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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You Can’t Make a Difference Without Proximity

Text: 2 Kings 4:8-37

“Better is a neighbor who is near than a brother who is far away.” —Proverbs 27:10

In the film Amazing Grace—the true account of William Wilberforce’s campaign to abolish the slave trade—Wilberforce has a way of making the distant reality of slavery troubling to those who are far removed from its deplorability. He leads a group of high society dames and dandies on a pleasant harbor tour, eating and chatting on the deck of an elegant ship. Wilberforce has the vessel guided to a particular spot of the harbor, where the high society crowd begin to wrinkle their noses, then cough and cover their faces at a horrific odor that begins to fill the air. He then announces that what they smell is the stench of death, disease, and unimaginable suffering coming from a slave ship docked nearby.

Wilberforce seemed to understand that the only way he could get people to make a difference was to give them an up-close perspective of the pain—a nearness to the suffering.

In chapter four of 2 Kings, a wealthy Shunammite woman who had shown generous hospitality to the prophet Elisha over the course of his ministry, suddenly faced a personal crisis. Her son, whom Elisha had prophesied would be born, later fell dead. She came to Elisha crying out in bitter distress. Elisha’s initial response was to send his servant, Gehazi, on ahead to lay his staff on the face of the child. But when his efforts returned no results—no sound or sign of life—he returned to meet Elisha and told him: “The child has not awakened.”

Upon coming to the house and seeing the child lying dead on his bed, Elisha went in and shut the door behind the others and prayed to the Lord.

Then he went up and lay on the child, putting his mouth on his mouth, his eyes on his eyes, and his hands on his hands. And as he stretched himself upon him, the flesh of the child became warm. Then he got up again and walked once back and forth in the house, and went up and stretched himself upon him. The child sneezed seven times, and the child opened his eyes. (2 Kings 4:34-35)

This imagery may appear a bit strange, yet I believe it yields a parabolic picture of God’s kingdom servants resuscitating life in a world of widespread suffering. God doesn’t need us, but He certainly chooses to use us. Most of the time, we can’t make a difference from a distance. We can’t help heal the brokenness without proximity to the suffering. It’s not enough to merely send our staff like Elisha did with Gehazi; we have to show up hands on hands, flesh on flesh, and life on life.

Jesus said that His disciples would be the “salt” of the earth. But salt loses its preserving and healing qualities without proximity. If we long to see our neighbors coming to Christ, the lost being found, the broken being healed, hearts and minds transformed by the power of God, and revival sweeping across this land, it will require something of us. That something is called proximity. We have to be in the world, not of it (John 17:15-17). This is at the very heart of the doctrine of the incarnation. Jesus didn’t save the world by keeping His distance—He pitched his earthly tent right in the center of its brokenness.

It’s a fallacy to assume we can be God’s change agents solely by electing officials we believe will uphold our values. Legislation doesn’t change hearts. We can’t expect to resuscitate hope for those numb in despair or to bring truth to those entangled in spiritual/moral confusion by simply posting a few inspirational Tweets, Instagram Bible verses, or Facebook sermonettes from a distance. God wants us life on life with people who are struggling, people who are hurting, and those in need of the Gospel. Where can you flesh out life on life ministry to those in need around you—in the workplace, at school, to your neighbors, with your peers, or to the marginalized and less fortunate in your community?

It’s been said that you can impress people from a distance, but you can’t influence them without getting close. Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

God, thank you for all of those who participated in your kingdom work of helping to resuscitate our lives when we were lost without hope. It’s on those shoulders that we now stand as you call us to be agents of resuscitation for those on their bed of despair—those alienated by others, trapped in injustice, deceived by darkness, imprisoned to ideologies, wounded by humanity, or dead in their own sins. Show us how to live in proximity with those in need—life on life—and teach us how to be your ministers of reconciliation. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. Who have been the agents of resuscitation God has used to revive things in your life?
  2. Whose prayers do you want when you are facing life’s most daunting problems?
  3. What did Elisha do when the child didn’t immediately resuscitate (2 Kings 4:34-35)? What can this imagery teach us about persistence in ministering to others?
  4. If God can perform miracles without us, why do you think He chooses to use our proximity to cultivate life and healing with others?
  5. Where might hope and faith need to be resuscitated in your life right now?

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When Serving God is Loco

Text: Mark 3:1-35

“And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind.’” —Mark 3:21 ESV

I was listening to someone from another part of the world describe what he thought was crazy about the stereotypical American way of life.

“I find it crazy when one’s greatest goal is to work seventy hours a week for thirty-five years to have a nice house and a pension. I find it crazy when you are more concerned about insuring your life on this earth while doing nothing to insure your life for all eternity. Even more so, I find it crazy that you would install gates, alarms, and locks all around you and your family while you open your doors wide to the father of lies, the great destroyer and accuser, Satan.”

I guess “craziness” does seem to be a relative concept.

In Mark 3, Jesus’ closest relatives thought he had gone crazy. He left the prosperous family business to become an itinerant preacher, attracting huge crowds in celebrity-like fashion. He was healing the sick, casting out demons, and butting heads with the religious establishment of his day. On top of that, he picked a motley crew of misfits to be his disciples. The soundness of his judgment was in question. But that didn’t hold him back from fleshing out God’s kingdom to the fullest.

Despite their lack of support early on, Jesus never did forsake his relationship with his earthly family. And though some of his brothers did later come to faith in him (1 Corinthians 9:4–5), he often had to contend with unbelieving family members.

Scripture encourages us that there is safety in the multitude of counsel. It is wise to listen to the people God has put into our lives. But there are also times when obedience to God will cause others to question your sanity—including those closest to you. If you follow Jesus long enough, sooner or later it will require you to get a little loco—something that just doesn’t make sense to anyone else around you. If not, you might not be following him closely but more so from a safe distance.

Abraham was called to get up and go to a distant place “not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8)—without the luxury of Google Maps or GPS. Didn’t sound very responsible. Imagine what Noah’s neighbors thought of his backyard construction project (what a waste of gopher wood!). Joshua’s military strategy to bring down Jericho’s fortified walls involves marching around in circles while shouting loud praises to God (hardly rational). The rich young ruler is challenged to sell all of his possessions and give to the poor. The disciples are told to wait patiently in an upper room for an unseen force to come upon them and empower them with supernatural vigor to evangelize their world with a message of salvation.

Yes, serving God will get loco at times.

It might sound crazy to others that Christ’s disciples would choose to love their enemies or to forgive those who have done them wrong. It might seem insane that they would give up worldly gain for eternal treasures, or appear foolish to invest in the advancement of a kingdom that transcends human institutions. But that’s what serving God requires of us, a life that doesn’t always make sense in the here and now—yet one that will surely be commended later (Hebrews 11:38-39).

I love how Paul describes his loco journey in 2 Corinthians 5:13—“If it seems we are crazy, it is to bring glory to God.” He considered that his zeal and diligence was for the glory of God and the good of the church. How about you beloved, have you found your crazy? What might God be calling you to do that seems irrational to others? Consider that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

Heavenly Father, craziness is a relative concept. It’s encouraging to know that even Jesus was considered crazy by his closest of earthly kin. What might seem crazy to the world is perfectly normal to the DNA of a Christ-follower. Help us to find the path of obedience, even when it doesn’t make sense to ourselves or to those around us. Anything less than full obedience is crazy to a disciple. Keep reminding us of this. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection and/or Family Discussion:

  1. When have you been accused of being crazy for obedience to God?
  2. Why do you think Jesus’ family thought He was “out of his mind”?
  3. How did the teachers of the law try to explain Jesus’ behavior? (Mark 3:22)
  4. In light of this passage, what do we fight against?
  5. What might God be calling you to do that seems irrational to others?

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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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St. Patrick’s Day: Reclaiming Patrick the Missionary

The factual accounts of Patrick, missionary to Ireland, are even more compelling than the folklore. Telling the true story of Patrick offers an inspiring saga of grace, mercy, and world-changing missionary work.

During a time when the beautiful island was shrouded in terrible darkness, Patrick lit a fire in pagan 5th century Ireland, ushering Christianity into the country. Warlords and druids ruled the land. But across the sea in Britain, a teenager was poised to bring this nation to God.

From Slave to Missionary

As a teenager Patrick was kidnapped, taken from his home in southern Britain, and sold into slavery on the island of Ireland. He spent six years tending his master’s flocks on the slopes of a Mountain. Patrick recounts his time as a slave in his memoir entitled The Confession: “I prayed a hundred times in the day and almost as many at night,” he said. It was through those sufferings that he came to know Christ and be identified with Him. He converted to Christianity and earned a reputation as a fervent evangelist.

In the dark of the night Patrick escaped his bonds and traveled 200 miles cross-country to the west coast. He found a ship ready to sail, but was refused passage. After a desperate prayer, he was allowed aboard. Patrick eventually returned to his home and family. His experience of God’s grace and provision solidified his faith. He began to study for the ministry.

God spoke to Patrick in his dreams and told him that he would return to Ireland and serve as a missionary to the people who had kept him in bondage. One night he had a dream. There was a man who came from Ireland with a whole bunch of letters. He opened up one of the letters and it said “The Voice of the Irish.” And then he heard a voice coming out of this letter that said, “Holy boy, please return to us. We need you.”

Patrick struggled in his soul. Could he return to Ireland and minister to the same people who had enslaved him? Once again, he turned to God in prayer and felt compelled to return. He set sail in a small ship as a missionary to Ireland. After Patrick landed at the mouth of the Slaney River and set foot on this shore, it was said: “a new era dawned on this island.”

He did not return with malice in his heart, but as a missionary eager to convert the Irish. Patrick came to face and help his former enemies who had enslaved him. He engaged the chieftains and their druid priests and proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ, serving them and doing them a great favor. He used a shamrock as an object lesson to illustrate the central teaching of the holy trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit).

Patrick served in regions of Ireland where outsiders had never traveled. While roaming through Ireland he preached to pagans and also instructed Christian believers. Patrick trained Irish helpers and ordained native clergy. He was bringing a new way of life to a violent, war-oriented pagan culture. His work was both groundbreaking and Christ-honoring.

In 432 A.D., Patrick built a church on the site of the present day St. Patrick’s Memorial Church in Saul—the first ever Christian church in all of Ireland. It’s considered the cradle of Irish Christianity. Patrick’s ministry lasted 29 years. He baptized over 120,000 Irishmen and planted 300 churches.

Discipleship Comes With a Cost

Rev. Robert Eames said, “I honestly feel that what Patrick taught Ireland was that there is a cost to discipleship, but it’s a cost worth paying. And I believe, to bring this right up to date, the church of St. Patrick must be constantly saying to people, ‘Discipleship demands of you, but it’s a cost that Christ will help you to pay.’”

“Daily I expect to be murdered or betrayed or reduced to slavery if the occasion arises,” Patrick wrote while serving in Ireland. “But I fear nothing, because of the promises of heaven.”

In fifth-century Ireland women were a commodity. Selling a daughter or arranging a politically strategic marriage was common and advantageous to a family. Patrick upset the social order by teaching women they had a choice in Christ. As God converted these women to Christianity, some became full-time servants of Christ in the face of strong family opposition. Patrick told women they could be “virgins for Christ” by remaining chaste. This newfound control was appealing to many women, but it angered many men who believed Patrick was taking away their prized possessions.

At the time many scholars regarded Ireland as the end of the earth, or at least the edge of the inhabitable portion of earth. The collapsing Roman Empire supported many beliefs that civilized society was drawing to a close. Politicians and philosophers viewed Ireland as barbaric and untamable. Many Christians did not believe the Irish were worthy of being saved. At that point in history, Patrick truly served as a pioneering missionary to a forgotten people.

Patrick advocated learning among Christians. He promoted the ascetic life and monasticism. The Irish culture did not place great value on literacy or education. Patrick, however, promoted studying the Scriptures as well as reading books written by fathers of the faith.

Recovering the True Patrick

Patrick entered an Ireland full of paganism and idol worship. But just a few short decades after Patrick arrived, a healthy, Christ-honoring church was thriving. The Irish church was so strong that in the centuries to come it would send missionaries to evangelize much of continental Europe. Patrick’s legacy lives on through the countless spiritual grandchildren he left to continue his work.

Patrick lived in a way that brought honor to God. His devotion and resolute obedience offer examples for all followers of Christ. Patrick stood in the face of great challenges and did not falter. His service, his life, and his unwavering commitment to spreading the gospel of Christ are as commendable today as they were in the fifth century.

Patrick wrote a poem titled “The Breastplate,” in which he wrote:

“Christ be within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ inquired, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.”

We as Christians have allowed the modern, secular customs of St. Patrick’s Day to steal away one of the greatest missionaries in Christian history and reduce his memory to leprechauns, green beer, and fictional tales. Let’s take back our beloved servant of Christ and share God’s glory achieved during the life of Patrick the missionary to Ireland. Let’s share the true legacy of this great Christian evangelist.

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