Return, Restore, Revive

Today we take a look at yet another day of importance in September, after looking at 9/11, Rosh Hashanah, and most recently International Day of Peace on Monday, as we are in the middle of the Global Week of Student Prayer which is centered around See You At The Pole which happens today. As we know, school and life looks much different this month than it did a year ago, with the global pandemic that we’re all being affected by. So while we can’t hold hands this year, we can still gather together and pray for our students, teachers, schools and education systems, because prayer is something that can be done by yourself, with a small group or with a larger group spread out across the nation.

This year’s theme is “return, restore, revive,” based on 2 Kings 23:25 “Josiah…turned in total and repentant obedience to God.” (MSG). It’s an interesting theme to choose for this year because so much of this year has led to an incredible need to restore and revive, in ways that go beyond the spiritual revival that’s going to remain necessary until Jesus comes back again.

I was reading a daily newsletter I subscribe to the other day and the lady was sharing about a dream/nightmare she had about being pants-less and some of her high school colleagues were in it. It amazes me how many of our dreams/nightmares return us to high school and those apparently formative years. Most of us aren’t having nightmares about being pants-less at work or having Christmas-and-Easter cousins/relatives showing up in our dreams, we’re having dreams about being pants-less in high school.

The question I got to thinking about as I thought about these two topics is what if we were able to make high school less of a scary or scarring place and more of a place where we were truly nurtured and had some of the best years of our lives? What if it truly did set us up for success mentally, educationally and physically (especially with so many people questioning college with all the changes we’re seeing this year)? What if it wasn’t something we had to heal from (and would pop up in a negative way throughout the rest of our lives)? What if it wasn’t something that God had to bring us through and restore us from, but instead we could build from?

I know, teenagers can be difficult and can cause a lot of pain in the lives of the people around them, but what if fewer young people had to become that defensive and offensive because we created a healthier high school experience for them? What if they were the ones to lead a return and restoration of the world to God because we prayed for and helped them find healing and purpose in life? What if instead of the “classic high school experience” we gave them an experience that was memorable and positively impacted their future regardless of what they chose to do going forward?

Of course those are thoughts and dreams, and for this year we can all just step up to pray that this year’s students will gain knowledge and experience that will benefit them in their future, and that God has more opportunities than ever to reveal Himself to them and help them become the person He created them to be.

Shaping Peace Together

One of my favorite sports is football because of the number of people it takes to make even one play successful. It’s such an important reminder, especially in this year that we’re navigating through, that we are part of a team, we do need the other players on the team to help us with things we’re not capable of doing including help our lives run smoother, and we have a responsibility to contribute too. Today on International Day of Peace the UN is using the theme of “Shaping Peace Together,” encouraging and reminding us that it’s only together that we’ll be able to achieve a level of peace that empowers us to make the world a better place, one where we’re not constantly trying to rebuild.

Can you imagine if we had been in the middle of a war when the virus started to take over our world? It’s been difficult enough to be working through the many racial injustices and natural disasters we’ve faced this year, I can’t imagine if our nation or other nations were also sending men and women into war or that there were families in danger zones. I suppose it’s a small thing to be be thankful for this year in a year where there have been so many challenges.

Looking at the Bible one of the things that has always stood out to me is the huge variety of people that God taps to contribute. He uses big players, small players, people who aren’t known by name by most even if the story they’re part of is well known, people whose very small actions played a role in the lives of some of God’s bigger players, and of course tons of teamwork (even if the players don’t see it as teamwork).

Mark 16:15b says “Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone.” One of the big topics that the New Testament tackles is that Jesus blew open the door on who was welcome into the Kingdom of Heaven. Historically it was known to be only Jews, but in the New Testament it was revealed several times and in several ways that God wants to save everyone who is willing to be saved. Yes, sometimes people like Billy Graham and Mother Teresa come along and do the work of bringing the gospel to tons of people, but more often than not, the gospel is spread person-to-person, just like peace is spread.

Yes, you can absolutely make a statement that you want everyone to choose peace and even make a law or rule about it. But it’s only when the individuals of a town, county, state, nation or world choose to step up that peace is truly possible. So on this day meant to encourage peace, how can you help peace spread further and be a reality to more people?

Blessings Required

Everyone is given a name when they’re born. A person’s name is typically one of the few things that doesn’t change in life. Yes, some people are known by a nickname or shortened version of their given name, and some people choose to legally change their name, but the large majority of people are born and die with one name. If you’ve ever been around a parent-to-be, you probably have witnessed the work that most people put into naming their children, which in many ways is fascinating because you have no idea what that baby will be like or what name will really be a good representation of them. Which is why many parents give their child a name that they hope they will live up to, or a name that they think will stand strong for the child through all their stages of life.

The Bible has several interesting name related stories, including in the New Testament with Jesus’ relative John the Baptist who was given that name by a temporarily mute father and mother following instructions by God Himself (see Luke 1 for the story), and Jesus also renames Peter as part of his apostle journey. Of course there are a couple of name stories in the book of Genesis including Adam and Eve, and Abram/Abraham and Sarai/Sarah, but one of the most interesting is Jacob’s story.

Jacob, a twin, does some things he shouldn’t do and so he ran away from home for a season, and as he was returning back many years later with wives and children in tow, has an evening wrestling match with a man who he learns is God. It’s a unique story among the many unique stories that the Bible shares and Jacob actually has several of those unique stories. But this one is different because it is a human interaction with God and God says some special things about Jacob at the end of the encounter:

“”You can’t go until you bless me,” Jacob replied. Then the man asked, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. The man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob. You have wrestled with God and with men, and you have won. That’s why your name will be Israel.”” Genesis 32:26b-28 (CEV)

Jacob has fought really hard for where he is in life at this point and has made some big mistakes too. It’s not necessarily a unique story, it’s one that many of us can identify with, but Jacob has fought for enough in his life that he isn’t willing to just call it a tie and let God go, so he asks for a blessing. God has an interesting way of giving a blessing, and it’s actually a three-fold blessing. First, you’ve got the wrestling match in the first place, which God used as a way to see where Jacob was and if he was really willing to fight for his life. Second, you’ve got the blessing of being named by God. And finally, you’ve got the blessing of God’s compliment and recognition for Jacob having wrestled with both God and man and won.

I’m not big on winners and losers, I don’t think that every situation calls for people to end up in first place (or last place), but I am big on victories, and I think that that’s what this is all about. God is making sure that Jacob is up to the challenge He has for him, the purpose He’s put him there for, and Jacob proves that even though he’s made some mistakes in the past, this time he’s ready to step up. What about you? Are you ready to take up the challenge that God puts in your life? Are you ready to overcome the mistakes you’ve made in the past? Are you ready for forgiveness and a fresh start? Maybe today is exactly the right time for you to step up and into that victory.

Living Wholeheartedly

We have a lot going on in our lives, and that was before 2020 showed up with the pile of not-so-awesome presents it’s delivered so far and could have hiding for us in the last 4 months of this year. It has been an opportunity for us to explore what’s truly important to us and how resilient we are as a world, to consider simplifying our lives both in responsibilities and possessions, to reconsider the path we’re on, to appreciate the little things, and to get back out in nature. It’s been an opportunity for the Church to grow into the online world and share about Jesus digitally instead of just in person.

We also got a lesson in giving our full attention to something. The entire world shut down over this virus for weeks on end, many places for months, and some places more than once. Small medical centers were sharing their resources with hospitals and businesses were producing whole product lines that they never normally produce to support the efforts. We cleaned our homes and hands as never before. Some of us prayed harder than we ever have. Many people lost someone in a way they never expected to long before their expected time. All of this brought completely new perspectives about life and living to light.

In recent weeks I’ve been working my way through the book of Jeremiah. Most people are familiar with Jeremiah 29:11, but I think we forget that there are another 20 some verses after that verse, kind of like we forgot how easily germs can spread and how invisible they really are. I don’t know what the rest of 2020 holds, but maybe we need to check in on more than just our cleaning and education practices before the year ends. Maybe we need to spend some of the time that we’re feeling especially at odds and ends this year pursuing God more and truly investing ourselves in our spiritual growth and health.

I brought up Jeremiah 29 because one of those verses after verse 11 spoke to me this week. Jeremiah 29:13 says: “If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me.” If you feel like you’re missing something in your life, that something isn’t as it should be, maybe it’s because you’re not pursuing it wholeheartedly. Maybe you’re not giving it the amount of your attention that you should be giving it. Maybe you and God haven’t worked through what needs to be addressed before you can get to that part of your journey. Maybe what’s missing in your life is taking time each day to wholeheartedly pursue God and discover what He loves about you, His plans for your life, and what He’s trying to show you in this world that you’ve missed out on. What are you wholeheartedly pursuing?

Sacrifices and Gifts

This year has been an exercise in sacrifice for many of us. Some of us have put our lives on the line to try to help heal others, some of us have put our lives and energies out in great excess to keep essential services running, some of us have sacrificed what should be big milestones in our lives, some of us have sacrificed reliable income, some of us have lost what could have been many more years with family members had they not gotten sick. Sometimes sacrifice is necessary to get what you want next, for example the sacrifices that are involved with selling and moving from your current residence to a new, bigger/better one, or the sacrifices involved in starting up the business you’ve always wanted, or the sacrifices you make to have and raise kids and not just support you and your partner. But other times there isn’t much reward on the other end, it’s just something you have to do for the greater good.

Of course, that doesn’t take into account what God can do outside of or separate from the sacrifices that you’re making, or what can happen when you see the work as something other than painful and difficult. Luke 6:38 says: “Give, and you will receive. Your gift will return to you in full—pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, running over, and poured into your lap. The amount you give will determine the amount you get back.”

While the year is far from over and there are several hurdles to get through for most of us, I don’t see why we can’t think and pray positively and ask God to bless and return in abundance the sacrifices (that we’re now going to look at as gifts) that we’ve given over the past 8 months. Do take note though that in this verse in Luke 6 it talks about how much activity may surround the returning of the gift, so be open to the blessings God sends your way to be wrapped in some unusual wrappings or that they may take a little work to uncover and incorporate all of the goodness.

We can all count up the challenges of this year, so what have been some gifts that you’ve received?

Facing Challenges with God’s Love

We’ve talked a lot this year about how challenged we’ve been and how we’re relying on God for so much. It certainly has been a year unlike any that most of us have experienced. Every year comes with challenges, just like every life comes with challenges, and some years have more challenges in them than others. Sometimes God gives us challenges because they help us become stronger and wiser and more prepared to be the leader He has called us to be. Other times we experience challenges based on the choices we make in life. And sometimes, challenges are just part and parcel of the human experience.

We know that God goes with us through all the challenges we face, because He’s awesome like that and doesn’t leave us alone to fend for ourselves. Even if He’s not ready to provide answers or get us out of situations, He doesn’t leave us alone to work through them. Can you imagine being God and having to go through all those challenges with each of us? I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be when time and again we’re making the same mistakes or getting ourselves into the same challenges that He’s helped us through before. And then you add to that the pain and hurt of people who walk away from God, for however long or brief a time, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed at how much God manages on a regular basis all the while supporting and encouraging and doing miracles. And yet, He continues to be the God of love:

“God’s love is an extravagant love and God has an infinite amount of it to give. Hear God’s reassurance: I love you. I have plenty for everyone and I will give you the provision you need.” Br. Jim Woodrum

“O Lord, you are so good, so ready to forgive, so full of unfailing love for all who ask for your help.” Psalm 86:5

“The Lord is compassionate and merciful, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.” Psalm 103:8

If God is able to love through all that we put Him through, surely each of us can find a little more love, patience, compassion and kindness to share with the world too. God doesn’t expect us to be Him, but He does hope that we learn from His example and from the experiences that we have, so that maybe the next time our tempers flash or we face a challenge, we’re able to handle it even just a little better.

Starting with a Commitment

As I’ve been thinking about how we can learn from this whole experience of 2020 and the experiences that people have had in the past, of course one individual that came to mind was Job, who experienced some spectacular challenges and experienced more loss in a short time than most of us do in a lifetime. I’ve lately been reading through the book of Jeremiah, and he was given some less-than-awesome tasks to do as part of getting the word out about God and getting people to take an honest look at their lives. But one of the verses that came to my inbox today was about the individual and story of Ruth. I’ve shared about her before many times during our spiritual posts, but she’s a worthy figure to look at for our victory post today as well.

If you haven’t read her story lately or ever, you can go do that here, it’s just 4 chapters long. But the short version is that the story starts with a famine in the land, Ruth gets married, doesn’t have any kids before her husband dies, she chooses to go with her mother-in-law back to where her mother-in-law is from (and she herself knows no one), does hard work at a farm type place, gets sent on a rather risky blind date of sorts, ends up married to the guy and has kids (she’s part of the genealogy of Jesus), and they all live happily ever after.

It’s a lot like the story that many of us are facing with losing our family members unexpectedly to the virus, facing unprecedented job loss and industry closures, and facing illnesses that we’ve never dealt with before. There have been some positives throughout the year, but most of them happened because we were able to work through or overcome the challenges we were experiencing. Some of us have discovered through this year’s challenges exactly how capable we really are, some of us have been extremely challenged by the loss of control and normalcy and have struggled to even keep up with the basics of life, and others of us have been able to rely on the strong foundation of hope, support, community, and commitment that we’ve made over the years both to others and to ourselves.

The commitment we make to ourselves and to others can often be the key that helps victories happen. Most victories aren’t the smooth, straightforward journey we would like them to be, rather they’re full of twists, turns, failures, delays and confusion. I don’t know anyone who would really like to live the challenges that Ruth, Job or Jeremiah experienced. No one chooses to lose family members they love or face what seem like insurmountable losses. But Job chose to be committed and faithful to himself and God, and Ruth committed to God and her mother-in-law and herself. It’s those commitments that gave them the courage and strength to make some really tough choices and push through the bad stuff to get to the good stuff.

I encourage you to choose to commit to yourself, as well as those in your life that matter most to you like God and some/all of your family/friends. It may be the difference maker that helps you get to your victories this week, or at least helps you get a strong step or two closer.

“But Ruth said, “Do not ask me to abandon or forsake you! For wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”” Ruth 1:16

Seeing What God Sees

This year has been challenging for many reasons, one of the biggest being the way it has both divided and united us. We can be our biggest asset or greatest source of destruction. We have to choose if we’re going to pick sides or work together to give everyone a chance to have home, happiness, and health. Sometimes we can do a really good job of deceiving others into believing what is truly hatred or racism (think about the Rwandan genocide and the Nazis). There had to be a significant enough number of people that supported those causes or they would not have turned into the issues that they were. Fortunately there were more people who realized that those people were in the wrong and stepped up to stop them.

But for the most part when issues pop up between people it’s because positions or understandings haven’t been explained or truly discussed, or because people are unwilling to accept the differences that others are born with (i.e. the color of their skin) or choose (their religion or sexual orientation). Accepting the differences of others doesn’t mean that you have to adopt those preferences, nor does it mean you can’t share your feelings or preferences with them. It just means that you’re willing to look at the person and see them as more than just that one outstanding aspect. It means you’re willing to invest more in a relationship with someone God created simply because He took the time to create them exactly as they are at this moment in time.

One thing this year has done is raise our concern level over interacting with and being with each other, and rightly so given how unpredictable this virus has been and violent some people have been over issues of race and leadership. Yet during this month alone I’ve met more kind, supportive, friendly people than I’ve met in a long time. I’ve been reminded of how we can and do support each other when push comes to shove, and that even though we may have to keep 6 feet apart, doesn’t mean we can’t meet people and say hi and get to know them some. It’s not the same as sitting down at the table together and sharing a meal, but it’s better than having phone and computer screens and countless miles between us.

I don’t know what the rest of the year holds, but I do believe that God put us all here on earth for this time and this experience, and only by working and talking together will we get through this in the best way that we can. People can’t understand, let alone know about, your issues and challenges if you don’t speak up. Maybe you have a lot more in common with them than you expected, or the issues you thought you had don’t really exist at all now that you’ve taken the time to talk with them. Trust that God will put the right people in your life, and be open enough to hear them (and God) out.

“But the Lord said to Samuel, “Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”” 1 Samuel 16:7

Who Blesses Whom?

Have you been a blessing to someone lately? I don’t think it’s our job or responsibility to be a blessing to everyone, but I do think we’re here to be a blessing in whatever ways we can as often as we can. It’s unfortunate that some people simply aren’t receptive to being blessed, and aren’t willing to accept good things in their lives, but most people are not only open to but excited about getting those little (and big) gifts and blessings that come their way.

Blessings can be something like a store having the product you want and having one left that someone decided not to buy more than one of which meant you get one too, or getting the parking space you really like, or getting a really inspirational email, or getting an email or social post with a great deal for something you’ve been thinking about buying, or having your neighbor call and tell you that your car light is on, or a coworker sharing some insights they have from a project they did previously that’s similar to or with the same client that you’re working on now, or having your kids share a special moment in their day with you rather than arguing or just being on their phones, or your family really complimenting the food you worked to prepare for them, or getting words of encouragement from the people who support your organization after you experienced a challenge or in response to some thoughtless words posted online.

The thing to remember is that each of us do have special gifts, even if they seem rather ordinary, but all the same they’re special qualities that we’re able to use in support of ourselves and others, and often in spreading the word, story and heart of God to the world. It may not seem like a big thing to be good at math, but there are lots of people who aren’t and rely on those skills. Likewise, it may not seem like a big thing to be good at technology or cooking or business or marketing or teaching or planning, but it is. It’s not always about how you can benefit from those skills and abilities and blessings, but about how you can support others with them. Often the blessing you get is the appreciation and joy that they experience when you use your gifts and talents.  What blessings will you help share this week?

“God has given each of you a gift from his great variety of spiritual gifts. Use them well to serve one another.” 1 Peter 4:10

God is Working Everywhere

One of the most well known books in the world is the Bible. Even if you don’t believe it or read it, you’ve probably heard of it. It’s one of the best opportunities to learn about the life and times of people who lived many years ago. It gives a much more personal look into people’s lives and decisions and interactions than most history books do with modern history. It also helps us understand on a very human level how God interacts with people, how much He cares about people, and how much He invests in people-often without their knowing until much later.

We don’t always know how God’s movements in our life will impact our lives, let alone someone many years from now. You can think about the story of Ruth for example, and how she could see God working in her life even though there were some tragedies, but she had no clue about being part of Jesus’ genealogy and all the other people who were born through her family line and God used and blessed before and after Jesus.

Ruth isn’t an isolated example, she’s a representation of all of us. We don’t know how that comment on social media will impact someone’s life, we don’t know the impact many years down the road that our donation to a non profit or charity will make, we don’t know how God wants to use the blog post we write, we don’t know exactly the benefit someone else will get because we didn’t take the last of an item, we don’t know how our prayer for/about one person will help the life of another we’ll never meet.

What we do know is that we have to trust God, do our best to follow the guidance He’s given us, and make choices believing that they may have an impact on someone else’s life. We should take note when we do see God working and let those be reminders and encouragements to keep on doing what we’ve been doing, but we don’t know how God is going to use each moment, or even if He will, or the other trillions of things He’s working on right now besides us and what’s going on in our lives. How are you seeing God working?

“God is doing 100 things in your life. You might be aware of three of them.” John Piper