Pentecost Thoughts 2022

This year, Pentecost Sunday is June 5th. Considering some recent events and challenges, I have been thinking about the gift and need of the Holy Spirit in our lives and world.

For example, the US continues to see increased gun violence in the evilest ways. There have been more mass shootings in the US than days of the year in 2022. There are also more guns owned by people in the US than even people.

I also just received news that in an Asian country the mission organization I lead (ServeNow), works in, we faced some hostile religious fanatics who did not like that we were working to install three water tanks in a poor village in need. This group was opposed to it because they knew we partner with the local church, and they did not want help from the church.

Then, I think of the Ukraine war and the weariness of that along with funding dropping, even though the needs are increasing, not decreasing. For example, we just re-opened a second safe housing location as people evacuate certain cities still being brutally attacked and need a place to stay. There is fear Russia could be considering and planning to try to take the capital, Kyiv again. This would mean the same towns people are just now returning to and trying to rebuild are at risk all over again.

Next weekend, I will be heading out to Sri Lanka, a small island country that has been collapsing economically, resulting in protests and political turmoil. A humanitarian crisis unfolds as inflation soars and people face possible starvation realities. We have instituted a special plan called “The Joseph Project” to provide families with chickens and cultivate home gardens as the government is warning people could starve otherwise.

I share these examples and could share many more because there are real challenges worldwide and right here in the US. We need the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in our lives to overcome and be a true light and witness in this dark and troubled world.

Linked to the promise of the Holy Spirit was a call to prayer. Prayer preceding the coming and empowering of the Holy Spirit reminds us of our need to recognize we cannot possibly do what God has called us to do in our strength or human wisdom. We need God. We need to pray for his help, wisdom, and empowerment. While prayer cannot be a substitute for action and obedience, our efforts and obedience need to be fueled by prayer and dependent upon the Holy Spirit’s enabling presence and power.

This weekend let’s remember our need for the Holy Spirit. We are here to be witnesses of Jesus Christ in all the world. We need the Holy Spirit to actively fill us, empower us, send us out, and provide for all our needs to do all he has called us to do. What is missing in so many of our lives today is a sense of desperate dependency on God that drives us to our knees in prayer and then causes us to rise in his power, with purpose, to confront the challenges we face with divine courage and compassion.

Miracles

“Yes,” says the Lord,
 “I will do mighty miracles for you,
like those I did when I rescued you
    from slavery in Egypt.” -Micah 7:15

The last articles I published on this site are full of some sad realities worldwide, especially related to Ukraine. There is a lot of brokenness in our world, and 2022 has been no exception. If anything, this year has felt just as heavy already. It’s been interesting to me, too, because, at the end of 2021, I had two new books I was working on and debating which to move forward with in 2022. The one I thought I would move forward with was lighter in focus and tone. However, at the end of 2021, I sensed I should go with the other, which is in the editing stage now. It is titled: Navigating Disappointment: Finding Healing in a Broken World. It will speak to what many are going through in a new way this year.

All that to say, I was feeling quite discouraged last weekend after some setbacks and a slow month. However, over the weekend, I was reading the book of Micah. I came across the verse quoted at the start of this article from Micah 7:15, where God promises he will do mighty miracles for his people like he did when he delivered his people from bondage in Egypt. That Sunday, we also sang a song at our church called “Rattle.” A line in the song says about God, “You’re not going to run out of miracles anytime soon.”

This verse from Micah and line from “Rattle” gave me great encouragement in being reminded this is who God is and what he does. If he provided for our most significant and deepest need, the gift of salvation, he will be faithful to meet all our other needs. And it’s not like he is a God who works powerfully only when he saves us. He is a God who continues to work mighty miracles repeatedly in our lives!

While salvation is the greatest gift and most important miracle, other miracles are not any less remarkable. And God is not limited in his miracles! In this verse from Micah, he even promises he will work miracles like when he rescued his people from Egypt or us at our point of salvation.

The first day back in the office this week was one where several things happened all in one day that I had been waiting on for some time. It would be easy, on the one hand, to take them for granted. But considering what I was reminded of on the weekend, they were reminders of God’s faithfulness and ability to work on our behalf as if it were nothing to him! He is unlimited in his miracle-working strength in our lives. He never grows tired or bored with us. He finishes what he begins. He doesn’t forget or move on to other, more interesting, things. He doesn’t take breaks or need to go on vacations.

Let’s continue to trust him to work mighty miracles on our behalf in the present as he has in the past. Past miracles should build our faith and confidence that he will be faithful in the present and future.

I have heard all about you, Lord.
    I am filled with awe by your amazing works.
In this time of our deep need,
    help us again as you did in years gone by.
And in your anger,
    remember your mercy. -Habakkuk 3:2

Seven Humanitarian Crises

Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land. -Deuteronomy 15:10-11

I’ve written quite a bit recently about the war in Ukraine still unfolding and the response of the mission organization I lead (ServeNow) in relief efforts. This blog post highlights seven current humanitarian crises in other countries ServeNow is also actively responding to with your partnership. I could surface more than these seven, but I want to draw some attention to these as examples beyond Ukraine. We have a responsibility to show God’s heart and love by serving the poor, the vulnerable, and those most in need.

Ethiopia

I was just in Ethiopia in early 2022 to launch ServeNow Ethiopia. One of the crises on our hearts that we wanted to begin serving those in need relates to civil war realities that have displaced millions of people. Our director just noted, “Many are widowed, thousands are orphaned, and tens of thousands are traumatized.” 

I am happy to report we are beginning to respond to those in need by providing food monthly and helping support some women to start their small-scale businesses for sustainable income. Here are the first situations and stories to emerge:

On April 21st, 2022, we had a setup for food distribution in collaboration with the office of women and children to help some non-income families for the Orthodox Easter holiday. It was a very successful distribution. We were able to help 50 families who were locally displaced due to the civil war. 

  • 45-year-old Alamanesh Aahana currently lives in Tafo. Initially, she was from Benishangul Region. She was a government employee but is now displaced with her family due to internal conflict. She left her properties behind and was in desperate need of any help. She is living in a rental home in Tafo and raising a child whose parents were killed in the conflict in Benishangul. 
  • 41-year-old Fikirte Senbeto is an HIV carrier and lives off medications. She has four family members; she is trying to support herself with no income. She blessed ServeNow for what she received from the organization. It will make the holiday a little easier for them.
  • 25-year-old Marta Kumarra has a child she struggles to raise as a single parent by working as a maid. Her husband was in the military, and she didn’t know his whereabouts. She was delighted to receive support from ServeNow Ministry Ethiopia.

Sri Lanka

I will be heading to Sri Lanka in June. Sri Lanka is in crisis economically and politically. All the cabinet members have recently resigned, along with the prime minister. Protests have also turned violent. Inflation is insane, and food is becoming scarcer. Economically Sri Lanka is in debt and collapsing. Many people, even the so-called “middle-class,” cannot afford basic essentials. People are facing starvation danger levels. 

One way we are serving in this crisis is through a program we are calling “The Joseph Project.” This project is helping people start their home gardens or chicken farms to provide sustainable food. We also have been sending medical equipment as there is a severe shortage of medical items for the sick. We are also looking at relief aid/care for the elderly, widowed, poor, and vulnerable children. 

Sudanese Refugee Camp

Since December 2013, South Sudan has faced brutal conflicts driving nearly four million people from their homes. Over two million South Sudanese refugees sought safety in Ethiopia and Uganda. 63% of the South Sudanese refugees are under the age of 18. These vulnerable women and children struggle with protection, livelihood, and education. Many face food insecurity!

Over time, ServeNow has supported and partnered with a Sudanese Refugee Camp in Uganda. We’ve provided the camp with relief, education, and biblical training. This week, our team just received this update from Bishop Henry, who serves like Jesus to this community:

He stated, “The support received transformed us! The motorcycle enables the overseer to visit the zones and the local Churches. Before the motorcycle, it was hard for us to make visits. The Christmas relief support for the needy families and Church leaders enabled them to realize that God cares even in the wilderness. They became transformed and motivated to serve the Lord diligently because they realized our caring God!” The support for homeschooling during the COVID-19 pandemic encouraged the parents and students. Those learners are doing well currently! The school just opened back up full-time. The community appreciated the Church for its holistic ministry. Last April, we conducted a Christian Teachers Training Course for forty church schoolteachers. The training had five Modules. They started with Modal One, Bible World View. During the training, four teachers gave their lives to Jesus. We thank God for your financial support! Because lives are transformed, and people decide to follow Christ. We appreciate ServeNow. ServeNow is a gift to the South Sudanese body of Christ!”

Yazidi Refugee Camp

One of the heart-breaking situations worldwide that has not been in the news in years is the plight of the Yazidi people in Iraq. ISIS terrorized this community, taking young girls captive to be their wives and bear children. Historic towns and cities were destroyed completely. And many Yazidi people are still living in refugee camps in Iraq, feeling forgotten and abandoned by the world in their trauma.

ServeNow is providing food, humanitarian aid, sport activities for kids, trauma-related activities for traumatized women, and educational support to unwanted children born from captivity to ISIS soldiers. The Basic Series is used for discipleship purposes and to let people know that God loves them and has not forgotten them.

Myanmar

Myanmar is also a country in political crisis again. The military Junta retook control in a coup in February 2021, even as Myanmar looked like it was moving more democratically. People were arrested, threatened, and shot as they began to protest. A record-breaking spring heatwave also is going through Southeast Asia, leading to suffocating temperatures. We have been responding with humanitarian relief aid.

India

Besides constant persecution concerns, record-breaking heat is also affecting India. Temperatures soared past 100 degrees Fahrenheit already. ServeNow is responding to the heat crisis with water relief in various communities most in need.

US/Mexico Border

Since April 2019, our partner at the border has served over 25,000 immigrants at the US/Mexico border. Of those 25,000, over 8,000 have come to faith in Christ through these efforts. The pastor we partner with at the border has turned his church into a respite center during the week, so those entering the US legally can come to have a warm meal, a place to rest, take a shower, pick out new clothes, hear the Gospel, and receive prayer before going on to their sponsor family in the US. Across the border, food is provided for those waiting to go through the legal process to enter the US. These people have been forced to leave their homes due to corruption, gangs, and violence endangering their children. They are not criminals but are being forced to immigrate because of criminals. Their journey is often treacherous, dangerous, and traumatic. A trip is being planned to go with me in September 2022 to see this work and meet these people firsthand: US/Mexico Border Trip.

***There are many needs worldwide and humanitarian crises constantly unfolding. I want to invite you to partner in prayer and financially to serve the most vulnerable and show God’s love worldwide via ServeNow. You can give “Where the Need is Greatest” here.

Lessons of War in Ukraine

In this blog post, I want to surface a few lessons I am reflecting on from my time in war-torn Ukraine. These lessons relate to the reality of war, evil, suffering, courage, and hope.

Presence

Early in this war, I realized words seemed to fall utterly short. Words felt trivial, even dismissive of the evil being experienced in many ways. There was nothing I could say that would remove the suffering and hellish realities people were experiencing.

But what did seem to matter and speak a message beyond words was presence. Simply being there for them in their time of need through prayer, listening, sharing in their suffering, and the generous support of many individuals, churches, and businesses, sent a message that we are with them. Over and over, people in Ukraine communicated that this is what they experienced. Further, their ability to be together during this time in our “Places of Hope” safe housing locations was critical to their sanity. Being able to bear one another’s burdens and share in the sorrow and do life together made the unbearable more bearable. 

Additionally, physically going and being present with them spoke volumes. The incarnation of Jesus took on new meaning even for me. Immanuel, God with us, has never meant more. The promise of the Holy Spirit being with us has never meant more. Presence matters sometimes beyond words.

Job’s friends got it right when they came and sat with Job in silence. It was when they began to speak that they only increased his suffering. And although Job thought he wanted answers from God, when God did speak, he overwhelmed him with his presence and the reality of who he is. In times of suffering, people need our silent presence. And this is profoundly powerful beyond words that might make us feel better but does not change the suffering people are enduring.

Humor

I was surprised during our time in Ukraine at the amount of laughter and humor we experienced and shared in together. Perhaps it was partly a defense mechanism that kicked in to not go entirely crazy at the weight of the evil and suffering we were exposed to. But it got me reflecting on the subtle and often overlooked value of humor in diffusing situations. Humor certainly doesn’t diminish the pain, and suffering people go through. But humor has a way of defying evil having the last laugh. It may be purely coincidental, but it struck me that humor and humanity in English share the same first three letters. Could it be that humor restores our humanity? That part of what it means to be human is humor? I ordered some books upon my return to dig a little deeper into the science and psychology of humor and its importance in society. All I know is that it felt good to laugh and share humor with our Ukrainian friends amid the terrible suffering they are going through. And it seemed to be needed. Our director even commented that she hadn’t laughed that much since the war began.

Beauty 

It struck me that life and beauty were relentlessly and stubbornly continuing to break through despite the darkness and destruction. Spring was afoot in Ukraine, and flowers were refusing to yield to the devastation. It reminded us of the promise we have in Christ of restoration and the renewal of all things. That no matter what Satan unleashes upon this world, no matter what wicked people and leaders bring forth upon others, beauty and life will emerge even from the ashes. Hope will rise even from ground zero. There is a lot of darkness in the world. But there is also beauty. And though it does not make the level of noise evil makes, still it remains and endures long after evil has done its work. For all the hell on earth, it only makes the promise of heaven all the sweeter. 

Evil 

War is terrible to begin with. But what I saw in Ukraine was a manifestation of pure evil. Civilians posing no threat were fired upon. Families trying to evacuate were killed just because soldiers could. Others were told to run, and then Russian soldiers fired over their heads to intimidate, humiliate, and make sport of. Young girls were sought out to be raped, including a three-year-old we heard about. People were left without food, electricity turned off, and residential homes, apartments, businesses, hospitals, orphanages, and schools were destroyed unnecessarily. Russian soldiers looted and stole from people’s homes and destroyed other items for no military objective but out of human jealousy and spite. We can’t deny the reality of evil in this world or this war. We can’t turn a blind eye to it. We can’t justify it, diminish it, deny it, or discredit it. We must face it head-on and call it for it is. It is pure evil.

Propaganda

I saw firsthand again the level of propaganda and misinformation Russia pumps out about this war and everything else to cause chaos, skepticism, confusion, and distraction. They throw out all kinds of narratives, false statements, and twisted lies to see what sticks and what people buy into. They project onto others what they are doing and are. We live in an age of misinformation, identity politics, deception, and fake news. We live in a world where truth doesn’t matter. Much of this has been created by Russian propaganda or inspired by their tactics. More than ever, discernment is needed. We are being played in so many ways, often via social media outlets, algorithms, bots, and fake accounts spewing out misinformation. The goal is not truth. The goal is not even a cohesive argument or logic. The goal is confusion and getting people to question what is going on. The goal is to get us to turn on one another. The goal is to distract us. Though more information is available than ever before, more propaganda is being believed than ever before. Therefore, discernment is needed more than ever.

Courage

I don’t want to end without noting the astonishing courage of the Ukrainian people. They have put up a fierce fight. Many endured the worst of it all in their homes and while helping neighbors. Others aided in evacuations. Still more stepped up to serve those in need despite their struggles. People are returning to cities early, even before electricity and water have been restored. They want to move on with their lives and go back to their lives despite all the destruction. They want to rebuild and show they will not be beaten by the evil perpetrated upon them.

War brings out the worst in some and the best in others. I have heard many stories and been with ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Common people are becoming heroes and saints even if they don’t feel that way or see themselves in that light. Russia has under-estimated Ukrainians and the response of the world. And while the world has watched in horror at Russia’s war on Ukraine, the world has also been inspired by the Ukrainian response and resilience.

We can learn from what is happening in Ukraine. We see the importance of presence, humor, beauty, and courage. We also must be wise to evil and propaganda. The real enemy, Satan himself, is shrewd and cunning. But the God we serve is good, loving, just, and true. Evil may have its moment. But good will always overcome evil and conquer in the end.

A Few Days in Ukraine

In this blog article, I would like to share a day-by-day report of what we experienced, saw, heard, and felt as we spent some much-anticipated time in Ukraine with our staff, team, volunteers, and people. While only in Ukraine for a couple of days, it felt like every day was a week’s worth of time and a lifetime worth of trauma and pain.

Day 1: West Ukraine

After spending the night in Poland, we drove across the border into Ukraine. As soon as we cleared customs, sirens went off for all of Ukraine. I didn’t realize before that when the siren warnings go off, it means missiles have been launched, and you have five minutes to get to shelter. While there is no way of knowing preciously where a missile will hit, the general region is known. Sometimes they are struck down in the air, but they will often hit some location. Over 2,000 missiles have been launched at Ukraine from Russia in the 70+ days of this war so far. Not all people take cover every time. Sirens go off about 2-3 times within 24 hours. Even after we arrived at our “safe housing” location, we were jarred from our sleep at 2 am by the siren alarm and listened to children’s feet scurrying off to the basement out of caution. It struck me that while our “safe housing” is unlikely to be hit, there is no entirely safe place in Ukraine.

Before settling in for the night in Ukraine, we listened to people’s stories that we helped evacuate and provide for at these “Places of Hope” locations. At the peak, we had four areas inside Ukraine itself, but we were down to one location by the time we arrived. However, we are looking at re-opening a second one to assist with increased requests coming from cities under attack now, such as Mariupol, Kharkiv, and Odessa. We have helped evacuate over 1,000 people to various places throughout this war, including other countries and providing food to hundreds of others as well.

In hearing the first wave of stories, a repeated theme of profuse gratefulness emerged in our proactive steps before the war to evacuate people if needed and provide locations to take care of people. Due to that preparation, hundreds of lives were saved. Not many others took those pre-planning steps and found themselves in an even more intense situation and crisis when the war started. We also heard stories of those who stayed behind a few days or weeks or entire month and faced harrowing situations. Many were lucky to make it out alive. Tragically, many others did not.

That evening I spoke to the group present at the daily chapel service. My message to them was we wanted to come to be present with them and let them know they are not alone. I shared how although I had no words that could make their suffering or loss less, we do have a Savior who not only identifies fully with us, is present with us in our pain, but endured the worst evil and trauma of all the world on the cross on our behalf. More importantly, Immanuel, God with us, is with them. As I spoke, various people teared up at different points. It was an emotional time for us all.

Day 2: Kyiv/Various towns on the outskirts

Upon being awakened by sirens at 2 am, we didn’t get much sleep, as we needed to leave by 4 am anyway to drive about 6 hours to the Kyiv area. Once again, as we neared Kyiv, sirens went off in that area. However, as we moved around various parts of Kyiv, I was struck by how severe the destruction was around the neighboring cities, but not the middle of Kyiv itself. It was amazing what the Ukrainian army could do to prevent the Russian military from reaching the capital. It is a true David verse Goliath situation.

Our first stop was at a partnering church, where I preached a message on how God brings forth some of the most beautiful realities out of the worst darkness. From creation itself (Genesis 1:1-2) to Moses seeing the glory of God inside the “thick darkness where God was” (Exodus 21:20), to our being a light and witness in a dark world (Isaiah 60:2), to the salvation Jesus brought us on the cross (Mark 15:33), God is not afraid of darkness and neither do we need to be. Without diminishing the horror of the darkness of this war, it was a reminder to focus on knowing God more intimately amid the deepest darkness. As we later began touring around various towns and residential locations, this reality would be symbolized through spring beauty breaking through even the most war-destroyed areas. Reminders that this world is full of death and darkness but it is also a world of life and beauty that resiliently finds a way to keep penetrating and breaking forth the harshest environments. A reminder of the future restoration of all things when Christ returns.

It was a joy to be with this partnering church. It was primarily men during the service as most women and children evacuated the country while they stayed behind to fight and feed people in need. They were also mostly men from a rehab center where over 1,000 have gone through since about 2005 recovering from various addictions. They were full of passion for Jesus! Four men came forward as well after the message to receive Christ. Many people are coming to faith in Christ during this dark time in Ukraine. We heard several other testimonies besides experiencing this in real-time at this service.

After the service, with some of the leaders of this church, we visited various families and locations to deliver food packages filled with food items, hygienic items, medicine, and a New Testament Bible. We saw the site where pictures in our news had shown a long line of Russian tanks coming towards Kyiv but were stopped by the Ukrainian military and turned back. We saw the destruction to civilian homes they caused along the way. We heard of Russian soldiers looting, stealing, and robbing houses, taking whatever they liked out of greed, and destroying whatever they wanted out of jealousy. We heard from one family, including a young mother with children, how they huddled in the basement as tanks rolled through their yard and even shot at their home.

After delivering food items, we moved on to Irpin, where we would be spending the night with one of our ServeNow volunteers. As we entered Irpin, where most of our staff, team, and volunteers live, I was struck by the destruction’s severity and scope. 70% of Irpin’s buildings are destroyed or will need to be torn down. These include hospitals, apartment complexes, homes, orphanages, and more. It also included our own Ukrainian National Directors’ home. This was the first time they were visiting their home together. While both had been there separately before, it was an emotional moment for them together as a couple. Their roof and an entire half of their second floor, a section I and other guests used to sleep in while in the area, were destroyed in the fighting. The whole house will need to be torn down and rebuilt as it is structurally compromised. Bullet holes were also everywhere, including through their oldest son’s bedroom wall, where he usually slept.

The home we stayed in that evening was also bullet-ridden but fared better than many homes in Irpin. It was an interesting experience sleeping in a house full of bullet holes. That evening I even woke up unable to move for a few moments, startled by a nightmare I was having of evil clinging to me and suffocating me so that my body was reacting momentarily in a paralyzed way. It wouldn’t be the first or last nightmare I have had around this war. I was getting just a tiny glimpse of the trauma Ukrainians are living through in more than just a nightmare during the night, but a nightmare in reality.

Day 3: Irpin/Bucha

Day 3 was a full day going around Irpin to meet with people to hear their stories and deliver more food items to those in need. It was only this day that many were having electricity restored. Officials were discouraging people even from returning as early as many did. But as we watched people walking the streets or out with their dogs in parks, we could see the stubborn determination to resume life as quickly as possible despite the destruction, danger, and challenges.

Our first stop was to see our new bakery training center/café that was due to open end of March. Renovations were nearly complete, and the next step was going to be installing the bakery equipment. The business beside it did not fare well. But besides windows blown out, our section was spared any significant damage. We also confirmed that the ventilation system was not damaged. The building itself, which contains several businesses on the ground level and apartments several stories high above, was not structurally damaged and will not need to be torn down like many others. This seemed miraculous to me for several reasons. Besides many other buildings suffering far worse damage, a missile had landed right behind this building and destroyed homes on the other side.

Additionally, before we secured this location, we had been looking at another building. When we drove by that building later, we saw it was destroyed. The owners went with another buyer due to some delays we experienced. My hope and prayer are that we will be able to open this bakery café in the near future so that it can serve as a symbol of hope and restoration to a city that has been among the worst destroyed in Ukraine.

After touring our bakery location, one of our visits was with an elderly couple in their 70s. They had remained in a fiercely contested part of Irpin because some neighbors in need around them were unable to evacuate, or in one case, a disabled person was left behind by relatives. This couple decided to risk their own lives despite their age to aid their neighbors, which was an act of true heroic nature. They had 12 people in their cold, dark basement/workshop for a month, crammed together in a tiny room with no heat or electricity. Snipers were set up outside, perched in a couple of locations. Russian soldiers came by eventually and found them in the basement, which was the moment they thought they would be shot. However, the wife, a former schoolteacher, tried to strike up a connection with one of the soldiers. She discovered he was from the same obscure town she was born in Russia! This connection might have saved their lives. As we talked with them, it felt like we were talking to Holocaust survivors. It was hard to believe this had happened just one month prior.

We visited many locations in Irpin that were destroyed just a month ago. A family home for orphaned children. A famous bridge you may have seen on the news that Ukrainians blew up to keep Russian tanks from being able to get to Kyiv and where hundreds of people huddled waiting to be evacuated. A junkyard of destroyed Russian tanks. Haunting stockpiles of bullet-ridden civilian cars destroyed and already crusted over with rust from the intensity of being on fire and then exposed to snow/rain. In one car, we saw a little kid’s bicycle. Shoes, burned clothes, books, food items, and trash littered vehicles. A couple stopped to talk to our director. They were searching for their car that missing relatives were in trying to evacuate. They had not heard from them still a month later. It was haunting and horrifying to see how many civilian cars and vans had been openly shot upon with families inside simply trying to evacuate. Every vehicle with its own story. Every car with people full of hopes and dreams but having met a premature end. Atrocities of an unnecessary and unjust war on Ukraine.

We ended the evening visiting a mother and her teenage son who had recently returned to their apartment in Irpin. She told us how they survived a month in hiding before evacuating. Through tears, she described how parents would lay on top of their children to protect them from shooting, how soldiers made them run and then shot at them as they ran to scare them and sadistically mock them as if it was a game. They were so low on water that they could only wet their lips from time to time out of fear of running out completely.

Day 4: Bucha/West Ukraine

On day 4, we participated again in a feeding program in a town that had been under Russian occupation for a month. Many elderly people especially were present to receive warm food and other essential items. Many were on the verge of running out of food during the month of Russian occupation. Electricity still was not restored while we were there, so hot meals were greatly appreciated. The church we partner with had immediately come into this area to begin providing food after the town was liberated from the Russians. They first preach the Gospel in the open park area before starting their feeding program. We also gave copies of some of The Basic Series books to those who desired. A young boy held hands with his mother with one hand and read The Basic Things You Need to Know About Jesus booklet with the other hand as they walked away.

After the feeding program, we went to more towns and heard some of the most horrific stories. One town told us how Russian soldiers came from house to house looking for young girls to rape. A three-year child was among those. A mother in anger and tears told us of a nearby building being bombed with people inside, including her son and daughter-in-law. She was still holding out hope they somehow survived. The bodies will take 45 days to ID. It struck me how none of these locations had any military objective. They were simply war crimes of the worst kind and nature.

One of the families we visited was a young mom who gave birth to their second child when the war began. However, the hospital she was in had everyone evacuate and get on a train out of the city. Imagine having just had a C-section and giving birth to a baby only to evacuate on a train with nowhere to go for hours! This was one of many mothers and children we could take care of at our safe housing location. Just before we arrived, she had been able to return home to her husband and other daughter. Her husband told us of the ordeal he went through during this time back home. Upon going out one night to get milk for his family, Russian soldiers stopped him and his friend and beat them up, pouring out all his milk and threatening him. This whole family is lucky to be alive. We are born into a violent world, and the world can be such a violent place. But this mom and her daughter and family have come to represent a symbol of hope and life during a time of despair, death, and destruction.

It was a sober and heavy drive back to West Ukraine. While we did share more laughter than I anticipated and somehow found humor perhaps as a defensive mechanism and way to cope with the overwhelming horror of war, there is a heaviness of deep sorrow and trauma caused by such terrible destruction and loss of life.

That evening we arrived back in time to hear more people’s stories. One of them included a woman from Mariupol who didn’t think she would survive. Another included a woman in her 80’s who had lived through World War 2. In our location, she didn’t feel alone anymore. She was grateful that there were people there to help in this new war. Everyone in fact commented on how meaningful it has been to go through this together and know they are supported by many around the world.

Day 5: Lviv/Back to Poland

We were able to join the group for breakfast before heading to Lviv for some shopping and COVID test before heading back across the border to Poland to spend the night for our morning flight home. In Lviv, we saw a city trying to go about everyday life. It might be one of the few Ukrainian cities that felt normal and hasn’t experienced the destruction of other cities. While people tried to go about their everyday lives, you could still feel the underlying tension of the reality of a country at war and vulnerable at any moment.

We once again had no trouble crossing the border despite it taking several hours. We arrived in Poland in the evening and enjoyed the time walking around downtown Warsaw and having dinner outside in the main square. It was a reminder of what life is like for those living in peace, at least for now. It was also a reminder of how fragile peace can be. And it was a reminder that even as we sat enjoying a beautiful, peaceful evening meal, thousands of others are still facing the worst realities of war and wondering if they will survive another day. We have more work to do. We have more people to serve.

***It is costing us $25 a day per family to provide food, safe housing, evacuation efforts, and other needs as they arise. If you would like to partner with us in serving those most in need in Ukraine, you can donate on our website: www.weservenow.org, indicating “Ukraine War Relief” in the memo.

The Problem of Evil

Surely he took up our pain
    and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
    stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed. -Isaiah 53:4-5

As we approach the Easter season, my thoughts are directed towards the problem of evil in a new way. The issue of evil is humanity’s age-old problem, and even the greatest saints in Scripture and throughout history have wrestled over it. 

The dilemma is this: If God is God, then he is all-loving, all-wise, and all-powerful. How do those three realities reconcile with the reality of evil? What do we do with the horrors we see unfolding in Ukraine, for example, this year? I just wrote an entirely new chapter on “The Problem of Evil” that I hadn’t planned to write for my third book due to release the end of 2022 with the working title as: Navigating Disappointment: Finding Healing in a Broken World.

But it’s not just Ukraine. As I am writing more fully about in this new chapter to my third book, my work around the world with ServeNow sees and faces evil head-on in many countries.

When the war started in Ukraine, I was in Nigeria meeting with former Muslim women who were divorced and threatened to be killed by their husbands due to coming to faith in Christ. When the war in Ukraine escalated to an actual nightmare reality, I was in Ethiopia discussing plans to serve those affected by the conflict, drought, and famine there.

And then what about the refugees we serve in Uganda from the Sudanese conflict, many of whom have lost family members, friends, colleagues, and homes in brutal ways there? How about immigrants at the US/Mexico border forced to flee due to crime, violence, corruption, and gangs threatening to kill them and their children if they don’t leave? They face a harrowing journey to the border only to endure an outdated immigration process. In many cases, they are often discriminated against by Americans and accused of things they are fleeing from themselves. Or what about the Yazidi people in Iraq whom ISIS terrorized and traumatized for years, only to now feel forgotten and forsaken by the world?

Friends, evil is real, and it affects us all. Yes, some more brutally than others. But it is at work even in more so-called civilized, advanced, progressive, prosperous, democratic, educated, and wealthy nations. We may read about terrible things happening around the world or in history. We may see images and videos on the news of evil causing suffering in other countries worldwide. But at least in much of the so-called civilized or Western world, it remains as something we see perhaps “out there” but not touching us as brutally personal as it does for many worldwide. 

I am not trying to put fear in anyone’s hearts or lives in writing this, but evil takes many forms, some more subtle and insidious than others. And we are not nearly as sheltered as we might imagine ourselves to be. Evil is at work underneath the surface and appearance of civility of even the most advanced, prosperous, and educated nations.

Think of abortions performed privately inside modern health clinics. Think of dangerous disinformation, conspiracy theories, and fake news propagated throughout media outlets leading to broken relationships, division, and even violence. Or how about dangerous lies taught throughout various places of education leading young people astray into philosophies contrary to God’s truth and word? Then there are politicians stoking our most primitive fears and tribalistic identities for profit and power. There are those whose minds become so twisted that they go on shooting sprees in any context, from malls to schools, to churches. 

I believe there are four things we must do when it comes to evil. Those four things are we must acknowledge the reality of evil, face the reality of evil head-on, process and pray through evil, and enter the suffering of others with silent presence. Allow me to elaborate further.

First, we cannot afford to ignore the reality that evil is ever-present, whether lurking in the shadows waiting to strike or out in the open in brutal and barbaric ways. We must acknowledge it is real. It is an infectious disease with no country, place, or person immune to its horrible ravages. Trying to ignore, downplay, dismiss, or deny the reality of pure evil is folly that goes against all human history and even modern reality. To confront evil, we must first acknowledge the existence of evil.

Second, we must face evil head-on. I am not talking about seeking out evil. Evil will find and touch us all in some way, shape, or form. This is where I find great comfort in the cross and Christ himself. Jesus did not shy away from evil. Jesus faced evil head-on.

Not only did Jesus face evil head-on, but prophecy stated he would crush the head of the serpent behind all evil. Though innocent of evil, he felt the full force of evil at his crucifixion. At the cross, evil pounded away at Jesus. From the flogging he endured before the cross, to the nails piercing his flesh, to the taunts and cruel hatred of sinful men, to the injustice and abuse he suffered, to the total weight of sin upon his shoulders, Jesus did not back down or away from evil. He faced evil’s whole brunt force trauma, and he gave his life doing so. In giving his life, we find life and freedom.

I identify with this kind of Savior. I don’t know about you, but there is no single true hero I can think of, nor a person I respect, who hasn’t endured or stared down evil face to face. The most gripping stories, powerful movies, or inspiring people are those who face evil verse hiding from it. And if we are going to make any difference in this world, we can’t hide from it either.

I love this time of the year as we approach Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday. The cross, burial, and resurrection are the crux of our faith as followers of Jesus. They are also the only true balm of healing and salvation. The events of Easter are where love, mercy, grace, judgment, evil, suffering, sin, shame, victory, redemption, forgiveness, and reconciliation are seen most clearly. But all these great truths and problems require first acknowledging the reality of evil in the world and facing it head-on in our own lives and around the world.

Third, we must process and pray through evil. Acknowledging the reality of evil is one thing. Facing the existence of evil another. But processing and praying through evil is yet another level. I suppose we could stoically acknowledge and face evil straight on. And sometimes, that stoic stubbornness may be necessary to survive actual encounters with evil in the moment. But there also comes a time when the evil we see, experience, and endure must be processed and prayed through to find healing in this broken world.

Here again, I find great comfort in Scripture along these lines of processing and praying through the reality of evil. In Jesus, I see a Savior who is real and relatable. In Scripture, I find prayers and laments that are honest and raw. Take a moment and read Psalm 10 and Psalm 58.

These types of prayers have a fancy theological term for them. Scholars refer to these prayers as “Imprecatory prayers.” They are prayers invoking the Name of God to put an end to evil people and rulers, thus stopping the suffering of his people. They are found throughout Scripture, and I believe should be found on the lips of God’s people when they see evil at work in the world today. Yes, we need to guard our hearts against hatred, revenge, and unforgiveness. But I also believe if we care about others, we need to pray with passion and conviction for God to break the power of those who have become vessels of evil perpetrating violence upon the innocent.

Fourth, we must enter the suffering of others with a silent presence. What does this mean? When this war in Ukraine broke out, I felt at a total loss of words to share any meaning or comfort to our friends in Ukraine. What could one say that would ease their suffering? Every truth and promise of Scripture seemed insufficient, possibly even cruel if misheard or spoken at the wrong time. Remember Job’s friends? We give them a hard time for adding to Job’s suffering with their attempt to articulate a theological reason for Job’s calamity. Their theological assessment was off, but at first, they do what perhaps they should have just kept doing a bit longer. They enter Job’s suffering and sit silently with him in his grief for seven days. God himself waited longer before he broke his silence with Job.

I have a theory. The most comforting thing you can do for someone suffering is sit with them in their suffering and be silent for a time. Often, in a sincere desire to ease others’ suffering, we feel compelled to say something spiritual or scriptural to soon. But what if the most spiritual and scriptural thing we can do is say nothing but enter sharing in the grief of others suffering? What if people need our presence and not our preaching or reminders of God’s promises, at least for a time longer than we might think?

In my book Hope Rising: Finding Hope in a Turbulent World, I noted that we need to not mistake God’s silence for God’s absence. I genuinely believe God seems silent sometimes in suffering, not because he doesn’t care, but because he cares so much. He knows silence is better than sermons in those moments. It’s not words that are always or immediately required. It’s presence. And God’s silence is not evidence of his absence. God’s silence may indeed be the very proof of his presence with us.

I know it takes every ounce of energy to be silent and sit with someone in their suffering. It’s easier to say or try to do something. But perhaps the deepest form of engagement for those in the depths of suffering from the reality of evil is to restrain ourselves from speaking or doing something to ease our own or others discomfort. Perhaps the greatest gift we can give others is to be with and walk with those bearing the brunt of the evil. The problem of evil touches us all. However, the presence of God is also available to all as we face evil head-on. 

As we approach this Easter Season, let’s acknowledge the reality of evil. Let’s face the reality of evil head-on. Let’s process and pray through the existence of evil. Let’s faithfully and silently walk with others touched by evil. But most of all, let’s remember we worship and serve a Savior who has done these four things perfectly and fully for all of us. He did not ignore evil. He faced it head-on. He processed and prayed through evil. And he faithfully, often silently, walks with us through a world impacted by the reality of evil.

***If you would like to give towards ServeNow’s efforts in alleviating the suffering of others due to evil worldwide, including war relief efforts in Ukraine, click here: ServeNow.

Faith Amid War

Arise, Lord! Deliver me, my God! Strike all my enemies on the jaw; break the teeth of the wicked. -Psalm 3:7

Break the teeth in their mouths, O God; Lord, tear out the fangs of those lions! -Psalm 58:6

If the current war in Ukraine has caused many to rediscover anything, it is specific prayers in the Bible that we used to ignore or that would cause embarrassment. The two I quoted above from Psalms fall into that category. They are pleas for God to essentially step in and beat up the enemies of Israel in some graphic ways. How can these be justified as “Christian” prayers?

In light of Russia attacking Ukraine unnecessarily and brutally, I fully relate to these prayers. In talking with our National Leader in Ukraine, she even confessed how shocked she was to find herself praying prayers like this. I know I certainly have been, and a similar sentiment has been true for many following closely with alarm and anger. 

I’ve never been a fan of “nice” Christianity. Jesus himself, as well as the prophets and apostles, were not always nice either. The fruit of the Holy Spirit is not “niceness.” It is “kindness.” But kindness means to “show oneself useful.” Kindness, therefore, is more action-oriented than sentiment-oriented. As James says, If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? (James 2:16). It may be a “nice” sentiment to wish someone well, but a case could be made that it is cruel and unkind if nothing is done to show yourself useful in meeting someone’s needs.

This is not the same as saying we need to be mean people. I admit I can cross that line at times. Nor does it mean we are not a people seeking and pursuing peace. We need to be peacemakers. But it is to say that true faith is not as “polished” as we sometimes may want it to be or feel pressure to make it be.

I’ve battled this my whole life. I am strongly averse to “nice” and “polished” Christianity. I have a problem with those whose faith isn’t messy. My God, Jesus himself was crucified in a bloody and brutal way! He also prayed with “fervent cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7).

I also question those who have a faith that never seems to doubt, never wrestles with the complex realities of life, who express religious sentiments trying to smooth over challenging situations rather than sitting with people in their suffering and sometimes keeping their mouths shut, are overly spiritual, and never show real and raw human emotion, especially in prayer. 

But I think that is changing for many of us as we watch what is happening in Ukraine with deep sadness and anger. Just read the following and see what you feel. These are real pleas for help our leader in Ukraine received from people in just 2 ½ hours time:

  • It’s the third night we sit in the basement with my three kids… there is no electricity and heating. Please, help us and take us out from the area of bombing. I don’t care where we will go.
  • I am a mom of 9 adopted kids … we don’t have anywhere to go and don’t know what to do. Please, help!
  • I have a kid with disability, but I have lost the passport… Please, don’t leave our family behind.
  • There is no way to contact my husband… Two our kids are with me, but I don’t have any money. Take us from the war.
  • Right now, I am sitting in evacuation train from Kyiv. We are heading to western Ukraine. I don’t know what to do next…my sick mom is also with me. She is limited in movement.
  • I am not ready to leave my town… I have cancer and I had my chemo just three days ago. I am very weak…Please, help me to find the medicine I need.
  • Our town has been bombed; all roads are destroyed now. We don’t have means to get to a safe place, and it’s too dangerous to go on foot through the forest. What shall we do?
  • We were leaving our home at night with my mom, but our Makar (kitten) was left behind. Please, save him and find a kind owner for him… (pause, tears) – Maksym, 8 years
  • I have been in the bus with two small kids (1.5 and 3 years old) for 18 hours so far. I need a place for a night and assistance to get to the border tomorrow. Please, don’t turn us down.
  • I am on business trip abroad. But my elder parents are at their home in Ukraine, the contact with them has been lost. Please, find them and tell me that they are alive.
  • Our neighbors were under shelling yesterday. I am terrified… Please, take me out of here anywhere.
  • I am so grateful for the accommodation you have provided and for your care as well as for assistance with crossing the border. My kids are safe now. Pregnant mom with 5 kids.

I know what my and our Ukrainian friends’ prayers are, and they are a combination of two pleas aimed at two different groups of people: Lord deliver your people…and break the teeth of the wicked. Anything less is not a faith I trust or can believe in, but this, this is a faith that is real.

***ServeNow, the mission organization I lead is responding actively to helping as many in Ukraine as possible. We have evacuated over 100 to safety and are providing daily lodging, food, and basic needs. We continue to work to evacuate others and meet needs. It costs $25 a day per person. We are in this for the long-haul and committed to serving the people of Ukraine through this terrible time. You can give to these efforts on our website: www.weservenow.org, call to donate at 719-900-1800, or mail a check to 1817 Austin Bluff’s Pkwy #110, Colorado Springs, CO 80918.

Beauty and Tragedy

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

When writing and publishing this post, I am on a family vacation in Hawaii. It is my first time on this island, and it is beautiful! From sunsets over the ocean, to whale watching, to rainbows and warm weather, to a Luau near the ocean, to pictures of colorful fish captured while some snorkeled, to a hike down a volcano, there is much beauty to behold. Here was one of the first pictures taken once we arrived at our rental home.

However, I couldn’t help but notice that my last two Facebook posts before this trip were a stark contrast compared to the beauty here in Hawaii. Before coming to Hawaii, I had posted about a tragic fire that destroyed nine teachers’ homes at one of the school locations the non-profit I lead helps in Uganda. Below is a picture showing some of the huts on fire due to the combination of drought and strong winds. Praise God that he provided enough resources through generous people to rebuild these nine huts immediately, though more permanent teacher homes are needed.

Before this post, I had re-shared a memory from Ukraine when we spent some time in the war-zone of East Ukraine several years ago. Ukraine is all over the news again due to tension and the threat of Russia invading. ServeNow’s work in Ukraine began though in 2014 because of Russia invading and taking Crimea. Our leaders, staff, and volunteers are mainly from Crimea and resettled elsewhere when Russia took over this long-disputed area. We serve many internally displaced families from the war-zone and vulnerable people in the war-zone still in East Ukraine. Our team diligently and compassionately helps those most in need, from pulling kids out of the conflict zone for summer camps to Christmas gifts to skill and business training. And yes, plans are to provide immediate and emergency aid should Russia attack further. You can read more here from an article we posted at ServeNow (The Looming Threat of Russia Invading Ukraine).

I share these two situations from Uganda and Ukraine (two otherwise beautiful countries and people!) because the content of those posts presents a shocking difference compared to the beauty and peace I am experiencing in Hawaii. Even after this trip, I will be with persecuted believers in an African country and then to Ethiopia, suffering from civil war and other problems. These are all reminders the world is both beautiful and broken. It is both stunning and tragic. There are places of beauty to behold and tragedy we can’t ignore.

One of the books I’ve been reading on vacation is called The Beauty of a Darker Soul. It is a book written by a former soldier who fought and was even shot in the Middle East. He writes about his journey with Post Traumatic Stress. I thought the book’s title captures the reality not only in each of our lives but our world. Both beautiful and dark. In the beauty of this world, we see God’s goodness. In the darkness of this world, we hold onto hope in God’s faithfulness and promise to make all things new again. Beauty restores our souls and hope. Darkness reminds us that the world is not as it should be. Both beauty and darkness ultimately point us to God and his promises, albeit in different ways.

On our first morning in Hawaii, we saw a rainbow right out over our balcony view. A reminder of God’s promises and faithfulness. A reminder that all that is good comes from God, and all that will be good again will be because He is a God who restores that which is broke. For now, we must face tragedy with hope and allow beauty to renew our hope.

...to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor. They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations. -Isaiah 61:3-4

Born Again and Awake

After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” -John 11:11

After nearly two decades, a new Matrix movie has come out! I have a confession to make. I am not a fan of overtly “Christian” movies. I find more “secular” films, with Christian themes in them, whether intended or not, to be more powerful and moving. At the same time, I know Christian comparisons or movie illustrations can be overdone and, for some, overkill. But I see it as God’s general grace and common revelation in our present visual culture. And so, here is a little post on something the new Matrix Resurrections has me thinking about as we head into a new year.

In the first Matrix movie, we find Thomas Anderson questioning his life, reality, and identity. We see him go on this journey of being “awakened” and “reborn” into the “real” world as he takes the red pill, representing the truth.

When he wakes up in the real world, I find that whole scene to be a powerful picture of what it means to be “born again” when we receive Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life and begin to follow him. We start to discover who we are as “Thomas Anderson” learns of his true name: Neo. We discern what is true and what is an illusion. Our eyes are opened to the lies of the enemy that have kept us enslaved in the system of this world and kingdom of darkness.

In this new Matrix movie, we find “Neo” back living as “Thomas Anderson” in a new version of the Matrix. Without giving away spoilers from the first three movies or this new one, he once again needs to “awaken” to the truth and rediscover his true identity.

And this brings me to what I have been reflecting on. Scripture not only calls us to be “born again” but also calls believers to “wake up” and remember who they are in Christ. Even as born-again followers of Christ, we start to fall asleep spiritually, forget who we are, and find ourselves going back to our old way of life. Before we know it, we are just like the rest of the world again and need “re-awakened. Consider some of these verses that were written to believers:

And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. -Romans 13:11

This is why it is said: “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.  -Ephesians 5:14-17

Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you. -Revelation 3:2-3

Those who have yet to receive Christ need to be reborn into the kingdom and family of God. But for those already born-again, we sometimes need to be re-awakened or possibly even resurrected, spiritually speaking. I am not talking about our future resurrection when Christ returns, but here and now while still alive. We easily can forget our true identity, purpose, and calling in Christ and slip back into our old way of life.

Could this new Matrix movie be a way of shaking some of us back up out of our slumber? Might it be a message that we need “re-awakened” to the truth in Christ? Might it be a reminder of God’s resurrection power to enable us to escape the wiles of the devil, know the truth, and have the truth set us free to be and do all we are called as we follow Jesus? Could it be time for God’s people to arise and wake up once again?

The overall theme or message of The Matrix may not be all that off or unrealistic. After all these years, which pill will you take? Because your story and my story are not over yet! But we are going to have to fight for it…

Wake up, wake up, Deborah! Wake up, wake up, break out in song! Arise, Barak! Take captive your captives, son of Abinoam.’ -Judges 5:12

The Soul Felt it’s Worth

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. -John 1:9-13

The birth of Jesus is one of the most significant events in human history. The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world! A Savior and King long prophesied about and awaited was finally arriving. And yet, when he did, he was overlooked and rejected by the majority.

I point this out because I am sure each of us has felt the sting of being rejected or overlooked. We all have also probably been on the other side of that in rejecting or dismissing others. We have not always been treated with dignity, nor have we treated others properly or acknowledged their potential.

This Christmas season, we would do well to remember that even Jesus was overlooked and rejected by many. He understands and relates to that pain. And for that very reason, it is only in Him that we can truly feel and know our worth. As the popular Christmas hymn, O Holy Night puts it,

Long lay the world in sin and error pining, Till he appear‘d and the soul felt its worth.

And since it’s in Jesus that we come to know our worth and value, it also reminds us that every human being is of great worth and value in the eyes of God too. Who might we be overlooking or rejecting? Who might we be failing to dignify and honor?

If you struggle with feeling overlooked or rejected, look no further than Jesus. And if you are guilty of dismissing and overlooking others, look at the lengths God went to let us know our worth in his eyes.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. -John 3:16

The Coming of Jesus

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this. -Isaiah 9:6-7

We live in an age, like every age before, that is longing and looking for some Savior. Language is awash in Messianic fervor, whether politics, movies, music, or religion. Humankind is perpetually seeking salvation. Like the saying “looking for love in all the wrong places,” we often seek a Savior and salvation in all the wrong people or places.

One of ServeNow’s Basic Series books is titled: The Basic Thing You Need to Know About Salvation. The author of the book writes this about mankind’s pursuit of salvation: “I think it’s important to mention that the word salvation is not specifically a “Christian word.” Several religions mention salvation. However, their understanding of salvation differs from the understanding we get from the Bible. For example, Muslims think of salvation as a paradise where all spiritual and bodily desires are fulfilled. The Hindus see salvation as liberation from a cycle of rebirth to an expanded outlook, while for Buddhist’s salvation is reaching Nirvana-a transcendental, blissful, spiritual state of nothingness where you become a Buddha. Marxists see salvation as a reconstruction of society in such a way as to make it the basis for man’s true return to himself. In general, people see that things are not as they should be and inherently feel the need for salvation.” (Dunberg, pg.5).

Enter “Christmas,” the birth of Jesus. God took on human flesh to bring salvation to human beings. The Son of God was born to make us sons of God. A child from God was sent to make us children of God. The birth of Jesus into our world was so we could be reborn into his family. His coming to earth to be with us was so we could come to heaven to be with him for all eternity. His breaking forth into human history was our breakthrough to divine salvation. The birth of Jesus marked a new beginning not just for God in human flesh but human beings in relationship with God. His act of love and sacrifice was our answer to sin and shame. His innocence was our cleansing. His poverty was our riches. His purity was our redemption.

But Jesus’ coming into our world was just the beginning. Many prophecies preceded his first coming. His second coming contains even more promises. His birth as a child is also a guarantee of his future return as King.

Even the song Joy to the World, while becoming a song we sing at Christmas, is more a song about the second coming of Jesus. True and lasting joy will come on earth when he returns as rightful King to rule with perfect justice.

Jesus is the king humanity is seeking. And Jesus the King comes with a Kingdom. Jesus was always talking about the Kingdom of God. Every miracle, healing, deliverance, and act of love was about the kingdom of heaven breaking in as well as breaking down the kingdom of darkness.

Christmas is not just about a child in a manger. It’s about a King who will come again to rule and reign. We are not just preparing our hearts to celebrate his birth as a baby. We are preparing our hearts for his return as King. Therefore, as 1 Peter 3:15 says, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord.” And as the bible itself ends with, “He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.” -Revelation 22:20-21

Remember the Poor

There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land. -Deuteronomy 15:11

The poor you will always have with you… -Jesus, Matthew 26:11

There are two extremes I have heard expressed when it comes to the poor that I’d like to address in this article. Those two extremes are as follows:

  • We can end world poverty.
  • Giving to the poor makes no difference.

Let’s start with the first view, which is overly optimistic. I have heard multiple mission organizations and movements state that we can “end world poverty” in our lifetime. While noble, this is contrary to Scripture and Jesus’ own words that the poor will always be among us. The positive of this mobilizing message is that it has led to significant progress against world poverty. The standard of living worldwide has improved, especially before COVID set progress back. But world poverty has by no means ended. The poor are still very much among us.

On the other extreme is a sense of weary pessimism and giving up. Since the poor will always be among us, it is a reason for some to think they can justify a lack of responsibility towards the poor. But this is a misapplication of a statement Jesus makes in the New Testament. When he stated that the poor would always be among us, he quoted from a command in the Old Testament. In that verse (Deuteronomy 15:11), the fact that the poor will always be present reminds us of our ever-present responsibility to be generous and kind to the poor. 

The reminder and command regarding the poor serves to check these two extremes. On the one hand, we should not be so naïve as to think we can end world poverty. On the other hand, we should not be so discouraged that we grow weary and callous. Instead, we need a posture of constant pro-active generosity towards the poor who are always among us. We need to be “open-handed,” which requires an “open heart” of compassion.

The poor always among us provides us an ongoing opportunity to show God’s generosity and make us more like Jesus. It puts our selfishness in check. It puts our greed in check. It fosters a heart that is kind, giving, and sensitive to the needs of others. 

This year-end don’t turn a blind eye to the poor. And in 2022, all year long, don’t dismiss the call of God and responsibility to be kind to the poor. It brings dignity to the poor, honor to God, and provides an opportunity for us to be more like Jesus in this fallen world. 

Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God. -Proverbs 14:31

Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward them for what they have done. -Proverbs 19:31

***If you are looking for a trusted way to share generously with the poor, consider the mission organization I lead here: ServeNow. Our mission statement is: sharing Christ’s passion for the world by serving the most vulnerable through national churches and leaders.

One Purpose & Mission

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. -Romans 8:28-29

Too often and easily, we get set in our ways and fail to think about why we do what we do or honestly examine what we are doing. But what if we stripped everything away and started over? What would we do? What are we called to do? Could it be that we have lost our way, purpose, mission, and calling that Jesus outlined for us? 

For example, we all like the promise in Romans 8:28: And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

But this is a conditional promise. It’s not for all people. It is for a certain kind of person who meets two qualifications: they love God and have been called according to his purpose. 

I think the first qualification is relatively straightforward, although we can easily deceive ourselves. Love for God is shown by obedience to God. Jesus said it clearly in John 14:21, Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. Claiming to know God or love God but not obeying him is only deceiving ourselves. Therefore, we can say we love God all we want. The real question is whether that shows in our lives by our obedience to God and his word.

The second qualification, however, I think is something many of us do not have clarity on. We talk about God’s purpose for our lives as something special and unique in what he has called each of us to do. But God’s calling, gifting, and leading in our lives are different from his purpose. Further, God does not have multiple purposes or different purposes for my life and yours. God’s purpose for my life and your life is the same. His purpose for our lives is revealed in Romans 8:29: For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.

Perhaps we get distracted by some of the endless theological debates on some of the terms in that verse. Or maybe we get lost in some of those rich theological terms that we miss the simple truth being communicated. God’s purpose for my life and yours is that we become like Jesus. Period. Connected to the verse before, God working all things together for good is towards that end: to make us more like Jesus. He uses every situation, event, relationship, and experience to fashion and form us more into Christ’s likeness if we allow it and submit ourselves to that process. 

Once we understand this, it gives meaning and purpose to everything we experience and every experience we find ourselves facing. Nothing is insignificant, pointless, or wasted if we have this perspective. And our priorities shift from trying to control our circumstances to allowing God as the potter to shape our lives as the clay through all circumstances.

Further, Jesus has called us to be His witnesses in this world and call others to follow him. We are to be disciples who make disciples. And what are we discipling people to become? Like Jesus. Not like our politics. Not like our cultural preferences. Not like our perspectives, opinions, and viewpoints on everything. Like Jesus. 

Being a witness is more than going about and witnessing about Jesus. Being a witness is about seeking to be like Jesus in all our interactions, relationships, and experiences. Yes, we need to tell people about Jesus. We need to proclaim the Good News that others might believe. We need to call people to follow Jesus. We need to preach and teach the Word of God.

But in the process, we can’t forget God is as much concerned about who we are becoming as what we are doing. He cares about our character, not just our competency, giftedness, or vocation. To make disciples, we must first be a disciple ourselves. To call others to follow Jesus, we need to be sure we are following him.

This is the clarity we need today that I fear we are missing. Everything we do needs to be towards this aim: being disciples who make disciples. Whatever your context may be, what would it look like to ensure everything is being done with this one purpose in mind? What would it look like to communicate this purpose in everything that takes place? How can we see what God is doing in our own lives towards this end and shepherd others the same way?

Today, we are being more fashioned and formed by media and politics than the person of Jesus Christ and his living word. In some cases, we are even becoming less like Jesus while doing so in the name of Jesus! We need to regain clarity about our purpose, calling, mission, and vision. Sure, it will take different expressions that need fleshed out contextually. But heaven forbid we keep going through the motions of religion for ritual sake or political sake, but devoid of the life-transforming power of Jesus Christ in and through our lives, ministries, and churches. 

Religious activity without heart transformation is not something that pleases the Lord. He would in fact rather we shut it all down and start over with a simple purity of heart and orientation towards him. With or without us, his name will be revered and honored around the world. The question is whether his name will be great in and among us.

“Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you,” says the Lord Almighty, “and I will accept no offering from your hands. My name will be great among the nations, from where the sun rises to where it sets. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to me, because my name will be great among the nations,” says the Lord Almighty. -Malachi 1:10-11

Think Big & Small

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” -Jesus, Acts 1:8

In the Western World, we tend to think in either/or terms. Other parts of the world, however, do not think in merely either/or terms. Some cultures think in both/and terms, allowing room for more nuance, complexity, and possibility. While there are times that either/or is more appropriate and needed, there are also times a both/and mentality is more biblically faithful.

An either/or mentality is never truer than in our present polarized, politically charged culture. Everything seems to be put in terms of either being for or against with no room for nuance or complexity. Tribal loyalty carries more weight and importance than anything else. Unfortunately, this cultural and political mentality impacts our reading and understanding of Scripture, especially the mission that Jesus has called us to.

I continue to grow increasingly concerned about how this affects our witness in the world. As someone leading an international mission organization, I see more and more a dwindled passion, interest, or concern for the world and representing Christ. On the other hand, I see a growing passion and concern for America, with spiritual overtures, but from a political and cultural standpoint than genuinely biblical.

Have you ever heard people express the sentiment that they feel called to serve locally only? I hear this frequently as an excuse for not getting involved in or giving to missions. Put simply; this is not a biblical mentality that is faithful to the heart of God or the mission of Jesus. Sure, Jesus has given us unique callings, passions, priorities, and focus. But this doesn’t negate his call for us to serve locally and globally or vice versa.

There is truth that we can be so focused on “the world out there” that we miss the importance of serving or shepherding our families or engaging those nearest to us. In this season of my life and my role, I must be more mindful and intentional with this later reality than the first.

For example, I have a daughter who is now a teenager and beginning to encounter tough questions and try to navigate what she believes and how to represent Christ to her friends. I need to be spending more time with her on a deeper apologetic/foundational identity level in this vulnerable season of her life. For me, I need to be sure I am serving locally as well as globally.

But here is what I want to surface in this blog post. When it comes to being a witness of Jesus in this world, our calling is not an either/or. It’s a both/and. Further, Jesus didn’t technically say you would first be a witness in Jerusalem “and then” an ever-widening circle beyond till you finally reach the ends of the earth as if that is the “last priority.” He didn’t say we get to pick and choose as if this is an either/or option. He simply said we would be his witnesses in all these places and among diverse cultures. Both/and.

While our circle of influence may progress in some ever-widening area, life doesn’t always happen in a straight line. Sometimes we walk across the street. Other times we step onto an airplane that takes us halfway around the world. Sometimes we sit down in our own house with our kids around the table. Other times, we send a gift to someone or a ministry serving miles away. We must think big and small, small and big at the same time.

Thinking big is about a heart and vision for those outside our immediate context or culture. God’s heart is for all the world, and why should ours be any less?

Thinking small is about bringing this down to where we find ourselves each day. Who is the person next to us that we need to be a witness too and make this tangible and practical?

When we think big without thinking small, we can get stuck in our heads with grand visions of ministry that are ideal but not real and not making an impact on anyone specifically.

When we think small without thinking big, we miss God’s heart and opportunities to impact others who need him beyond our circles, church, community, city, country, or context.

We are being discipled today by media, politics, and an either/or mentality instead of fidelity and faithfulness to Christ and his word. Our mission in this world is clear, and our calling is clear. We need to be faithful to follow Jesus as his Spirit empowers us and sends us out, whether to a neighbor nearby or a neighbor in need around the world. Now go, not with an either/or mentality, but a both/and mentality. Think big and think small at the same time.

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” -Jesus, Matthew 28:18-20

A Case for Mission Trips

They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?” He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.” Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. -Mark 8:23-25

Have you ever read this story and wondered what in the world is happening and why Jesus healed this blind man this way? The way Jesus healed this blind man is perhaps one of the most unusual methods in Scripture:

  1. Jesus didn’t just open this man’s eyes right on the spot he came to him. Jesus led him by the hand and took him outside the village.
  2. He didn’t just touch him like other blind people. He spits on the man’s eyes and then puts his hands on him.
  3. It is also unique in that it seems this miracle wasn’t instantaneous but happened in two phases. 

What in the world is going on here?

I’ve often pointed to this miracle to make several points. The first is that there is not a formula to follow for healing. Jesus dealt with people very personally and individually, and sometimes he heals in unusual or unconventional ways.

The second way is to note that not all healings are instantaneous, and sometimes miracles unfold through a process and take time. 

Third, I like to use this story to relate to how sometimes it takes Jesus leading us by the hand and taking us outside our everyday environment for our eyes to be opened.

For this article, that is the point I want to emphasize in connection with short-term mission trips. I know I am writing this when travel is still quite challenging due to COVID, but as things begin to open back up, I hope to make a positive case for why you should consider a short-term mission trip.

Short-term missions have got a bad rap in recent years, often for some legit reasons. I have a number of books that point out some of the harm mission trips have done in other countries for several reasons. 

But I believe the issue is our attitude and approach to missions, not missions or short-term mission trips. When approached with humility verse seeing ourselves as the hero’s the world needs, and when coordinated with national leadership in the countries we are going to, it can be a mutually edifying experience.

Further, I believe mission trips to other countries or cultures help us to see more clearly our personal and cultural blind spots. I know whenever I travel, I learn as much from those I am with as they might learn from me. I also come to see, value, and respect other cultures and recognize other ways of life different from my own. In some cases, those ways may be more biblical, or my own are seen more clearly for what it is: American culture, not necessarily typical or biblical culture. 

We always like to see our way of life and culture as superior to others or perhaps more efficient, effective, or biblical. We at least think our way of life is normal and others abnormal. But serving on a mission trip has a way of opening our eyes to both the beauty of other cultures and ways of living out our faith that might challenge and edify our walk with Christ. 

I think missions, even short-term mission trips, are vital for these reasons. We need the perspective of the global church and our brothers and sisters in Christ worldwide. When we get outside our own culture, our eyes are opened in new ways. And Jesus often works in our hearts and lives in unusual or unconventional ways. Miracles even begin to unfold as we open ourselves to what God might have for us. 

If you can’t travel internationally, there are still plenty of ways to get outside your familiar environment or culture right where you live or nearby. Commit to serve, for example, at an inner-city mission or some other local charity setting. Getting outside your own social or cultural circles does not require leaving the country. It just requires allowing Jesus to lead you by the hand and letting him work in a way that will give you new vision, insight, and clarity!

***Consider joining me on a ServeNow mission trip! It will be an experience you won’t forget!

Idols and Culture

I recently returned from another trip to a couple of countries in West Africa on behalf of the mission organization I lead called ServeNow. In this blog post I would like to reflect upon idols and culture not just in what I saw in another country, but even our own. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we all are shaped and influenced by cultural dynamics we think are the norm, even when in a global context they are not.

On this trip, as I have in trips past, I walked through a couple of remote villages with many idols present. In one of those villages, they even worship a TV that no longer works. This village has been closed off to the Gospel. However, by empowering some local women in a micro-enterprise project, it is beginning to open new doors to the community as they become the missionaries to the village.

One man even donated a spot for our coordinator and his wife to teach the kids about Jesus. Sadly, however, this man was just in a motorcycle accident where he hurt his leg badly. He could not afford to go to the hospital, so he was treated in their traditional way, which is not helping. Worse, some people in the village are happy this happened to him as they see it as their gods punishing him for his generosity in welcoming the Gospel. When we learned of this, I gave him what he needed on the spot to get his leg checked out at a hospital. We also prayed for him and thanked him for what he had done.

In another village, we toured a site dedicated to the idols of the land. We saw many bizarre and grotesque idols and learned their backstory and cultural influence. As we walked through parts of that village, we also saw many idols along roads and on people’s land.

Two idols especially caught my eye. One was of a two faced double agent. It caught my eye because I saw in it the fact that we can at times be two-faced if we are not careful. While we should pay attention to be respectful of different environments, cultures, and people, we also must be authentic. I am not talking about being perfect. I am talking about being genuine and honest.

Another idol that caught my eye along this line was one that depicted synchronism. Synchonism is a way of life that thinks you can blend different religions together. In the image below, this is depicted by the idol holding a Catholic incense item in one hand and a voodoo item in the other. This form of religion is not only practiced literally in parts of the world. Many of us have adapted parts of culture or other religions into our own in a way that contradicts what it means to follow Christ wholly according to Scripture. We can’t live as a Christian in some areas of life or some settings. We are called to be Christ-like in all settings and all areas of life.

Additionally, we toured a python temple were snakes are worshiped. In another village nearby, we traveled a slave trade route that I wrote about here: Injustice Rolls On. What struck me too was the role of idols and evil and how that plays a role in historical and modern-day realities. For example, we heard of a recent story where people were buried alive in that village as a sacrifice to their gods.

Some of what I am writing may sound bizarre on the surface from an outside perspective. We may find it primitive or easy to judge or condemn. We view ourselves as more civilized or enlightened perhaps. But this is an outsider’s view of a deeply entrenched cultural reality. If you were to take those same people and place them into our culture, they would find some of our cultural idols and ways of life extremely odd. They may have statues representing their gods, but how many of us are addicted to the animated idols we see on TV? The impact of movies, TV shows, and celebrity icons can be just as addictive and idolatrous as what I saw. Think how deeply entrenched movies such as Star Wars or Avengers or other super-hero icons are. Not to mention sports, politics, and other priorities in our lives that often get exalted above relationship with God.

We all like to think our culture is “the norm.” And we all tend to judge and see things differently from an outside perspective. But each culture ironically similarly looks at other cultures and finds something hard to understand. For example, when people visit the US for the first time, they can’t believe the level of options food-wise we have, material items we possess (or possess us), and the level of luxury we live in that we treat as usual. Yet this is abnormal compared to the standards and life of most people worldwide and throughout human history.

My point is it is harder to see our cultural blindness and grip of idols in our hearts and lives. However, traveling outside our environments can open our eyes not only to other cultural dynamics but also our blind spots. We all are influenced by any number of things that we treat as cultural norms, and the real question is whether they hold up to the biblical ethic and way of life for a Christ-follower. These are questions we each must examine in our own lives and work out in relationship with God, according to our consciousness, prayer, and God’s word.

We can ask ourselves what might be holding us back from wholehearted commitment to Christ? What prevents us from loving God above all and with our all? What keeps us from loving our neighbor as ourselves? What is stopping us from total obedience to Jesus in being a disciple and making disciples? What influences could be blinding us? What idols may have a grip over us? What can other cultures teach us, and what do we need to unlearn from our own culture?

Injustice Rolls On

“I looked and saw how much people were suffering on this earth. I saw the tears of those who are suffering. They don’t have anyone to comfort them. Power is on the side of those who treat them badly. Those who are suffering don’t have anyone to comfort them.” -Ecclesiastes‬ ‭4:1‬

I just wrapped up a trip on behalf of the international mission organization I lead called ServeNow. I don’t usually have time to do much sightseeing on mission trips, but because of a late-night flight departure, I could make a visit to a slave trade route in Benin that I wanted to experience for myself. It was my first time seeing with my own eyes and imagining just some of the horrors of what slaves endured. I want to document some of what I learned and felt.

It was particularly shocking to learn what happened to them before even getting to the ship to depart for Europe/America.

  • After a terrible journey to begin with towards this port destination, slaves were tortured in unimaginable ways to break them in every way possible. Many would not even survive. They were required to circle a tree seven times to “forget their life before.” Then, forced to kneel for two weeks, a rope kept their mouths shut and hands and feet chained. The slaves were not fed any food during this time by their captures. If they died, they were buried in a hole in the ground. We walked to where a memorial is being established at this location.

  • If they survived the above, they then were purchased by “the white man” even as many African kings facilitated, oversaw, and profited off selling their own people coming from different parts of Africa. The ears of the slaves were pierced or arm branded with a hot iron once sold.
  • They were then marched down a road that I also walked to circle three times another tree. Behind that tree was the home of an African king who profited off this with mirrors, musical instruments, and other European items given him in exchange. Circling the tree three times was so if they died in their journey ahead, their spirits would return to this tree. In other words, whether alive or dead, they were never again free.

  • They then were marched a long way down to the ocean chained and with a tree between their shoulders to keep them going in a straight line. We drove to this part, making it unimaginable how they survived this after everything prior.

  • “The Door of No Return.” While the sign commemorating this was not there at the time, the saying was known by everyone. If you came here, there was no return. It was haunting to think about that. Can you imagine knowing you are about to enter a door where there was no possible return? A door to slavery for life?

Many thoughts flooded my mind and spirit as we walked where slaves once walked. It’s hard to understand or imagine this level of human cruelty and evil, and it reminded me of going through the Holocaust museum years ago. And yet, please notice the following picture.

I wholeheartedly agree and think this is so critical. This isn’t just history from long ago, even though this kind of slavery may not exist today. Still, over 40 million people are enslaved today through human trafficking, forced labor, and other forms of human exploitation and degrading human life. Over 70 million people have also been forcibly displaced from their homes worldwide, a crisis of historic proportions. Millions more live under fear and corrupt leaders.

Lest we think we are not capable of such evil, that is not the lesson of history or reality of the present. From the Holocaust of modern-day abortion to the evils of human trafficking, it begins with not valuing every human life and seeing each other, despite our differences, as human beings created in the image of God and loved by him through Jesus Christ.

Additionally, the sin of silence and passivity contributes to the ongoing oppression and injustice so many are facing worldwide. Influence is not only used for evil at times but not wielded for good at all.

This all begs and deserves questions: what are we doing on behalf of those suffering under injustice? Do we see them? Can we hear their cries? Do we even care? Is there anyone who will work on their behalf for their good? Or, do we go about our own lives, in our little bubble, oblivious to the suffering of a world in need and complicit in evil flourishing? Are we actively seeking justice and righteousness in a world in which injustice rolls on?

***I write more about this, and this very verse from Ecclesiastes, in chapter 4 of my new book Everything is Meaningless. It’s a chapter titled: “Injustice Rolls On.” It might be one of the more provoking chapters in my book.

But I challenge you to get engaged in seeking righteousness (right relationship with God) and justice (right relationship with others). I am so grateful to lead an international organization, ServeNow, doing that very thing. Some of our most vital work is in the area of empowering the most vulnerable to avoid a life and door of “no return.”

It’s Here! New Book Reveal!

The first copies of my new book, Everything is Meaningless: Finding Purpose in a World of Despair is here! Check out the video reveal here: Video Reveal.

From the Back Cover:

“Do our lives matter? What is the point of so much of life when it is fleeting, temporary, and finite? Where can we find meaning, significance, and purpose?

In the follow-up to Hope Rising: Finding Hope in a Turbulent World, author Ben Foley takes an honest look at the despair and cynicism that characterize and plague our generation. From depression to the reality of injustice to the emptiness of pleasure, wealth, fame, education, and achievement, Everything is Meaningless wrestles with life’s philosophical and practical concerns.

This book draws from the inspiration and insight of an oft neglected and misunderstood book of the Bible: Ecclesiastes. Our despair and sense of meaninglessness can give way to the beauty, hope, and purpose found when we learn to live in light of eternity and our relationship with our Creator.”

Seasons: Chapter 3 Excerpt

Fall is officially here! It is a time of changing seasons. We may be sorry that summer is gone again, but fall has it’s beauty too. Every season is a time to reflect and adjust to the changes around us. But change is not easy. We often look back with fondness on the “good ole days” and struggle with the current season. Here is a little excerpt on change and seasons from chapter 3 of my new book: Everything is Meaningless: Finding Purpose in a World of Despair.

“According to God’s Word, focusing on the “good ole days” is not wise. Having the unique ability to remember primarily the things we miss about the past while forgetting its difficulties, is part of the human condition. We glamorize decades past and complain about the present. But the past was not as great as we might recall it to be in our selective minds and hearts. And the present will one day be remembered as the “good ole days” that we will long for again, despite how crazy that seems in the present.

Rather than glorify the past or only complain about the present, why not approach life as a mixture of both joys and challenges and focus on God’s blessings in the present? We cannot recreate the past or go back to how things used to be. It is fine to have fond memories, but it is not good to get stuck in the past as if everything were better back then. Most of what we remember about the past, in general, was not as great as we make it out to be. And the present is not generally as awful as we may think it is.”

Human Nature: Book Teaser!

The following is an excerpt taken from chapter one of my new book: Everything is Meaningless: Finding Purpose in a World of Despair.

“If we study the Bible and compare it to the daily paper, we’ll see the seductive power of temptation remains as potent today as ever. Just one generation after Adam and Eve chose rebellion, we witness a jealous Cain murdering his brother Abel. Not long afterward, jealousy leads Joseph’s brothers to sell him into slavery. Today, we see the same forces of jealousy, envy, and murder at work worldwide. It may be different people but the problems are the same.

One reason I love the Bible is that it is real, raw, and relatable. It doesn’t sugarcoat the faults, failures, and tragedies of its “heroes.” Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all have a problem with lying and deceiving (Genesis 20; 25:19-34; 26:6-11). Noah creates family shame by getting drunk and exposing himself (Genesis 9:21). David, a man after God’s own heart, succumbs to adultery and murder in one season of his life (2 Samuel 11:1-27). Samson, a man, set apart unto the Lord from birth, lives a life of both faith and compromise (Judges 13–16). King Saul is destroyed by his own envy, jealousy, anger, impatience, and disobedience (1 Samuel 28:3-19). Many of Judah’s and Israel’s kings are unfaithful to the Lord and do what is wrong in his eyes (2 Chronicles 10–36). Jonah runs away from the Lord (Jonah 1:3). John, the baptizer, is put in prison and begins to doubt Jesus (Matthew 11:1-19). Judas betrays Jesus (Matthew 26:14-56). Peter denies knowing Jesus (Matthew 26:69-79). The apostle Paul calls out the hypocrisy of Peter (Galatians 2:11-14). The apostle Paul and Barnabas have such a fierce disagreement in their ministry that they part ways (Acts 15:36-41). Even Solomon with all his wisdom fell short when it came to women and slavery (1 Kings 11:4; 12:4.)

As I write this, in today’s evangelical church world, much of what has been playing out or that is being exposed is not all that different. Prominent Christian leaders have been falling left and right into scandal, immorality, and disgrace. Others who had a reputation for integrity are being exposed as not what they appeared to be in public. It is disheartening, disillusioning, and damaging to the witness of the church and life of the church.

At the same time, we must be careful that we are not putting our hope and faith in leaders who cannot be what only Christ is and can be for us. In some cases, we have made, and leaders have accepted, a mantle of a superstar, to the point that the weight of that responsibility and expectations crush them. There is nothing new under the sun. Human nature is human nature.”

Book Teaser: Depression

Below is an excerpt from the preface of my new book, Everything is Meaningless: Finding Purpose in a World of Despair. You can pre-order here (coming October 2021).

“There is a reason Ecclesiastes is in the Bible. Even Christians—sometimes the most committed or well known—battle with depression. Some great saints of Scripture and history have this trait in common. Think of Elijah in 1 Kings 19. After
experiencing the emotional high of a mountaintop revival, the prophet comes down exhausted, depressed, and wishing for his life to end. Think of David writing some of the psalms, questioning why he is so disturbed and wondering why he feels so depressed. Think of Jeremiah writing another neglected book—Lamentations—which is a lament for Jerusalem’s ruin because of the people’s sin.

Some of the greatest artists, musicians, poets, prophets, pastors, and other creatives did their most remarkable work in times of sorrow and sadness. For example, Charles Spurgeon, the great British preacher of the nineteenth century, battled with depression his entire life. But his sermons and writings contain a depth of substance and compassion that otherwise may not have been had he not struggled with depression.

Mother Teresa is well known for confessing her “dark night of the soul” experience, which shadowed most of her adult years. The expression, “dark night of the soul” was coined by another distressed saint in 1577, John of the Cross.

Artists such as Michelangelo and Vincent Van Gogh accomplished some of their greatest works while struggling with dark depression.

Many famous people who seem to have it all or have it all together struggle intensely with depression and a sense of the meaninglessness of life. Tragically, some have ended their lives.

It can still be hard for some of us to open up about being depressed. But the Bible takes these feelings head-on versus giving nice-sounding but shallow platitudes. It does not avoid, deny, or suppress our deepest thoughts, feelings, or despair.” -pg.xi, Everything is Meaningless.

If You…

If you have ever been puzzled or intrigued by the book of Ecclesiastes and how to understand it and apply it practically and straightforwardly…my new book: Everything is Meaningless: Finding Purpose in a World of Despair is for you!

If you find yourself thinking about the meaning of life, the futility of life, the brevity of life, or purpose in life…this is the book for you!

If you are trying to navigate these present culturally challenging times, keeping up with change, wrestling with injustice, prejudice, abuse, and more (even in the church world)…this book is for you!

If you wrestle with depression, despair, emptiness, restlessness, and need your perspective renewed…this is the book for you!

If you are simply a friend or family member or interested in good causes where all proceeds/profits will go towards showing in word and deed the love of Jesus worldwide…this book is for you because it will benefit Serve Now!

Available in October! Pre-order available here: Everything is Meaningless: Finding Purpose in a World of Despair.

9/11: 20th Year Reflections

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the tragic 9/11 events. Many have already shared tributes, posts, presidential speeches, and memories. There are undoubtedly many emotions. There are lessons to remember and learn. For others, there is also a sense of realizing how more deeply divided we have become since 9/11 over twenty years ago. Every issue now causes a level of controversy that destroys relationships and divides families. There are new domestic and international threats. A global pandemic continues to cause death, disrupt economies, and divide people. There is much that could be reflected on.

It’s hard to believe I was still in high school when 9/11 happened. At the time, I was only concerned about two things: baseball and how to win back a girl who broke my heart!

Twenty years later, much has changed. The girl who broke my heart in high school became my fiancé in college and my wife the year after college. We now have four kids who grew up without the real-time memory of 9/11. I am also not a major league baseball player (surprise!) but went into full-time ministry, pastoring a church for six years and leading an international mission organization, ServeNow, for the past 6 ½ years. I have also now authored two books and traveled the world on mission trips.

ServeNow is actively working to help evacuate some bible translators and their families to safety due to the current events in Afghanistan. Our Middle East director just returned from a trip to a Yazidi refugee camp that feels forgotten and forsaken by the rest of the world. Many are women who were taken captive by ISIS and forced to be their wives. They bore children during that time that are now rejected due to their circumstances. A couple days before his arrival, a bomb was detonated in the camp. Tragedy, trauma, despair, and brokenness characterize much of the world still post 9/11 twenty years later.

Culturally, we seem plagued by increased depression, a sense of emptiness, restlessness, and despair. It’s what led me to write my newest book: Everything is Meaningless: Finding Purpose in a World of Despair and before that Hope Rising: Finding Hope in a Turbulent World. Now more than ever, we need real hope and renewed purpose.

I remember on 9/11, people were asking a question: Where is God? For some, it was more a statement of unbelief and anger than a sincere question and turning back to him. But for others, it was a wake-up call. That was the story of a woman, Jennifer Sands, who shared her testimony at our church in Jersey a couple times. Her husband was one of the people working in the Trade Center who died that day. The circumstances of this event and grief led her to a deep faith and walk with Jesus. Her question of “where is God” led her to find him in a meaningful and life-transforming way.

But today, twenty years later, I am not so sure this question is being asked anymore at any level. I think many have turned away from God altogether and no longer care to even bother to ask or wrestle with that question. We fill our lives with all kinds of distractions, activities, and entertainment. We feed on 24/7 news channels, and social media posts fuel our anger, anxiety, and division. We turn to every source but God.

I am preaching a message at our home church tomorrow morning titled “Where is God?” Our pastor has been preaching a series on Living Water. His first message pointed out God’s indictment on the Israelite’s, the people of God, in Jeremiah’s day. I believe it is similar to our own:

“My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
    the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
    broken cisterns that cannot hold water. (Jeremiah 2:13)

In my message, I will point out what God asks before even this in the same chapter:

“What fault did your ancestors find in me,
    that they strayed so far from me?
They followed worthless idols
    and became worthless themselves.

They did not ask, ‘Where is the Lord,
    who brought us up out of Egypt
and led us through the barren wilderness,
    through a land of deserts and ravines,
a land of drought and utter darkness,
    a land where no one travels and no one lives?’

The failure of God’s people during Jeremiah’s day was their failure to ask where the Lord was in their lives and land. They turned away altogether from the source of Living Water.

Let’s not make the same mistake. Let’s press in, even or especially to our pain points, and ask where God is. Let’s seek him until we find him. Let’s ask him to show up and work in our hearts, lives, and unique present-day situations we find ourselves facing. We need God. It begins with asking where he is, recognizing our need for him, and seeking him with all our hearts. Here is a good prayer to begin with:

Lord, I have heard of your fame;
    I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord.
Repeat them in our day,
    in our time make them known;
    in wrath remember mercy. (Habakkuk 3:2)

Early Testimony of New Book!

I am making available a special exclusive offer for those who pre-order my new book Everything is Meaningless: Finding Purpose in a World of Despair. For those who pre-order here in the month of September 2021, I will send an advance electronic copy of the book!

One of the first people to start reading the advanced copy shared the following experience with friends on Facebook:

“I wanted to share some of my heart. I started reading this book two days ago that a friend of mine wrote. I immediately connected to what this book says on a deep and VERY meaningful level (I’m also not a reader – so this is a big deal). Living with chronic pain and various diagnoses is hard, and I have been truly asking God “what is the point of everything?”

Even within the first two chapters of reading this book, my mindset is changing about how I can see and relate to my pain, sadness, situational depression due to medical issues, stress, the events of the world, etc. Maybe it is here – in the hard part of life – that I will see what Hope really actually is. And maybe diving deeper into my struggle and being willing to wrestle with this hardship will give me the most compassionate, empathetic, and loving relationships with those around me.

I think a lot about life and my issues and the issues of the world – but it’s like this book is helping me actually understand something new. I don’t totally know what that “something new” is yet But I am so grateful for this book and the truth it shares. I wholeheartedly suggest you read it!”

If you, or someone you know, may likewise benefit from this book, I encourage you to pre-order today here: Everything is Meaningless: Finding Purpose in a World of Despair. Let me know in the order notes that you would like the advanced PDF copy and enjoy early reading!

Everything is Meaningless

Pre-order for my second book is now available: Everything is Meaningless: Finding Purpose in a World of Despair.

Allow me the opportunity to share a little about the book, five reasons to consider ordering a copy, and a few endorsements. Here is the official description:

“Do our lives matter? What is the point of so much of life when it is fleeting, temporary, and finite? Where can we find meaning, significance, and purpose?

In the follow-up to Hope Rising: Finding Hope in a Turbulent World, author Ben Foley takes an honest look at the despair and cynicism that characterize and plague our generation. From depression to the reality of injustice to the emptiness of pleasure, wealth, fame, education, and achievement, Everything is Meaningless wrestles with life’s philosophical and practical concerns. This book draws from the inspiration and insight of an oft neglected and misunderstood book of the Bible: Ecclesiastes.

Our despair and sense of meaninglessness can give way to the beauty, hope, and purpose found when we learn to live in light of eternity and our relationship with our Creator.”

While shorter than my first book, Hope Rising: Finding Hope in a Turbulent World, I worked longer and harder on this one. Here are some reasons to consider ordering and why I wrote it:

  1. Speaks to where many are at personally and culturally in a timely and relevant way.
  2. Tackles the hard questions of life head on: depression, meaning, injustice, racism, immigration, death, eternity, pleasure, wealth, riches, fame, education, poverty, and more.
  3. Contains practical wisdom for daily life amid the bigger philosophical questions of life.
  4. All proceeds go to serve those most in need worldwide via ServeNow.
  5. You will be challenged, provoked, hopefully encouraged and possibly cry some…but it will be good for your soul!

Endorsements:

“As someone who shares in the struggles Ben outlines, I am grateful for the vulnerability he offers in his fight for joy over despair. We are a people of hope following a God of love who made us with purpose and for a life of meaning. This is a message, and an offer, the world desperately needs to hear.”

Tim McConnell: Lead Pastor and Author of Happy Church: Pursuing Radical Joy as the People of God

Everything is Meaningless sounds like a miserable book to read. However, Ben Foley masterfully turns it into a book that helps you through anything that feels meaningless to you and moves the book into a positive message of hope which can be applied to our own lives.”

Lars B. Dunberg: President Emeritus, ServeNow

“The secret is out. Everyone has down times that challenge our calling and purpose. I have. Ben beautifully surfaces the issues, putting word to feelings and a mirror to our soul. His practical solutions are rooted in scripture and reality. Drink deep and be refreshed.”

Jerry White, PhD: International President Emeritus: The Navigators, Major General, United States Air Force (Retired).

“Just as the Church worldwide is not inoculated to destructive forces such as: disease, poverty, political whims and agendas, author Ben Foley reveals that the Church is likewise vulnerable to prevailing philosophical influences resulting in a form of Nihilism and meaninglessness. This threat to faith imposes its damaging opposition to purpose and proper perspective, especially during challenging seasons in life. Ben reveals this reality through the Scriptures and personal experience providing a response that restores significance, purpose and meaning!”

Pastor Ronnie Wilson: Gathering Stones Community Church, Founder Liberty Tree Academy

“The beauty of Everything Is Meaninglessis that Ben Foley reveals and demonstrates that there is indeed meaning to be had in our aimless and chaotic world. Ben’s faith-filled thoughtfulness is contagious and leaves us encouraged and hopeful—and driven to fulfill our own destiny in God’s Kingdom.”

Ron Forseth: Vice President for Development Westfall Gold

“From meaningless…to meaningful. Foley courageously faces the paradoxes of life revealed by Ecclesiastes and allows his unique international and personal experiences to inform his culturally relevant applications of Scripture. “

Kendall R. Keeler: Author of Your Last 24: Preparing for the Inevitable

Book Announcement!

I am excited to announce my second book is coming soon (October 2021)! The title is: Everything is Meaningless: Finding Purpose in a World of Despair.

Here is a brief description of what to expect:

Do our lives matter? What is the point of life when it is fleeting, temporary, and finite? Where can we find meaning, significance, and purpose?

In the follow-up to Hope Rising: Finding Hope in a Turbulent World, author Ben Foley takes an honest look at the despair and cynicism that characterize and plague our generation. From depression to the reality of injustice to the emptiness of pleasure, wealth, fame, education, and achievement, Everything is Meaningless wrestles with life’s philosophical and practical concerns.

This book draws from the inspiration of an oft neglected and misunderstood book of the Bible: Ecclesiastes. Our despair and sense of meaninglessness can give way to the beauty, hope, and purpose found when we learn to live in light of eternity and our relationship with our Creator.

Keep an eye out on this blog site for more updates, content teases, and pre-order/ordering information. The book will be sold exclusively here: Everything is Meaningless.

An Effective Scheme of the Enemy

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. -1 Corinthians 15:58

Did you know that in ancient battle times, one tactic of the enemy involved releasing a mare into the other army’s camp to distract, confuse, and divide the stallions pulling the chariots? In this way, the enemy could create chaos and render the other army ineffective in battle.

This is what the devil is doing worldwide, in the United States, in our communities, among our churches, and within our families. He releases “mares” that are distracting, confusing, dividing, and thus destroying friendships, fellowship, and relationships.

These “mares” could be any number of issues, opinions, perspectives, or differences of convictions. From masks to vaccines to political perspectives, long-time relationships are being destroyed and families divided over difference of opinion and how we are approaching issues.

The problem is not that we might have convictions or feel strongly about specific issues. The problem is that any number of issues are becoming the issue. If we are not in complete agreement, the relationship itself is vulnerable or broken.

What really is broken is our approach. We are becoming so extreme and entrenched in our views that we can’t seem to handle honest and open disagreement and maintain a level of mutual respect relationally. It is an either/or world with no room for nuance. We are giving ourselves to ideologies that have become a form of idolatry and are wreaking havoc and destruction. We have lost a grasp on our priorities. We have lost our focus on what matters most. Everything now carries with it the potential that it might break the relationship.

I believe we need to see this for what it is. It is a tactic and scheme that has originated in hell itself. The devil is effectively using it to divide us unnecessarily.

The solution lies in the verse quoted at the beginning of this post. The apostle Paul reminds us of what unites us as followers of Christ: we are brothers and sisters in the faith. We need to remember that through the faith, we are family. And we need to stand firm, not letting anything move us, distract us, or divide us. Yes, we all have convictions and must follow our conscience. But we don’t need to make those issues the main issue and destroy relationships.

Secondly, we need to give ourselves entirely to the work of the Lord. Not every other issue or cause that comes along. Not culture war battles. Not this news agency or that news channel. Not that political talking head or that person who can articulate what we already believe and who gets us worked up emotionally.

We need to stay focused on the work of the Lord. We belong to Jesus. Issues and causes come and go. Opinions, emotions, and perspectives ebb and flow. Circumstances constantly change. Only our labor in the Lord is worthwhile and worth giving our lives too. Only our work in the Lord will last and matter for eternity. And this is what the enemy is rather effectively distracting us from.

It is time to see this for what it is and say enough is enough. Don’t let the enemy win through distraction, confusion, and division. He is shrewd and cunning. But when we stand firm in the Lord, the faith, and his work, we are unmovable, fruitful, and effective in our witness and service in this world.

Suffering and Silence

One of the most important distinctions I have come to see regarding suffering is that God’s silence is not evidence of God’s absence. His silence in our suffering may in fact be evidence of us gracious presence. Let me explain by quoting from my book Hope Rising: Finding Hope in a Turbulent World:

“Like Job, we so often ask the “Why?” question. Usually, this is related to personal suffering and the painful realities of life in this fallen world. Most of the book of Job contains his anguish and examines his thoughts as he wrestles with his seemingly unfair suffering. Over and over Job cries out “Why God?” and asks for a hearing. However, God is silent through most of the book, which amplifies Job’s suffering.

Let me briefly note a powerful insight on this point. God’s silence is not the same as God’s absence. God’s silence is evidence of his loving presence. I say that because Job’s friends were a comfort to him initially during the first week when they simply sat with him in silence and entered his suffering and sorrow.

However, when they opened their mouths and began to make various theological cases, they ended up adding to Job’s suffering their words! They would have done better to remain silent and just continue to share in Job’s suffering. Isn’t that so true? In an effort to comfort, we think we have to say something, but usually our platitudes don’t help.

When God finally does speak to Job, he never answers Job’s “Why?” questions. Instead he reveals himself and reminds Job of who he is. God knows that answers usually do not help. Our “Why?” questions are more than questions. They are cries of anguish and longing for relief or hope. Even when Jesus cried out, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46), he was not really looking for God, the Father, to remind him of the reason he was on the cross. Jesus knew why! And the “answer” would not change his levels of anguish, suffering, and pain.

Likewise, though we may ask “Why?,” we are looking for something more than answers even if we think it is answers we need. We ask “Why?” but God reveals “who” he is. Hope is renewed through being reminded of who God is! Further, hope is not found in trying to figure out the why of our suffering. Rather, hope is found in looking beyond present suffering to God’s promise and purpose in suffering. In his book, Where Is God When It Hurts, Philip Yancey writes, “To backward-looking questions of cause, to the ‘Why?’ questions, [Scripture] gives no definitive answer. But it does hold out hope for the future, that even suffering can be transformed or ‘redeemed.’ ” (Philip Yancey. Where Is God When It Hurts. pg84). Our hope is renewed not by looking back at our past or even at our present circumstances. Hope is renewed by looking forward in faith to what God has promised beyond our suffering and despite whatever may have caused our suffering.” (Hope Rising, pg.72,73).

To read more, you can purchase a copy of Hope Rising: Finding Hope in a Turbulent World here.

Suicide and Shame

Before writing this blog post, I received a text that a nephew of someone we know died from an overdose. While I do not know the circumstances or details of this particular incident, these kinds of situations are becoming more frequent.

One of the chapters in my book Hope Rising: Finding Hope in a Turbulent World that I prayed over the most is a chapter that addresses suicide and shame. Here is an excerpt on this topic:

“Other articles and authors have also pointed out the increase of suicides over the last two decades. The American Psychological Association for example noted the following:

The increase in the rate of death by suicide in the Unit-ed States between 2000 and 2016, from 10.4 to 13.5 per 100,000 people, according to a National Center for Health Statistics analysis of data from the National Vital Statistics System. The rate increased by about 1 percent per year from 2000 through 2006 and by about 2 percent per year from 2006 through 2016. (https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/01/numbers).

As noted earlier, suicide can affect anyone, even those whose circumstances would otherwise suggest a “good life.” We need to talk about suicide more, because it’s an epidemic and a real struggle for so many. At its core, it’s also a loss of hope. There was a solution to Judas’ despair.

Let us dissect for a moment the story of Judas committing suicide. Judas hanged himself because he was so tormented by what he had done that he could no longer live with himself. Shame, guilt, and the reality of what his actions resulted in for Jesus coupled with the fact he could not undo what he had done drove him mad. While not true in every case of suicide, shame is often a factor. Shame that leads to suicide is ultimately a loss of hope in seeing any way out of a painful situation.

Beyond the tragedy of Judas’ betrayal and suicide, something else haunts me even more. Had Judas held on a little longer, he would have seen that Jesus was being “hung” in his place and bearing the shame, guilt, and full consequences of his sin and our sin and the sin of the world. Jesus hung on a cross, so that we do not have to hang ourselves, spiritually or physically. He died, so that we might live. He suffered, so that we might be forgiven fully. He bled for us, that we might know we are loved, no matter what we have done.

I write this chapter with a deep aching in my heart and a prayer on my lips, that someone, anyone, might read this chapter and not go through with this action. Someone, anyone, might read this story and see that your story does not need to end this same way. Someone, anyone, might rediscover the hope of the Good News of what Jesus has done for you on the cross. He has carried your shame, so you do not have to. He has suffered for your sins, so that you do not have to. And there is hope, no matter how hopeless you may feel. Jesus does understand your pain. And he cares for you. Let him minister to you in his own way and time as he knows is best for you.” (Hope Rising, pg.83-84).

***To order a copy of Hope Rising, click here: Hope Rising: Finding Hope in a Turbulent World.

You have an Advocate

My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. -1 John 2:1

But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. -John 16:7

I try to look for things God is teaching me when I travel. I just returned from a trip to Kenya and Tanzania for ServeNow. The lesson that stood out to me on this trip was a new appreciation of the power of an advocate. Let me share what happened in the US and then Tanzania related to my COVID tests and why having an advocate is vital.

In the US, I took my COVID test on a Saturday at Walgreens. It had to be a PCR test, not just a rapid test and so there is a 2–5 day window. I was assured they would collect the test on Saturday night, and I would have it in time for my flight. But by Monday mid-morning, I still didn’t have the test results, so I began making phone calls. I found out they didn’t collect the samples Saturday night as promised. They were only receiving them that Monday afternoon, one day before my flight!

I was upset and began to let them know of my frustration. Paying extra to have the test results prioritized is not an option. Missing my flight and having to re-arrange plans seemed likely. However, after pushing back, I found a woman who seemed to have a change of heart and promised she would advocate for me and see if she could get it prioritized. Sure enough, because of her influence, by early that evening, I had my results.

In Tanzania, the only time we could get to a suitable facility for the COVID test was the day before the flight back to the US. However, this location said the results would be given only after 48 hours. By that time it would be too late. I would be stuck several more days. However, one of our main coordinators in Tanzania began to advocate for me through some of his key relationships. As a result, they prioritized our tests. I had the results back a couple of hours before heading to the airport where it would be needed to board. Once again, because of someone else’s influence, relationships, and advocacy, I was able to obtain something I could not do alone.

I do a lot of teaching, preaching, and advocating for those most vulnerable. For example, we met with one mother on this trip who we helped to expand her business through a micro-enterprise project. While meeting with her and one of her daughters, we learned of her daughter’s dream to go to high school. In Kenya, you have to pay to go to school. Though benefiting greatly from the micro-enterprise grant, this family is not quite yet in a position to afford that, along with other priorities. We decided to advocate for the daughter. As a result, we secured the resources needed for her first year of school fees.

It’s fun to be on that side of the equation. It’s not as fun when you are the one who feels helpless and powerless. But what a blessing it is when others can advocate on your behalf. Because of the influence of others we can achieve things we could not on in our own efforts. The process with the COVID tests reminded me of the power of having an advocate.

That brings me to the lesson I came to appreciate in a new way. We have an advocate fighting for us in heaven. When we sin, Jesus stands in our place as our advocate. In place of judgment we obtain grace and mercy we don’t deserve. The Holy Spirit also comes alongside us as our advocate and helper. He enables us to accomplish what God has called us to do on earth for the sake of his kingdom. We experience numerous blessings and privileges because of our relationship with God that otherwise would not be possible. We may not always recognize it. But God is at work faithfully behind the scenes on our behalf.

Because that reality is true for us, we should function in that role whenever we can for others. There are many ways you can come alongside and help others that will make a difference in their lives. We can use our influence, relationships, and resources to demonstrate a core aspect of who God is. We are not alone in this world. We don’t need to face this world or its challenges alone. And, we need one another in ways that are different but mutually beneficial for each other’s good and God’s glory.

Compassionate Anger

Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’ “The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. -Matthew 21:12-14

I don’t think I need to go into detail about how destructive anger can be. Even in the story of Jesus cleansing the temple, we see Jesus’ anger manifesting in a physical way that would seem violent. But take a closer look at the result. Those who needed the touch of God the most were not scared away from Jesus. Rather, they were emboldened to come to Jesus! And there, they found healing in the hands of Jesus. The same hands, mind you, that had just made a whip out of cords, overturned tables, and chased out all who were taking advantage of those who were coming to genuinely worship God.

This is what I mean by compassionate anger. Jesus channeled his anger in such a way that he created space for the humble to find the grace they needed to transform their lives. Jesus was not just dealing with injustice. He was restoring justice.

Our problem is that our anger is often misplaced, misdirected, misused, and missing its purpose. We sin in our anger and stay in our anger longer than we ought. This is the kind of anger and use of anger Scripture calls us to avoid and put off. Think of Moses killing an Egyptian man in his anger and trying to cover it up (Exodus 2:11-15). Or later in his life, Moses, frustrated with the Israelite’s stubbornness, lashes out in his anger inappropriately, which cost him the opportunity to enter the promised land (Exodus 20:10-12).

But anger itself is not the problem. Sometimes it is the solution. And even God gets angry. In my book Hope Rising, I share the following about anger:

“The fact is many things in the world are not as they should be, and that should make us angry! We need to be angry about the things that make God angry. While the anger of God has fallen out of favor in many circles and we prefer to focus on God’s grace, I believe that it’s precisely God’s anger that makes him a God of love. If God didn’t get angry about injustice, would he be good and righteous? Likewise, if injustice and unrighteousness do not bother us enough to lead to action, how can we say we are motivated by God’s love, which does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth (1 Corinthians 13:6). Another straightforward verse about righteousness is found in Hebrews 1:9, which quotes the Old Testament and refers to Jesus: You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy…

Anger is sometimes necessary, but only when correctly channeled. Most action that has inspired real change has arisen from initial feelings of anger and passion. Think about William Wilberforce when it came to the slave trade. Think about Mahātmā Gandhi fighting nonviolently for independence in India. Think about civil rights leaders in the United States protesting segregation and racism. Anger over current reality compelled these leaders to fight for change in the future.

The real challenge is combining anger with meaningful action, compassion with courage. Some people have anger but no action other than perhaps posting things all day long on social media. While there is a place for information and awareness, we live in a culture saturated with information but little meaningful action. Others have sympathy for others but no passion to act on those sentiments. Yet, genuine compassion always results in prayer and action, perhaps best modeled in recent times by people such as Mother Teresa.

Take a look at this passage from the Gospel of Matthew: When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. (Matthew 9:36-38) Likewise, when Jesus saw the crowds, he was motivated to raise the awareness level of his disciples, called them to pray, and then he empowered them to personally go (Matthew 10).” (Excerpt from Hope Rising: Finding Hope in a Turbulent World, pg.135-137).

So, what makes you angry enough these days to act in a compassionate way towards those on the receiving end of injustice or abuse? How can you channel your anger in ways that produce meaningful change and bring about healing? Don’t waste your anger or misuse it. Channel it in a way that creates space for God’s grace in others’ lives.

To read more, check out my book Hope Rising: Finding Hope in a Turbulent World.

Improved Lives: Decreased Hope

For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations. -Psalm 100:5

From Hans Rosling, to Mark Manson, to Fareed Zakaria, multiple authors have written that contrary to popular belief, the world has gotten better, not worse, in modern times. The standard of living has improved worldwide. Access to education, healthcare, and technology has increased. Wars and violence are at the lowest globally from a historical perspective.

And yet, it seems as the world gets better, people’s hope is decreasing. This seeming contradiction is an interesting dynamic I write about in Chapter 3 of my book Hope Rising: Finding Hope in a Turbulent World. It was probably the most interesting chapter to write and wrestle with why this is the case.

I believe the problem lies in the fact that we are more than physical beings. We have more than physical needs. Yet when we try to meet non-physical needs materially, we are left unsatisfied and unfulfilled. This focus away from dependence on God was essentially what the three temptations of Jesus were about:

  1. Satan tempted Jesus to satisfy his hunger with physical food alone. Jesus responded that “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” (Matthew 4:4). The devil tries to keep us from recognizing our need for God’s word through material distractions.
  2. Satan tempted Jesus to prove himself to others outside of God’s ways and timing. Jesus responded that we should not put the Lord our God to the test (Matthew 4:7). The devil tries to play on our insecurities around our identity and others’ perceptions of us.
  3. Satan tried to tempt Jesus into worshipping him by offering him all that the world has to offer in terms of power, success, fame, and wealth. Jesus responded that we are to “worship the Lord your God and serve him only” (Matthew 4:10). While there is nothing wrong with power, fame, or wealth, many have sacrificed their character and worship of God to obtain.

In these three ways, Satan was trying to get Jesus to operate outside of the will of God and relationship with God. Jesus recognized, however, that there was more to life than what meets the eye. Not being focused on our relationship with Christ explains how our lives can improve externally, but our hope, joy, and peace diminish internally.

This apathy concerning their relationship with Christ is what happened to the Laodicean church. Jesus rebuked them for their lukewarmness. He noted that for as comfortable as their lives were outwardly, they were poor spiritually. He told them to repent and tenderly told them he was longing for fellowship with them. We were made for more than the physical. We were made for a relationship with God (Revelation 3:14-22).

But today we think we can live without God or don’t trust that he is good. In my book Hope Rising, I make this observation:

What we’re really facing is a loss of hope in the goodness of God. This loss is a virus that has affected humanity since the fall in the Garden of Eden. It’s one of the oldest lies of the enemy. The devil’s focused scheme described in Genesis 3 causes Adam and Eve to mistrust and doubt the goodness of God. By questioning what God really said as well as questioning his motives, the devil succeeds in getting Adam and Eve to doubt God’s character and goodness. He is still effectively using this same scheme in our world today, causing people to lose hope in God and his goodness. This is what lies at the root of why this world is both fallen and broken. We have lost hope in a good God. (Excerpt from Hope Rising, pg.27-28).

If you need hope today, turn to God, for he is good. Believe he is who he has revealed himself to be in the word of God. You were made for more than that which is material, physical, and temporal.

***To order a copy of Hope Rising, click here: Hope Rising: Finding Hope in a Turbulent World.

Biblical Hope

And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. -1 Corinthians 13:13

Approximately 2,000 years ago, the apostle Paul penned those words, and they’re still quite well known and often quoted. In this one verse, Paul summed up the essence of the Christian faith and life. In just three words, he boiled down basic Christianity to its most essential ingredients. Those three irreplaceable dynamics are faith, hope, and love. Today we hear quite a lot about faith and especially love, but we don’t hear as much about the word sandwiched in the middle. And yet, it may be what people in the world need the most: real and lasting hope.

If hope is not wishful thinking, what is it? Why is it so important? Where can we find it? How do we sustain it? Let us start with what biblical hope is not. The kind of hope that the apostle Paul was referring to in 1 Corinthians 13:13 isn’t a wishy-washy kind of superstitious luck. It’s not the kind of uncertain hope when we say things like, “I hope my favorite team wins the championship this year.” It’s not the kind of hope where we hope “bad things” won’t happen to us, or that we’ll be spared trouble or hardship. It’s not a hope that denies reality or is escapism from the harsher realities of life. It’s not a hope that is pure optimism or “positive thinking.”

The kind of hope the Bible speaks of is confident and sure. Hope is rooted in God’s character and nature, despite our feelings or situations. It’s a hope anchored in not just God’s promises but in his very person. It’s a hope that is eternal in nature and provides confidence found not in ourselves or in our circumstances. It’s a hope rooted in Jesus and what he has accomplished on our behalf by his grace and great love for us. It’s not a hope that looks inward or tries harder to pull ourselves together in our own resources. Rather, it looks upward and draws upon a supernatural yet real strength. Hebrews 6:17-20 states,

Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf.

***This post is an excerpt from my book Hope Rising: Finding Hope in a Turbulent World. If you would like to read more, you can order a copy of it here: Hope Rising. Additionally, you can check out a sermon I wrote out on this on Sermon Central here: Biblical Hope.

Solutions not just Problems

The people of the city said to Elisha, “Look, our lord, this town is well situated, as you can see, but the water is bad and the land is unproductive.” “Bring me a new bowl,” he said, “and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him. Then he went out to the spring and threw the salt into it, saying, “This is what the Lord says: ‘I have healed this water. Never again will it cause death or make the land unproductive.’” And the water has remained pure to this day, according to the word Elisha had spoken. -2 Kings 2:19-21

People of faith are those who see solutions, not just problems. The fact is anyone can identify problems. The question is, who can see and seek solutions?

In my book Hope Rising: Finding Hope in a Turbulent World, there is a portion with the subtitle: Finding solutions in the midst of problems. Here is what I write:

“When we look at the world today, what do we see? Do we simply see problems or people in need? Do we see what is, but also what could be? In the book Seizing Your Divine Moment, Erwin McManus writes, 

“I think it’s important to add that while God has been working in human history since he breathed life into Adam, there are many things yet to be done, and beyond this, many things yet to be begun. There may be another question that needs to be asked beyond, ‘What is God doing?’ and that is this: ‘What is God dreaming?’”

I don’t know about you, but this gets my heart pumping with a sense of holy excitement! I want to challenge you to dream the dreams of God! In the introduction of the book Entrepreneurial Faith, the authors make the point that “We never want to be limited by what already exists. We aspire instead to pursue what should be.” Mark Batterson writes in his book Chase the Lion, “You have to go after a dream that is destined to fail without divine intervention.” (excerpt from Hope Rising, pg.137-138).

People of faith see solutions to problems, and sometimes those solutions seem crazy to others around. I have no idea why Elisha handled this situation the way he did. It seems rather odd that the answer to that water situation was to pour salt from a new bowl into the water and proclaim that the Lord had healed it. It certainly did not make rational sense, but it was symbolic and contained a message in it for God’s people and us today.

Sometimes, this message is why God leads us the way he leads us. I believe there is always a message in the miracle. Solutions exist to teach us something or learn a new lesson not just solve the present problem. They stretch our faith and deepen our trust in God. 

What problem are you looking at today? I encourage you to seek after God’s solution verse getting stuck in the issue. The good news is that God promises to give us his wisdom when we face situations that stump us. But we must have faith. We must focus not on the problem but on God, who is the giver of solutions to our situations. We must seek him to open our eyes and show us how to pro-actively respond to our problems.

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do. -James 1:5-8

Hope Rising Book:

The world feels more turbulent and hopeless with each passing day. Fear, anxiety, and despair darken and grip our hearts. From disasters and diseases to scandals and divisiveness. Where can we find true and lasting hope?

To find out the solution to these problems, order your copy of Hope Rising here!

Waiting on God

Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. -Isaiah 64:4

Waiting sucks. Can I get an amen? I don’t like to wait for anything or anyone. Waiting is one of the most painful things to do in life for me. It is also one of the most critical parts of the Christian life.

I have been sharing a message in different settings recently that I title: Waiting on God with Intentional Action. It is a message that speaks to the tension we feel between those two dynamics. Some of us err on the side of passivity when we need to be proactive. We may feel overwhelmed or unsure where to begin or how to start, or what to do. Others of us, however, struggle with waiting on God and his timing. We get impatient and try to force things in our timing. And sometimes, we wrestle with both sides of this in different situations.

However, there is a way to take intentional action while waiting on God and wait on God even while taking deliberate action. And one of the things about waiting on God that has helped me the most is realizing waiting on God is a proactive act of faith itself. Actual waiting on God is anything but passive. In Hebrew, the term for “to wait” means to be “entwined.” The connotation speaks of being in tune and united in fellowship with the Lord. This kind of relationship requires a tremendous amount of discipline, focus, and energy. But it is the place where we are also receiving the life-giving strength and vitality of the Lord. We are connected closely to him and drawing upon his power in relationship and communion with him.

And when it comes to waiting on God to fulfill his promises to us, we are in good company. Think of all the saints through Scripture who waited a long time for God’s promises to come to pass in their lives. Abraham and Sarah were in the latter part of their lives before the son God promised them was born. There were 120 years between when God told Noah to build an ark and when the rains fell for the first time. Joseph waited a painful 17 years. Everything in his life seemed to be going in the opposite direction as his dreams indicated. The Israelite’s were slaves in Egypt for 400 years before being delivered. There was a 13-year gap between David being anointed king over Israel and when he assumed the kingship. Even then, it would be another seven years before he ruled over all Israel. Generations waited for the promise of the Messiah. Prophecies regarding Jesus’ first coming took hundreds, even a couple of thousand years from when the promise was given and repeated. Even then, Jesus didn’t begin his public ministry until he was 30 years old. And here we are waiting for Jesus’ second coming a couple of thousand years after he promised to return. God’s time is not our time!

Part of what it means to be a Christian is that we wait. But waiting is often painful and even confusing. In my book Hope Rising: Finding Hope in a Turbulent World, I wrote the following that has come out of my own life experience:

“Often, the real problem for us has to do with our expectations and the conclusions we draw from our circumstances. We expect life to be smooth sailing, and so when it’s not, we think God has abandoned us. We look at our circumstances and lose hope thinking everything is against us, because difficult things happen. We take God’s promises but do not see the usual painful process of those promises unfolding in ways that sometimes seem contrary to what he has promised. So, when life takes its seemingly unfavorable twists and turns, we get confused, discouraged, and lose hope. As God’s people, we often tend to emphasize his promises but fail to be honest about the process and pain that can be involved. That’s why I wanted to share these stories from Scripture, because they highlight the fact that life is messy, yet God is faithful. God’s path will not be a straight, smooth line. There will be setbacks, struggles, difficulties, and discouragements.” (Excerpt from Hope Rising, pg.12-13).

If you are in a place of waiting, take heart. You are in good company. And God is not passive. He is proactively working on your character to form you into the kind of person who can handle his promises when the time has arrived.

About Hope Rising: Finding Hope in a Turbulent World:

Hope Rising does not sugarcoat the stark realities of the world or the individual circumstances each of us may be facing. But it does tell real stories of hope rising from around the world, even from what seem to be the most hopeless situations. It’s also a call to each of us to bring hope to a world in need.

To order a copy click here: Hope Rising: Finding Hope in a Turbulent Word. All proceeds go to support the mission of ServeNow: Sharing Christ’s passion for the world by serving the most vulnerable through national churches and leaders.

True Freedom = Serving

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. -Galatians 5:13

Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. -1 Peter 2:16

And whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. -Matthew 20:27-28

This weekend, American’s will be celebrating the 4th of July, which proclaims our independence and freedom. But often, I believe we miss what true freedom is and means according to Scripture. Regardless of how independent we may be externally, everyone is still a slave to something or someone. We are born slaves to sin according to Scripture with a propensity towards selfishness. Our sinfulness and selfishness are why we need a Savior; to set us free from our sin and deliver us from our selfishness. True freedom is not divorced from responsibility or found in indulging ourselves; it’s found instead in living for Christ and serving others. 

At the mission organization I lead, we just developed a new 30-day devotional called Serve Like Jesus Would Serve: A personal engagement in the servant-hood of Jesus. It contains brief daily devotions, with a couple of points of practical application and one-sentence prayers. The 30 devotionals have been written by a combination of our National Leaders, staff, partners, and board members worldwide. If you would like a copy or more, click here: Serve Like Jesus Would Serve 30-Day Devotion. You can also sample some of the devotional content by viewing a sermon of mine called Serve as Jesus Would Serve found on Sermon Central.

Here is also a little snippet from a chapter on Being a Conduit of Hope for Others in my book Hope Rising: Finding Hope in a Turbulent Word. If we genuinely want to be free, we must learn to serve God by serving others practically.

“God is calling us to be servants who serve now! He invites us into the process of seeing miracles unfold. He calls us to be an “empty vessel” available for him to fill and use to bring hope to others in need. And it’s part of our healing and finding our hope restored. One way God delivers us from despair and depression is by us focusing on serving others. Here is how Isaiah 58:6-9 puts it:

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

If your hope is diminished, provide hope to others through your actions by meeting specific needs you see! Remember, when we stand before Jesus, we will be rewarded based on what we have done. And serving others in need is the way we serve Jesus and demonstrate our love for him. Jesus told us this in Matthew 25:31-36:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Jesus takes very personally how we treat others! That is why when we serve others in need, we are serving Jesus himself. That is a sacred privilege and responsibility! God wants to use ordinary people like you and me to become a conduit of hope for others through our actions.” (excerpt from Hope Rising, pages 129-130).

Death & Eternity

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. -2 Corinthians 4:16-5:1-5

This has been a tough week. Within a couple days, I received news that one of our board members in a country in Asia had lost her battle to COVID. Her husband is chairman of our board in this country. I have preached in their church several times, and he has stayed in our home. They also wrote together one of our Basic Series Discipleship booklets on Love, Marriage, and Family. The book’s focus makes her death all the sadder to think that their life together on earth has been cut short. They also have a young daughter about the age of our daughters. 

A few days later, I received news that the co-founder and first President of the mission organization I lead, ServeNow, had also passed away from her battle with cancer. She also is a young mother who leaves behind three kids and a husband. 

These situations are so sad and tragic. There is no denying the sorrow, grief, and disappointment. But, these deaths are reminders that life on this earth is short, often too short. In fact, it just so happened that a couple hours before I received news of our co-founder’s death, I was recording a message for a country in Asia that goes out in three languages every week across the island. The weekly Scripture passage was from 1 Corinthians 4:16-5:1-5 quoted above. It is such a beautiful passage and timely reminder. It provides the perspective and comfort we often need in facing the reality of death, whether loss of loved ones or contemplating our own eventual death.

In this passage, the Apostle Paul masterfully balances the tension between our earthly suffering and eternal hope. We live in the here and now, but the here and now are temporary. The eternal is yet to come, but it is what we have to look forward to as believers in Jesus Christ. And Paul, while not diminishing the reality of earthly pain, does put it in perspective. Compared to eternity which will last forever, our suffering on earth is momentary. It gives way to our true home in the presence of God. We live in this tension every day. We are awaiting the transition from the earthly and imperfect; to the eternal and perfect. The paradox of the Christian life is that though we die, death does not have the final word. Just as the weakness of the cross gave way to the power of the resurrection, we have the same hope in Jesus. And that is why despite our earthly struggles, we do not lose hope in our eternal future.

But part of us does not like to face our earthly mortality, frailty, and finiteness. We have plans, dreams, ambitions, hopes, and desires. Life was not intended to involve death originally. We live with a restless uneasiness that death could strike at any moment but also live as if it is always far off in the future. I would argue, though, that facing our mortality and human weakness can provide us perspective and intentionality in the short time we have on this earth. It is why the Apostle Paul calls us to fix our eyes not on what is seen but unseen. Life on earth really only makes sense in light of eternity. This is the theme of my second book coming out in the fall of 2021. The working title is Everything is Meaningless: Finding Purpose in a World of Despair. It is a journey through some key themes from the book of Ecclesiastes, a book of the bible often neglected and misunderstood. 

But this earth, in its present condition, is not where we ultimately belong. Jesus will be creating a new heavens and a new earth. Just as he was raised from the dead to new life, we too will follow in his footsteps. A new body awaits us free of the sin, suffering, and sorrow of these present fallen bodies. Think of a hermit crab. When I was little, I was fascinated by these little creatures and often would try to secretly watch to witness them come out of their current shell to find a home in a new shell. They do this to find a home that will protect them better than their present one. During that transition, they are vulnerable and exposed; but soon, they take up residence in a new shell. 

This, to me, is an example from nature of the transition we go through in death. We have temporary tents that we reside in now. But God has prepared a better “shell” for us upon death. Death is not the end. Death is a transition. And the glory of what lies on the other side is unspeakable and indescribable. The bible does convey some imagery and information, but it seems all words and comparisons fall short. We just know it is good. It is our true home. It is where we belong if we belong to Jesus Christ. 

And that is why the Apostle Paul reminds us a couple times in this portion of Scripture that we do not lose heart or give up. Even at our weakest, his power is displayed most clearly in us and through us. Even as our bodies age and deteriorate, we do not need to live in denial or try so desperately to reverse the reality of aging. In fact, though outwardly we may be falling apart, inwardly, we can be renewed and made stronger and stronger in the image and likeness of our Savior. It is what we do not see that matters most because that is what will last forever. What we see is temporary. We often get this reversed. We live as if what we see is all that is or will be. My encouragement is what Scripture calls us to here and elsewhere, live life on earth in light of eternity. It is the only way to make sense of this earthly life and have hope for the future. Beyond that, it’s also true, because Jesus himself has conquered death. And he has assured those who believe in him that they will be with him for all eternity.

If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. -1 Corinthians 15:19-22

Trauma

In my last blog post, I wrote an article on depression, where I shared a little of my own experience. I wanted to follow that up with something tied to depression and perhaps understood even less: trauma. 

I want to be clear upfront that I am not a counselor or trained therapist. But as a pastor and someone who travels the world, I am aware of the profound struggles and suffering many people face. And let us face it, this is a traumatic time. There are more displaced people in the world today than at any other time in human history. The news runs 24/7, so at any point during the day, we can see, quite easily, what is happening anywhere worldwide. John Eldridge speaks of this as “secondhand trauma” in his book “Get Your Life Back.”

Rick Warren recently noted that 1/3rd of Jesus’ ministry was focused on “health care.” Jesus was constantly going around healing, and healing was a significant part of his ministry. I believe God is still in the business of bringing hope and healing to people worldwide, even amid the most traumatic experiences.

There is more that has come out in recent years about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). While often associated with soldiers returning from combat, it is not something only those from a war-zone suffer from. Nor is it limited necessarily to one extreme traumatic event. It is possible to go through a series of events that trigger a PTSD response, even years later, in a cumulative way. I have talked with a pastor who felt that may be the case for me. Even though I have not gone through the kind of traumatic events I associated it with, he felt confident I may have some of the symptoms due to several events in the past that seemed to be affecting me years later.

That’s part of the reality with those suffering from PTSD: they have trouble separating the past from the present. For them, they get stuck in a loop where specific triggers will cause them to feel like what happened to them before is happening to them all over again. They often have a disproportionate emotional response and even physical reaction to those triggers. This has been true for me. One of the most helpful things I must constantly remind myself when this happens is that “that was then, this is now.”

But regardless of whether you have PTSD or not, the reality is many people have been through traumatic events, and we live in a time of trauma for many people. Not all who suffer trauma develop PTSD. Many, in fact, do not. But some do. And I do believe secondary trauma is a real thing as well, especially for those whose hearts are sensitive and full of compassion for the plight of others. It is a well-known reality that those in the social work industry, and those in ministry, can quickly burn out caring for and tending to others in their trauma and needs.

I have been reading quite a few books recently on both depression and trauma. As an author, my second book, which wrestles with the seeming despair of life, is being edited now. One of the books I read related to trauma, which, while not a Christian book, focused on post-traumatic growth verse post-traumatic stress. I found that focus helpful because one of the frustrating things about PTSD or depression is feeling “stuck.” However, focusing on growth that can occur while in or going through these things helped me gain a sense of not feeling as “trapped.” Though I may not be able to control being depressed or avoid all emotional triggers, I can grow through these experiences.

The picture on the front of one book I just read is a broken piece of pottery that had been mended back together. This comes from a Japanese philosophy called Wabi-Sabi. More specifically, this form of pottery is called Kintsugi. The idea is that pottery that has been mended together where cracked, with those cracks accentuated often with a gold streak, actually gives the piece of pottery more character and makes it more valuable. In other words, what would otherwise be viewed as broken and disregarded is instead what makes it more unique and defined. 

I would suggest that something similar could be seen in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. On the cross, Jesus endured horrific trauma. His hands and feet were nailed to a cross. Yet, in his resurrection, he obtained new life, and while his wounds were healed, the scars remained. The scars became beautiful reminders of what he had done for us, and it is by his wounds we are healed. He can do the same in our lives today. Even our most traumatic events can be transformed. He can take those who are broken and beat up and mend us back together again. It’s in our weaknesses that his power is demonstrated most. Here is how the Apostle Paul put it about a traumatic or painful issue in his life:

Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).

In the Western world, we tend to want to “fix” every “problem.” We seek the feeling of happiness, not the purpose of pain. And to be clear, I do not believe God wants anyone to be crippled by trauma or paralyzed by despair. But like the movie Inside Out, I think sadness is often considered only as an adverse dysfunction. We desperately try to keep sadness or suffering out of our lives at all costs. But what if sadness is sometimes the hero we all need, even if not the hero we may want? What if pain has its purpose? What if trauma can be transformed? What if growth occurs through suffering? What if character comes through challenges? What if Christ is strongest in us and through us when we are weakest? What if God is seen as most beautiful in our brokenness? 

Again, I do not want to suggest trauma itself is a good thing. One of the most tender promises in Scripture is Psalm 147:3, He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. Jesus’ wounds were healed. Pottery is pieced back together in Kintsugi. And Jesus was clear he came to bind up the brokenhearted. By the way, binding up someone’s wounds takes time and tenderness. It requires skill and focus. Jesus is not only a Great Physician, but he is also a Good Shepherd. We can trust him to bind up our wounds and heal our broken hearts. We can trust our lives in his hands as the potter and we the clay. He is an expert in fashioning and forming us into His image and likeness. He can take our trauma and transform it. He can give character and bring forth good out of even the worst of circumstances. We cannot change the past. But he can redeem our past, work in the present, and give us a future full of hope and healing.

Jesus, come and heal our hearts. Bind up our wounds. Tend to our brokenness. Thank you that you can transform our trauma. We need your healing in our lives and in our world. Amen.

Depression: A Gift and a Curse

Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. -Psalm 42:5,11

For as long as I can remember, I have battled with cycles of depression to varying degrees. I recently just came through two of the worst and longest-lasting episodes in quite a while. Two of the lowest points in my life during these cycles were the day my first book, a book on Hope, was published and my master’s degree graduation day. What should have been two of the most joyful days of my life were instead two of the most depressing days of life.

Those moments make some sense as they are marked by a kind of completion and transition. But many times, depression has its own logic that does not make ordinary logical sense. For example, I am in one of the most productive, fruitful, and overall enjoyable phases of my life. I lead a thriving and growing mission organization serving thousands worldwide and reaching millions with the Good News of Jesus. I have four awesome kids in a great stage of their lives. I have a wonderful wife who balances me out. I am authoring books, live in the beautiful state of Colorado, and life is good! And yet, I often find beneath it all a lingering sadness even when it is not directly tied to any one thing or circumstance. Depression just is what it is, comes when it comes, and lasts as long as it lasts.

I am sharing this because recently, I had three conversations about depression with three different people in one week. One was with another leader I respect in the throes of a cycle himself. Another was with a family member going through depression. And the third was another family member who does not battle depression but expressing concern and wanting to know how they can help.

So, I wanted to take a moment to blog just a few thoughts about depression, especially some things we may not typically think about. I hope it is meaningful, whether you are depressed or know someone battling depression. The reality is COVID has exposed the need for greater emphasis on mental health, and depression is something a large portion of people in the world and throughout history struggle with. It is time we paid more attention to what is going on inside us and aware of what may be going on inside of others.

I titled this article “Depression: A Gift and a Curse.” I think everyone would naturally agree with depression being a curse, but how can I say it is also a gift? Speaking personally, which I know is not valid for everyone, I refer to myself as a “functioning depressive.” What this means is that typically I do not get crippled by depression. Yes, there are times and seasons where I have shut down or just want to stay in bed all day and do nothing, but often, I find that depression forces me to focus on things in ways I otherwise would not. For example, I have become more aware of my need to take care of myself physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I find that some of my best writing or messages come from seasons of personal struggle. I also become more aware of the struggles of others and find identification and the ability to relate at a deeper level. I also find myself seeking God more and leaning in more deeply to my walk with him, recognizing my need for him in my human weakness. It also pushes me to refuse to settle for shallow or simple answers to some of life’s biggest questions and struggles. For these reasons, I find depression to be a gift.

And I am not alone. Throughout history, some of the greatest prophets, pastors, poets, saints, musicians, artists, creatives, comedians, teachers, authors, and others have been people who battled intensely with depression. Think of Elijah in 1 Kings 19 after calling down fire from heaven. There he stood on the mountain top toe to toe with the false prophets of Baal with boldness and courage. And yet, right after this, Elijah runs in fear for his life, collapses under a tree, begins to feel sorry for himself, and wishes he were dead. Think of so many of the Psalms. What about Jeremiah, the prophet who wrote a book in the bible called Lamentations? Mother Teresa spoke of the dark night of her soul, a phrase borrowed from Saint John of the Cross long before her. Charles Spurgeon, the great British preacher, is well-known for his bouts of severe depression. The list goes on and on. Some of the most creative, talented, gifted, compassionate, and godly people were plagued by depression. Yet, they brought forth some of their most remarkable achievements amid their depression.

But depression is also a curse. It has its destructive side. It can lead down some dark, even deadly paths. It can destroy people’s health, self-esteem, confidence, and relationships. It robs of joy. It sits over you like a wet and cold blanket in a dreary and dark winter. It produces despair and inner anguish. Others who do not struggle with it have a hard time understanding it or being around those who are in it. It creates confusion, frustration, anger, and self-loathing. For these reasons and more, it is a curse.

For those struggling with depression or not quite sure how to understand those battling depression, here is something else I have been seeing more clearly. Depression operates with its own logic and in its own cycles. In other words, you cannot always tie it to specific events or circumstances. There is often not a simple solution or answer. And it comes and goes in cycles. During my last cycle, I saw this for the first time in Scripture. I was preparing for a message from Psalm 42 on depression when I realized the same refrain is repeated several times in that chapter and the next. That refrain is where the Psalmist is asking himself why he is so downcast. He seems puzzled as to why he cannot seem to shake his despair. So, he tells himself to do two things: “put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God” (Psalm 42:5,11, 43:5). Some people think you should just be able to “get over it.” But that is not how depression works. You can do things to help navigate and manage depression. But you cannot just “get over it.” Sometimes you need to keep going through the same reminders multiple times, just as depression comes in various waves.

I also do not believe there is usually just one solution to depression. Often it requires a holistic approach. When Elijah had enough and wanted to die, it says an angel of the Lord came to him and told him to “get up and eat” (1 Kings 19:5-6). Elijah did these two things and then went back to sleep. So, the angel of the Lord came back to him a second time and repeated the same process all over again (1 Kings 19:7-8). Then, he moved on to a location where God would tend to him spiritually, emotionally, and relationally (1 Kings 19:8-18). But notice the holistic approach used with Elijah and the repetition of certain things until Elijah came through this bout of depression. Elijah needed physical rest, food, spiritual and emotional care, and time. Depression is a process. It can’t be reduced to a quick fix. And while God may deliver some from depression, I don’t believe God always delivers people from depression. I do believe however he can bring us through it and care for us in it.

Much more could be written, but I am saving some of that for my second book being edited now. It is a follow-up to my first book, but perhaps a bit more nuanced and coming at Hope differently. It is a journey through the book of Ecclesiastes, a book of the bible I often turn to when I am depressed. It is due out in the fall of 2021, so stay tuned for some excerpts and updates! The working title is: Everything is Meaningless: Finding Purpose in a World of Despair. Stay tuned.

Creative Faith

One day Jesus was teaching, and Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there. They had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal the sick. Some men came carrying a paralyzed man on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus. When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” -Luke 5:17-20

Have you ever thought of faith being creative? Or how about the need for faith to be demonstrated in a creative way?

I think many times we get stuck in the same routines and traditions that we fail to think outside the box and find new ways of doing things. Or maybe we see certain needs but think we are powerless to do anything about it and we give up rather than get creative.

Not these friends in this story! I am inspired not only by their faith, but their creative faith. In fact, here are three things we can learn from their example:

1). They were caring: This was not an easy task to carry a paralyzed man to Jesus. They obviously cared about their friend and recognized he could not do this on his own. He was dependent upon their care for him if he had hope of being healed by Jesus. I wonder how many people are depending on us to care enough to carry them to Jesus, even if it might hard work, require some effort and energy, and take some time?

2). They worked collectively: It strikes me that it was not just one friend, but multiple friends who worked together in sync and collectively to fulfill this task. This reminds me that the work of the ministry and caring for others is not up to any one of us alone. We need each other and need to work together. We can share the burden together and show our care collectively.

3). They got creative: These friends could have easily got discouraged and given up when they arrived and saw the crowds were too big to get their friend in the normal way to Jesus. But instead of getting discouraged, they got creative! The crowd was blocking them from going in through the front door as usual, but they simply found another way by cutting a hole through the roof. Obstacles, challenges, crisis, and barriers should not cause us to give up so easily. Instead, we need to get creative and find new ways of getting people to Jesus. The message never changes, but our methods should.

This time of COVID has been a disruption and crisis worldwide to the normal ways of doing things. But crisis is a time for care, collaboration, and creativity. Let us continue to be like these friends in this story: caring, collective, and creative.

Pentecost: Unity Amid Differences

Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

-Acts 2:12

We recently came through the Pentecost season in which we celebrate the coming and gift of the person of the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit of God is perhaps the most misunderstood or not understood at all person of the Triune God. Yet, the Holy Spirit is just as needed today as 2,000 years ago!

We live in an age of bitter division, culture wars, heated political rhetoric and more. It is nearly impossible to say anything that will not upset one side or another. If people do not align with our every view, opinion, political persuasion, issues we are passionate about, or specific nuance of secondary theology we separate and seek to find those just like us (tribalism) instead of together striving to become more like Christ amid our differences.

But one of the things I have been reflecting on this year, is that when the Spirit of God came on Pentecost, he united very different people from many different nations and languages and occupations. Even among Jesus’s own disciples there were fishermen, business owners, a tax collector, a political zealot, and those who came from different backgrounds, experiences, and trades.

Pentecost means there is a way to be brought together around the person of Jesus, the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, and the love of our Father in heaven. It means we can worship and fellowship with those different than us. It means God has made a way. Jesus is that way by which the Spirit empowers us towards that end and reaching out with his heart to others. You cannot choose your family. And neither can you choose your brothers and sisters in Christ.

When was the last time you worshiped with those who viewed life differently than you, spoke a different language, have a different culture and life experiences, or even a different political view?

If there is any hope today it is found in the Holy Spirit as he unites us around obedience and faith in Jesus Christ. Only then can our different personalities, perspectives, and cultures have a chance of making us stronger rather than divided.

Update From Nigeria

Greetings from Nigeria, the country with the largest population in Africa! I just wrapped up my first international trip in a YEAR due to COVID. It was so good to get back out there on behalf of ServeNow, the mission organization I lead. Being ServeNow has always heavily emphasized serving in, with, and through national leaders and churches, we have been able to carry on our work without skipping too much of a beat over this last year. In fact, we served far more people in the previous year over COVID than even the year before COVID! It may have looked different, but the impact is still just as incredible, if not more so than years past.

However, it was important for me to be here to lay the groundwork and cast the vision for launching, especially The Basic Series Discipleship Program in Nigeria. It was also crucial for me to meet with key leaders as many ministries prior have failed due to not doing so. It was also good to spend time personally with our main leader over multiple countries in Africa and those we are partnering and coordinating within Nigeria.

That said, I want to briefly touch on some highlights and personal testimony. First, this trip faced numerous challenges, stress, and drama even before it started! We had tentatively looked at November, but it did not work out then. We then were not sure about getting my visa back in time for this trip, but it worked out. Not even two weeks before the trip, my mother-in-law had a stroke that left her hospitalized. I was unsure whether I should cancel my trip in case my wife needed to fly out. I shared this situation with our team worldwide, and they began praying. The next day, we got a note from the doctor where he used the term “miracle” to describe the turnaround she suddenly had! There are still challenges ahead because of stroke, but for a doctor to use the word “miracle” says a lot.

Further, just twenty-four hours before my first flight, we became aware of some further complications and issues. First, I still had not received my COVID test results back needed to fly, and without it, I could not fill out the online health form required. I almost canceled around that and a couple other things as I was feeling unsettled. However, through my African brothers’ faith and encouragement, I decided to proceed to the airport, where all I could do was continue to wait and hope it would come through in time. I finally called the pharmacy where I got the test when they opened about an hour before it would be too late to board, but at first, they indicated there was nothing they could do. Before I was about to hang-up, however, the woman said, let me login into your portal on the back end and check the status. When she did, she suddenly said, “oh! Your results are here, but they didn’t e-mail you!” I was able to obtain them and worked as quickly as possible to fill out the online health form. However, that gave me problems, so I finally ran up to the check-in counter to get on the first flight. I made it just in time, at least to there.

When the first flight landed, I again rushed to figure out the health form problem needed to obtain a QR code to enter the country. Multiple attempts failed, so finally, I e-mailed them, noting my flight was only an hour away. Miraculously they responded back with my code right before boarding once again. Minus a few more issues and complications, I made it, and we went on with the trip.

While writing about this, looking back is one thing. Living in it was nerve-wracking. But it reminded me again that we are called to a life of faith amid uncertainty, not a certainty before we exercise faith. In Africa, they live with this kind of uncertainty all the time. As Americans, we tend to struggle with uncertainty. This situation also led me to reflect on the parting of the Red Sea for the Israelites. While my context is not at all comparable, I joked with staff that it was at least like facing “The Sea of Stress.” But in this classic story, the Israelites experience the truth of how God fights our battles and parts the seas in front of us that otherwise would prevent us from moving forward in what he has for us. But they had to trust him and wait on him even down to the last minute!

Once we got through all of that and other logistical situations, we launched in three different locations in three different languages at three different pastor/leader conferences. They were smaller in size than usual due to COVID restrictions but powerful with more watching live online. We also met with key church leaders, something critical to the success of ministry in Nigeria. Many other ministries have failed in Nigeria due to not understanding that cultural dynamic. This is another reason why working with national leaders is so vital. 

I could write much, but just to keep this brief, I will note that I committed to printing 5,000 books per language due to the size of Nigeria, per print run instead of 3,000. But even 5,000 is nothing in a country of over 200 million people. One church network we met with alone has 12 million members just in Nigeria. There are at least 15 others just like that one that are a part of the same network together. However, the fun thing is that beyond what we commit to, there is every possibility that as they start to see the impact, they may be able to print far beyond the number we are committing to with their own resources. Our initial commitment is critical to show we are here to genuinely serve, and partner together, not just sell them something. But now that the vision is cast, they may run with it!

Word is getting around fast, though already! Even within minutes of the second dedication, we pulled out of the conference area, and I spotted a security guard intently reading the book already! Others commented that this is precisely what is needed in Nigeria right now, a sentiment we hear all around the world. This may strike our American ears as odd when we think of the needs of the world. These basic yet solid discipleship resources help the church in its calling to be disciples who make disciples. And that is our ultimate calling. These books are needed in the US as in other countries, but that is another subject for another time.

Friends, I can honestly say the impact and demand for the Basic Series is something beyond our wildest imagination. As I shared here in Nigeria, our Founder has said what he sees happening through The Basic Series books and ServeNow in just our first 7 ½ years is more than what he saw in his first 50 years combined of global ministry! This is coming from a leader I consider legendary and transformational; whose stories and life is inspirational.

I can attest that week in and week out, we receive story after story of lives being transformed, churches being revived, pastors being encouraged, and communities being served because of what God is doing through ServeNow and the Basic Series. Even this week, while here in Nigeria, I received stories from Burundi, one of the poorest countries in Africa, of prostitutes coming to faith in Jesus. One of them, a Muslim, shared how she gave her life to Christ because of the Basic Series book on Jesus. Beyond even that, she is now reaching out to other prostitutes to lead them to Christ as well!

In writing this brief article, I hope it might encourage and inspire you to partner with ServeNow or commit to do so even more generously. There is a great need in the world. Still, repeatedly, the leaders we are with worldwide tell us the greatest need is what has become our foundational and flagship project: The Basic Things You Need to Know. From there, the outreach and impact are explosive!

***These books will go beyond where I, or other Americans should travel in Nigeria. They will reach into some dangerous parts of the country. Please pray for those being persecuted and those suffering under terrorist activity. Even while here, I saw video of a group of people taken captive right off the highway by a terrorist group where they are demanding money from the government in exchange for their lives.

***It will cost us $2,500 per language per book in Nigeria. To partner financially with ServeNow in the Basic Series click here: The Basic Series

Hope Rising: My New Book

Towards the end of 2020 I published my first book: Hope Rising: Finding Hope in a Turbulent World. In this blog post, I wanted to link a few subsequent interviews and videos about the book and encourage you to order a copy for yourself or for friends, family, or even “strangers” you come across.

I believe if there is one universal need right now in these turbulent times, it is true hope. The apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:13 boiled down the Christian life to the three most essential and irreplaceable basics: faith, hope, and love. But where do we find that hope? Or, how can our hope be renewed? My book tackles those questions and more through real life stories from around the world via the international mission organization I lead called ServeNow, and stories from those I know here in the US.

One of the greatest joys for me right now has not only been seeing believers encouraged by this book, but using this book as opportunity to give out to those whom I do not know whether they are believers or not; or even strangers in general as I go about life. Almost every time, the reaction when seeing it is a book on hope is “isn’t that what we all need right now!” I am praying, and invite you to pray with me, that this book will be used to encourage believers, but also lead those not yet followers of Christ into the eternal hope we can only find in him!

Additionally, there are discussion questions in the back of the book that could be used in a group context. If you are part of a small group or book group this would make a great resource to utilize and discuss!

Below are some recent interviews to learn more. To order a copy or more of my book, or to share with others, you can click here: Hope Rising: Finding Hope in a Turbulent World. All profits and proceeds also go 100% to ServeNow to help continue our mission of “sharing Christ’s passion for the world by serving the most vulnerable through national churches and leaders.” There are no author royalties!

An Age of Cultism & Extremism

We are living in some extraordinary and shocking times of cultural, political, and religious turbulence. At the time of writing this, a group of self proclaimed “patriotic” Americans, some with signs incorporating Trump, Jesus, and Confederacy together, stormed the capitol, resorted to violence, destroyed property, attacked the police, and broke the law. They essentially attempted an insurrection egged on by the rhetoric of various leaders, including the President himself. The irony doesn’t escape me that this happened under the banner of the party and president who claimed to be the party of “law and order” and “back the blue.” There was even a gallows built and erected, upon which some wanted to hang Vice President Mike Pence, since he had betrayed their cause.

While some condemned this, this is not an isolated situation. This was a long-time in coming and building up. And sadly, I don’t think it’s the end of this level of behavior. The only word or phrasing that I think comes close to what pastors and leaders will have to deal with is the reality of an age of cultism. In my opinion, I think a case can be made that cultic like behavior is manifesting and growing more and more. At the least, which I have written about in past articles, we see identity politics influencing more and more people on both the right and left. In this article, I will briefly share some of those cult-like characteristics. However, I want to focus more on some possible solutions going forward. My fear is that violence and division will only increase, not decrease, unless a different kind of radical change happens in our hearts, lives, and worldviews. Really, at the root of it all is that of idolatry. Our hope is being misplaced. The level of fear and anxiety is disproportionate to reality, driven by much misinformation and misguided in its focus. It is also all being amplified and fueled by many 24/7 news agencies and social media. However, we can’t just blame news agencies or social media platforms. This is what we want. This is what we crave. This is what we keep fueling. More and more narrow-minded platforms and outlets are being created which only serves to produce deeper and more extreme echo chambers for the “enlightened.”

Before I dive into some of the cult-like tendencies I am seeing gripping and consuming more and more people’s hearts, particularly when it comes to politics and seeping into every aspect of life and relationship, let me share something quite personal and embarrassing. Years ago, I was part of a group that began displaying what others at the time, and I would also now admit and label looking back as cult-like tendencies. While there may have been good intentions and an attempt to model something different, we became extreme in our views, rigid in our perspective, self-righteous in our attitude towards those on the “outside,” and more and more isolated from others. These are some of the tell-tale signs of cult-like behavior. There is an attitude dismissive of any other perspectives or nuance, a sense of righteousness and indignation continuously fed and projected, constant confirmation bias, a bent towards seeing conspiracy theories everywhere with everyone, and a sense of being superior in insight or special knowledge. There is also a grievance dynamic where everything is perceived as more proof of both targeted unfairness and justification of beliefs. Over time, and building up enough, these can develop into cult-like symptoms or signs.

Further, when you add in a “charismatic” leader or leaders, their ways, words, and influence escalate things to a whole other level and degree. Before you know it, you have a revolution on your hands, and things turn ugly, or as we are seeing recently and over the past year, violent. All of this is, of course, justified in the minds and hearts of the adherer’s, and there is very little you can do to reason with people in this place.

So, what can be done? What are some solutions and steps going forward, at the very least, to protect ourselves and speak into what is happening? I think many are becoming more perplexed, unsure, and frankly discouraged about what can be done or said, if anything. Almost everyone I talk to is experiencing sadness and grief of broken relationships with family and friends over these dynamics sweeping across this country, again on both the right and the left. It is dividing families, friendships, churches, communities, and our country in ways that I can see headed towards a civil war again if we don’t figure out how to tone down the rhetoric and navigate these days ahead. Here are six things I think we can focus positively on:

  • Humility: We are not always right. Others hold views and perspectives different than our own. There is more nuance in life than we often are willing to admit or see. Even if we are “right,” the way we carry ourselves matters as much as whatever we may be articulating or standing for. Walking in humility towards others, seeing others as people made in the image of God regardless of their views could help keep us from growing self-righteous and rigid in our worldviews or political opinions. Seeking to find common ground is also crucial in the pursuit of humility, especially towards one another. 
  • Humor: My pastor made an interesting comment to me recently that the first thing to be targeted and go under extremist views is often humor and comedians. Think about it. Everyone right now is angry all the time about something. Humor, though, has a way of diffusing heated situations and bringing some levity back into the conversation or relationship. Maintaining a child-likeness is the way of Jesus, not a constant outrage or carrying the world’s weight around on our shoulders. It will also keep us from going insane! 
  • Guarding our Heart: There is a reason Solomon says in Proverbs 4:23 that we should protect our hearts, or keep a vigilant watch over our hearts, above anything else. Take it from both the wisest man to ever walk the earth and the fact this is inspired Scripture breathed on by God himself! We must practice self-awareness and emotional intelligence. What is happening on the inside is far more important than anything happening on the outside. It is out of the heart that the mouth speaks, and every attitude and action occurs. Being aware of our own pride, anger, greed, selfishness, etc., and tending to our hearts in both weeding out evil and practicing soul care is critical in the age and times we live in. Recognizing that, as John Calvin once said, “the human heart is a perpetual idol factory” is something that is an ongoing daily effort in this current fallen world. Today, we are keeping vigilant watch over everyone else’s “sins” but rarely allowing God to search our own hearts. Social media is the tool to call out and confess everyone else’s sins, verse confessing our own.
  • Discernment: This is a tougher one to explain. Those displaying cult-like symptoms will also speak much about the need for discernment and how they especially possess special knowledge. Any denial, fact-checking, or debunking is just further evidence of the blindness and deception others are under. The only thing I can say here is what John writes in 1 John 4:1, Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is not something limited to the first-century church or other countries somewhere else. This is true at all times in all cultures. There is a “spirit” behind all that people proclaim or communicate. The question is whether it is really the Holy Spirit or some other spirit seeking to influence our minds and captivate our hearts. So how can you tell? That would require a fuller blog article itself. Still, it involves keeping yourself in the Word of God and exploring the philosophy and beliefs behind the messenger. We need more critical thinking and discernment, not less. We are constantly bombarded with information overload from all angles full of bias, agenda’s, misinformation, and worldviews that underneath the surface are often unbiblical or leading to unbiblical places.
  • Refocus on the Gospel & Mission of Jesus: We seem to have lost faith in the power of the Gospel and focus on the mission of Jesus given to us for our time here on earth. There are many worthy causes by which we can flesh some of the calls and commands of Jesus out in our lives, but I think we have lost the big picture and our focus. Politics matters and has consequences, but it is secondary to being a citizen of Jesus and an ambassador of his, entrusted with the message of reconciliation to God (1 Corinthians 5). We are here to be followers of Jesus and make followers of Jesus, not a political party or candidate. The intensity and ever-lasting culture war battles and political battles need re-framed and put in place under the Gospel message. We are not here to proclaim American greatness; we are here to proclaim the glory and beauty of Jesus. We are not here to champion America First or Only. We are here to declare Jesus first and only. The church should be modeling the way of the kingdom and character of Jesus; not trying to force culture to conform or thinking political power is the pathway forward.
  • Prayer: At the end of the day, this is all a spiritual battle. The devil is clever, shrewd, cunning, and smart. He is not stupid and has been in the business of deceiving human beings, twisting God’s word, and misrepresenting God’s heart from the very beginning. We, too, are susceptible. We are not infallible. Bible knowledge alone is not enough. The demons know exactly who Jesus is, but they are still demons. And as Paul says, “We all possess knowledge. But knowledge puffs up, while love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). I also need to clarify this point on prayer because those involved in cults or cult-like behavior also often pray, sometimes more so than others! But their prayers tend to focus on a specific agenda, not submission and surrender to the will of God and working of God even if contrary to their desires, expectations, or intended purpose. Today, you will find prayer inspiring jihad, violence, extremism, and tribalism. But I am saying we need prayer born of a pure heart to be close to God, where we can pour out our hearts and concerns to God while trusting wholly in God. Not to fulfill our agenda’s or do what we deem best.

More things could be added to this list, but I think that is a good start for many of us grieved by what we see unfolding in our culture and country in these extreme and cultish days. 

The Problem of Critical Race Theory

I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments. -Colossians 2:4

Over the last couple of years, I have mostly been vocal about the dangers and idolatry of much of the evangelical conservative church wedding themselves to politics and its damage to our witness. I have also been vocal about our call as believers to serve the most vulnerable, whether refugees, immigrants, the disadvantaged, persecuted, or the oppressed. I have preached that racism has no place in our hearts, lives, families, or churches, even when it has cost me relationships and support.

However, there is another philosophy on the other side making a lot of inroads among a portion of the church and believers in the US. That philosophy is one called critical race theory (more commonly referred to as social justice or “wokism”). If you are not familiar with critical race theory, it is a worldview important to understand because it will help make sense of much of the rhetoric and current movement taking place under the banner of social justice. Many Christians have seemingly been embracing all or much of the underlining assumptions, terminology, worldview, and ideological framework by which this operates. Granted, I suspect many are not consciously aware of the philosophy under-girding it or how it conflicts at points with Scripture. Others may be lacking a theological framework to filter it. Still more may understand social justice differently and wouldn’t subscribe to what I describe below. In this article I am not attacking the people who have bought into critical race theory; but I do want to address the ideology and assumptions under-girding what we are hearing and seeing today.  

Before I dive in, I will admit that I was more sympathetic towards this type of rhetoric because I identify with language such as “justice” and believe the Bible calls us to pursue justice, especially on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed. However, what has shocked me as I dove deeper into studying critical race theory, is the redefining of specific terms to mean something different from what they have traditionally meant or that I believe Scripture teaches.

For example, racism is no longer defined as a discriminatory attitude or action towards others because of their skin color. Instead, it is now being equated with being white (being the dominant cultural group in the US). This means a white person such as myself, is implicitly racist and complicit in the plight of minority groups. For those who adopt a critical race theory worldview, there are only two groups of people: the oppressed and the oppressors. If you are in the dominant cultural group, then you are automatically in the oppressor category by the nature of your skin color. Ironically, this is the traditional definition of racism in discriminating against people because of their skin color. In a sense this worldview is leading some to reverse racism. That is partly why I find this ideology so dangerous and divisive.

In fact, as a white person, under this worldview, I should not be writing this or pushing back on any of this framework. By doing so, I am confirming that I am racist in the eyes of those who hold to this worldview. This is what is being labeled as “white fragility.” There is a popular book precisely titled that, that I have taken the time to read recently. Under this view, if I stay silent about my racist problem as a white person and do not do XYZ (yes, there is a rule-book for what white people must do and not do), then I am complicit and guilty. But if I challenge any of the assumptions underlining what any “woke” person says, I only prove my white fragility, and my racism is exposed. Only people of color or “woke” white people can clearly “see” this.

Under this framework, the only pathway forward then for me as a white person, is to confess I am racist because I am white, repent of my racism to people of color, surrender my “white privilege”, accept the narrative and experiences without critical thought, listen without defense despite charges, accusations, or perspective articulated, and follow the rules of “whiteness 101.” When studied carefully, these rules hold white people to a different standard than people of color, simply because of skin color.

There is so much more around all this than I will get into in this article but suffice to say it is sad to see how this framework for viewing the world is not only deceiving another part of the church, (many of whom are rightly frustrated and disillusioned with so much of it being usurped by political conservatism); but how it is also driving a wedge in relationships while I would argue distracting from real issues of racism and creating an inability to have honest discussions that are not one-sided.

There is no doubt real racism and inequality exists in the United States. There is no doubt that many evangelical Christians have especially worshiped at the foot of a golden political calf in extremely dangerous and damaging ways. There is no doubt there are many cultural blind spots and situations where we have stayed silent when we should have spoken up more courageously. There is no doubt there is some noble work being done to address these issues. I’ve had some of those conversations with people of color who do not subscribe to critical race theory. There are real issues.

But the influence of critical race theory, wokism or identity politics is not the solution. We can learn from aspects of this lens and understand the experience that many people of color have is quite different than others. But we must do so understanding that the underlining worldview, assumptions, and framework of critical race theory are fraught with contradictions, double-standards, and produces some bad fruit if we are not careful. I would go as far as to agree with others who have noted it is becoming a religion and religious movement itself (filling the vacuum created by the deconstructing and dismantling of prior grand narratives) but leading to isolation, new walls being erected based on skin color, and a view of the world without much, if any, nuance.

So what is the solution if it is not conservative evangelicalism or critical race theory?

Well, let me articulate what I think is needed first and is a major contributing factor. We need to be aware and discerning of all philosophy we come across and understand the underlining assumptions and worldviews. We cannot just accept anything at face value. However, in this case of critical race theory, that is essentially what is being called for if you are white. To push back at all would be to confirm you are racist, which is partly an intimidation tactic even if sincerely believed. Right now, this may not be popular, especially as “social justice” might sound like a positive thing, but I believe we need to be wary of all causes or movements and exercise great discernment in every case. Read Colossians chapter two carefully as this is what I am talking about and see as the danger here.

But how do we discern various philosophy’s as to whether they are genuinely biblical or not? Aren’t we, or others, prone to have our faulty interpretations or understanding? Absolutely. We must also be careful of reading into Scripture our cultural meanings, regardless of which culture we might be a part of. We all naturally do it, which is why the study of Scripture is so important, especially when you can do it with others diverse in culture, to help with cultural blind spots. But cultural blind spots are different than being labeled racist. Additionally, understanding Scripture’s use of terms like justice (and comparing to modern usage and meaning under critical race theory) and paying attention to the overarching narrative theme is critically essential. Being able to question interpretations or understanding and getting to the truth requires time and effort. Viewing the world from multiple lenses, not just one, will also aid in not becoming narrow minded in our focus.

For example, justice is undoubtedly a critical part of the theme of Scripture. Seeing the oppressed set free is part of the mission of Jesus. Serving the most vulnerable is a critical part of why Jesus came. But any of these isolated from the rest or when it is the only lens through which we view the world, form a different picture, and become something not entirely whole or even biblical. It easily leads to a new form of self-righteousness and works-righteousness that is exhausting in it’s demands and burdensome to it’s adherents.

While justice is a theme of scripture, the overarching narrative of Scripture is that of redemption from sin. Jesus came to redeem us and reconcile us to God. That is the Gospel message. Out of that does flow a thousand other Gospel implications and applications. For example, one implication is that by being reconciled to God, we are also reconciled to one another regardless of the color of our skin or any other distinction. Therefore, racism or any other “ism” has no place in the church is the application. But original sin is not racism or broken human relationships because of racism. It is rather, broken relationship with God because of sin. Racism is one of many forms or manifestations of sin. We all (not just certain races) have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) being separated from him and needing a Savior.

But when justice (or seeing the world divided in two groups of oppressed and oppressors) becomes the singular lens by which we view the world, the message becomes less about the Good News of what God did for us in Christ; and more about what I need to do to free myself (and other white people) from being racist. When the world is viewed this way, every interaction, every situation, every event, every relationship is then about race. Confirmation bias begins to settle in because you start to see race everywhere when only this lens is used. Much of what could be cultural/personality differences becomes amplified and intensified as issues of racism. The intent of someones heart, or content of their character and actions are no longer relevant.

I have also noticed a formula begins to emerge from “wokism”/social justice/critical race theory. There are rules, commandments, and expectations (some unspoken, some articulated) that must be followed, especially by white people. However, many of those are vague as to how much, for how long, and how often. Confessing our “whiteness” (sin of racism) to people of color, lamenting our racist history, and making reparations, for example, are specific actions called for. But these calls are not specified as to how long, or to how many people of color, or how many white people must do so, to atone for our collective and personal sin of racism before forgiveness is extended and healing can happen. The past, while certainly tied to the future and even still impacting the present in some harmful ways for people of color, binds us all from being able to move forward in the present and celebrate any progress. We are always guilty because we are white and so must be “vigilant” to stay “woke” about our whiteness. But this is circular reasoning and one that cannot be proven except by antidotes, personalized stories, and generalizations.

To be abundantly clear, none of this is to say racism is not real, that racism is not a part of our history, or that justice is not important. It is. We are called to pursue justice. But true justice flows not from a critical race theory worldview but as an implication and application of the biblical narrative. Neither conservative evangelicalism wedded to politics nor social justice wedded to critical race theory is the way forward. Both are identity politics that are dividing the church, relationships, and families verse uniting us in Christ.

Instead, I believe we need to stay centered and grounded in a biblical worldview that recognizes the world is in a fallen condition (racism being a part of that fallen reality but not the definition of sin) and the greatest need is transformed hearts and lives whereby we find our primary identity as brothers and sisters in Christ regardless of race or cultural distinctions. Where possible, we also should come to appreciate and demonstrate the beauty of that diversity that is representative of what heaven will be like when every tribe and nation worships together under the banner of unity in Christ. A new heaven and new earth is our ultimate hope when Jesus rights every true wrong and restores that which was broken by the fall for the redeemed.

That reality of modeling something of the beauty of heaven needs fleshed out more in each context and is worthy of deeper reflection and discussion. This side of Jesus’ return it will be messy because all people are messy. But for the purpose of this article, I wanted to at least articulate a cautionary warning about the worldview upon which critical race theory is founded and how as believers we need to understand and exercise discernment when it comes to the tenants and assumptions upon which it is built. For more on critical race theory from a biblical perspective I encourage you to check out the blog page of Neil Shenvi, an Indian-American: https://shenviapologetics.com/critical-theory-all-content/.

As a Child, Like a Child.

Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” -Luke 2:11

I have been reflecting on how exhausting 2020 has been on so many levels. That is especially true if the only lens through which we view the world, or all we focus on, are things like COVID, politics, or race. These things are a part of all our lives to one degree or another. But the hope and beauty of Jesus coming as a newborn baby is the promise of newfound life and new beginnings. Glad tidings of great joy for all people. Young or old. Rich or poor. Black or white. Male or female. 

The good news of Christmas, the Good News of the Gospel, is that Christ has come for all, and all can come to him by faith in hope and find rest for their weary souls. This is the very promise of Christ himself. In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

To whom are we coming? What yoke are we bearing? Who are we learning from? Is it Christ? We will know whether it is genuinely Christ or not by whether our souls are at ease regardless of our circumstances. We will know whether the burden we bear is that of Christ’s if it is light. We will know whether Christ is the One we are being taught by if we are experiencing hope, wholeness, and fullness of life.

If you are weary, Christ gives new life. If you have lost hope, Jesus restores hope. If you are exhausted, Christ provides peace. If you are straining and striving, Jesus brings salvation. If you are tired of the constant drama, heated political and racial rhetoric, tired of COVID fears, anxieties, and impact on life, Jesus calls us to rest in him and know his peace.

If you have ever held a newborn child, you know the feeling. You know the sense of hope. No matter how difficult or painful, all else seems to disappear and lose its power over our hearts and minds. The newness of life, the triumph of life, the optimism of life, the joy of life, the beauty of life, the marvel of life, the peace of life, the hope of life. A clean slate of new beginnings.

This Christmas let’s remember that Christ has come for us as a child. Let us come to him like a child! May Christ be born in us anew as we worship him anew. 

Baby Yoda and Jesus

Besides COVID in 2020, perhaps the next thing that has taken our culture by storm is “Baby Yoda!” Our family just returned from a trip to Disney World, and yes, we enjoyed Galaxies Edge where we got to pretend like we were in Star Wars! I even got singled out and questioned by Storm Troopers who demanded I show them my identification.

Anyway, back to Baby Yoda. I cannot help but think as Christmas approaches, there are certain similarities between this “special child” in a galaxy far far away and the real Chosen Child born here on earth over 2,000 years ago.

In fact, I think it is partly these overtures that play a role in stirring in our hearts for those into the new Mandalorian TV show. While I don’t believe these similarities are entirely intentional, I believe God is speaking even through culture in ways that ultimately point to Christ. This is similar in purpose by God for the benefit of those seeking like the wise men of old who followed the signs in the sky to discover this savior of the world. Likewise, for those looking today, they may end up seeing or finding the Christ child in a new way this year!

First, as I have watched the Mandalorian episodes, you can’t help but feel the intensity of the hunt for this child by the remnants of the evil empire that have alternative plans for this special being. Likewise, Herod, under the inspiration of evil demonic powers, being threatened by this news of a newborn king, hunted Jesus down after his birth, trying to snuff out his life because of the threat he posed. Yet, along the way, there were “protectors” in the form of both human beings and angelic messengers who fought for the child’s safety, just as the Mandalorian and some of his friends do for the “Baby Yoda” child.

Secondly, I think about our continual search for “the chosen one” or those deemed “special” who can provide some form of salvation in our lives. But as Star Wars has effectively and relatably proven to do, its Jedi “saviors” aren’t all “good” all the time. They all have their battles with the dark side, no matter how special, just like we do, no matter how gifted, with our sinful nature. Some, who started out with promise, went entirely to the dark side and fell, while others have been redeemed from the dark side. It is the story of us all. Some of us are consistently faithful like Obi-Wan Kenobi, others more like Anakin Skywalker who have fallen but been redeemed, others like Luke or Rey (and it seems so far Baby Yoda too…although his outcome is not yet known) who struggle but overcome their darkness, and still others like Count Dooku who fell to the dark side and was not redeemed. Here we can compare these characters with some biblical characters like Daniel, David, Abraham, the Kings of the Old Testament, Peter, Paul, and Judas. That is to say nothing about about modern day leaders and believers too.

But there is one, who while tempted like us all, never gave in to any sin or darkness. There is one who is The Chosen One in whom true salvation is found. There is one who is incorruptible and sinless. And he, too, was once born as a vulnerable human being. Our search for a Savior and salvation does begin with a baby. Our search for meaning, purpose, adventure, and battle revolves around this child. Just as the Mandalorian was swept into a much bigger drama than his own through his relationship with this child, so too are we swept into an epic battle much larger than our own galaxies. It is a story of deception, darkness, danger, intrigue, failure, but also devotion, love, sacrifice, redemption and hope. These are all themes of the greatest stories, movies, and drama’s; because these are all themes of the ultimate story and drama: The Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The birth of Jesus was not as some of our hymns portray it as a “silent night” or “peaceful night.” Instead, it was heaven and hell breaking in and breaking out simultaneously. It was a daring rescue operation that all revolved around the birth and the survival and eventual sacrifice and resurrection of this promised child. All things, including Baby Yoda and even Star Wars, point us to this ultimate story, a story that is still unfolding and that we are a part of even to this day. But do we have eyes to see and ears to hear?

May the force…wait…may the grace of God be with you this Christmas season!

2020 Reflections

2020 will be a year that will go down in history as the year of COVID-19! What a year it has been. 2020 has been full of challenges, uncertainty, disrupted plans, canceled trips, restrictions, limitations, hoarding, hunger, pivots, conspiracy theories, emotion, drama, protests, politics, riots, racism, and our rights. And all in an election year, which added fuel to the fire!

In this article, I want to reflect on some of these central themes and lessons I have learned from a Christian perspective and what I hope might be a helpful perspective for you as well.

  • PandemicsWhile we may have found 2020 to be unusual; the reality is pandemics have been a reality throughout human history. The Founder of ServeNow and I wrote a special edition Basic Series book (The Basic Things You Need to Know When our World Falls Apart) for our ministry. It begins by noting the historical context of pandemics throughout human history. I found that it greatly helped in keeping perspective. Crisis has a way of sucking you into the here and now with a tunnel vision that can stoke anxiety and fear in disproportionate ways. This was not the first, and it won’t be the last.
  • Uncertainty, Anxiety, Fear, and Worry: COVID-19 was quite unsettling when word broke out about the virus, and lock down measures began being implemented. At some level, I think we all have battled the various emotions this has triggered or evoked. Mental health and emotional health problems intensified even with fears over the virus itself. Suicide rates increased as people lost jobs and lost hopes. While I had good days and not so good days; I found the days when I paid attention to my emotions, went for walks outside, spent more time in prayer and reading God’s word, and took up writing projects that these activities significantly helped my emotional state.
  • Restrictions, Cancellations, and Disrupted plans: I am sure, like you, I had all kinds of plans for 2020! At our mission organization, we were just wrapping up our last fiscal year. We had just established plans for the next fiscal year ahead (April 2020-March, 2021). Obviously, many of those plans, including much international travel, went right out the window! This was a humbling reminder of many verses though in Scripture that speak about us making our plans but God directing our steps (Proverbs 16:9). Or, the reminder in James of our need to remember in humility that we are not God: Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them. (James 4:13-17).
  • Pivoting: I remember early on, knowing we would be faced with a critical choice in perspective. Would we focus on all we couldn’t do or all that we could do? A verse that became a key verse for me in 2020 was what the apostle Paul wrote to the Philippian believers from prison. Being in prison, he was obviously limited and restricted by external constraints forced upon him. In Philippians 1:12, he wrote the following, Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. How is that for perspective! We saw this happen as well, as we pivoted in some crucial ways. Since I could not travel internationally, we began utilizing technology in new or increased ways. Through Zoom calls, video messages, and devotional messages being translated, we reached MILLIONS of people more than in years past and precisely because of COVID restrictions. Additionally, I realized that this would be the year of any year to write my first and new full book, which I accomplished! It is now available for purchasing here: Hope Rising: Finding Hope in a Turbulent World. I even recently finished the first draft of a second book for 2021! The lesson here is that it is easy to focus on the negative realities enforced upon us that have been challenging and restricting, verse the opportunities we should take advantage of. We may be limited, but the Gospel will never be restricted if we focus on what we can do!
  • Hoarding and Hunger: It was frightening to watch two realities play out in two very different ways. In many locations throughout the US, people began hoarding commodity items such as toilet paper. But in other parts of the US or world, hunger became a real issue for millions of people. Official projections were that twice as many people would be facing acute starvation this year compared to last year, up an additional 130 million people. The lesson here was that we tend to self-preserve if we don’t intentionally combat that urge with compassion for others in times of crisis. There were, as there always are, notable exceptions to this. We even had a couple from our church drop off some toilet paper at our house to share with us knowing we couldn’t find any at one point!
  • Conspiracy Theories: Wow. This is a loaded point. We live in a time of misinformation, biased reporting, sensationalized headlines, and volatile emotions. What surprised me, though, was the number of professing Christ-followers getting caught up in conspiracy theories proving to be quite divisive, distracting, and damaging. I guess this shouldn’t surprise me, however. Rumors and conspiracy theories are not new even in the Christian community. At the end of the Gospel of John, there is a story that seems to highlight this vulnerability even among Christians to get distracted and caught up in this kind of thing. The story goes like this; as Jesus is speaking into Peter’s life in restoring him to following him, Peter sees John following at a distance and asks Jesus about him. Jesus responds with a comment that set off a chain of speculation among the other disciples. The text puts it this way in John 21:22-23, Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?” How quickly our minds seem to be distracted by rumors, conspiracy theories, and the unusual!
  • Politics: I will keep this comment brief because I have hammered on this point all year. Evangelical Christians have done a lot of damage to their witness by their hypocrisy, prioritization of politics, and intertwining American politics with Christianity. While this is part of the American culture, we seem to have lost our way in our primary calling to represent Christ and reflect his character regardless of who is in power. We have become more concerned about our rights than rightly representing Christ. If you want to read more of my reflections on this, just take a look at several full articles I posted on this site on this point. The main lesson I take from this is that we have to stay focused on God’s purpose in our lives. We are here to be his witnesses and share his message, the good news of salvation, eternal life, the forgiveness of sins, and the kingdom of heaven. This is of greater priority than anything political. Be involved in politics for sure, but be careful that politics doesn’t become an idol that cannot save and ends up corrupting our calling and character. We need to trust in the Sovereignty and wisdom of God. As Daniel 2:21 says, He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning.
  • Racism: This year seemed to also expose and bring far more to the public eye the ugly reality of prejudice. Yet, this too became polarized by politics as it seems every issue has this year in the US. I wrote and spoke quite a bit on this elsewhere through the year, but it caused me to reflect a lot more deeply on the fact that in many cases we have failed to emphasize the fact that the cross of Jesus reconciles us not just to God but one another despite our differences. We have failed to cast a vision of the reality of God’s eternal kingdom and the diversity that will exist in heaven when people from every tribe, tongue, and language worships him around the throne. We still have a ways to go in modeling this reality of the beauty of his kingdom and heaven.

What have you learned in 2020? What are the major themes you see that have emerged? What is God teaching you? 

Hope Rising: New Book Announcement!

I am so excited to announce the arrival of my first book, Hope Rising: Finding Hope in a Turbulent World!

In this blog post, I want to give you a little of the backstory and context for why I wrote this book, along with the Founder (Lars Dunberg) of the mission organization I lead, called ServeNow

Several years ago, our Lars and I were meeting with a couple in their home in Texas. As we talked, the husband commented, “you know, what ServeNow gives me is hope.” As soon as he made this statement, I had a vision for one day writing a book on hope that shared the ServeNow story.

Later that day, as our Founder and I talked over a meal, I even mentioned to him that we needed to write a book together one day! That evening, we also came up with the phrase that is being used for our 3-year vision plan based on the dreams of our National Leaders around the world: Providing Lasting Hope. ServeNow does many different things in many different countries around the world. Still, no matter the specific project or program, what is really being extended to people is hope! And it is a hope that arises from the person of Jesus Christ himself working in and through his people worldwide. 

While the seed for the dream of writing this book was planted several years back, it was a project that was supposed to still be a few years away. Between a growing ministry, obtaining my master’s degree, travel, and tending to my family, it did not seem realistic or possible to take this additional task on yet. 

But then COVID hit! In the first week of the lock-down measures being put in place, Lars and I were asked by one of our leaders in Asia to write a special edition booklet as part of our Basic Series Discipleship program. The Basic Series is a set of 30 booklets, just 32 pages each called The Basic Things You Need to Know. They were written and designed so that anybody, at any level, anywhere in the world, translated in multiple languages, could read and grasps the basic truths of the Christian faith.

We had just finished the last book in the series when we got this request. Within a couple of weeks, we wrote, edited, typeset and had out for translation in multiple languages, a special edition book called The Basic Things You Need to Know When Your World Falls Apart.  

But as time went on and international travel was put on hold, I started feeling more and more compelled to work on this book now rather than later. One of the things I decided early on during COVID was that I would not get focused, paralyzed, and depressed about all that I couldn’t do with all the limitations and restrictions. Instead, I committed to staying focused and excited about what I could do, and even opportunities this may afford, even if not part of our original plans. 

And so, I started writing before I said anything to anyone else. One day, I wrote 10,000 words and another day even wrote 20,000. The main content just flowed! The hard work of revising, editing, citing, and other details would come later. But the more I wrote, the more excited I got and timelier I felt this book could be, especially as 2020 is also an election year. 

If there is ever a time that the world needs hope, it is now! On the back of the book, I wrote this: 

“The world feels more turbulent and hopeless with each passing day. Fear, anxiety, and despair darken and grip our hearts. From disasters and diseases to scandals and divisiveness. Where can we find real and lasting hope?

Hope Rising does not sugarcoat the stark realities of the world or the individual circumstances each of us may be facing. But it does tell real stories of hope rising from around the world, even from what seems to be the most hopeless situations. It’s also a call to each of us to bring hope to a world in need.”

Hope Rising is not just a book about ServeNow. Included in it are personal stories of both myself and Lars. I share stories from right here in the US, as well as around the world. This is also not just a book for those who may be hopeless or depressed. We all need our hope renewed at times, and we all need to be reminded of the hope we have ultimately in Jesus Christ. Young and old will benefit from this book; there is a specific chapter addressed to both the old and young!

There is also a call for us to become conduits of hope in a world desperately in need. I don’t know about you, but have you noticed more and more commercials and billboards for all kinds of businesses emphasizing the word hope? Even marketers are recognizing people need hope!

I encourage you to pick up not only a copy for yourself but consider buying a few copies to give as gifts this holiday season or to family and friends. As we write about in this book, there is another story out there not being told enough. It certainly is not making the daily news. We want to tell you that story because Hope is Rising! Join the movement and help spread the word!

***You can Pre-Order Hope Rising here: https://weservenow.org/books/.

Bigger than Politics

I really hope this is the last post for a while, where I feel compelled to write about American politics among professing Christians. But I cannot help but continue to be grieved over the idolatrous obsessive passion American Christians seem to have regarding elections, their rights, and political dynamics. That is not to say I am against Christians being in politics or whatever civic responsibilities or privileges we may have. Nor am I trying to diminish the freedoms we might possess. But it is to say we have elevated political engagement to a much higher status than it ought to be and wholly ignored more significant themes in Scripture (such as a focus on our character, Christ-likeness, our witness, obedience, faithfulness, fruitfulness, humility, justice, mercy, love, faith, hope, etc.).

In my opinion, we have so twisted Scripture and intertwined it with America and politics that I truly believe many of us are blind to how strange this mixing and elevation of politics really is. We cannot seem to separate our version of America from the kingdom of Jesus. We get our talking points from political media sources mixed with what could be at best biblical references or apocalyptic language. We talk about our founding fathers as if they were on par with the saints of the bible. But we are not letting Scripture purely transform our minds, hearts, and actions as followers of Jesus first and foremost. Rather, we use Scripture to back up our politics. Political rhetoric is what is truly molding and transforming us. I am not even talking about liberal verse conservative media. I am talking about both. We have given the media (who profits off our addiction to drama and controversy) on both sides far too much power and control over our lives, emotions, views, and even character. And we do not seem to see how we all are being played for fools; or we only see one side of it. Regardless, that all misses the bigger point.

What I want to argue is that there are themes in Scripture for the faithful follower of Christ that are far more important than who gets elected or what party is in power. Yes, presidents and parties and politics have a real impact on people’s lives now and for future generations. No, it is not wrong to participate in policy debate or elect officials who champion specific values. It is not even wrong to speak up and out against the abuse of power or for certain rights or values. But it is to say that whoever is president and whatever party is in control, and whatever the future may hold, we have a much higher calling as followers of Jesus to remain faithful to him, live as he has called us to live, and do what he has called us to do. And the priorities, agenda, and kingdom of Jesus are different from whatever party is in power and whoever is president. Republican or Democrat.

What would those priorities and agenda be if it is true that we are called to something more important and higher than politics? First, let’s examine what Scripture says God’s stated purpose for our lives, according to Romans 8:29. You probably know the verse before this, which states, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” But have you ever asked what God’s purpose is for your life and mine? And did you notice it is stated as a singular purpose, not plural or multiple purposes?

God’s purpose for your life and mine is revealed in the very next verse, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” I know that is full of some weighty theological language, but in essence, what Scripture says is that God’s purpose for his people is that we become like Jesus. That may sound boring to you, but the truth is, God is much more concerned about our character in this world and for eternity than our comfort or convenience while briefly here on earth.

If this is true, then we should be approaching every situation in life, including politics, as to how God is using those circumstances to conform to our character to become more Christ-like. Let me ask you, how have you become more like Christ in the last four years? Frankly, I have witnessed many of us perhaps becoming less like Christ. So, let me ask it another way. In the next four years, regardless of who is president or what party is in power, how will that serve the purpose of God to make us more like Jesus? That’s a bigger priority than politics, parties, or who is president.

Second, yes, we are called to pray for those in authority. But I will be honest. I see many Christians and Christian leaders not praying genuine prayers for those in power, but prayers that conform to their political views. For example, I was a pastor when President Obama was in power. I heard all the time people in my church tell me through gritted teeth that they would pray for President Obama. But following that begrudging thought, would come the inevitable caveat that they would pray he would be removed from office! But now, I see those same believers praying the opposite when it comes to President Trump and calling others to do the same. They are praying God protects him and keeps him in power. This is a double standard and hypocritical stance. We need to be consistent, and we need to pray as Scripture calls us to pray for those in power regardless of who they are or how they may or may not align with our political views. And take a look at what Scripture actually says should be the focus of our prayers:

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession, and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.

Notice it has nothing to do with who is in power or what our political persuasion is or is not. The emphasis of our prayers is to be for whoever is in control that they will govern in a way that will create the kind of environment that allows us to live our lives in peace (verse anxiety), quietly (verse agitated), setting a godly and holy example (verse ungodly or unholy example). The emphasis is on our character, and the purpose is so we are effective in our witness to others. Because once again, more important than earthly politics is God’s eternal agenda of seeing men and women find salvation in Jesus Christ.

Remember, when the Apostle Paul wrote this, it was not under an ideal political environment. Paul, and the early church, were constantly being persecuted and many killed because of their faith. Yet, we don’t see Paul getting involved with political talking points, protests, or petitions. Yes, there are examples of him exercising his rights as a Roman citizen, but his focus was not political. Instead, he told the church to pray for God to work in every situation and in the hearts of those in authority and ultimately through their decisions in a way that would be conducive to creating a civil society and facilitating a witness on behalf of God’s people that would lead others to put their hope and faith in Christ. To be honest, I wonder who needs that prayer more though today. The government or God’s own people? For as much as we harp on elected governors, we have lost our way and witness equally as much!

So, let’s ask the question again. How has your witness been in the last four years? How many people came to faith in Christ because of your godly and loving example and care for their eternity? Whoever is elected for the next four years, will your focus be on political controversy and drama or lifting high the person of Jesus in a way that others are drawn to him?

Yes, we are to pray for the peace and prosperity of whatever country we find ourselves in. But we have a priority and agenda and reason bigger than our party being in power for whatever our earthly concerns may be. Yes, we are citizens of whatever country we reside in. Still, we have a citizenship greater than whatever temporary country we currently call home. We are part of a kingdom that is not of this world and a King that rules over all other lesser kings. And this King has his own Sovereign reasons and purpose for whoever he raises up and whoever he sets down.

Daniel, in the bible, understood this. Daniel was a man who served under several different kings and kingdoms. But he had a perspective more significant than anyone of those kings or kingdoms. He once prayed this prayer,“Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons;he deposes kings and raises up others.

God has his own Sovereign purpose and plans for whoever is in power! We are missing the point if we think it has to be one particular person or party. Sometimes those reasons or purposes can be hard to see, but even more so when we are blinded by our own political doctrine or agenda. Our job as followers of King Jesus is not to fight the good fight of politics; but to fight the good fight of faith, no matter what happens. In other words, we are called to remain faithful to Jesus no matter who is in power, and no matter what policies might be prevailing in the land. Some things are more important than politics.

I am concerned about this because what I continually see and hear is an unbelievable level of fear and anxiety among God’s people. We seem so afraid of persecution and our rights being taken away. Spin it however you want, but friends, we should be far more worried about the condition of our souls, character, witness, and faithfulness to Christ! There are things more significant and more important than politics.

I am not sure what it will take for us to have our eyes opened to the blindness, division, and even hypocrisy American politics have caused in too much of the church. It has not served us well. It has not served to help our witness. It has majorly damaged our credibility and corrupted our character. It’s a real problem. It’s ultimately a discipleship problem. We are far more worried about our temporary life, rights, circumstances, and future of our country than we are in remaining humble, obedient, faithful, passionate Christ-followers who stay fiercely loyal to him alone no matter what and no matter who is in power.

Are you praying for revival? That’s all well and good and right, but revival begins in God’s house, among God’s people. And what we need is not a revival where stand up and angrily demand our rights, but a revival of humility, godliness, character, and witness in this world in a way that draws others to also see the beauty of Jesus and uniqueness of his eternal kingdom. We need a revival of God’s people becoming more like Jesus no matter the situations they find themselves in. Some things are far bigger than politics. We need a vision that is greater than politics.

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