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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Resilience: Facing Your New Reality

Text: James 1:1-18

“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” —James 1:12

“Resilience is accepting your new reality,” said Elizabeth Edwards. “Even if it’s less good than the one you had before. You can fight it, you can do nothing but scream about what you’ve lost, or you can accept that and try to put together something that’s good.”

I thought much about the spirit of resilience as we ministered to folks in our community who were affected by tornadoes that struck down in Cleveland on Easter Sunday, shredding dozens of homes. As our team served those in an area thrashed by the storm, we saw many faces of resilience, including a man who survived with a broken pelvis, though his mobile home was ripped apart, and a woman in her nineties who came out unscathed despite having her roof impaled.

My heart was touched when an elderly woman picked two bright red flowers from a bush in her debris-riddled yard, to give to my wife and daughter. It was as if she had nothing else in this world to offer, but a few blossoming spring flowers that had survived the storm, and just wanted to bless someone. This is the face of resilience—looking around at what is left, and being determined to bless someone with what remains, no matter how little it may seem.

Resilience is in our DNA as created beings. We are built to weather storms. The virtue of being able to adapt to stressful life changes and “bounce back” from hardship is essential to our growth and progress. The Bible gives us many admonitions about pressing on in adversity (Philippians 3:13–15), overcoming hardship and temptation (Romans 12:21), and persevering in the face of trials (James 1:12). It also gives us countless examples of people who suffered greatly yet continued to pursue God’s plan for their lives. Proverbs 24:16 could be considered a motto for the resilient: “Though the righteous fall seven times, they rise again, but the wicked stumble when calamity strikes.”

In the ancient story of Job (held by scholars to be the oldest book in the Bible), we see a man who demonstrated great resilience in the face of tragedy, inexplicable loss, and incredible agony of soul and body. After losing everything, Job refused to curse the Lord or give up: “In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing” (Job 1:22). Later, when his suffering intensified, Job’s wife counseled him to “curse God and die!” (Job 2:9), but Job never folded. I can imagine him picking some of those budding spring flowers in East Cleveland, holding them upward and declaring, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand in this place.” This man has become the poster child for perseverance throughout the ages.

Perhaps you find yourself in the center of a new reality right now, needing to adapt and adjust to what has pummeled your life. Resiliency is in your DNA. Embrace it. Let the words of Psalm 37:23–24 be your encouragement today: “The Lord makes firm the steps of the one who delights in him; though he may stumble, he will not fall, for the Lord upholds him with his hand.”

Resilience is ours because of the Hand that upholds us. Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

Father, change can be difficult, especially when it is accompanied by loss or defeat. You never promised us a life immune to hardship, but You have promised to uphold us that we will not stumble and fall when tornado-like trials come. Teach us the virtue of trusting Your heart. Holy Spirit, help us to live out our days with an anticipation of the redemption that is sure to come. We bless You with our worship and praise, in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. Why would you agree or disagree with the statement, “Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you respond to what happens to you”?
  2. What attitude did James tell people to exhibit when they are facing trials? (James 1:2)
  3. What is produced when our faith is tested, and what is God’s response when we ask for wisdom? (James 1:3-5)
  4. What good has ever come out of a difficult situation in your life? How does a person’s relationship with God change as he or she goes through trials and problems?
  5. In what specific areas do you need to ask God for His wisdom or resilience this week?

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How To Survive Pandemic, Pressure

Text: 2 Corinthians 4:1-18

“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” —2 Corinthians 4:16

At the time, the Thresher was the fastest and quietest nuclear submarine ever built. She also had the most advanced weapons system to date. But in one tragic event in 1963, Thresher sank during deep-diving tests, killing all 129 crew and shipyard personnel aboard. Once the doomed sub had finally been located, they found it broken into six pieces. Though the cause has been hard to decipher, ultimately it appears the Thresher collapsed because they were at a depth where the pressure on the outside became greater than the pressure on the inside.

The Covid-19 crisis has rocked our world in ways unprecedented to this generation. The pandemic has had an ongoing affect on physical and mental wellness, the economy, family life, schooling, jobs, and for many, the ability to pay bills. As we plunge further and further into the depths of a post-Coronavirus world, the pressure on the outside can become greater than the pressure on the inside. When suddenly all of those things we’ve been hanging on to are no longer able to withstand the stress, it can sink us. It can collapse our sense of hope.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians has some powerful words for those who feel on the verge of sinking. It’s a message that is surely relevant to the times in which we are living:

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair… Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”

What was the great secret to Paul’s triumphant hope in the face of such crushing, overwhelming pressure? The most evident thing we see is that he didn’t focus on the exterior circumstances as much as his interior health. When the human spirit is continually being renewed inwardly, it can withstand all the negative forces that beat against us outwardly. That’s why it is important to keep our focus on what truly matters. For Paul, this meant keeping a perspective on what was eternal over what was temporal. His afflictions impelled him to keep that perspective.

Paul knew the power and victory of Jesus in his life because he was continually in situations where only the power and victory of Jesus could meet his need. You might be in that place right now. Sometimes losing our sense of control can get us to that place, where Christ becomes our all-sufficiency in real-time, not just theological belief. We do well to consider that everything Paul said about suffering, he said as a man who very likely suffered more than we ever will. This was not theory to Paul but real life experience. When he writes about “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus,” it seems he believes the death of Jesus was not only historical fact, but truly working in him an effect of dying to self.

What an amazing paradox—where loss leads to gain, death fosters life, suffering produces hope, trials forge strength, and the loss of control leads to more of God’s peace. Truth is, there are some aspects of God’s sanctifying grace that we will only experience through trials, suffering, the diminishment of our comforts, and by coming to the end of ourselves. It’s certainly not cozy getting there, but what a peace we find at that place of surrender.

The pressure on the outside couldn’t overwhelm what was on the inside of Paul, because he constantly lived in a state of Christ-sufficiency. If the pressure of our times has revealed how very much you need the saving and sanctifying sufficiency of Christ, you are in a very good place to get an eternal perspective over the temporal. Think about that as you seek to abide in him this week.

PRAYER

Father, remind us that greater is He that is in us than anything we will ever face in this world. When we feel overwhelmed by the pressures of what’s happening in real-time, may we find that Your grace is sufficient in every way. Lead us to that place of surrender—that place where the will has been broken, and we come to the end of ourselves. Let us not be overcome by the pressures of this world. Holy Spirit, fill our hearts with peace as we abide in the promises of Scripture. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. For what reasons do you most often get discouraged? How would you define faith?
  2. What areas of life are difficult to entrust completely to God?
  3. Why did Paul tell the Corinthians not to lose heart? (2 Corinthians 4:1) How did Paul contrast his own weakness with God’s power? (4:8-9) What value did Paul see in his sufferings? (4:10-12)
  4. What elements of the Christian faith that we cannot see are central to our life with Christ? What does it mean for us to renew our faith? What makes it difficult for us to fix our attention and hope on God?
  5. When have you felt inner peace in spite of trying circumstances? What do you want to remember the next time you feel discouraged?

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Hope Is Rising

Text: Malachi 4:1-5, Luke 24:1-35

But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.” —Malachi 4:2

Imagine trying to help out the sun by lighting a candle on a sunny day. What a futile intent that would be! It would be as effective as trying to “improve” the work of salvation Jesus wrought for us by adding to it with our own works of righteousness. There is absolutely nothing we can do to “better” God’s grace, improve His redemptive plan, or enhance His divine timing for deliverance.

Perhaps in the age of Coronavirus we need to consider that it’s not more candles we need; OUR ONLY HOPE IS THE RISING OF THE SON. We are not in control. We are being forced to accept this, and learn—or relearn—to trust the heart of the One Who is in control.

In the fourth chapter of Malachi, we find the last few prophetic words of the Old Testament before God’s oracular voice becomes silent for some 400 years. Malachi warned Israel to hold fast to God’s law, to know that a day of reckoning was looming for evildoers, and a new hope would be rising for those who fear God’s name. They were exhorted to look with expectancy toward a covenant renewal in which “the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.” From the time of early Christians like Justin Martyr to today, Christians have regarded the Sun of Righteousness as a Messianic reference to Jesus.

We never need to despair when God seems silent, because what He has already pronounced is invigorating enough—if we will only remember… if we only pull back the curtain.

Malachi’s generation needed to remember that it wasn’t a matter of “if” the Sun of Righteousness would come, but “when” He appeared, all things would be made new. It’s what God does! He brings healing in His wings. Restoration. Deliverance. Renewal.

On this particularly unique Easter Sunday, when churches across our land are empty due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s vital that we remember that the tomb is also empty. That image should stimulate your worship. The Sun of Righteousness is alive indeed! That empty tomb still proclaims that hell has been defeated, sins have been forgiven, shame has lost its grip on you, condemnation has been evicted, and redemption is your new song.

Maybe instead of trying to figure out how to light more candles in this pandemic in which we find ourselves, we just need to pull back the curtain on what has already dawned and let hope arise. Many of the disciples didn’t recognize Jesus when He appeared to them after the resurrection (Luke 24:16, 37; John 20:14; 21:4). I find that intriguing being that these were those closest and most intimate with Him during His tenure on earth. Whether it was due to doubt and unbelief, or simply Jesus appearing to them in a new way, they initially struggled to accept that HOPE was alive. It is encouraging to me that even the most faithful of Christ’s followers wrestled with apprehension. But the curtain was inevitably pulled back and the Sun of Righteousness brought healing in their lives.

Where might you need to simply put down the candle of control and just open up the drapes to what God has already dawned? Pulling back those blinds will radiate light on our most gripping fears, our darkest sin, and our stubborn pride. Hope is rising? Will you go out to meet it?

If you are unsure about your relationship with God, go here to find peace.

PRAYER

Father, You are good, and You are perfect. There is nothing errant about your agenda, your ways, or your timing. The errors are within us. We struggle to understand. We struggle to believe. We struggle to do right. We struggle to remain faithful. We struggle to surrender. Holy Spirit, our Counselor, help us to come to the end of ourselves and all of our striving for control, to pull back those drapes and let the Sun of Righteousness illuminate our lives with hope, peace, and renewal. Bring us into holy and humble submission, we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. In your opinion, what is the most significant event in history?
  2. Read Luke 24:13-35. How had the events of the last few days crushed the expectations of the two men talking with Jesus (v.21)? Why did Jesus explain the Scriptures to the men (vv.25-27)? What did the men recall after they reflected on their conversation with Jesus (v.32)?
  3. How do life’s trials tend to change our expectations of the Christian life?
  4. When have you been guilty of unbelief? What great truths has God taught you that you failed to understand at first?
  5. What might it look like for you to pull back the curtain today and let the “Sun of Righteousness” shed light on our doubts, fears, and apprehensions?

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When God Goes Before Us

Text: Deuteronomy 9:1-29

“Know therefore today that he who goes over before you as a consuming fire is the Lord your God.” —Deuteronomy 9:3

For those of us living in the U.S., authorities say that the next couple of weeks will be the most critical regarding the Covid-19 pandemic. This will be our “peak” moments of confrontation with this invisible Coronavirus giant, when it’s expected to hit closest to home for many of us. As we deliberate this grim forecast, may I reassure you of ONE UNCHANGEABLE TRUTH…

The Lord has already gone before us. He abides in the future. He is not just aware of the days ahead; these coming days are in the palm of His hand. He’s already there. God exists in that place of our deepest dread—that place causing us the greatest fear. That place called tomorrow.

In Deuteronomy 9, the destiny of God’s people was about to bring them face to face with enormous giants they had never seen before. Their future would consist of reputed adversaries, “great and tall,” of intimidating stature. They were the sons of Anakim, “whom you know, and of whom you have heard it said, ‘Who can stand before the sons of Anak?’” They were paralyzing God’s people with gripping fear—a terror that made them feel so vulnerable that they thought of themselves as “grasshoppers” (Numbers 13:33) doomed for defeat. Moses challenged the people’s fears over and over again (Deuteronomy 2-3), reassuring them of God’s supremacy over the battle for their future. Then he gives them this charge:

“Know therefore today that he who goes over before you as a consuming fire is the Lord your God. He will destroy them [these giants] and subdue them before you. So you shall drive them out and make them perish quickly, as the Lord has promised you.” —Deuteronomy 9:3

Do you see the Lord as a “consuming fire” going over before you? Do you believe that the winds, the waves, and even viruses still know His name? The battle mentioned in Deuteronomy was much too big for God’s people, but not too big for the LORD. They were admonished by two mutually inclusive facts: That in themselves, the battle was impossible (without Me you can do nothing, John 15:5), but with God the battle could not be lost (I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, Philippians 4:13).

Rightly preparing ourselves for two weeks of “hell on earth” (as some have described it) isn’t about stockpiling and hoarding as much as we are able—trying to be in control of our own fate. We can have more goods than all of our neighbors combined and still be “plagued” with anxiety, worry, and fear, leading to heart disease. Being rightly prepared is about being poised to face our giants with audacious trust in the ONE SUPREME GOD Who has already gone before us. The problem with ancient Israel is that they feared not being in control. Instead of trusting God with what they couldn’t control, they built a Golden Calf to give them a sense of their own security—thus worshiping a god they had control over. True worship is about giving over our “illusion” of control to the One Who is truly in control. It’s about trusting the hand that holds tomorrow. Corrie ten Boom, who survived a Nazi prison camp during World War II, said:

“Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”

Do you trust Him, beloved? That’s what He is after. Without faith, it is impossible to please Him (Hebrews 11:6). When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth (Luke 18:8)? God is looking for hearts that trust Him.

As we move into a closer engagement with this invisible giant that has gripped our world with torment, I pray that you would be sustained by the unrivaled peace of God’s presence in your heart, as well as the confidence that His presence is already there in your future. He is bigger than this invisible giant! May you abide in that assurance this week. May you abide IN HIM.

PRAYER

Lord, like a consuming fire you go before us. Our future is one of promise because You are already there. Help us to see our giants in proportion to WHO YOU are, not the other way around. Holy Spirit, rest our hearts in Thee. Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven, especially in that place of our deepest dread and greatest fear. May you find us faithfully worshiping in our most fearful moments, because we trust in Thee. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. How strong were the nations Israel was going to fight against and how does the Bible describe these enemies? (Deuteronomy 9:1-2)
  2. In what way would the Lord go over before His people (9:3)? What is significant about this description or imagery?
  3. What was Israel told not to say to itself (9:4)? What does Moses say about Israel’s rebellion against God (9:7)? In what way did the Israelites try to control their own fate (9:16)?
  4. What might “golden calf” building look like in our modern world? What might it look like in our individual lives?
  5. What does this passage teach us about the grace of God? What areas of your life might you need to surrender an “illusion” of control over to the One Who holds the future?

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Coronavirus: “The Bitterest Part”

Text: John 11:1-44

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.’” —John 11:25

In Italy, thousands of families have been devastated by Coronavirus. When infected patients are hospitalized, their loved ones cannot visit them due to the contagion. Multitudes have perished in seclusion without family members by their bedside. Proper funerals are not possible during the pandemic lockdown, as the deceased are piled up in coffins and quietly taken away. As well, grieving family members are left to mourn in isolation without the typical closure of a funeral accompanied by the support of other loved ones. “This is the bitterest part,” said one Italian.  

In John 11, Martha and Mary are having a bitterly grievous moment, devastated by the loss of their dear brother, Lazarus. “Lord, if you had been here, he would not have died,” they both cried (John 11:21, 32). To make matters worse, when Jesus heard that Lazarus was sick, he delayed two days before coming to Bethany. His lack of urgency might’ve mystified the disciples and the distressed sisters.

Have you ever felt this way? Lord, why did you delay in coming to our aid? If you had only showed up, this wouldn’t have happened? Why didn’t you get here in time?

When Jesus finally arrived, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled, asking, “Where have you laid him?” Then we have the shortest Bible verse ever recorded: “Jesus wept.” In this moment Jesus hurts like we hurt. He grieves like we grieve. He suffers and mourns as we do. He steps into our pain, identifying with us that “the bitterest part” of our earthly journey is the human loss of our dearest loved ones. I’m so comforted that we have this moment in the Bible—Jesus pausing to grieve. He takes time to feel the pain. It shows that HE understands our suffering (Hebrews 4:15).

I’m also comforted in the fact that there is more to this story. Jesus has shown the disciples that he feels their pain, their loss, and their bitterness. Now he is about to show them that this chapter of agony is not the final chapter in life. As Paul Harvey used to say, “You know what the news is—in a minute, you’re going to hear the rest of the story.” Martha and Mary are overwhelmed by bad news, but they are only moments away from being overcome by the good news.

Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” He told the disciples to take away the gravestone. Then he prayed to the Father, and commanded Lazarus to “come out” in a loud voice. “The man who had died came out,” the Bible roars. The next chapter begins with Lazarus sitting at a table with Jesus doing dinner church! (John 12:1-2)

What a glorious picture of the resurrection. We are just a few weeks away from Easter, a time when the church celebrates the resurrection life of our Lord and Savior. It’s a time when we proclaim over all of our present pain, loss, tears, and suffering that a better day is coming. Jesus didn’t just preach about resurrection and life, He dramatically hailed, “I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE.” He promised that whoever believes in him, though he die, yet shall he live.

Whenever we find ourselves in a chapter of sorrow and anguish, may we be reminded that there is still another chapter to come. One day we will sit at the King’s table during the marriage supper of the Lamb and we will have “church” like never before. Our ashes will be turned into beauty. Our weeping will be turned into laughter. Our grief will be turned into dancing—one day, beloved, one day. Let that resonate with your soul as you seek to abide in Him this week.

I have posted an audio message on my website from Francesca, our Breakaway Outreach Italia representative, about her EASTER HOPE. It’s a short voice message that I believe will inspire your faith in these days. LISTEN TO IT BELOW. If want to know the peace that comes with knowing Christ as Lord, go here.

PRAYER

Lord, sometimes it feels like you don’t understand our urgency. But we need to remember that our timing is not your timing, and your delays are not denials. There are things in our world and sufferings in our lives that we can’t understand in this moment. We may have the news, but it isn’t the whole story. We patiently wait for that day when our Redeemer will appear, redeeming everything that is lost and restoring everything that is broken. Help us to trust you in these times. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. What is one of your greatest disappointments in life? When has God given you comfort in the middle of a sad time of life?
  2. What did Martha say to Jesus about His having come after Lazarus had died? (John 11:21-22) What did Jesus tell Martha that Lazarus would do? (John 11:23) 
  3. How did Martha misunderstand Jesus? (11:24) What did Martha and the others learn about Jesus’ identity? (11:25)
  4. What did Jesus say would happen to those who believed in Him? (11:26) How should that shape our faith in this present time?
  5. What attitude of disappointment do you need to confess to God and change to trust in His sovereign control? How can you be a comfort to a struggling or hurting believer this week?

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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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