Be Grateful – Even in 2020

Grateful – Appreciative of benefits received (Merriam-Webster)

Thanksgiving 2020 has arrived. If you asked me January 2020, I could have described what I thought the activities this year would look like: like every other year, big lunch at church, afternoon games and fellowship.

But nonetheless here we are. We are in the midst of a global pandemic that is seemingly dominating every area of our lives, battling fear versus faith even more than usual every day. And no big meal. Just a quiet holiday with close family, isolating to avoid spread of COVID-19.

It sounds like a broken record now, but all our visions and plans for 2020 were essentially thrown to the wind as the reality of a pandemic and the need for safety and health measures overtook our desires for fellowship and usual activity.

Tasha Layton, in her song “Into the Sea (It’s gonna be ok)” asks this question that has echoed in my own heart and I’m sure the heart of others as we enter the final weeks of this year that has seemed like a decade: “Can You make something from the wreckage?”

When we look around our lives, many of see see wreckage all around us from this year, a result of all the failures and unforeseen consequences of this year.

It is a true exercise of our faith this year to list what we are grateful for and answer this question. I have honestly struggled in the last few days to find things I’m grateful for, especially given I’ve been under a shadow of gloom from recent news in the world. But as I paused, I realized I have so much to be appreciative of: a family, a home, a job, good friends, good community, opportunities to serve, a chance to see beauty in a world of chaos.

He said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”

Then Elisha prayed and said, “O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.

2 Kings 6:16-17 (ESV)

As we close out this year, shift your perspective from the cloud of gloom around you and see what Elisha’s servant saw in 2 Kings 6, the armies of the Lord surrounding their physical enemies and fighting for them. No matter the battle we face today, those with us are far greater than the ones against us. Vow today to continually give thanks and not let the enemy steal your identity and joy.

God can and will work with the “wreckage” of your year and fulfill His purpose in your life; but there is a surrender in being able to trust in Him even with the fog of our current realities.

Transitory

As this decade winds to a close in just a few months and what is likely a wild start to the next one begins, 2019 on reflection thus far can be summed up with one word for me: transition.

At the beginning of April, I was working at a different agency for the State of Oklahoma and was in a rhythm of what seemed normal. In May, the winds of change began to move as I transitioned to a new job in Stillwater, Oklahoma, also with the state government. I moved to a residence there shortly after.

Suddenly, my sense of normal had shifted entirely.

As a person who absolutely does not handle change well, it has been a testing period to see how much transition I could handle at one time.

But in the middle of it all, I remembered the fundamental truth that God is a God of seasons; and in every season there is a purpose.

For anyone going through such a transitory time, some key lessons God has been touching me:

Trust God in the Unknown

Proverbs 3:5-6 English Standard Version (ESV)

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
    and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
    and he will make straight your paths.

These verses have been never more true than this year in my life. With every decision there was agony and fear, but when the time to decide came God always came through with clarity. And I have seen God make my paths straight in incredible ways.

I have been engaged in ministries such as ICPF and in my church and community for most of my life, but this year, taking time to reflect, I am in awe of the ways and paths God has opened to be an influence for the next generation. In a recent conference call, I was in awe that individuals on the call listened to someone much younger than them. One thing is clear: every step on my journey has been ordained by God, and I am thankful for every person who has been on this path.

And I know this story is only continuing in an exciting way in this season. I’m reminded of God’s words to Abram in Genesis 12:1 (Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”) Without a clear direction and details and only armed with a command and promise from God, Abram and his clan set out. If only I could reach the faith of Abram in this life. May it be said of me, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Know the Power of Influence

In a typical Google search on influence today, the most common result is related to social media influencers, people who have reached a certain credibility and ability to sway followers.

But I have been recently been challenged by the words of God to Moses in Exodus: “What is in your hand?” We see in this short Scripture God reveals that through Moses’ availability God will reveal His power and glory.

The power of influence goes well beyond what we see in the social media world today. As many have passed from this world this year already, the constant reminder of how short our lives are is ever present. But in the short time we have, will we use what we have to leave a legacy that lasts beyond our lives?

So what do you have? Influence? Position? Friendship? Do you inspire hope in others? Are you a great organizer? A visionary? Are you using what you have within your sphere of influence for His glory?

We have a short lifespan to use our gifts and strengths for God. What will you do with the time you have? Will you answer the question, “What is in your hand?” and be faithful what is given to you?

Life is crazy. It is hard, full of change and transitions. But in every moment, we have an option to exercise positive, godly influence and be part of the story God is weaving. Will we get caught up in the pointless worries of life or will we focus on using what we have for God’s glory?

What are we hearing?

17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

Romans 10:17 English Standard Version (ESV)

Thinking back to just a few weeks ago during our church retreat and the powerful time in God’s presence, I am still amazed at that night but have admittedly recently struggled with faith since that time in relation to our church and my own walk.

These words of Paul to the Roman church make a very basic but crucial point: faith comes by hearing the Word.

On Sundays, we are eager to praise and look like we have our faith strong and in practice. We have practiced and practiced the art of looking as if we have it all together.

But if we are being honest, most of us are not really turning to the Word in the crucial moments, when the flesh is tempting us.

We say we want revival but our actions and words Monday through Friday reveal otherwise. We fill our ears with everything and anything (doubt, music, entertainment, etc.) but the Word of God and somehow expect to grow in our faith. We speak words of faith and cursing with the same mouth.

Pr. Micheal Todd gave an example in a recent sermon about how a football team can have the best huddle – and discuss the plays and cheer loudly. But if they never move toward the field and play the game, it is all talk.

Pr. Jeremy Foster of Hope City Church (Houston) spoke of something called “hazy faith” this last Sunday. When you drive in fog, you can’t always see where you’re going because the visibility is limited. But you keep going because you have no option. I believe we are in a hazy faith moment of our church right now. We can’t always see the signs of how God is working but we are assured of one thing in Scripture, that He is always working things out for our good, as individuals and as the church.

So I simply ask: When it comes to our faith and moving with purpose, are we willing to move forward and give it everything? Do we truly love hearing from the Word? I believe the momentum from that moment at retreat is just getting started – but if we are not exercising that faith every day that movement will pass and we will remain in complacency. What will we choose this day?

Since the retreat we have returned to normal life and routines. But I close with a few thoughts highlighted by Bro. Bliss at our retreat:
– The enemy has distracted us from the place where we need to be.
– We get so busy in life we forget to reconnect and plug in.
– The enemy comes to attack your PRAISE first. When your praise is being silenced, there is lack of breakthrough.
– Lastly, what we need in this moment as Christ followers is an encounter not to be entertained. Have you had that encounter? If not, will you seek it?

The Purpose of Failure

You try to be productive and focus. But a flood of thoughts come and your mind becomes a messy haze. It is hard to focus on any particular point. It is a moment when you have been told you have monumentally messed up and are going to lose something of immense value in your life, something similar to your job. Or a moment where your decision making reveals your lack of ethics.

You wrack your mind, asking how and why you came to a place where you went wrong. You consider every possible extreme scenario that could end up hurting you.

You wonder, “Why me? Why did I have to go and mess up so badly? Things could have been so much different for me if only I had made better decisions.” Or some version of that.

I was considering the purpose and impact of failure in the course of our lives. Why do we fail? Why does God allow us to go through seasons of failure and lack of success/progress?

I have been through such experiences to realize that failure and the lessons that arise from it can be the driving force to your success.

After down moments in life such as these, I’ve found it incredibly easy to hide in a corner and increasingly desire to be invisible and alone in your mire of despair.

But in hindsight alone is it discovered that the path to your God-intended purpose included this very troublesome but necessary step. The deep anxiety faced in your current struggle and the ability to overcome that arises are the very forces that ultimately propel you to your final purpose.

If you are in that place of failure and doubt about your future, don’t stay there. Move forward; stay focused and don’t let your past hold you back.

In the words of writer and theologian C.S. Lewis, “Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.”

“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.

Trusting in God or yourself?

Many of the lessons contained in the Word, especially in the history of Israel, are embedded in the lives of the rulers mentioned. From their successes and failures, timeless lessons are taught about the key to true success. This is a quick look at two kings of Judah and their legacies that still speak to us today.

2 Chronicles 17 introduces the fourth king of Judah, Jehoshaphat. The author of the Chronicles presents Jehoshaphat in a favorable light from the beginning, saying in verses 3-4, “Now the Lord was with Jehoshaphat, because he walked in the former ways of his father David; he did not seek the Baals, but sought the God of his father, and walked in His commandments and according to the acts of Israel” (NIV).

The reign of Jehoshaphat is similar to that of his father Asa; their reigns featured reform, building programs, and large armies. Jehoshaphat recognized that the source of his strength and success was God and that the only way he could succeed by seeking Him and removing evil things that were dishonoring God. And for Jehoshaphat, this did not change over time.

2 Chronicles 26 introduces the tenth king of Judah, Uzziah. He became king at the age of 16. From his early days, he sought the Lord and that led to his success (v. 5). The Chronicler states it this way: “…As long as he sought the Lord, God gave him success” (v. 5b, NIV).

Many in their journey toward success reach this point of favor with God. They reach a point of trusting God and things begin to work in their favor. However, the tragic legacy of the life of Uzziah is his downfall. People today know Uzziah for his downfall rather than his initial success.

Verses 6-15 of chapter 26 describe the great deeds of Uzziah’s reign, going to multiple battles, rebuilding towns, and even creating devices for soldiers to shoot arrows and hurl large stones from towers and corner defenses.

But then the heart of Uzziah’s legacy is found in 26:16, “But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the Lord his God, and entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense” (NIV). He received leprosy immediately after going in to burn incense when that was not his duty.

Whatever success he had achieved to that point was made mute by the fact that his pride got the best of him. He became so proud that he became unwilling to follow the established laws that established Aaron and his descendants as the ones to burn incense on the altar. It is possible to come to a point in your pride and accomplishments that you show disregard for the basic rules and in the process dishonor God and your heart moves away from trusting God completely for direction.

King Uzziah had a sad ending, having leprosy until the day of his death, living in a separate house, and being banned from the temple. Jehoshaphat, on the other hand, lived such a life of trusting God that the author of the Chronicles spent a substantial amount of time on his life. What an honor for one’s life to be featured so heavily in a lasting manner that still impacts lives for the better today.

At the end of Jehoshaphat’s reign, “…the realm of Jehoshaphat was quiet, for his God gave him rest all around” (2 Chronicles 20:30, NIV)

What do you want your life to look like, a life of rest having fulfilled the purpose of God or one that is living with the ills that this world brings like Uzziah? For every person there are different versions of leprosy, most definitely including myself.

When you look at your life today, are you trusting God for every detail or is your pride and reliance on yourself too high? When you focus on your accomplishments as Uzziah did, your focus will move from the God who sustains you to a false belief that you yourself brought about your success. And that will take you on a journey away from the heart of God.

Gut check: Where is your trust and focus today?

What is your Vision Level?

Looking into the life of Abram recorded in Genesis, you see God gave him a vision of the Promised Land, and in response, Abram was obedient in stepping out to take possession of that vision. He had the faith to believe for himself and his family to fulfill the vision God had given him.

Without vision, we are on a road headed nowhere in particular in life. When you fully realize you are a child of God and that He created you for a truly unique, divine purpose, you know you are not destined for a life of no value; rather, you are meant to follow the path God has laid out for you.

When it comes to imparting vision, writer Art Sepulveda in his book How to Live Life on Purpose (2004) says people fall into one of four levels of vision:

-Wanderers: Those who never see it
-Followers: Those who see it but never pursue it on their own
-Achievers: Those who see it and pursue it
-Leaders: Those who see it and pursue it and help others see it

Which do you fall into, and “how do you plan to change the vision level (listed above) at which you operate the majority of the time?” (Question posed by Sepulveda, p. 33)

Is your life’s aim simply to simply build up enough resources and a family and survive till the end of your days or is it to thrive in fulfilling the God-given purpose for your life?

This is a season of graduation and transition in life; let this also be a time of checking where you are in your life and making sure you are where you’re supposed to be and not just passing time.

What distinguishes us as Christians?

A common theme has been recurring in several things I’ve been hearing/reading over the past few days, and it is centered in a question asked by Moses in Exodus 33:16 (NIV):
“How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”

In the context of this passage, God had promised Moses that He would send an angel to lead the people into the Promised Land. But Moses’s passion was stirred, and he interceded for the Lord to personally lead the people. God answered his plea, and His presence is demonstrated personally to Moses in Ex. 33:17-34, 28; and publicly by the construction of the tabernacle (ESV Study Bible).
Moses understood that without God’s presence, they would not be a people set apart from other nations, so why travel any further?

But in the context of my point in this blog, what is it about “Christians” that separate us from nonbelievers in the world? Most of the people who identify themselves as “Christians” in today’s world talk the same, think the same, and do the same as any other person who does not proclaim faith in Jesus Christ. So why even bother being called a Christian? For appearance’s sake?

This has been provoking me personally lately, and the more I think about it, the more I realize it is time for those of us who claim to be Christians to stand for what we believe in and make our lives markedly different from nonbelievers. It is time for us to take the years of messages we have heard, and put some application into effect. Stop reading good books about how to be a good Christian; and just be one. To stop thinking that we are so good that we have the right to unnecessarily judge and criticize others, and to react to every situation seriously thinking, “What would Jesus do?” Would Jesus hold that grudge against that person? Would Jesus speak a harsh word unnecessarily, to tear an individual down, even if it’s not “that bad” in your personal biased judgment?

What will it take to convert those people around us who we want to become Christians? Many times, we ourselves are the stumbling block to others’ being saved. So why should someone follow Christ, especially when the person trying to convince them is not leading a Christ-like life?

I heard it said at a meeting regarding the subject of speaking the Word of God, that the worst thing we can do is push someone away from the faith by our lifestyle and actions, especially unknowingly.

Do we all share that sentiment? Do our habits, words, and actions speak Christ and life into others? Or do they speak harsh judgment and criticism? Do our lives lift others up or tear others down? And I mean our public and private lives.

Once you know that answer to that question, what is your response? Apathy or action? If it is apathy, please understand there is a world that needs Jesus, and there are people dying everyday without salvation.

If we have that sense of urgency, we will begin to change our lives. Then our world will transform around us. And Christ will be glorified.

I ask the original question again asked by Moses, posed to God, but in the context of today’s world: “What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”

Stepping Out in Faith, Expanding Your Box

The box. The box you don’t want to escape. The box that has four corners that contain your safety threshold. The box that keeps you stuck and not growing.

Your whole life, you hear that life is about progressive growth. Yet when the time comes to grow, you want to stay safe, in your box.

You’ve carefully constructed your box over the years, and you have deliberately chosen to limit the extents of your life, to not allow too much change in.

But there comes a point when you can stay at the same level of “good,” or what you consider “good,” for the rest of your life, or you can take a risk, a step, that has an unclear end, although it holds great promises.

I was privileged to teach a VBS class last week to 10-year-olds. When I taught the principle of faith, and the idea of stepping out in faith, it wasn’t difficult to grasp. In their 10-year-old minds, it was easy to figure out what it means, in words. But when you get older and the time comes for you to take a step of extreme faith and put it into action, it’s not so easy.

My personal challenge lately has been stay in the status quo and do what I’ve been doing, or do something extraordinary and progress in life. And as difficult as it is to make a decision that allows the foreign element of change into the box of life you’ve so carefully constructed, you must, or you will stagnate.

A lifetime ahead of me

For those who were at PCNAK in Houston a few weeks ago, you may remember Jason James’ message from Thursday night. In it, he mentioned the feeling of holding his nephew and envisioning that baby’s future. Today, I had the privilege to hold my niece Olivia Grace Varghese, and as she stared at me with her eyes wide open, I was in awe.

In awe of the fact that this baby girl is an innocent person, new to the world but known to God long before she was born. This baby girl has a chance to make a difference in this world, and she has no baggage behind her at this moment. But one day, when she is old enough, she will make a mistake, and another, and another, and fall into the trap of sinful mankind. I just want her to stay innocent like this as long as possible.

I saw my niece’s eyes searching today, searching her surroundings. It was something amazing, something I’ll never forget. My hope and prayer is that one day, those eyes will be searching for the good in the world, and bringing the joy of Christ into the lives of others through her life.

When I consider the innocence of Olivia Grace Varghese right now, I am saddened and frustrated by own shortcomings. I wonder how in 23 years of life I have messed up as much as I have. I want to go back to her stage, start over, start from scratch. It’s funny, I’ve heard my whole life the gospel and about the rebirth we have in Christ. But seeing a brand new baby girl born into the world with a chance to do something amazing is unique and unforgettable.

Yes, I’ve been saved. Yes I know the gospel. God looks at me with the robe of righteousness that covers my sin, and I have a divine purpose to accomplish. And by God’s grace I will accomplish those things.

But oh what it would be to go back and to correct those pitfalls I had. Those thoughts I shouldn’t have thought. Those things I shouldn’t have said. The things I should have done when I did nothing. But I can’t go back, only forward.

Olivia Grace has a lifetime ahead to accomplish great things. Though I have my scars and past sins, I am refreshed by the grace of God and have the chance to yet do that as well. Oh how great is the grace of my God.