We should pray for the Holy Spirit to show us things we need to see about our communities, our nation, the world, and ourselves. If we do this, we may even see a major revival on the other end of this global crisis.

Think about these five things as you seek to abide in Him during times of social distancing.

PRAYER

Father, remind us that there is a purpose to every season in life. No matter what we face, we can be assured that You are on the throne, sovereign over all things. We trust Your heart, even in our constraints. We seek Your heart for the things that need to break ours. Holy Spirit, revive our prayer life. Confront our idols. Convict us of sin. Lead us to repentance. Bring healing through confession. Give us a healthy ecclesiastical identity and stir our missional creativity for discipleship. Show us our place in this moment, and remind us that we were made for such a time as this. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. What has been the hardest part of your social distancing during the Coronavirus emergency? What has been positive?
  2. Of the five things listed above that are worth remembering, which one most resonates with you in this moment?
  3. Read Nehemiah 1:1-11. What was significant about Jerusalem’s walls of protection being destroyed? How did Nehemiah react to the news about suffering Jerusalem and the exiles? (Nehemiah 1:4)
  4. How did Nehemiah describe God in his prayer (Nehemiah 1:5)? What are the benefits of focusing on the attributes of God?
  5. What is the major theme of Nehemiah’s prayer? On whose behalf did Nehemiah pray and fast? What specific request did Nehemiah ask God to grant him? What can we learn from Nehemiah’s prayer life that may help us during this pandemic?

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“Not a Lowly Worm Anymore”

Text: Romans 8:18-31

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” —Romans 8:18

Cheryl loved butterflies. My wife’s sister combined her butterfly affinity with her longtime passion of photography, capturing some of the most stunning portraits of butterflies in Northeast Ohio. I was browsing her website after Cheryl passed away last week, bringing closure to a seven year battle with cancer. In her “Butterflies and Caterpillars” gallery she gave the subtitle, “Not a lowly worm anymore.”

My sister-in-law loved to be in nature, capturing every moment she could with God’s awesome creation. She knew so much about birds, reptiles, insects, and those fascinating creatures we call butterflies. A caterpillar’s metamorphosis into a beautiful butterfly is one of those awe-inspiring transformations in wildlife. It reaches maturity through a strenuous cycle that includes pupation—a passive meltdown of all but the core cells of the caterpillar’s body. The lowly worm’s struggle in one form must seem like forever… until at last it emerges into a glorious new form altogether.

American novelist Richard Bach said: “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.”

Our tussle is always a matter of perspective. Speaking to early Christians about their struggle with pain and hardship, Paul wrote: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” He spoke of waiting for the “redemption of our bodies” with hope and patience (Romans 8:23-25), that the Holy Spirit helps us in our current weaknesses (Romans 8:26-27), that all things work together for the good of those who love God (Romans 8:28), and that nothing in all this world can separate us from the love of Christ—not tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword, death, “nor things present nor things to come.”

God has promised us the victory and triumph over all things, including the glorious resurrection of our earthly bodies. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26). Paul spoke of a future spiritual metamorphosis when he hailed that one day “this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:53). On that day, we will be no “lowly worms” anymore. The temporary human struggle will give way to the infinite goodness of God as we fly eternally free of pain and suffering like a butterfly arrayed in all its glory.

What is your version of the cocoon this day, beloved? What is your struggle? May you find encouragement in the promise that nothing on this side of the cocoon can even compare to what God has prepared for you on the other side (Romans 8:18). God’s word tells us to wait for it with hope and patience, to trust in His process, to allow the Holy Spirit to help us in our weakness, and to never—ever—forget that nothing in all of this transitory world can ever separate us from the love of Christ. Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

God, the struggle is real. Sometimes it hurts too much to even pray. In those times we can rest assured that even the Holy Spirit makes intercession for us. Thank you for the promises You have given to us. Help us to lean in to those promises each day, especially when the cocoon feels quite dark. Swell our hearts with the confidence that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us later. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. What feels like a cocoon to you in this moment?
  2. When have you found it hard to pray?
  3. What might we learn about God’s love for us when we realize that the Holy Spirit helps us even when we cannot pray?
  4. What does God promise to us that can make any suffering bearable?
  5. In what circumstances of your life do you need to wait patiently for God to act?

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A Wrong Way to Be Right

Text: Numbers 20:2-13

“In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.” — Ephesians 4:26

In our household, especially when there are heated disagreements, we try to recall that there is a wrong way to be right. When conflict or arguments arise, the way we posture ourselves is just as important, if not more important, than the issue we may be defending or the stance we may be taking. We may feel that our position is right, or just, but the way we posture ourselves often puts us in the wrong.

God doesn’t want us to just be right on an issue, He wants us to be right in our posture, our tone, and our expression.

After a long time (nearly 40 years) of aimless wandering in the wilderness, Israel was ready to move on and enter the Promised Land. The camp had been complaining about a lack of water and the people began to quarrel with Moses, their leader. He took the matter to God and the Lord spoke to Moses saying, “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.” (Numbers 20:8)

Moses and Aaron gathered the people saying, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” They had been down this road before and Moses seems to be running out of patience (Exodus 17). Then he lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly.

There was evidently something very severe about Moses’ behavior and the fact that he struck the rock. It was something to which God took exception. Back at Mount Sinai, God told Moses to strike the rock and water came forth (Exodus 17:6). But here at Meribah he was merely instructed to speak to the rock, yet with the rod in his hand. He failed to do what God told him to do.

Moses lectured the “rebels” with a resentful attitude of heart and carelessness of posture that he had not shown before—one of anger and contempt for the people of God. His bitterness was on reckless display. It says in Psalm 106:32-33…

They angered him at the waters of Meribah,
and it went ill with Moses on their account,
for they made his spirit bitter,
and he spoke rashly with his lips.

Though God’s Word describes how the people provoked Moses here, and commentators have given hundreds of explanations for the outcomes, we find not a single excuse for his behavior. It’s been observed that Moses took the rebellion of the people against the Lord too personally and also over-magnified his own partnership with God. His lapse into contempt led him into a lapse of subtle pride. The Lord declared that his actions were rooted in unbelief, and that he failed to “uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel” (Numbers 20:12). The consequences would be severe—“therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.”

It sounds kind of harsh that this episode alone would keep Moses out of the Promised Land, but it did.

The Bible tells us that the anger of man doesn’t produce the righteousness of God (James 1:20). When arguing with a spouse or sibling, deliberating with colleagues in the boardroom or the office, sparring with other believers over important leadership issues in the church, or when debating political issues with those of different viewpoints, we need to remember that there is a wrong way to be right. God expects us to have a posture of humility, gentleness, and respect (1 Peter 2:17, 1 Peter 3:15, Titus 2:7)—one that affirms those issues or principles that are important to us and in keeping with His Word, but also in a way that values those people who may not be in agreement with us.

When you are confronted with relationship issues that ruffle your feathers, remember the importance of upholding God as holy in all manner of conduct and conversation (1 Peter 1:15-16). Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

Heavenly Father, we understand that there is a wrong way to be right. Even if we are right on an issue it doesn’t mean we are right in expression or posture. Forgive us where we have failed you in this regard. Help us to uphold you as holy in every manner of our daily interactions. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. Where have you seen the destructiveness of man’s anger in the world today?
  2. How is God dishonored when we make hasty or emotion-charged decisions?
  3. When have you been right in a wrong way?
  4. What can you take away from this passage in Numbers 20:2-13?
  5. What is a specific action you can take this week to uphold God as holy in your conduct and conversations?

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George Mueller: Faith in God’s Providence

Text: Genesis 24:1-67

“The Lord, before whom I have walked, will send his angel with you and prosper your way.” —Genesis 24:40

What happens when an ordinary person puts all of his or her faith in an extraordinary God? Well, extraordinary things!

The life of George Mueller is a prime example. He has been described as the reformed playboy who became a missionary to the street orphans of 19th century England. The bawdy youngster found himself in prison for stealing when he was 16 years old. After a glorious conversion from a life of sin and selfish ambition, he became a prominent evangelist and philanthropist. He built five large orphan houses and cared for over 10,000 orphans in his lifetime. He provided educational opportunities for them to the point that he was even accused by some of empowering the poor to rise above their accepted status in British life.

Additionally, Mueller established 117 schools that offered Christian education to more than 120,000 young people. He did follow up work for D. L. Moody, preached for Charles Spurgeon, and inspired the missionary faith of Hudson Taylor. Yet perhaps what is most remarkable is the way that he went about his work.

Three weeks after his marriage, he and his wife decided to depend on God alone to supply their needs and to never again approach people about them. Mueller didn’t draw attention to his charity work by asking others to support his life-changing ministry to needy children. Instead he depended solely, and relentlessly, on God’s response to his prayers of faith to supply all things. Rather than petitioning donations from people, he simply took all of those petitions directly to the throne of God—and he saw God provide in the most unorthodox ways.

On one occasion when the housemother of the orphanage informed Mueller that there was no food for them to eat, he asked her to take the 300 children into the dining room and have them sit at the tables. He thanked God for the food and waited, trusting with a confidence that God would provide. Within minutes, a baker knocked on the door. “Mr. Mueller,” he said, “last night I could not sleep. Somehow I knew that you would need bread this morning. I got up and baked three batches for you. I will bring it in.” Soon, there was another knock at the door. It was the milkman. His cart had broken down in front of the orphanage. The milk would spoil by the time the wheel was fixed so he asked Mueller if he could use some free milk. The man of God smiled as the milkman brought in ten large cans of milk. It was just enough for the 300 thirsty children.

Mueller loved to quote Psalm 84:11…

For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
     the Lord bestows favor and honor.
No good thing does he withhold
     from those who walk uprightly.

The Mueller life and legacy has proved to the world the truth of Philippians 4:19-20—“And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.”

George Mueller denied that he had the gift of faith but would point others to the grace of faith, saying that God had given him the mercy in “being able to take God by His word and to rely upon it.”

Abraham (the “father of faith”) is considered the poster child for trusting in the promises and relying on the faithfulness of God. In Genesis 24, he sends out his servant on a long journey to find a wife for his son Isaac, giving Eliezer this bold assertion: “The Lord, before whom I have walked, will send his angel with you and prosper your way” (Genesis 24:40). Not “might” or “could” or “perhaps,” but the Almighty “will” show up. Abraham never doubted that God would lead his servant to the right woman for Isaac. As you read this chapter, try to count the many divine providences that occur—all because Abraham believed.

Mueller once said, “I live in the spirit of prayer. I pray as I walk about, when I lie down and when I rise up. And the answers are always coming.” Your answers are coming, beloved. They are coming because your God is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). The Lord, before whom you have walked, will show up. Trust Him!

PRAYER

God, it is so easy to read about men and women of faith and to think of them as great or gifted people. But the truth is that they were just ordinary people who took you at your word and experienced extraordinary outcomes. They believed your promises, trusted your character, and relied on your faithfulness. Help me to do the same. Teach me to be utterly dependent on you for all things in my life. Grace me with the mercy of faith where it is lacking in my heart. I love you Lord. I trust you to show up and to show up big! In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection and/or Family Discussion:

  1. Where would you like for God to show up big in your life right now?
  2. Why do you think it was so important to Abraham that his son would marry the right woman?
  3. How did God respond to Abraham’s faith and Eliezer’s prayers? (Genesis 24:15-25)
  4. When was the last time God specifically answered one of your prayers?
  5. For what major decisions will you ask God to give you guidance this week? In what way will you demonstrate trust in His provision?

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What Is Your Life Pointing To?

Text: 2 Timothy 2:1-13

“Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” —2 Timothy 2:3

This past week we lost a dear loved one. To those who affectionately knew him and his twisted sense of humor, he was dubbed “God’s Favorite” or “Ambassador of Awesome.”

Jarrod was one of my best friends over the past two decades. Our youth groups shared many life experiences together when we were both youth pastors in south Florida. He and I jointly organized student rallies and youth camps. He was the brainchild behind the legendary Twinkie Relay, which we still run at our camps today. Together we went to pastor conferences, led youth retreats, and served on mission trips. Jarrod was a co-producer with Breakaway TV, which we aired on the Sky Angel network for many years. Though he will be dearly missed this side of heaven, God’s Favorite has gone home!

One of the staples of Jarrod’s life was his signature photo pose. In most instances he would be pointing at something away from the camera—something that caught on with others who always tried to mimic that pose when being photographed with him. You never knew what he was pointing at but you curiously knew that he knew. That imagery reminds me that Jarrod’s life was always pointing at something, or better yet, someone. He was a disciple maker, because disciple making is the essence of modeling a way of life that intriguingly points others to God.

Through a lifetime of heart complications, multiple surgeries, and countless hospital visits, Jarrod never stopped pointing. Every day he lived in such a way that pointed to Jesus.

Everything in our lives is pointing toward something, which inaudibly says something about who we are and what we are living for. When we raise our hands in worship we are pointing. When we witness to others we are pointing. When we are teaching the Bible we are pointing. But never are we pointing so distinctly than when we are enduring hardship like “a good soldier” of Christ (2 Timothy 2:3).

Hardships come in a variety of ways: physical illness, broken relationships, financial stress, temptations, job loss, wayward children, or persecution for one’s faith. Christians should not be caught off guard when hardships come. Jesus warned us, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33); then He gave the triumphant good news: “But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

“I endure everything,” Paul wrote, so that people would know Christ (2 Timothy 2:10). To endure hardship is more than just surviving the pain; enduring is about thriving in grace despite the pain. It means pressing on because everything about you, and everything that happens to you (Philippians 1:12), is pointing to something so much bigger than you. How you respond to hardship in the battle-tested trenches of life points so much more emphatically to Jesus than casual Sunday morning hymns sung while life is on cruise control.

Jarrod used to say to me, “I have no idea what it’s like to have a normal heart. I just can’t even imagine that.” No, Jarrod, I wish we all knew more about your heart. I wish we all could endure suffering the way that you did—to face adversity in the same Spirit that you did.

Jarrod, thank you for teaching us how to point.

You did this in the way you modeled grace-dependence daily. You did it in the way you loved others—especially the marginalized. You did it in the way you never lost the humor—even still playing practical jokes on hospital staff all the way up to the end as your body was breathing its last. You did it in the way you led that nurse to Christ, and your legacy will continue to do it in the lives of those you have impacted.

Everything in our lives is pointing to something. What would others say your life is pointing to? Think about that, beloved, as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

Dear God, life is short. For Jarrod it seemed way too short. The world will be different without him. But he is home with you, running, dancing, jumping, perhaps eating his favorite jelly beans—with the kind of flawless heart that we can only imagine. We take comfort in his life graduation ceremony. And now his legacy lives on in us who knew him. Lord, teach us to point the way he pointed. Help our lives to model Christlikeness in all that we say and do—and especially in how we respond to hardship and suffering. Help us to be grace-dependent creatures every day. For Your glory and fame, in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection and/or Family Discussion:

  1. Would you rather live a long life on earth without being known, or live a very short life and have a rich legacy? (*One of Jarrod’s favorite tools for engaging youth was “Would You Rather…” questions.)
  2. What did Paul encourage Timothy to do with what he had been taught, and why was this important? (2 Timothy 2:2)
  3. Why was Paul willing to endure anything? (2 Timothy 2:10)
  4. In this passage, what example do the soldier, the athlete, and the farmer set for us?
  5. This week ask someone close to you what your life points to. Try to go beyond surface cliché answers and find some specific values, even if the truth is uncomfortable (“faithful are the wounds of a friend” Proverbs 27:6). Ask God to help you reorient your life so that it will point others to know Christ, His power, His salvation, and His sufficiency.

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Thanksgiving Family Devotional

Text: Luke 17:11-19

“Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” —1 Thessalonians 5:18

In her autobiography, Corrie ten Boom described a horrific time she and her sister experienced in a Nazi concentration camp during the early 1940s. On one occasion they were forced to take off their clothes during an inspection. Corrie stood in line feeling defiled and forsaken. Suddenly, she remembered that Jesus had hung naked on the cross. Struck with wonder and worship, Corrie whispered to her sister, “Betsie, they took His clothes too.” Betsie gasped and said, “Oh, Corrie, … and I never thanked Him.”

In Luke 17:11-19, we read a passage that appears to be a simple account of Jesus working a healing miracle. But there is also a contrast with this incident and other miracles that Jesus performed, since the healing itself is not emphasized as much as the reaction to it.

Lepers of ancient society were rejected and treated as outcasts. They were required to live outside the city in leper camps (Numbers 5:2-3) and were to cry out to warn others to keep away from them as they walked the streets (Leviticus 13:45-46). We can’t even begin to imagine their sense of shame and loss of all dignity… humanity. In utter desperation, these ten lepers cry out to Jesus for mercy. “Go and show yourselves to the priests,” he said. As they went they were all healed—all ten of them. Then only one of them—a Samaritan—upon realizing he had been healed, turned back with a loud voice of praise, fell on his face at Jesus’ feet and gave him thanks.

Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”

God’s blessings can be appreciated or underappreciated. One of the signs of a maturing faith is that it continues to react to the wonders of God with praise, thanksgiving, and adoration. As matter of fact, if we ever find that our faith is no longer moved with awe and wonder at the living God then our faith has most likely stagnated. We might be lukewarm, or worse—even backslidden.

It is too easy to slip into cruise control on our spiritual journey; we lose that wide-eyed wonder, take for granted the incessant works of our Lord, and have our hearts become dull. In this state of complacency, God’s works are thought of more in past tense rather than present tense. Yet in Psalm 68:19 we find a worshiper praising God because he understood that God—who daily bears us up—is always working on our behalf. The writer of Hebrews describes Jesus as our High Priest who “always lives to make intercession” for us (Hebrews 7:25).

Cory Asbury’s lyrics attest, “the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God” keeps chasing me down. It’s a relentless pursuit that never ceases. The more I am aware of this unfailing love, the more I am filled with awe-struck wonder—worship. Praise. Thanksgiving.

We can learn much from the reaction of a grateful Samaritan who was healed of his leprosy. Praise comes very naturally when you focus on the living God. And there is no place for mediocrity in a soul that is filled with such praise and thanksgiving. Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

Dear God, thank you for your goodness and for your blessings over our lives. You are the living God who daily bears us up—always working on our behalf, even behind the scenes when we are unaware. Forgive us for not thanking or praising you enough. If it’s been lost, please restore that wide-eyed wonder of WHO you are and what you are doing in us and around us. Renew our spirits that our cup would overflow with joy and praise this Thanksgiving season and throughout the year. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection and/or Family Discussion:

  1. For what are you most thankful?
  2. What are some gratitude killers in the routine of our lives?
  3. In what ways do thankfulness or thanklessness correlate with our faith? What might they reflect about our faith?
  4. Where have you lost some wide-eyed wonder in your worship of Him?
  5. How can you cultivate a heart of praise and thanksgiving this week?

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