Step Up…

On July 4, 2004, Grace Fellowship celebrated their first worship service in a high school theater. That first service happened because of faithful servants who were willing to do whatever it took reach people for Jesus and help them grow in their faith. Most of those faithful servants weren’t on the stage with a microphone. Most were in the background quietly serving Jesus by serving others.

Fast forward to 2021. Lives changed. Souls saved. Jesus glorified. But many of those who started with us have graduated to heaven or life’s circumstances have led them to move to be closer to family. Those who once stepped up and answered the call of service are no longer able to fulfill that calling.

It is said that our greatest ability is our availability. In so many ways that is true. It doesn’t matter how skilled or gifted we are if we are unavailable when the Lord brings opportunities our way.

Way back in the Old Testament we find a poem written by a judge and prophetess named Deborah that reflected on a battle against the Canaanites. In her poem, she shares some interesting insights – “That the leaders took the lead in Israel, that the people offered themselves willingly, bless the Lord!” (Judges 5:2)

In verses 13-18 of Judges 5, Deborah lists the tribes to stepped up to answer the call to defend Israel. Among those tribes were Ephraim, Benjamin, Zebulun, Issachar, Reuben, and Naphtali. These tribes were willing to risk it all to defend their immediate families and their kinsmen. But she also mentions the men of other tribes – Among the clans of Reuben there were great searchings of heart. Why did you sit still among the sheepfolds, to hear the whistling for the flocks? Among the clans of Reuben there were great searchings of heart. Gilead stayed beyond the Jordan; and Dan, why did he stay with the ships? Asher sat still at the coast of the sea, staying by his landings. (Judges 5:15-17)

What a contrast! Many of the tribes rallied to the cause, but others chose to twiddle their thumbs, to play it safe, to look after themselves without regard for their brothers. Their own comfort and safety in the moment overrode the great need for their nation.

When God sends opportunities our way, we have a choice. We can step up and serve or we can step aside and let others carry the weight. If enough people step aside, then those who step up become overburdened or the work simply doesn’t get done.

If you’re part of the Grace family and reading this, then I want to challenge you to consider stepping up. Be ready to say “yes” unless the Lords leads you otherwise.

So, what do we do when opportunities come our way? Are they all from God? Should we simply say “yes” to every opportunity? No. We can’t do everything. We need wisdom to know what we should embrace and what we should let pass.

Here are some questions you can ask to evaluate whether this is an opportunity for you –
Will saying “yes” keep me from fulfilling my responsibilities to my family?
Will saying “yes” provide an example of faithful service to my family?
Am I saying “yes” because of of guilt or human pressure?
Do I have a good motivation for saying “no”?
How will saying “yes” help my church fulfill its mission?
How will saying “no” hinder the mission of my church?
Is it the right time to say “yes”?

But the overriding question we must answer is this – Is God calling me? If the answer to that question is “yes,” then it is time to step up and embrace that call. Grace Fellowship has 17 years filled with men and women who said “yes,” and because of their willingness people were blessed and God was glorified. Is it time for you to step up?

[Photo by Jake Hills on Unsplash]

Be Like Barnabas…

As we continued our study of Acts at Grace Fellowship, we spent some time today focusing on a man named Barnabas. His given name was Joseph, but he was called Barnabas, which we are told means “son of encouragement.”

Here’s what we can learn about this man named Barnabas as we read through Acts:

Barnabas was an encourager.
Even without the nickname, his encouraging spirit is seen throughout the book of Acts.

Barnabas was generous and cared about his fellow believers.
In Acts 5, Barnabas sells a piece of property and brings all the proceeds to the Apostles to be used to help with the needy in the church. His care for those in need was more than lip service.

Barnabas was trustworthy.
The apostles trusted Barnabas’ judgment that Saul was not hostile, and they trusted his judgment in discerning what God was doing in the city of Antioch. They also trusted Barnabas enough to send him out as a missionary.

Barnabas had a good reputation.
In Acts 11, he is referred to as “a good man.” This doesn’t mean he never sinned. It means that he lived an admirable life – that he had a good character.

Barnabas was full of faith.
Barnabas was known for his faith. His trust in Jesus was evident to all. In every time and every place, Barnabas’ faith was in the “on” position. 

Barnabas was a willing servant.
Our greatest ability for the kingdom is our availability. Barnabas was always available when the Lord called. His eyes and his heart were wide open looking for opportunities God might send His way.

Barnabas was humble.
As you read through the book Acts, you may notice a shift. Barnabas and Saul go out as a missionary team, but Luke lists Barnabas’ name first – Barnabas and Saul. After chapter 13, it shifts. Barnabas is listed second. In spite of this, we see no jealousy or rivalry between them. Barnabas’ humility allows him to rejoice with the advancement of others.

Barnabas had a heart for the weak and the rejected. 
We see this first with Saul and later with John Mark. John Mark was Barnabas’ cousin who had joined their missionary team early on but who had run home to mama. Paul didn’t want him to go with them on their next journey, but Barnabas insisted. It ended up with Paul and Barnabas amicably parting ways – Paul teaming up with Silas and Barnabas taking along John Mark.

To Barnabas, this young believer was worth the investment, in spite of his failure. He chose to take a chance and take John Mark under his wing. Was it worth it? You make the call. Consider what Paul (yes, that Saul) wrote toward the end of his life – Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry (2 Timothy 4:11). Yep, that Mark is John Mark.

Barnabas was full of the Holy Spirit. His life was guided and controlled by the Spirit of God. Barnabas allowed the Holy Spirit to do His work in and through Him. The Spirit’s fruit was on full display in his’ life.

Barnabas is a man whose life is worthy of our study and our emulation. Maybe Paul had Barnabas in mind when he wrote – encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. (1 Thessalonians 5:14)

Remembering 9/11…

I’m not sure I have much to add to all that is being said and written today – 20 years after the nightmarish terrorist attacks on our nation. But to say nothing at all seems to belittle the horror of that day.

I was still at home watching the news when the first plane hit the tower. There was a lot of confusion and speculation at the time. It was assumed to be a terrible accident. Reporters tried to sort through the incoming reports, but all speculation was set aside as another passenger jet slammed in the second tower of the World Trade Center. I don’t remember saying anything, only sitting and staring and wondering what was next.

By day’s end, we had our answer. The twin towers fell. There was a charred and burning hole in the Pentagon. And there was a downed plan in a Pennsylvania field. Nearly 3,000 had died. The world changed that day, and we became aware that we were not out of terror’s reach.

The world is a dangerous place. None of us is truly insulated from disease or crime or poverty or death. This is a broken world filled with broken people – sometimes broken and twisted. We who live the United States are still relatively safe, but it is only relative.

Our lives and our families can be dramatically change in an instant. Terrorism is most likely not the thing that will do us in. Auto accidents, cancer, heart attacks, and disease are far more likely to take us out. Our lifespan is finite, and our life itself with have plenty of struggles.

In an uncertain world, we need something certain, something we can hold on to, something that won’t let us down. In reality, that something is a Someone. We need God.

I know people will ask, “But where was God when the planes ran into the World Trade Center?” The answer is not all that complicated – God was where He always was – He was with us.

God created this world without the heartaches and loss that we experience today, but that first couple decided they knew better then He, and we have not only shared in the penalty of that decision, we have been making that same tragic mistake every since. The world is what we have made of it, and if it were not for the mercy of God we would all be living in abject misery without hope.

With God there is hope. Hope for peace in the middle of our pain, and hope for an eternity without pain or sickness or tears. The old song says, “This world is not my home. I’m just passing through.” This is a broken world. We make the best of it that we can. We try to relieve some of the heartache and hardships that many experience along the way. And we invite others to enter into an immediate and eternal relationship with God through trusting in His Son as Savior.

As we remember today and mourn, let us also look to the only One who can set things right – and will do so, perhaps sooner than we might suppose.

A Disciple Named Ananias…

This past Sunday, we continued our journey through the book of Acts. Our focus was on Acts 9:10-19, where a man named Ananias received a vision from God to go to a man named Saul, lay hands on him, pray for him, and be God’s agent through with this Saul would be made able to see and receive the Holy Spirit. Here is the text –

10 Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”

13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. 14 And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

17 So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 

18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; 19 and taking food, he was strengthened. (Acts 9:10-19, ESV)

Here are the takeaways provided on Sunday –

➤ We may not all be able to be a Paul, but we can be an Ananias.
Ananias is described as a “disciple at Damascus.” There is no title nor is there anything identifier except “disciple.” We may not believe we have that much to offer, especially when we compare ourselves to those giants of the faith, but we can all express the same characteristics that we see in Ananias – faith, availability, and faithfulness.

➤ God is looking for willing servants who are willing to say, “Here I am.” 
It has been said that our best ability is our availability. When Jesus called Ananias, he volunteered, “Here I am.” What he was asked to do was difficult. He had concerns. He had questions. But he gave his “yes” before he knew what Jesus was asking of him. May we show the same willingness to serve when we are called.

➤ When God calls us to do something difficult, trust that He is already aware of the difficulty and is preparing us to face it.
What Jesus asked Ananias to do sound a bit risky considering that Saul was out to get those who trusted in Jesus. Sometimes we may wonder if God knows what He’s getting us into, but, of course, He does. Not only does He know, He has prepared us for the moment and goes with us into it. If it is God’s will, then He can make a way for us.

➤ We dare not assume that anyone is out of the reach of God’s grace.
There is no sin so great that God cannot forgive it and no sinner so stained that God cannot cleanse them. Saul was likely the last person anyone expected to put his faith in Jesus, but that was precisely what happened. That person who seems so far from God is not beyond His reach.

➤ Not everyone’s salvation experience will be as dramatic as Saul’s, but we were all just as lost and blind as he was.
Saul’s conversion to Christ began as He encountered the risen Jesus in all His glory. This encounter left him confused over everything he had learned and been taught, and it left him physically blind. It was only when Ananias obeyed God and went to visit Saul and pray for him that Saul received his sight and the Holy Spirit. Your conversion may not be so dramatic, but that doesn’t mean it is any less real!

Anyone who is a child of God was once an enemy of God. Anyone who has new life in Jesus was once dead in their sins and trespasses. The angels’ rejoicing is no less over an 8 year old who comes to Jesus through the ministry of his godly family and church than over the 80 year old abusive drunk who surrenders to Jesus on a hospital bed.

➤ Being faithful to the Lord may come at a very high price.
Ananias took a risk going to Saul. It might have crossed my mind to put my hands around Saul’s neck than to lay hands on him and pray for him. Saul, who would later become Paul, certainly knew there was danger in following Jesus. And we have countless brothers and sisters in the faith who face daily hardship and persecution simply because they are faithful in following Jesus. Faithfulness may come at a very high price, but consider what they price may be for unfaithfulness.

Our adventure in Acts continues. If you are in Greensboro, Georgia and are looking for a church home, we’d love to have you visit us at Grace Fellowship. You can also find our services online at gracefellowship.ws and on our Facebook page.

Go Deeper into Grace…

I woke up early this morning. As I repositioned myself and my pillow in an effort to lull myself back into sleep, my mind became fixed on the goodness and grace of God. That is a weighty subject for so early in the morning, but it brought to me a great sense of peace and contentment. I’m not sure I want to experience that every morning shortly after 3:30, but it was more than worth the grogginess I will feel after lunch.

We spend far too little time dwelling on God’s grace. Those of us who have trusted in Jesus Christ know the necessity of grace for our salvation. The Apostle Paul states clearly – “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

There would be no salvation for me or anyone else apart from the marvelous grace of God. He did for us what we could not do for ourselves. God’s love was so great that He sent His one and only Son who would die on a cross to pay the price for sin. Jesus declared on the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30), and that meant He had done everything necessary for the salvation of lost and sinful humanity.

Christians sing about this grace. Pastors preach about it. But I dare say we do not dwell on this grace nearly enough. Doing so could be absolutely transformative for our attitude and our daily lives, for we are not only saved by grace, we are called to live in it!

I remember as a child taking trips to Ocracoke Island. As the tide would recede, pools of water would remain behind. There was great delight in playing in those pools. And as I get to the beach from time to time, I still see children playing in those shallow accumulation of ocean water left behind by the retreating waves. That is often where we as believers live when it comes to appreciating and enjoying the grace of God.

God’s reminder to me this morning was to go deeper into grace. There is a vast ocean to be enjoyed and explored, but we become far too content in the shallows.

2 Peter 3:18 tells us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” So, how do we do this? I’m not sure there is a single recipe, but there are actions you can take to experience more of the inexhaustible grace of God.

You need to set aside time to contemplate God’s grace.
This may be quite challenging for you. Life can be quite busy. Slowing down is a luxury. Stopping seems impossible. And when we’re not busy, we feel the need to be distracted from everything by vegging out in front of the TV or hanging out with friends. Solitude is a foreign concept for many today.

The psalmist calls us to “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). This is a command, yes, but it is also an invitation. We will likely never develop a richer appreciation of grace or have a deeper affection for God without pulling apart from our routine to mediate upon the greatness of our God.

You need to spend time reading and reflecting on God’s Word.
If we want to know God more, we need to dedicate time to knowing His truth. Yes, our understanding of God may increase when we watch a sunset or hold a newborn, but if we truly desire to know Him more deeply we need read His Word.

The Bible is not merely an instruction book on how to live in a fallen world; it is God’s self-revelation. It is in God’s Word that He reveals Himself, His will, and His ways. He wants to make Himself known to us, and He has chosen a means that we can understand. Though human words can never fully express the majesty of an eternal God, the Bible is sufficient to lead us to know the Lord and not just know about Him.

It is in the pages of the Bible that we discover that “we all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). It is within that sacred text that we learn that we “were dead” in our sins and our trespasses (Ephesians 2:1) and were in our fallen nature “enemies” of God (Romans 5:10). God needed to reveal this to us because that sin keeps us from entering into a relationship with Him. He had to point out the penalty of our sin and our own helplessness to fix ourselves so that we might turn to Him in faith.

“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:13-14)

When we come to understand the absolute holiness of God and our own utter depravity and hopelessness, we will marvel at the vastness of God’s grace and love and mercy in Jesus Christ.

Perhaps you have heard God’s invitation to go deeper into grace. It requires an intentionality on our part, a willingness to shift our priorities and rearrange our time. It is an effort on our part to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus. We must lift our eyes from the knee-deep pool and gaze at the endless ocean. We must once again discover that grace that once amazed us and can do so again.

Let us go deeper into grace…

[All Scriptures are from the English Standard Version]

Discerning God’s Leadership in Your Life…

I have had those occasions when the Lord prompted me to do something out of the ordinary and sometimes out of my comfort zone. Although I’ve never had an angel show up, nor have I had the Lord speak audibly to me, I have this inward tugging, something in my heart and mind perhaps to speak to someone, to serve someone, to be generous with someone, or just to pray for someone. That compulsion is almost irresistible. I say “almost irresistible” because I know that urging can be resisted. 

I’ve resisted that tugging more than once. My hesitance or outright resistance is usually because I have an internal battle going on in my brain. I ask myself is this God speaking, or is it just some internal impulse of my own making? I’ve discovered that if the internal wrestling match goes on long enough, the moment to act usually passes. I cannot count how many opportunities like that end up in my rear view mirror without any response on my part. 

Many of you know that struggle. You wonder if it the Holy Spirit pulling you or is it just your own thinking? How can you know? Well… I wish the answer was super easy and absolutely cut and dry. My experience has shown me that it’s not, however through the years I have found some basic guidelines that can help discern whether it might be God leading you. I wish I could give proper attribution to every writer or preacher who helped me form this list, but at least let me be honest enough to say that I didn’t come up with these on my own.

Read God’s Word. Meditate on its truth. Memorize it. Tuck it away. As you try to discern God’s leading, you’ll be surprised how the Holy Spirit brings to mind exactly what you need at exactly the right time.

Get God’s Word into your heart and mind.
Psalm 119 encourages us to hide God’s Word in our hearts as security to keep us from sinning. Hiding His Word within us does even more than that; it gives us a reserve from which we can pull wisdom, encouragement, correction, and truth. It is a storeroom from which we can draw guidance in a time of need, but if we haven’t put anything in what can we draw out?

Consistently spent time with God in prayer.
It is far easier to know God’s voice if you are familiar with it. This means that prayer is more than bringing our laundry list of needs and dumping them before God’s throne just before we dash out the door to start our day. It means we pause to listen for God. We ask for Him to lead us, then we wait for Him to do so.

Psalm 25:4 makes a simple request, “Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.” Can we slow down enough to pray that prayer and to wait for God to answer?

Stay aware of the presence of God as you go through your day.
If you are a believer in Jesus, then He has promised to be with you always. There is never a time when you are truly alone, even when you feel that way. An awareness of God’s presence is not intended to be a threatening, guilt-inducing thing; rather it is a comforting sense of His presence and a promise of His guidance as we seek His will.

In John 16, Jesus tells His disciples something that startles them. He tells them that it is to their advantage that he go to the Father, because He would send the Holy Spirit to them. When Jesus was present with them, He might be near them one day but miles away the next. When the Father sent His Spirit to indwell them, it meant He would be with them at all times and everywhere. Jesus said, “He will guide you into all truth” (John 16:12). He is still guiding His people today.

Have mature believers in your life who will give you wise and godly counsel.
Do you have someone or a small group of people who will speak truth into your life? If not, you need it! “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” (Proverbs 12:15)

Give a handful of people full permission to correct your bad behavior and attitudes. Find people who love Jesus and love you and then be willing to seek their input on issues with which you’re struggling. This constant refinement will be like iron sharpening iron. There may be a few sparks, but you’ll all get sharper and wiser in the process.

Leave room for God to change your course.
God may lead you to a certain place or a particular ministry. That may be a fruitful and satisfying time, but He may not intend for you to remain there forever. In fact, God will often lead His children through many transitions. We may be exactly where God wants us at the moment, but we should always be open for God to call us to some other place or to some other ministry.

Sometimes these transitions are a welcomed change. At other times, these changes can be difficult to swallow, especially if we have having great success where we are or if His nudging is toward something that seems particularly challenging or out of our comfort zone. We must remember that Jesus’ call was to follow Him; the very phrase leads us to understand we must be ready to move when called.

Begin with what you know God has already revealed about what it means to follow Jesus.
We often struggle to know God’s specific will about some decision we face, but are we faithful to what we know He has already called us to?

There are some ways God is leading us that we already know –
We are to be faithful in prayer.
We are to be faithful to read God’s Word and meditate on it.
We are to be faithful to gather with other believers in worship.
We are to be faithful in serving others in Jesus’ name.
We are to be faithful in sharing the gospel with those who don’t know Jesus.
We don’t have to ask God if He’s leading us in these directions. He has already made it clear! We simply need to do it!

It has been said that our greatest ability is our availability. If we make ourselves available, stay close to Jesus and His people, and are committed to go where He leads, we may find ourselves in unexpected places doing unexpected things, but we will find great joy in being there and doing that.

In Sunday’s message, I challenged our church members to give God a blank check. By that I meant, we give God our unconditional “yes” to whatever He calls us to do. Is it scary? It can be. But there is no place more important or more fulfilling than to be in the center of God’s will for your life.

Dear Annabelle…

Thank you for approaching me after the worship service this past Sunday with a really good and thoughtful question. I am always encouraged when people hear God’s Word and think deeply about what they have heard. It is in thinking deeply and praying fervently that we open ourselves up to knowing more of God, His will, and His ways.

I’m not sure I answered your question as fully as I would have liked, so I wanted to take the time to write this out. I hope you’ll find it and read it, but I am also hopeful that others, who may have wondered but not asked the question will find it useful in some way.

Your question was – “Why would God allow the serpent to tempt Eve and Adam in the Garden?” After making everything and calling it “very good,” why would God allow it to be messed up?!

Before beginning to answer that question, I want to reference a verse to which I have often had to return when struggling to make all the pieces fit in what seems to be a biblical puzzle. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:9, ESV)

There are times when we simply will not understand the ways of God. That is not a convenient loophole for all the hard verses of the Bible; rather it is a bold statement that some things will remain revealed until we stand in the presence of the Lord.

I guess it is a little like my family putting a puzzle together when I was younger. Piece by piece it came together forming a picture, but when we got near the end, a piece would be missing. My dad would have hidden it somewhere. It was only when the final piece was put in that the picture became complete. The life we spent on this earthly plane is something like that, and the picture will not be made complete and fully perfect until God places that last piece into place. what an “Aha!” moment that will be for us all.

So, when I say that God’s thoughts and ways are far beyond ours, it’s not just a ready excuse when I don’t understand something. It is reality. In fact, I would argue that anyone who claims to be able to explain everything about God isn’t talking about the God of the Bible. We can know Him genuinely and intimately; we just cannot know Him fully – at least not until we are face to face with Him in eternity.

But God has not left us totally clueless. We can and should be inquisitive when a passage of Scripture challenges our thinking. So, Annabelle, when you came to talk to me after the service, it delighted my heart. Here, then, is a less rushed answer to your question… “Why would God allow the serpent to tempt Eve and Adam in the Garden?”

In Genesis 2, we read – 15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:15-17)

And then in chapter 3 –

1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.
He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.
(Genesis 3:1-7)

Even though God had provided an abundance of fruit from an abundance of plants, there was one tree that God insisted was off limits. God had called it the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and it was unlike any other tree in the garden. According to Genesis 3, the fruit looked delicious and appealing. I suppose God could have made it hideously ugly. We also see that the fruit was within reach and the tree seems to be located centrally in the garden. God could have put the fruit well out of their reach or had it hidden in some remote part of the garden. All that is true, but wouldn’t it just have been simpler to not have the tree there at all? Some people have even posited that God set them up for a fall.

I would disagree with that view for numerous reasons. Among these are:
– God is good, perfectly good. (Luke 18:19)
– God is holy. (Isaiah 6:3)
– God does not tempt people to sin. (James 1:13)

God created our Adam and Eve with the ability to think, reason, and choose. He provided for them in abundance and had a relationship with them that was personal and free of fear, dread, and shame. He warned them against eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil for their protection, yet God knew they would eat from the tree.

The decision of the first couple to eat the forbidden fruit did not take God by surprise. God is all-knowing (Psalm 147:4-5), thus God was fully aware of everything that would take place in the Garden. When He put the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the midst of the Garden, He did so knowing exactly what would transpire. So why put it there? Why allow the Satan to manipulate them when He could have stepped in to prevent it?

God wanted Adam and Eve to obey Him. God wanted them to choose to express their love for Him and their joy in having unadulterated intimacy with Him by choosing to live in His will. God did not make robots; He made people in His image to be in relationship with Him. He desired that they want that relationship, too. They chose to abandon all that God had given them in an effort to grasp the promise of something more, something greater than intimacy with their Creator, and in doing so they lost everything — everything except hope.

Even in the midst of judgment, God gave them hope. That which was lost would not be lost forever. God had a plan to redeem, to restore, to renew. In the first book of the Bible we see everything fall apart. In the final book of the Bible, we see God making all things new.

Annabelle, I cannot explain everything about God, His will, and His ways. Had I the power to travel back in time, I’d go back to the Garden and slap that forbidden fruit out of Eve’s hand, sternly rebuke Adam for not manning up and intervening, and then lop off the serpent’s head before it could do any more damage.

God could have done the same, but He did not. So, Annabelle, I cannot fully explain why God allows and directs what He chooses to allow or direct, nor can I explain why He loves me and wants to spend eternity with me. And even those things about God that I do understand still leaves me amazed that His love is so great that He would send His Son to die for my sins. I find myself asking along with King David, “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:4)

Surprise! The Ideal Candidate Doesn’t Exist…

Well… maybe that’s not too much of a surprise. After yesterday’s post presenting what my ideal candidate might look like, I felt I needed to bring things back down to Reals-ville.

Since the ideal candidate doesn’t exist, what are we to do with our vote? This comes a little late for some of you, because you’ve already cast your vote early – I did the same – but it is still worth pondering, since we’ll be marching right back to our local polling place in the next election cycle.

The “wisdom” I have to share will not be earth-shattering. I’m not claiming some fresh insight or providing a magical equation that spits out a superior voter guide for you to review before casting your ballot. Most of this is just common sense… or at least I hope it is.

Consider your options. Don’t just look at party affiliation or listen to well-crafted commercials. Take time to do a little digging. Sometimes you don’t have to dig too far, but don’t put all your trust the surface level information. Every source has some level of bias.

Pray for wisdom. As stated previously, the ideal candidate doesn’t exist, so pray about it. Ask God to guide you through the process and even as you step up to the voting booth. I’ve never received direct revelation that I should vote for a particular candidate, but that doesn’t mean God isn’t guiding me in more subtle ways. The book of James tells us that if any of us lacks wisdom, we should ask God – so ask God (James 1:5).

Consider the candidates more closely. So, you’re praying about it, and you’ve done a little digging. Dig a little more. If it won’t risk your friendships, ask your friends what they think about a candidate and his or her positions. But don’t just ask friends – ask people outside your circle what they think and how they ended up with their selection. Getting out of the echo chamber of people who think like you can help you get a broader perspective. Don’t enter into these conversations in order to argue or persuade; enter with a listening and learning mindset.

Pray for discernment as you compare where candidates stand with your own biblical convictions. Our praying is not done in a vacuum. In the process of gaining information about the candidates and where they stand, we should also be bringing God’s Word to bear in our contemplation. The fact that a person says they are Christian, quite frankly, is not enough. How do the positions and policy statements made by a candidate line up with your understanding of biblical principles and Christian teaching. The more we know of God’s Word, the better off we’ll be.

Vote. I guess this should go without saying, but exercise your right to cast a ballot in every election you can. You and I have the blessing of living in a nation where we can have a voice in our leadership. Voting is part of our obligation to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Mark 12:7), but it is also an opportunity to influence our government for good. Just as with everything else God has entrusted to you, you are a caretaker of your vote. Use it, and use it well!

Pray for God’s guidance on the victorious candidate – even if it’s not the person you voted for. Having done all you can do, commit to pray for those who will govern in the years to come – even if you didn’t like the election outcome. There are a lot of people praying prior to the election. We need to be just as diligent and committed to prayer after the election. (1 Timothy 2:2)

Trust God. Some of you will be utterly frustrated on the day after the election. You may even be “fit to be tied,” as my grandmother might have said. Others will be overjoyed that the election results went their way. But we must always remember that God is behind the scenes working toward an end. Not everything that happens is good, but nothing is beyond God’s sovereignty. Remember, He uses all things to bring good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). How we respond after the election shows whether we believe Romans 8:28 is true or not.

Because the ideal candidate does not exist, we are left with the daunting task of sorting through truths, half-truths, and outright lies to find the best possible choice. Rarely is the choice between the better of two goods. More often it feels like a choice between the lesser of two evils. But we must take the stewardship of our vote seriously.

Let me add one word of caution – Don’t ever forget your primary purpose here on this earth. Jesus did not commission us to go and win elections or transform public policy. Those are needed, but they are not our mission. Our mission is to go in Jesus’ authority and make disciples of all nations (people groups), baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that Jesus commanded, while His abiding presence remains with us to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:18-20)

How we express our opinions matters. Our lives are to be marked by the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Is that what people hear when you talk about political matters? Do you resort to name-calling and demeaning the opposition candidate over their looks? Do you repost tweets or Facebook posts without bothering to check if they are true? Are your opinions expressed with arrogance and condescension? ? Are you mean-spirited? Check your heart!

Politics is a mean business. It has chewed up and spit out many a well-intentioned person. It has also consumed and transformed countless others into something resembling the world far more than resembling Jesus. Don’t let that be you. In your fervor to get a candidate elected, don’t sacrifice your soul on the altar of politics, and don’t sacrifice your witness in order to win an argument. Remember, there is coming a day when we will give an account for every word we speak.

If you’re eligible to vote, then do so. May God both bless this nation and be merciful to us.

My Ideal Candidate…

As I write this, we are one week from election day. We have heard (endlessly) from both major political parties that this election will determine the future of our nation. Each party’s candidate declares that they will lead us to peace and prosperity, while the other party will lead us to ruin. The ads that fill our TV screens, newspapers, and social media feeds lionize Candidate A and demonize Candidate B.

I am glad I live in a country where I have the right to vote and, in doing so, have a voice in determining the direction of our nation, state, and community. It is not a perfect system, and it is one that can create a great sense of frustration, but it is a rare privilege in the history of nations that we can cast a vote that matters.

As we look at the array of candidates scattered across the ballot, it can leave us feeling a bit disillusioned. How often have you walked out of the polling place only to admit that you had to “hold your nose” as you voted for a particular candidate? We know that no candidate (just like no person or pastor) is perfect, but we long for better choices to fill these important offices.

I woke up this morning thinking of what was most important for me when considering a candidate. I’m not talking about their voting record or party affiliation, but I’m referring to the kind of person they are. In other words, what kind of person do I desire to see running for political office.

A PERSON OF CHARACTER. We have plenty of characters holding public office, but not nearly enough women and men of true character. What I desire to see are people who can be trusted.

How do do you know if a politician is lying? If he’s moving his lips, he’s lying. Too often this is the case. We have a wealth of promise-makers and a dearth of promise-keepers. I understand that politics is the art of compromise. Elected leaders cannot always deliver on the commitments they make, because those decisions are not made in a vacuum but are formed in a maelstrom of divergent views. We all understand this.

Just tell me the truth. I can handle it. I want a man or woman whom I feel I can trust to make the hard decisions based on the best interest of the citizenry, rather that their desire to get re-elected for another term.

A PERSON OF CONVICTION. In addition to character, I want to see a candidate or office holder who has genuine convictions. I want to know where that person stands. I don’t want a person who is inflexible and unwilling to listen to reason or even change their mind. I want someone who has a sense of what is right and what is wrong. And I want that person to be willing to do the right thing even if it’s not the popular thing.

A PERSON WITH COMPASSION. The most capable and trustworthy of leaders needs to have a heart. It is not enough that he or she loves this country; I want them to love people. This may seems a little mushy, and perhaps it is. A leader needs to be able to have the perspective of distance, to have the ability to step back and see the big picture. But a leader also needs to know that the decisions they make not only affect financial markets and consumer confidence; those decisions also impact families.

A politician may make beautiful speeches with star-spangled backgrounds, but do they care, truly care for the people that make up the nation? Is their concern only for a segment of their constituency or for all? Are they as concerned for the least of these as they are for those perceived to be far greater? Perhaps it is naive of me, but I earnestly want them to be people of compassion.

A PERSON OF CONFIDENCE. With compassion, convictions, and character, a leader can point people to a brighter future and begin to lead them there. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthian church that if a trumpet doesn’t sound a clear call, how will the people know to get ready for battle (1 Corinthians 14:8)? If a leader is uncertain and wavering, it is nearly impossible to hold the confidence of the people.

Arrogance, of course, is a poor and dangerous substitute for confidence. Arrogance will cause a leader to ignore differing opinions and forge ahead believing that he or she knows best. I want a leader with confidence. I want a leader who is strong. But I want a leader who is confident enough that she or he is willing to listen to wise counsel and make course adjustments while holding onto deeply held convictions and maintaining the integrity of their character.

A PERSON WITH COMMON SENSE. It would be nice to have a genius running things, but I’d rather have someone with common sense – that ability to process information through a filter of sound, practical judgment. This is not ignoring the facts or downplaying intelligence; rather, it is the exercise of real-world intelligence rather than merely “book smarts.”

I am not saying I want those in leadership to just act based on their “gut,” but I do want them to consider what their “gut” is telling them. Admittedly, this is a bit difficult to quantify, but leaders who display common sense along with intelligence create confidence in their constituency.

PERHAPS I’M EXPECTING TOO MUCH. I’ll admit that the list above is daunting. It would be a challenge to fill a compact car with elected officials who could check all the boxes. Still, I am convinced that we need to set higher standards for those seeking high offices.

In a 2018 NPR/PBS/Marist poll, pollsters reported the confidence level in the Presidency stood at 43%. For Congress it was even worse – 25%. Do we deserve better? Yes, but we have the leaders we elected. If we want better, we need to demand better.

But… before we grab our picket signs and hit the streets, let us consider one thing further – Perhaps our political leaders are a pretty fair reflection of our culture. In other words, we don’t have higher expectations of our leaders because we don’t have higher expectations of ourselves. We may want to vote for people of character, conviction, compassion, confidence, and common sense, but are we committed to be those kind of people?

Note: If you haven’t voted early, make your plans to cast your vote. There are no perfect candidates. Be informed, pray, vote, and then pray some more – and don’t forget to be gracious in victory, as well as, in defeat. Remember, our candidates are not our messiahs. People will disappoint us. Political parties will let us down. Make sure your confidence is someone who is sure and certain, and whose promises are always kept. Jesus is not on the ballot, but He can be in your heart!

From Grief to Glory…

Today, there is just a heaviness in my heart.

I grieve over the divisions in our country that seem to become greater with each passing day.
I grieve over the bitter and harsh attitudes of those we have chosen to lead us.
I grieve over the callous disregard to common decency.
I grieve over the seeming unimportance of human life to so very many.
I grieve over the spiritual lostness and darkness in our nation.
I grieve over the disruptions we are all experiencing and the devastation it has caused for so many.
I grieve over the pride and arrogance that seems to permeate our culture.
I grieve over the senseless violence committed daily in our nation and around the world.
I grieve over the obsession with trivial matters and the willful ignorance of issues that truly matter.

In the midst of this grief, it would be easy to shut down – to attempt to put my head in the sand. Some days, quite honestly, I just want to weep and go back to bed for a long, long time, as if this is somehow just a bad dream.

But I, and perhaps you, are called to something more, something better, something higher. Jesus declares that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16). If we are salt, then we have a mission to enhance the flavor of life and fight against the moral decay of our culture. If we are light, then we are called to shine brightly the life and message of Jesus to a world that is often dark and scary.

We are not defeated, therefore we are not discouraged. We are more than conquerors through Him who loved us (Romans 8:37). If God is for us, who can stand against us? (Romans 8:31) God has a plan and a purpose, but He also has the power to back it up. I’ve read the back of the book (Revelation in the Bible), so I know the end of the story. God wins! And we share in that victory!!

I also know Jesus’ promise not to leave us alone (Matthew 28:20) and send a Comforter, a Helper who would come alongside us to provide what we need for the moment (John 14:15-31). God’s Spirit dwells in His people, so how can I feel helpless and hopeless?!

So, I grieve, but it is not a grief devoid of hope. As the Apostle Paul wrote – 
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:8-11)

Instead of despair, I will hear and respond to the call of God –
Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you.

(Psalm 60:1)