SURROUNDED YET ALONE

You put on that manufactured smile and laugh at the joke you’ve probably heard many times. A youthful, exuberant student seeks your attention just for a few moments. But you are so caught up in your own sadness you can’t be fully present.

This is a reality many face on a daily, or weekly, basis. We have obligations, and we do our best to meet them. And we make sure we look okay for appearance sake.

But the truth is many people have a loneliness that can overwhelm them at times but they learn to put on a mask of happiness so people think everything is okay.

We can be surrounded by people every day whether in church or work life, and yet be more alone than ever before.

And in those moments of loneliness, it is more important than ever to activate the words of Paul to the Corinthians – “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).

We are in a spiritual battle – and those moments of loneliness are moments the enemy looks to use to bring us down – first in our thoughts.

A few steps to take when those moments arrive:

  • Recognize the moment. This moment where you can go in the direction or depression or growing in your faith in the moment is such a crucial time. The enemy knows at this point more than any other point he can bring you down. But when you are aware the enemy is prowling to bring you down, you can be prepared.
  • Know your identity. In this crucial moment we are tempted to believe we are worthless or bring no value to the world around us. But it is in this time we have to remind ourselves of we are in Christ:
    1. We are adopted as heirs through the work of Christ (Ephesians 1:5). Though we were sinners, God loved us enough to accept us – just as we were, no matter how sinful we may have been.
    2. Before we were born, God knew us and set us apart for His master plan (Jeremiah 1:5). We were set apart by God before we were born for something much greater than us.
    3. We are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession – so we may declare His praises (1 Peter 2:9).
    4. We are created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God has prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10). God specifically laid out plans for each of us to play a part in His Kingdom. So that thought that you are worthless or have no value – it is a lie and must be taken captive.
  • Reach out. After you recognize the significance of this moment and reaffirm your identity in Christ, it is not enough to just stop there. Take some time to reach out to a trusted friend and connect with them. We are not called to live this Christian life in isolation. Growth without community is impossible. Make the courageous choice to reach out to someone who can help build your faith in crucial moments.

Moving Out of the Wilderness

23 “But he brought us out from there to bring us in and give us the land he promised on oath to our ancestors.” (NIV) – Deuteronomy 6:23

These are the words of Moses in an address to the people of Israel. In this specific section, Moses is describing a future conversation where an Israelite father answers this question from his son: “What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the Lord our God has commanded you?” (v. 20, NIV).

In a future where the people of Israel would reflect on the path God led them down, Moses thought it important for a Jewish parent to remind their young son that God had indeed led them out of slavery in Egypt and on the path to the Promised Land.

Their path to the Promised Land led them through several wildernesses. There is immense significance in these places the Jews walked through and how we relate to these times today.

In their exodus from Egypt, the Israelites traversed the following wildernesses: Shur (Ex 15:22), Etham (Nm 33:8), Sin (Ex 16:1), Sinai (Ex 19:1, 2), Zin (Nm 13:21; 20:1), Paran (Nm 13:26), Kadesh (Ps 29:8), Moab (Dt 2:8), and Kedemoth (Dt 2:26).*1

Job refers to the wilderness as “a land where no man is” (38:26), it is a place for various animals and birds, such as wild donkeys, jackals, vultures, and owls (Ps 102:6; Jer 2:24; Is 13:22; 34:13–15).*2

It is basically described as a wild place, unfit for permanent settlement. Nobody would wake up one day and say, I want to spend time in a wilderness, or I want to spend time in a place where you can’t even farm and survive.

Yet as believers, many of us tend to be in such places for seasons and moments of our lives. And we often get stuck there without an idea of how to get out.

For many, this looks like coming to church meetings but having no true spiritual thirst or drive to pursue God on a deeper level. It may even involve serving in many capacities in a church setting, but really having no true passion to pursue Him. On some level, it may look like a general apathy toward your faith and spiritual growth. And you have to ask and be certain of the answer to this question: Is your faith on fire for God? Or are you stuck in a wilderness of apathy? And further, if you are in a state of apathy, is it a matter of urgency to get out of it?

There are many thoughts on getting out of a spiritually dry season but I’d like to point out a few key points:

RETURN TO YOUR FIRST LOVE

In his words to the church at Ephesus, John commends the believers for their endurance in the faith but gives them a warning as well: “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first” (Revelation 2:4-5, NIV). 

Was there a moment in your life when your faith was active and passionate? That you would give anything to be in the presence of God and to serve? Is that the same for you now? Has your love for Jesus grown stronger or have you grown more complacent? Return to those passionate times of faith and loving Jesus.

This requires an intentionality and discipline on your part. But know there is a spiritual battle for your soul, and you have to fight, submitting yourself to God and fighting from a place of victory through Christ’s death on the cross. Remember, it is not about you in the end. You are part of God’s master plan; we all have a part to play and role in this battle.

DON’T GIVE UP

A lot of things may change through different seasons of life, but some things are unchangeable: God is your Father, and you are His child. This same God who created the entire universe, knows you and loves you. So even if you feel spiritually dry and disconnected, God desires you to return to him and sees you as His son or daughter.

Craig Sager, the beloved sports sideline reporter who passed away in 2016, discussed his passion and perseverance even in a trying time as he was dealing with cancer treatments. When he accepted the Jimmy V Perseverance Award, he said, “I will continue to keep fighting sucking the marrow out of life as life sucks the marrow out of me. I will live my life full of love and full of fun. It’s the only way I know how.”

It is easy to get so caught up in your struggles and doubts that you don’t feel like you want to live with passion when troubles come your way, but the words of Jesus ring   true and provide encouragement in those moments: “In this world you will have   trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, NIV).

Lastly, let us take advantage of every moment we have to live, per the words of Sager:

“Time is something that cannot be bought, it cannot be wagered with God, it’s not in          endless supply. Time is simply how your live your life,” he said. “The way you think            influences the way you feel, and the way you feel determines how you act.”

  1. Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Wilderness. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 2, p. 2141). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
  2. Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Wilderness. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 2, p. 2141). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

The Time We Have

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

The man who gave the world The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955), J.R.R. Tolkien of Bloemfontein, South Africa, gave the world these words uttered by Gandalf the Gray to Frodo Baggins. Tolkien was born 125 years ago this date in 1892.

As 2016 has departed and a new year begins, this same question comes before us: to what do we devote our time and energy? The life we are given, the precious moments before us, do we really value them and use them in the most useful and value-added ways?

2016 taught me many powerful lessons, but the strongest lesson was one that I hope will dominate your and my 2017: Find what your passion is and once you find it, pursue it with everything you have.

Life can throw a great number of opportunities your way, and they all seem like paths to take, but when is the last time you asked if you are working toward what is truly your God-given passion and purpose in this life?

In a work meeting a couple years back, I heard a question that still rings powerfully to my ears: What keeps you up at night? As I considered that question I discovered the interests and passions that drive me forward in pursuit of God’s purpose. What dominates your thought and consumes your attention? Is that a passion to pursue?

In the words of Jon Bloom (Desiring God, Dec. 19, 2014):

Tolkien never intended his tales of Middle-earth to be a desertion from reality, but a means of seeing beyond the confined walls of our perceptions to a much larger reality beyond. And he suffered no delusions that Middle-earth was that reality. But through the lenses of Middle-earth, Tolkien, an unashamed Christian, wanted to show us “a far-off gleam . . . of evangelium in the real world” (emphasis his, “On Fairy-stories”). His kind of fantasy was intended to help prisoners in the real world escape and go home. (Source)

One hundred and twenty-five years after his birth, Tolkien’s storytelling has truly impacted the world with the massive cinematic universes created and characters captured on screen.

Will the way we spend our lives leave a legacy long after we are gone? Will we be known for using our time pursuing God and His purpose or did we just work to get by?

Will 2017 be a year where you continue to just follow your routine and just get by or will you reflect and push for that crazy dream that seems impossible? Let’s hope you pursue your adventure and find yourself on a path to new heights come December.

The Walk of Freedom

So he said to the man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” (Mark 2:10b-11, NIV)

This story comes at the conclusion of the oft-told story from Mark 2 about the paralyzed man who was brought to a house where Jesus was preaching by four of his friends so he could be healed.

I have always marveled at many aspects of this story. How the zeal and passion of those four friends led them to create a way into the house when there was no normal way inside. How Jesus, upon seeing their faith, told the man, “Your sins are forgiven,” pointing to the fact Jesus deals with the root of the issue before the fruit of the issue.

But one aspect never stuck out to me until today, the final two words: “… go home.”

I’d imagine the buzz around town that evening as the house Jesus was ministering in began to get full. Whispers flew that Jesus was in this house and if you wanted to hear His teaching make your way there. If I was this paralyzed man, I would probably face the disillusionment that I likely would not be able to make it in because of the throngs of people in the house.

While in this place of disillusionment his circumstance changes when four of his friends were determined to see Jesus heal their friend. Suddenly his disposition changed. Somehow a new factor came into play: hope. Maybe today was the day things would change.

We arrive at the moment where the man is now healed and Jesus commands him to “get up, take your mat and go home.”

Can you imagine the feeling this man had when he walked home that day? I imagine his family, to their utter amazement they see this man walking on his two legs like he hadn’t done before.

Imagine it. Close your eyes and imagine you are this man. You have the ability to do something you never thought you would able to do before, and to do it knowing your life would never be the same again. Imagine the sheer joy and excitement flowing through your body. That mat you have will always remind you that you were down for a moment, but when you realize you are standing you will remember what Christ did for you.

I don’t know what may be holding you back at this moment in your life. But I hope and pray you have this moment; where you can truly get up and move on from whatever doubt or worries are blocking you from fully walking in Christ. You may believe your circumstances will never change and that you’ll be stuck forever in your current mess, but then you remember that Christ can and will work in your life and set you free in a way you have never known nor imagined.

What’s holding you back today? Are you willing to do whatever it takes today to come to Jesus and experience that walk of true freedom? Actually, it wouldn’t be a walk; it would be a run of celebration! But you won’t arrive there without a full surrender of your life. Come to Jesus with an open heart and see what He will do for you.

 

 

The Best is Yet to Come

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“Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior”

Tonight I stood in Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City as a stadium full of Oklahomans of different denominations and churches all stood out together and sang these powerful lyrics, in the song led by Taya Smith and Hillsong United.

I looked around the stadium and saw hands raised all over shouting this anthem.

And I considered, what if everyone actually meant these words that came out of their mouths?

If these words were meant by those in the arena, the churches represented would see revivals occurring, they would see lives being transformed by Christ in incredible ways, they would be stirred with a passion to be Christ to their neighbors and love them like they never have before. Those things start to happen when we can step out in faith and truly believe God can do incredible things through us.

In a season in America where there is much division and conflict, tonight was a powerful reminder that above all the tension America and the world is seeing right now, there is a God above the storms that has everything in His hands and that, no matter what doubts the enemy may put in front of us, the best is very much yet to come.

But this only happens when we intentionally step out in faith and trust God to accomplish the things beyond our ability. I sincerely pray and hope that many left the arena tonight with a sense of purpose and vision beyond anything they have considered before and are believing God to do things that are considered impossible through them. Then local churches will begin being stirred and passionate, and this city and this nation will begin to be transformed.

But an action is required of us in order for this to happen: we must step out in faith where God has called us and act with confidence.

What’s stopping you ?

 

Lessons from Junior

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Tonight as I was part of the memorial service for Junior, it hit me even more than it did earlier this week the impact this man had on the youth of our city. He was truly a giant of a leader that stood as the backbone of our community.

Some individuals do so much for a community that to narrowly define it is very difficult. At a first glance, it may seem that Junior was just very active in his church and community. But his impact went far and beyond that. His roles did not always involve a visible presence on the stage but you always could feel the touch that Junior brought to a project.

In 2003, OPYF started a journey of doing annual drama productions. In 2004, we conducted one of our largest productions, The Pharisee. From The Pharisee onto many other plays, Junior was always a giant force behind the scenes, making sure everything came to life despite any difficulties along the way. As it was stated at the memorial tonight, in a room full of 30-40 rambunctious kids, Junior could silence them all with his quiet but commanding voice because they all knew he loved them all and cared for them. That kind of leadership is rare and will be missed.

Junior was a big fan of being behind the scenes. For organizations like Future of a Child and others, Junior would work diligently and faithfully managing websites and always being a force behind the scenes. He encouraged the visions of those who had dreams and helped them accomplish those goals.

He was an excellent model of servant leadership. He didn’t do any of his leadership duties to lift himself up, but did all to glorify God.

I want to end this with a few final thoughts/lessons that I believe Junior would want us to know:

  1. KEEP FIGHTING. In all my experiences interacting with Junior, no matter how bad anything might be in his personal life or struggles, he never let it show and he flashed his trademark smile and reassured us all that things would work out. No matter how difficult a task seems or impossible it seems, keep fighting and work to finish what God has planned.
  2. SERVE GOD FULLY. Emphasis on “serve” … Junior exemplified what it was to serve God through serving his family, his church and his community, to the glory of God and not himself. He sought to bring unity and vision and growth in whatever he did. He proved this through word and deed. As was stated during the memorial, he was a faithful tither, giving every single month without fail. And if there was any need for help he always stepped up no matter what.
  3. KEEP DREAMING AND SUPPORT DREAMERS. Junior was a supporter of those with vision. If he knew he could support the ministry or business efforts of a young person, he would do everything in his power to support that effort and make it come alive. After I heard of his passing this week, one thing kept ringing through my head: keep working toward the visions and dreams I had; don’t quit. And I thank Junior for living that and showing me how important that is.

Lastly, to all OPYF youth, I believe Junior would want us to carry on his legacy. His father, Pr. K.E. Mathew, was instrumental in starting the early churches in Oklahoma City. And Junior knew he had to carry on that legacy to the next generation. And he did so, with a zeal and passion that was hard to find in most. But I believe he would want us in this generation to stand up and continue to fight for the right things, to expand the Kingdom of God.

Even in his last days, though he didn’t really need to, he recommitted himself to ministry. Let us daily recommit ourselves to the purpose of God and carry on the work and efforts Junior started, and keep his zeal and passion alive in our community.

Thank you so much, Junior, for your life and lasting impact on Oklahoma City.

Positioned For Victory

You’re not good enough. You don’t have the necessary skills to succeed. You are going to fail so you shouldn’t even try. There are too many obstacles in the way of this project succeeding.

These thoughts consistently prevailed in my mind over the course of a few days, following the previous days spent in prayer and reading, drawing closer to God.

This is a regular pattern in my life. The constant up and down of having faith in the God who created me to being depressed about not being good enough just a few days later.

But it is important to recognize what you are hearing when the spirit of discouragement hits: You are hearing the lies of the enemy, meant to tear you down and take you away from fulfilling your purpose.

In the words of Jesus, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). We are ever under spiritual attack and we must position ourselves for victory, knowing how to defeat the enemy’s tactics and stand firm knowing we have victory through the finished work of Christ on the cross.

The words of Paul to the church at Corinth come to mind: “…we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Without delay, you must take a thought that is a lie from the enemy captive and declare the promises of God, which will never fail.

If you are struggling with these kinds of doubts or a sense of discouragement, be reminded of the faithfulness of the God who created you:

Psalms 119:90  Your  faithfulness endures to all generations;  you have established the earth, and it  stands fast.

2 Thessalonians 3:3 But  the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against  the evil one.

Jeremiah 1:5 Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart…

Philippians 1:6 And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.

You are positioned for victory when you know who you are in Christ and you “set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:2).

Be blessed.

The Struggle for Freedom

“I thought when I drove off the property that it would sink in but it still feels weird, different,” she said about an hour after her release.

These are the words of Dana Bowerman, one of over 6,000 inmates released recently around the country as a result of the change in the way the U.S. punishes people convicted of federal drug crimes.

She was a first-time, nonviolent offender who got sent to prison in 2001, at age 30, for taking part in a conspiracy surrounding a methamphetamine ring. Under the sentence in place at the time, Bowerman had been scheduled to serve 19 years and seven months, or until 2018. (Source)

When Dana left the prison, she was freed of the physical prison walls that surrounded her since 2001. But as soon as she got out, a new sensation arose that was unfamiliar: a taste of refreshing freedom, not being stuck in a square cell 24 hours a day. She was so excited for one thing specifically, to be able to enjoy a thin-slice pizza, a privilege not given to her since she stepped foot in prison.

Most Christians face this same dilemma on a regular basis, though mostly not from being trapped in a physical prison. Many believers face the struggle of being free as a result of the work of Christ and not knowing how to handle that freedom.

As explained by Roger Olsen in “The Bonds of Freedom” (Christianity Today; October 5, 2012):

Unfortunately, two very different ideas of freedom get confused in many people’s minds. The biblical idea of freedom is different from, but easily confused with, the cultural value of the same name. And neither one is the same as “free will.” It can be confusing to the average Christian who wants to know what “real freedom” is. Is it having choices? Is it lack of coercion and constraint? Is it being able to do whatever you want? In what sense does Christ set us free, and how is that different from what Madison Avenue and Hollywood promise?

At the very heart of the Christian gospel is the strange truth that real freedom is found only in giving up everything secular culture touts as freedom. The gospel, it turns out, requires a distinction between the enjoyment of true freedom and the mere possession of “free will.” Not that free will or independence from tyranny is a bad thing; they’re just not true freedom. True freedom, the gospel tells us, is trusting obedience, the obedience of faith. That’s not exactly the image one finds portrayed in popular culture.

The great church father Augustine taught that true freedom is not choice or lack of constraint, but being what you are meant to be. Humans were created in the image of God. True freedom, then, is not found in moving away from that image but only in living it out. The closer we conform to the true image of God, Jesus Christ, the freer we become. The farther we drift from it, the more our freedom shrinks.

There is a great focus today on the right to do what you want, when you want to, and not being restricted in any way. But for the believer, the only way to be truly free is to become more and more like Christ in character.

This is a giant task. To become like Christ means to focus on your purpose and remove distractions that deter you from that purpose. This requires the ability to say yes to the right things and no to the wrong things.

A Christian is free from the bondage of the law:

So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law. (Galatians 5:1, NLT)

Olsen adds:

according to Luther, because of what Christ has done for her and because of her faith in Christ, the Christian is absolutely free from the bondage of the law. She doesn’t have to do anything. On the other hand, out of gratitude for what Christ has done for her and in her, the Christian is bound in servitude to God and other people. She gets to serve them freely and joyfully. A person who doesn’t “get” the “get to” part simply doesn’t know the joy of salvation.

What does this boil down to? As Christians, we must strive to use the freedom gained through Christ to reveal Him to those around us and not be caught in this stage of not knowing what to do with this freedom, as Dana felt with her new independence only an hour after being released in Texas today.

May we as believers strive to be truly free as the redeemed children of God we are. And let Christ be revealed through us.

The Urge to Lead

I made a statement in the summer of 2001, before the start of 9th grade at Mustang Mid-High School. It was primarily a statement to myself more than anything. The statement was simple: I would not aim for any kind of leadership role or spotlight among my classmates; my goal was to remain an invisible student who just made it through the four years in the suburban Oklahoma City city. More than that, it was my goal to never become a leader of any kind. I simply did not see myself in that light at all; it was my goal to blend in the background.

That changed in a big way because of one of my favorite teachers, Mrs. Diane Cerny. I needed an elective, and I ended up signing up for a Marketing Fundamentals course. As I walked into what was the North building at Mustang High School in junior year, I had no idea what God would end up doing through one amazing teacher and a student organization. Because of her consistent urging, I gave in to running for a local chapter position, won and proceeded to be a state officer my senior year.

I will never forget the final assembly of the 2005 State DECA Conference at Union High School when my name was called as the 2005-06 Oklahoma DECA Reporter. As I recollect that day, I thought back to the time when I vowed to never push for a leadership role. As I walked to the stage of an auditorium of high school students from all over the state, I was amazed how God was not limited in how far He can take us, despite the limitations we place on ourselves.

Today I find myself in a very curious place, in a lead role with my local church and affiliated with several parachurch organizations in my community. I find myself in leadership roles for events I never dreamed I would be a part of back in 2001. I stand amazed every day at the journey God has put me on and the opportunities He has given me that I undoubtedly do not deserve. I continue to learn every single day that in leadership and life you never stop learning. Just when you think you’ve mastered something, you soon realize you’ve got a long way to go. Failure is that ever-present reminder that I still have a lot to learn.

I share this because there are those in our church community who are called to lead but who may not feel equipped and therefore will not step up when the time comes. I am a testimony of someone who God has blessed and used in ways I never expected to be used. Know that when you step out in faith when God calls you to lead in your local church, in your workplace or in your school, He will equip you and guide you for that season of life. But we must respond to the call and not cower in fear when we feel the call to lead.

Doubts and a lack of confidence will always come up and threaten to bring us down, but in those moments we must remind ourselves of the One who created and called us and who knows our beginning and end. Keep your eyes on your Creator, not your circumstances.

In those moments, the words from God to Israel’s new leader Joshua come to mind:

“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 1:9, ESV

“Remain”ing confident in the Lord

David begins Psalm 27 with a section scholars refer to as a “statement of confidence” (Ch. 27:1-6). In verse 7, he shifts to an “individual lament” and implores the Lord to teach him God’s way in his life and to be led in a straight path. But in concluding this great psalm, David returns to his statement of confidence when he says:

I remain confident of this:
I will see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the Lord.

Psalm 27:13-14 (NIV)

 

For David to remain confident in God means that:

-At one time, he had a confidence in God.

-At some point, he was tempted to lose his confidence in God.

-But through faith, he nonetheless remained confident in the goodness of God in his life.

 

We all have moments where we are strong in our faith. And then we have moments where the foundation of our faith almost seems gone and we lose our sense of confidence and hope.

This is a struggle King David went through; we all can relate as we go through trials in our lives. There is speculation as to when in his life David wrote this psalm, whether in the end as a reflection of his life or in the middle of his rule when military tensions were high.

There are moments when things make sense and moments when things may seem to fall apart. But in that moment when things seem to be falling apart, it is important to remember this: Above the clouds of worry and doubt and your circumstances, the God who reigns over the earth and knows your beginning and end remains above the stormy clouds that seem to dominate your perspective in life.

And when you focus on the One above the storm, you are able to trek confidently into the unknown, armed with the strength given by God.