Will You Be the Tree or the Shrub This Year?

Text: Psalm 1:1-6, Jeremiah 17:5-8

“Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD.” —Jeremiah 17:7

Do you want to experience a “happy” new year? Psalm 1:1-6 makes it very clear what will determine that, by giving us two pictures of contrasting dispositions: The God-abiding person and the self-abiding person. The God-abiding person finds his or her sufficiency in Christ. The self-abiding person trusts only in self. The former trusts God as the source of life while the latter thinks it is in oneself to ultimately dictate life’s outcomes. Though initially they might be standing in the same physical place together (living in the same home, working in the same office, studying in the same class, etc.), the inevitable destinations couldn’t be more polarizing or further apart.

I’ve read that there is a courthouse in Ohio that stands in a unique location. Raindrops that fall on the north side of the building go into Lake Ontario and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, while those falling on the south side go into the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. At precisely the point of the peak of the roof, just a gentle puff of wind can determine the destiny of the raindrops. It will ultimately make a difference of more than 2,000 miles in their final destination.

We all might be starting at the same place on a calendar, but our eventual destinations this year are contingent upon one thing: What, or who, is going to be our sufficiency? Our downstream coordinates will be revealed markedly on December 31, 2020. The fruit of our lives doesn’t lie.

In Psalm 1:1, we read, “Blessed is the man” whose “delight is in the law of the Lord.” The Hebrew word esher is here translated “blessed,” which has the idea of happiness or contentment. Esher is a form of the Hebrew word ashar, which in its root means “to be straight” or “to be right”; therefore, “blessed is the man” speaks of the happiness, the blessedness, and the contentment in the life of the man or woman who is right or “straight” with God. This person finds his or her delight in the “law of the Lord”—hungering for the word of God in their daily lives.

The words of Jesus remind us that, “man doesn’t live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). The person abiding in God’s word is like the image of the tree in Psalm 1, which nevertheless thrives even in a dry climate because of its constant water supply. It flourishes even in times of crisis. This tree bears fruit, not for itself, but for others. When the faithful prospers, it is never for self, alone, but succeeds in bringing benefit and blessing to others.

In a similar image in Jeremiah 17:8, this tree doesn’t fear when heat comes or become anxious in the year of drought, “for its leaves remain green… it does not cease to bear fruit.” In contrast, Jeremiah likens the self-abiding person as a cursed “shrub,” who “shall not see any good.” He will be alone and without resources when disaster comes. The contrast is in high definition color—one is green and flourishing, while the other is brown and withering.

What will be your disposition in 2020—the God-abiding life, or the self-abiding life?

PRAYER

Lord, your word is clear that the God-abiding person and the self-abiding person have two very distinctly different outcomes. I want my sufficiency to be found in You alone. Reveal areas of my life where self tries to assert its own way. Help me, by the presence of the Holy Spirit, to crucify the flesh and all of its desires, that I might live and flourish in the Spirit of Christ in this new year. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. In Psalm 1:1-6, how are the “righteous” and the “wicked” different?
  2. What does a God-abiding person do a lot? How does the psalm writer connect delight and meditation?
  3. What does the image of the tree tell us about the God-abiding person?
  4. What differences are implied by the references to “tree” and “chaff”? In what ways might a God-abiding person be rewarded? (Psalm 1:3-5)
  5. What will you do this week to have a God-abiding disposition rather than a self-abiding one?

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Advent Devotions (Week 4): Love and a Prostitute

Text: Hosea 14:1-9

“Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up.” —Hosea 6:1 ESV

On the last Sunday of Advent, we reflect on scriptures from the Old and New Testaments about God’s love for us. God’s love undergirds the whole story of the Bible: creation, fall, redemption, and the ongoing process of restoration.

Hosea is an Old Testament love story—just not the kind of romance you might be familiar with. Essentially, God told the prophet Hosea to pursue and marry a prostitute (“wife of whoredom”), and then go and take her back again after she proved to be unfaithful in marriage. The same Hebrew term indicating illicit sexual behavior in this passage (Hosea 1:2) is the one Moses uses in Genesis 38:24 to refer to Tamar’s posing as a shrine prostitute in order to entice Judah. Hosea’s wife, Gomer, bears this label, as she becomes a woman characterized by sexual infidelity.

Gomer’s adulteress ways are prophetic symbolism of a people who have committed “great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” This is the first of a series of expressions in Hosea where God puts himself in the place of a forsaken human lover.

In this story, Israel had become a “luxuriant vine that yields its fruit.” The more God’s chosen people prospered, the more their altars were defiled. Their heart was “false” (Hosea 10:1-2). Instead of shepherding the people, their priests had plunged into full-fledged idolatry (10:5). Their worship had become vain words and empty oaths. They had forgotten their God (Hosea 13:6). God said, “The more they were called, the more they went away” (11:2), and “My people are bent on turning away from me” (11:7). The coldness of their spiritual apathy and the callousness of their infidelity were necessitating judgment. “I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs,” the Lord pronounced (13:8). Soon after Hosea prophesied, Israel was ravaged, destroyed, and carried off to Assyria (2 Kings 18:9–12). But this was not to be the end for God’s people in the land, as a return is promised (Hosea 3:5), which was fulfilled when exiled Judah returned from Babylonian captivity.

Hosea culminates with a plea for unfaithful Israel to abandon its idols and return to the Lord. “Break up your fallow ground, for it is the time to seek the Lord, that he may come and rain righteousness upon you” (Hosea 10:12, 14:1-2). God assures them that He is greater than their idols, and He is greater than their failures. His love overshadows their infidelity. His compassion breaks through the darkness of sin and shame, exposing their guilt while promising them a restored future—“They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow” (Hosea 14:7).

It’s ironic that such a depiction of adultery and infidelity ends up contrasting the greatest love story ever known to man—“This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). This love has chased after you throughout your entire life, even in your most unlovable moments and most deplorable seasons. This love took the punishment of your sins so that you can be free.

Advent is a time to recognize that the Lord Jesus Christ is coming to rescue us from all of our personal idols. He intends to shatter our altars of hedonism and self-indulgence. He wants to free us from our spiritual apathy and lukewarmness. He wants to break up the fallow ground of our hearts and annihilate our narcissism. No matter how unfaithful you have been—the depth of your shame, or the guilt you bear—God is rewriting your story. It’s a story about His redemptive love, and a story so much bigger than your failures. As He pursues you and reminds you that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross has obliterated your sin and paid your ransom in full, make room for His love this Christmas. Let Jesus liberate you from every infidelity and every idol—every trapping of the world that promises fulfillment while delivering vanity. Make room for your heart to be recaptured by the passion of your first love.

Are you making room for Jesus this Christmas? Think about that as you seek to abide in His love this week.

PRAYER

Dear Lord, my life would look so different apart from your love. Thank you for the advent of your love. This week, help me to reflect more intentionally over how my life has benefitted from of your love and to consider how I can be more practical in sharing that love with others. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. What qualities do you cherish about the person who loves you most?
  2. How is God’s faithfulness to us an example of the way we should treat others?
  3. What are the “idols” in your life from which you should turn away?
  4. What loyalties, things, or relationships do you need to hand over to God?
  5. How can you show love and acceptance to someone in your network of relationships who might be in desperate need of forgiveness or affirmation?

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Advent Devotions (Week 3): Joy and Rejoicing

Text: Luke 1:26-56

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” —Philippians 4:4

The third week of Advent is Joy. Of course, joy and happiness are two different things. Happiness is an emotion that is contingent upon pleasant and conditional circumstances—it is fickle and can be fleeting; joy is the fruit of activating your faith in any given circumstance—good or bad. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit that can be sustained through any and all circumstances when our faith is resting in the Almighty.

The mystery of joy is that we can experience it even in seasons of pain, loss, or fear. This year has been an exceedingly challenging year for our family. We’ve dealt with unique spiritual battles, physical illnesses, and the tragic loss of Cindy’s sister to cancer. We have found that grief doesn’t have to be the absence of joy. Joy can be sustained despite the throes of sorrow and pain, because we know that God has a redemptive plan for our troubles (2 Corinthians 4:17). We grieve over the loss of our dear loved one, but we rejoice in the fact that death has been swallowed up in victory—a cancer-stricken mortal body was overtaken by an immortal and indestructible body (1 Corinthians 15:42-57). The Almighty has conquered the grave and in that we rejoice!

Joy is celebrating when you want to fear and doubt. It’s activating your faith when you want to run and hide. Imagine being in Mary’s shoes that very first Christmas with all those unknowns. You are an unwed teenage girl—a virgin still—and yet it’s been proclaimed by an angel that you are with child. She had so much to fear: the supernatural mysteries of her pregnancy, the implications of giving birth to the son of God, the scandalizing of her name, the potential rejection of her fiancée, the ridicule of her family. But what’s the first thing the angel says in this divine encounter? “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”

Don’t miss the etymology of the word “Greetings.” It’s not just code for a casual hello. The Greek verb is chairō and it means “to be cheerful, to be well, to bid farewell or God speed, to hail, or to rejoice.” Gabriel is speaking (declaring) joy into Mary’s circumstances, letting her know that she doesn’t have to serve her fears, but she can trust the Almighty to take care of her; it’s overwhelming in the moment but everything is going to be okay. Joy is the fruit of rejoicing. Rejoicing is not an emotion or feeling; it’s a deliberate act of the will declaring its trust in God’s promises and assurances. It’s what Paul was doing from a prison cell and admonishing us to do in every circumstance (Philippians 4:4-8, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

Mary gets it. She tunes her heart to worship and sings a powerful song of praise in the middle of all her fears, uncertainties, and feelings of aloneness. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” she sings. It’s a declaration of faith in the One Whose grip will not let her go. Her chorus has at least twelve allusions to Old Testament promises, implying that Mary was well versed in the Scriptures. God’s Word was on her heart and it came out through her song.

During this time of advent, we are reminded that circumstances don’t have to dictate our joy. To rejoice is to abide in Him regardless of our circumstances. We can trust that God is going to come through because He has given us His Word and His faithful résumé. He’s never failed you (Psalm 37:25). As my old friend used to say, “He’s brought you through the ocean, He won’t let you drown in the bathtub.”

We have a choice when it comes to rejoicing. We can choose to focus on all the worries that consume us, or we can choose to focus on the faithfulness of Christ that ultimately consumes all of those fears. We can rejoice in all circumstances! Begin to do that this week by speaking (declaring) joy over your given circumstances, like the angel did with Mary. Do that by tuning your heart to worship God, like Mary did, singing about His faithfulness throughout every generation. This Christmas, may the real joy of Christ overtake you as you choose to abide in His unfailing love and unwavering promises.

PRAYER

Father in heaven, thank you for the gift of your son, Jesus, who came to be the Savior for everyone who trusts in him. Fill our hearts with fresh wonder of what that first Christmas means for us today. Help us to rejoice in all that Jesus has done to save us, and help us to share the great joy of this good news with others you put in our path. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. Why do you think some people have a heightened sense of joy around Christmas time? (family, festivities, gifts, parties, etc.)
  2. If you had the skill and opportunity, how would you tell the world about a life-changing experience: write a song, publish a book, make a documentary, produce a movie, etc.? Why?
  3. What kind of attitude was apparent in Mary’s response to the angel’s visit and what did Mary’s final statement to Gabriel show about her relationship with God? (Luke 1:38)
  4. What attributes of God are extolled in the first part of Mary’s song? (Luke 1:46-49) How did Mary describe herself in her song? (1:47-48) In what ways can you develop the kind of humble spirit that Mary had?
  5. What correlation does God’s Word factor into our ability to rejoice? In what practical ways can you choose to rejoice this week, regardless of your circumstances? (write out Bible verses on memory cards, have a specific worship playlist, write in your journal, have conversations with others, have each family member share one thing they are trusting God to handle, )

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Advent Devotions (Week 2): Peace and Shalom

Text: Isaiah 9:1-7, Luke 2:1-20

“You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.” —Isaiah 26:3

Christmas is a celebration of God’s faithfulness to His promises—namely the promise of a coming Messiah whose kingdom reign would change everything. Yes, everything! Yet our celebration is often overshadowed by the hustle and bustle of the season and the stress of making everything perfect. Though we sing songs about peace, we often spend the holiday season frantic, frazzled, and devoid of it.

As sure as anything else, God wants you to experience peace this Christmas. He doesn’t want you as panicky as a long-tailed kitty cat in a room full of rocking chairs. The key to living in that peace comes down to the aspect of your focus.

The Hebrew word for peace is shalom. This word occurs over 250 times in the Old Testament. Over the centuries, religious scholars have spilled barrels of ink reflecting on its association and complex meaning. Though our common western definition of peace is something akin to “the absence of conflict or war,” in Hebrew it means so much more. “Shalom” is taken from the root word shalam, which means, “to be safe in mind, body, or estate.” It speaks of completeness, fullness, or a type of wholeness that encourages you to live generously toward others. This is the biblical concept of peace that God promised His people in the looming days before that very first advent of Jesus Christ.

Throughout the Old Testament, God unfolds his redemptive plan for re-establishing His shalom on earth. Through the line of Abraham, God tells His people that they will bless all of humanity. He made “a covenant of peace” with them (Ezekiel 34:24-25) and promised to restore all things by sending a Savior through this lineage. This promised Messiah would be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). This was prophesied about Jesus more than 700 years before his birth.

When we read the Christmas story of Christ’s birth in Luke 2, we find a great multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:10-14). Christ appeared to usher in a new era of peace with God, and peace with others. Our sins had separated us from our God (Isaiah 59:2), but when Jesus died in our place on Calvary’s cross, he took the punishment those sins deserved (2 Corinthians 5:18-19)—affording us a forever shalom and an eternal peace with God (Romans 5:1).

Christ, the divine embodiment of Shalom, is the only thing that can bring this world true and lasting peace. The Bible says, “Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end” (Isaiah 9:7). I think by now we can all agree that human governments and man’s institutions are desperately inadequate to bring about real peace and reconciliation. We need divine help! Scripture tells us that only His peace can break down the walls of enmity and human divide created by our own dogmas, religions, politics, and racial or ethnic differences (Ephesians 2:15–16). God’s kingdom reign ushers in peace that passes understanding (Philippians 4:7). He wants you to live under the government of that peace.

To do that, take refuge in the words of Jesus: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). Focus your eyes and fix your heart on God’s promise: “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you” (Isaiah 26:3). Speak peace (shalom) into the lives of others, even over strangers during your Christmas shopping. I like to do this by praying the Aaronic blessing over people (Numbers 6:22–27), or quietly uttering the word “shalom” as I pass by someone. Be an active agent of peace, working with the Holy Spirit in restoring God’s shalom on earth (Matthew 5:9)—we never flesh out this principle more than when we are actively engaged in making peace with those whom we have had past offenses or conflict.

Let’s live in God’s peace, and extend that shalom to others all around us as we actively abide in Him this Christmas season.

PRAYER

Our prayer this advent week is an echo of a shalom-filled petition made by St. Francis of Assisi:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is injury, pardon; Where there is doubt, faith; Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; and Where there is sadness, joy… Divine Master; Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. If you could sleep out under the stars anywhere in the world, where would you put down your pillow?
  2. What message did the angel tell the shepherds? (Luke 2:10, 12) How do you think God might translate that message directly toward your circumstances, fears, or worries today?
  3. What does it mean that Mary “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart”? What is required to transfer head knowledge about peace into real life experiences with peace?
  4. What is the responsibility of those who “discover” the good news about Jesus and his embodiment of peace?
  5. Where do you need to shift your focus so that you can live in the fullness of God’s shalom this Christmas season?

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Advent Devotions (Week 1): Faith and Expectancy

Text: Psalm 52:1-9, Isaiah 52:7-10

“I will thank you forever, because you have done it. I will wait for your name, for it is good, in the presence of the godly.” —Psalm 52-9

It was Christmas Eve, 1981. I was restless with the excitement of what I might find wrapped under the Christmas tree in the morning. The popular NFL Electric Football game had been on my Christmas wish list since, like spring. I had been holding out hope for many months, anticipating getting my hands on those little plastic football players and setting them up on the metal vibrating gridiron. I couldn’t sleep as that expectancy was already vibrating in my little 10-year old imagination.

We live in a time of the instant fix. Whether it’s instant downloads, immediate text responses, or that microwaved dinner on demand, we’ve grown addicted to getting what we want—or need—at the moment we desire it. Yet God has His ways of reminding us that He won’t be manipulated to suit our demands. No matter how addicted to instant fixes we get, there are still things that we must learn to wait for in patience and hope for in faith.

Waiting is the embodiment of faith—a faith that must learn to trust God’s character, His intentions, and His timing.

Hebrews 11:13 tells us that faith involves trusting God’s promises even if they are fulfilled long after we’re gone. The writer says, “These all died in faith without having received the promises, but they saw them from a distance…”

Advent is about faith in God’s divine goodness, expectancy in His redemptive plan, and patience in waiting for His promises to unfold in His timing. The 400 years leading up to the birth of Jesus have been referred to as the “Silent Years,” because it appears that it was a span when God revealed nothing new to His people. Then suddenly the Messiah was born! The story of Christ’s birth gives us assurance and joy because even though the waiting lingered for decades, God broke through at just the right time.

Consider your relationship with God in this moment. Are you struggling in a season of silence?

Psalm 52 is written during such a season. It is set to the backdrop of David’s flight from Saul (1 Samuel 21:1–7), which led to the slaughter at Nob of the priests who had helped David (1 Samuel 22:9–19). The situation looks dauntingly bleak. But David looks beyond his dire circumstances to the unswerving character of God. His faith imbues confidence that God will “uproot” the wicked and establish the faithful, whom he describes as a “green olive tree” (an image of vitality and fruitfulness, cf. Jeremiah 11:16; Hosea 14:6; cf. Psalm 92:12–14 for a palm tree in God’s courts). He concludes that the faithful trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever (52:8). The prospect that God will vindicate His name by protecting those who trust in Him enables David to wait in hope.

Friend, no matter how silent the season or bleak the circumstances may be—health complications, unemployment, financial hardship, loss of purpose, broken relationships, the sting of betrayal—God has never changed and He will show up. His character can be trusted. His intentions can be trusted. His timing can be trusted. He will establish the faithful and He will vindicate His own name in the story of your life. Trust Him!

As believers, we live with the anticipation that God will flex His strength in every situation, and that “all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God” (Isaiah 52:10). Break forth in singing… for the Lord has comforted His people!

PRAYER

God, I can get impatient with life. I can get snippy about having to wait. Teach me the virtue of waiting with patience. Show me how to trust You even in seasons of silence. Remind me that everything is temporary, including my momentary afflictions. Help me to trust in Your eternal redemption of all things, and to be assured that Your timing is always perfect. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. When have you had to wait for something you eagerly anticipated?
  2. Why do you think waiting can be a vital component of our faith?
  3. What expectations do you have of life after death? How does a person’s beliefs about life after death impact the way he or she chooses to live?
  4. What vow did David make to the Lord in the conclusion of the psalm? (Psalm 52:9)
  5. What kind of faith resolve to you need to make right now?

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Reclaiming Thanksgiving

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” —1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Years ago, our family was invited to celebrate Thanksgiving at the home of a couple we didn’t know too well, but were casual acquaintances. It was a break from how we traditionally spend Thanksgiving in our own home. The meal was rushed through while football on the big screen became the main event that absorbed all the attention. Before we even got through the dessert, the hosts had newspaper ads spilled out all over the floor as they feverishly combed through them for Black Friday deals.

That experience, coupled with the increasing consumer madness we are seeing in our society around this time of year clearly indicates that the true meaning of Thanksgiving has been hijacked in our culture. The spirit of humble gratitude surely needs to be reclaimed in this generation, and perhaps in some of our homes.

Thanksgiving for the Christian is more than just another holiday and there’s no better time to set a precedence of gratitude toward God than during this special season. Writer Kristi Winkler suggests some ways to celebrate Thanksgiving from a biblical perspective. Here are some of those ideas:

Set aside time to describe the importance of thanksgiving as laid out in scripture

In I Thessalonians we are commanded “in everything give thanks”—in everything! It’s a requirement, but also a privilege and it shifts our focus from our problems to His great grace! In another passage, we are told to present all of our requests to God with a heart of thanksgiving (Philippians 4:6). Part of the discipline involved in being thankful is to realize the goodness of God and his everlasting love toward us (Psalm 107:1); that every good and perfect gift comes from God (James 1:17); and when thankfulness is combined with prayer and supplication it is a cure for anxiety and conduit of peace (Philippians 4:6).

Share the “Thanksgiving Story”

From the first feast of thanks with the pilgrims and Indians to the sordid trail of retail pressures in selecting the current date for Thanksgiving Day, the entire journey is of significance and is all worth mentioning. From thankfulness to greed we come full circle. The curse of sin will always taint even the best of intentions as long as we’re here on earth, as it has even on this holiday originally set aside to declare and celebrate thankfulness to God. Thanksgiving is a chance to identify true gratitude and separate it from the materialistic and secular bend that seeks to divert gratitude and devotion from God to idols. And just as God can redeem the time, he can redeem this day, starting with us.

Serve from the abundance

The passage found in 2 Corinthians 9:6-15 is an encouragement to be generous out of the many blessings we have received. There are numerous practical ways to share from the abundance, not “reluctantly or under compulsion” but with joy! Try reaching out to the less fortunate on Thanksgiving. Serve at a soup kitchen, a retirement home, or a children’s hospital—seek out the needs of any neighbor experiencing hardship.

Thanksgiving offering to a family in need

This is a little redundant considering the previously mentioned “serve from abundance” category but I wanted to expound. Organize an outreach that involves recognizing the blessing we ALL experience and reaching out to those who are currently struggling with unemployment, unplanned emergency bills and other hardships. In general, organize a program for families to select another family to bless with food supplies, thanksgiving dinner, clothes, and toys or even help with unexpected expenses.

Host a small group potluck of thanks

This is a great opportunity for the members of your small group to revitalize one another’s faith with testimonies to the goodness of God in their lives. Encourage each guest to come ready with a specific thing that God has done to share with the group.

Wall of Thanks

Clear out an entire wall for posting words of thanks throughout the Thanksgiving season. In the church or in the home, clearing out some wall space for “family” members to contribute thoughts, show gratitude and express thanks in writing and illustration is the perfect outlet for cultivating a culture of thanksgiving as well as a place to reflect on some good news, for a change.

“I am thankful” projects for kids

Don’t forget the little guys and gals this season. A spirit of gratitude should be taught and instilled in the hearts of children from an early age. Whether it is a poster, jar, pocket or folder, create a place for children to add the things they are thankful for throughout this Thanksgiving season; something creative that they can share with family and friends on Thanksgiving Day and something that they can rehearse throughout the year.

I hope these ideas are helpful to you and your family as you seek to abide in Him during this festive season of giving thanks and living from a heart of gratitude. If you are looking for discussion questions for your Thanksgiving gathering, here are twenty good questions for thought provoking conversations.

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Just Keep Reading

Text: Joshua 1:1-9

“This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night…” —Joshua 1:8

One time I was flying with a foreign airline and I was reading the panel on the seat in front of me—you know, the one with all those safety instructions that we seldom take the time to read. I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out the meaning of the first line as it was written in an unfamiliar language. What seemed like a millennia later, I gave up trying to decipher the words and continued to read the next two lines. By the time I got to the third line it was written in English! I wrestled so long with that first line that I didn’t realize I just had to keep reading and the interpretation was already there in my native tongue.

I’ve been reading through the Bible every year for close to thirty years now. One of the things I have learned over time is that the Bible is the best interpreter of itself. Oftentimes we may be wrestling with a passage of scripture and we get stuck on trying to figure out its definitive meaning, when God has the revelation for us only as we keep on reading. He tells us in Proverbs 2:3-5…

Indeed, if you call out for insight
and cry aloud for understanding,
and if you look for it as for silver
and search for it as for hidden treasure,
then you will understand the fear of the Lord
and find the knowledge of God.

Some of the most outspoken critics of the Bible, and those who say it contradicts itself, are the ones who fail to keep reading. They fail to take in the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) and fall short of realizing the context of what they are reading. That’s why one of the greatest things we can do in making disciples is to teach people the discipline of becoming self-feeders (not just waiting for sermon delivery on Sundays!).

I love how the Bible describes those early Berean worshipers as having “more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11). That’s a picture of self-feeders for you. They didn’t just wait for the professional scholar to give them the interpretation; they studied the word for themselves to see if Paul’s teaching was true. Perhaps those folks over in Thessalonica were being spoon-fed sermons while those Bereans were cutting up the meat for themselves and chewing on it as they searched the Scriptures daily (just a thought).

Wisdom, knowledge, and understanding come from searching God’s Word like a hidden treasure. That’s why we should have a daily Bible reading plan. God promised Joshua that He would be with him everywhere he would go. But He also promised the young leader that the key to being faithful and fruitful was directly correlated to Joshua’s abiding in the Word. This was God’s command:

“Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” —Joshua 1:6-9

God made it clear to Joshua: “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips” (NIV).

If you keep reading and meditating on scripture, revelation is inevitable. God will make things clear to you as you seek Him out with diligence (Jeremiah 33:3). Of course you will never be able to discern all of the mysteries of the Godhead (for then you would be God!), but you will surely find clarity into instructions for living a life that is pleasing to God (1 Timothy 3:16). He has promised to equip you and to prosper you as you abide in His Word.

Maybe you have drifted away from a daily meditation of the Bible. It’s time to get back on that horse. There is a treasure waiting for you in those pages.

PRAYER

God, we understand that the Bible isn’t just words on a page. Hebrews 4 tells us Your word is alive and active, sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow. Proverbs 3 tells us that biblical wisdom bestows favor and well-being, brings peace and prosperity, and can even prolong our lives. What a treasure! Holy Spirit, teach us how to abide in Your Word daily as did Joshua. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. When have you missed something that later seemed so obvious?
  2. What events in your past remind you of God’s faithfulness and help you to trust Him today?
  3. What specific steps did the Lord instruct Joshua to take in order to be successful? (Joshua 1:7)
  4. What did God say meditation on the Book of the Law would accomplish? (verse 8)
  5. Do you have a daily Bible reading plan? If not, you can find one here.

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Staying Faithful to God in Lonely Times

Text: Jeremiah 15:10-21

“Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O LORD, God of hosts.” —Jeremiah 15:16

In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo protests to Gandalf saying, “I am not made for perilous quests. I wish I had never seen the Ring! Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?” Gandalf replies, “Such questions cannot be answered. You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess; not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.”

Like Frodo, the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah was required to walk a lonely road in his calling. It’s been said that “loneliness” is a feeling of separation, isolation, or distance in human relations. It implies emotional pain, an empty feeling, and a yearning to feel understood and accepted by someone. In this sense, Jeremiah could be considered the poster child for loneliness.

Jeremiah belonged to a priestly family, which had long been ousted from the religious and royal establishment. He was called at birth to serve as a prophet during the most tragic era of his nation’s history. He began his prophetic ministry at about 17-years of age. He grieved with great inner turmoil over his people succumbing to idolatry and dwelling in a false sense of security due to a culture of lying prophets and deceptive pastors (Jeremiah 23). On top of being ridiculed throughout his public ministry, he was forbidden of the Lord to take a wife and have children (Jeremiah 16:2).

Prophesying from the thirteenth year of Josiah’s reign (627 b.c.) until shortly after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 b.c., Jeremiah’s 40-year ministry was marked by opponents’ attempts to silence him by means of arrests, trials, beatings, imprisonments, and even assassination plots (e.g., Jeremiah 26:10–19; 36:26; 37:11–38:6). Throughout the book, this “weeping prophet” lamented to God, questioned his calling at times, and even begged the Lord to bring down fiery judgment on his opposition (e.g., Jeremiah 11:19–20; 20:10–12). Jeremiah witnessed the destruction of his own town. Undoubtedly, he saw the flames that engulfed the walls of Jerusalem’s temple and demolished his homeland, as Nebuchadnezzar swept his people into exile.

There is nothing romantic about Jeremiah’s story—not from the world’s perspective, or even a “ministry success” model by today’s ecclesiastical standards.

As a ministry leader, Jeremiah never amassed scores of followers. He didn’t see souls repenting and lives being restored as a result of his preaching. He didn’t build a state of the art worship facility, fill it up with droves, and preach fluffy “feel good” sermons every week. The Lord called him to stand at the gate of a stubbornly idolatrous empire, confronting the countless false prophets of his day (Jeremiah 7:2, 17:19, 23:9-40, 27-29). Was Jeremiah successful? Certainly not in terms of ministry metrics used by pundits in our generation. Definitely not in terms of what many view as the “American Dream.”

Yet, Jeremiah inspires us with his faithfulness. In spite of all that he suffered, this “prophet of loneliness” never quit. His resolve to be obedient to his calling is both convicting and challenging. Jeremiah’s single pursuit in life was to listen to what God said about knowing Him (Jeremiah 9:24; cf. Philippians 3:10; John 17:3) and to act upon it, period. Not allusions about success. Not masquerades about having it all together. Not status or achievement, awards or popularity, admiration or following, just simple faithfulness and obedience to the one true God. He found strength in God’s Word and being reminded that he was “called” by the Maker of this universe (Jeremiah 15:16).

Instead of gushing over what success looks like, what if we spent more time thinking about what faithfulness looks like? Rather than focusing on all that is making us feel lonely, what if we focused more on the Faithful One, who said, “I will never leave you or forsake you”? Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

I am not what I make; I am who you have made me to be
I am not what I’ve done; I am loved unconditionally
I am not loved by the measure of love that I bring
I am not who I know; I am known by the king of all kings

Jesus, you are enough
Jesus, you are enough for me
With nothing; I still have everything
Jesus, you are enough for me

—“Enough” by Elias Dummer

PRAYER

God, like Jeremiah, you have formed each of us in the womb and given us a specific calling in life. You know the plans you have for us, and You are familiar with all the trappings in the world that make us feel lonely. You also know how to fill us up with Your presence to counter that loneliness. Teach us what it looks like to walk in faithfulness with You each day. It is in knowing you and being in fellowship with You that we find that You are truly enough. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. What is the biggest lie you have ever believed for a period of time?
  2. How was Jeremiah treated because of the message he brought from God, and what promise did God make to him? (Jeremiah 15:10-11)
  3. What did God assure Jeremiah even as He asked him to take an unpopular course? (Jeremiah 15:20-21)
  4. Why do false prophets often receive more honor from their audience than faithful prophets?
  5. How can you prepare yourself to discern the lying words of people who falsely claim to represent the truth? What steps could you take to prepare yourself to deliver or defend God’s Word, regardless of how it is received?

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When God Opens His Hand

Text: Psalm 104:1-35

“When you open your hand, they are filled with good things.” —Psalm 104:28

I have a cat that always knows when something good is in my hand. In those times she sits quietly and patiently at my feet, waiting for that moment of delight when I extend that goodness to her. The end result is a steady purr of satisfaction.

In Psalm 104, the writer is “purring” over the works of God as he meditates on the goodness of all His creation. The worshiper is entranced by the notion of the Creator being “clothed with splendor and majesty.” The heavens exist because He has stretched them out like an interior designer hanging a curtain to form an aesthetic charm (v.2). The imagery here is a God full of activity, excitement, and thrills. The clouds are His chariots and the wings of the wind are His roller coaster. God enjoys His creation! As Old Testament scholar Derek Kidner noted, “The metaphor of his taking up its parts and powers as his robe, tent, palace and chariot invites us to see the world as something he delights in, which is charged with his energy and alive with his presence.”

The worshiper considers the earth and its immovable foundations—how the mountains and the valleys have all been carved with divine fingerprints, and their boundaries have been set to His liking. When the psalmist ponders how the thirst of wild animals is quenched, how the trees are watered abundantly, how the moon marks the seasons, how the sun knows its time for setting, and how man’s sustenance comes directly from the hand of God—“wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart”—he is left with a sense of amazement and the compelling conclusion that all the earth is “satisfied with the fruit” of God’s enterprise (Psalm 104:11-24). Nothing in all of creation is alive or sustained apart from the manifold works of God (v.24). He declares…

“These all look to you, to give them their food in due season. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.” (Psalm 104:27–28)

The verb rendered “gather” means to pick up or collect from the ground. It is used in the history of the manna (Exodus 16:1 , 5 , 16 ), to which there is obvious allusion. The act of gathering from the ground seems to presuppose a previous throwing down from heaven. As Charles Spurgeon explained, “When we see the chickens picking up the corn which the housewife scatters from her lap we have an apt illustration of the manner in which the Lord supplies the needs of all living things—he gives and they gather.”

The psalmist’s meditation of God’s glory in all of earth’s activity fueled in him a spirit of worship—“May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works… I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being” (vv. 31-33).

Has the goodness and sustenance of God over all things in your life caused you to purr lately? Has your meditation been pleasing to Him? Think about that as you seek to abide in a Spirit of worship this week.

PRAYER

God, we don’t always recognize your activity in the things around us. Help us to be more sensitive to this activity with the Holy Spirit as our guide. Remind us that we have nothing apart from your goodness and provision in our lives. Everything has come from your hand of mercy. We sing our praise to you, for your works are awesome! In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. What is the most beautiful scene or landscape in your memory?
  2. What did the psalm writer see as the purpose of creation (Psalm 104:1-35)? In what ways does all of living creation depend on God?
  3. What conclusion did the psalm writer draw from observing and thinking about God’s creation? How does our treatment of nature reflect our beliefs about God?
  4. In what ways may you have recently been insensitive or even calloused to God’s activity in and around you?
  5. How does this psalm inspire you to praise God? How would you define worship, and what should that look like in your day-to-day activities?

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Are You Ready to Die Today?

Text: 1 Peter 4:1-19

“Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God.” —1 Peter 4:1-2

I recently watched a documentary about the underground church movement in Iran, which reportedly has the world’s “fastest-growing church,” while owning no property, having no buildings or central leadership, being led predominantly by women, and facing intense risks of being imprisoned or killed for their faith.

Though the church is growing rapidly, members of the Iranian underground movement explain their goal is not planting churches but rather making disciples. “However, with church growth comes persecution,” said a ministry leader. “Iranian Muslims who become Christian face arbitrary arrest and detention. Most of the arrested individuals are coerced to divulge information about their house-church activities and those of their friends, under the threat of criminal persecution, or arrest of family members.”

It’s often hard for Christians in the West to relate to this because most of us have such comfortable church services to attend and have scarcely had our livelihood threatened as a result of being part of a faith community. Yet, persecution has been one of the central attributions to the growth of Christianity throughout church history.

In Acts 8, “there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” Emphasis added that it was the church “scattered,” not exclusively “gathered” that became the catalyst God used to spread the Gospel like wildfire over the next few chapters of Acts—as well as the exponential growth seen in the first few centuries of the church.

Something that has always gripped me about studying the Bible and church history is the nature in which believers expected suffering and willingly laid down their lives for a mission so much bigger than themselves. Christ had died on the cross and there was no higher honor than to imitate that death through accepting martyrdom (witness by one’s blood). Peter’s words were real to those worshipers—“Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God.”

Jesus communicated the same idea when He said that anyone who would come after Him must take up his cross and follow (Matthew 16:24). Taking up the cross meant that you were absolutely committed to a sacrificial way of living with no turning back. Persecution comes from forces external—beyond your control. But taking up your cross comes from internal resolve—the daily mentality of dying to self and living for Christ (1 Corinthians 15:31, Galatians 2:20). Both involve a death to self. Peter tells his readers to “arm yourselves with the same way of thinking.”

When a person experiences persecution or suffering for the sake of Jesus, it profoundly changes their view of sin and the pursuit of the lusts of the flesh. As the song goes, the things of this world grow strangely dim and the gravitational pull of the kingdom causes that person to live the rest of their lives “no longer for human passions but for the will of God.” Peter goes on to expound how this way of living—dying to self—positions us to live as aliens bringing glory to God in a hostile world. We are to be self-controlled, sober-minded, loving one another earnestly, showing hospitality to one another without grumbling, and serving one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace. I don’t know anyone who does these things well without dying to self routinely.

Oswald Chambers wrote, “If I am going to decide for the Spirit, I will crucify the flesh; God cannot do it. I must do it myself. To ‘crucify’ means to put to death, not counteract, not sit on, not whitewash, but kill… If I do not put to death the things in me which are not of God, they will put to death the things that are of God.”

No longer living for this world, but solely for the will of God is the aim. God shouldn’t need us to face persecution to come to that place of dying to self and laying our lives on the altar of His kingdom call. The fact that Jesus took up His cross for us and commanded us to take up our cross for Him should be sufficient. Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

God, most of us have faced very little persecution in our geographical context of the world. Nonetheless, we should arm ourselves with the same way of thinking as Jesus and those who have suffered in highly persecuted places—to no longer live for this world but for Your will. Teach us to do that daily. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. Imagine that the world is going to end in 24 hours and you have been granted one wish for anything you want. What would you wish for? Why?
  2. What did Peter say about the person who has suffered (1 Peter 4:1-2)? What benefit can there be in suffering?
  3. What did Peter encourage his readers to do above all? (1 Peter 4:8-10)
  4. What goal did Peter want his audience to reach with all they did? (1 Peter 4:11)
  5. So that you can live more fully for the will of God, what human desires with which you continue to struggle will you ask God to help you overcome?

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