Look Me in the Eye: A Reflection on Afghanistan

In my youth, my mother employed a simple test to discern whether or not I was telling the truth. She would say, “Look me in the eye and tell me that.” Her method was based on sound theory, since it is hard to look someone straight in the eye and lie. Some can tell a “bold-faced” lie, but it takes practice.

The eyes are the windows to the soul. In them, we see hurt, worry, fear, doubt and sorrow. We also see happiness, joy, confidence and love. If I want to hide my feelings from another human being, I try not to make eye contact. If I want to speak from the heart and know what is on someone else’s heart, I look them in the eye.

The Aaronic blessing in Numbers 6:24-26 proclaims, “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” While we cannot look on the full glory of God, we can sense His presence as we read His Word and lift our voices in prayer. This is how we “look God in the eye” as He turns his face toward us and our innermost thoughts and feelings are laid bare before Him.

I think on these things as I try to understand why my soul is downcast in the wake of events in the country of Afghanistan. I feel anger, sadness, embarrassment and fear. While I feel certain I am not alone in my emotions, I think I may have discovered one reason they seem to grow stronger with each passing hour. There are many people I want to look in the eye. I want to be honest with them about the way I feel, as opposed to merely venting with my friends who, like me, are huddled safe in their homes a world away from the chaos in Afghanistan.

I believe it will be some time, if ever, when I am able to share how I feel with the people who need to hear it. At the risk of doing what I have just deemed somewhat irrelevant, I invite you into my heart as I express words to those I may never meet.

To members of the armed services: “I want you to know how very grateful I am for your service to our country. You have placed yourself in harm’s way to stem the tide of terrorism and make our home safer. Only the Lord knows the evil your intervention has prevented, or the crimes you have witnessed. For those of you who have lost friends in battle and/or suffered life altering injuries, as I live out my freedom, I will think of you. I pray for you as you live with scars, internal and external, and ask God to sustain you with His providential love.”

To the Afghan people: “While some say you failed to do your part to defend your own country, I want you to know, while this may be true of some, I do not believe it is true of all. Many of you fought valiantly alongside our military. You courageously opened businesses, educated children, shared your opinions and protected your neighbors. I do not know the portion of your society you represent; only that you exist. How afraid you must be for yourselves and your family, as many will not survive the events that will unfold over the next days and weeks. I pray for you as you fight for your life and the lives of your loved ones, and I thank you for walking with us in your quest for freedom.”

To women and girls in Afghanistan: “I hurt for you most of all because I know those who have seized power do not treasure and love you as God does. Some of you have already suffered unimaginable physical and emotional pain and are likely to experience more as the potential God put in you is stripped away, one possibility at a time. For those of you who have chosen to defy your oppressors, I pray for you as you stand in the gap for others. I would love to look you in the eye and remind you that regardless of the circumstances that others might impose on you, it does not change the beauty God put in you, or the pride He has in you. Eloquence cannot wish away the tragedy that awaits you. But I pray God will show you His presence in some way and protect you from the worst.”

To my brothers and sisters in Christ in Afghanistan: “We refer to you as the persecuted church. I wonder how you see yourselves as you share in the sufferings of Christ. I suspect you are consumed with concern for one another, and are not only caring for your own, but reaching out to your neighbor. Soon, if not already, you may face the choice between renouncing your faith and forfeiting your life. Apart from this horrific reality, you must also fear for your families; your children and grandchildren. I pray that God will shelter you, and that He will help you persevere. Regardless of the pain you may experience in the days ahead, I also pray for spiritual strength as you cling to the cross and our promise of eternal life in Jesus.”

There are some others I would like to “look in the eye”, but I confess I am embarrassed by the things I want to tell them, and do not believe my words would honor God or help any of us deal with the catastrophe before us. I have chosen not to identify any of these individuals, but I will say I grow tired of being lied to, hearing people cast blame, seeing thugs hide behind their religion and several other clear indications that we are a fallen human race, capable of sinning in ways that are difficult to comprehend.

I pray because I believe God can and may intervene in the lives of those who are suffering. I pray because I believe every single person, including those who do evil, are children of God, and desperately need the grace I have received through my Savior Jesus. I pray and ask others to join me in prayer because I believe in the value of collectively coming before the Lord.

Honestly, I also pray because I don’t know what else to do. I cannot look the people I am thinking of in the eye, but I can fall before God and ask Him to comfort them with His presence. In recent days God has been calling out to me in my self-imposed spiritual exile. I have been hiding some of my thoughts from Him because I haven’t been sure what to say. But now He is challenging me: “Look me in the eye!” It is time to come clean because it is impossible to tell God a bold-faced lie.

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What Does It Mean to Turn Back to God?

What Does It Mean to Turn Back to God? As I watched images of the breach of the U.S. Capitol yesterday, like many Americans, I attempted to make sense of people’s behavior. I wondered how those who entered the Capitol made it past security, and was frightened for those inside as it was evident law enforcement officers were trying to manage a situation for which they were unprepared.

News reporters and elected officials have spent the last several hours trying to bring perspective to this embarrassing event, and most share a deep sense of sadness. I have also seen a few posts from Christian leaders, expressing some of the same emotions and reminding people to put their faith in God, who is ultimately in control.

There are obviously some logistical issues that will be addressed in regards to Capitol grounds security in the days and weeks to come. And there has already been and will continue to be finger pointing when it comes to the root cause of the violence. All of this is a normal, and in many cases a helpful response to a moment we hope we will never witness again.

My desire here is to focus on some spiritual matters, some of which have already been expressed by others and a few which represent deep convictions on my part. We do, indeed, have a spiritual problem in our country. Instinctively, we sense this has something to do with our relationship with God and His disappointment in us. At the risk of employing a cliché I will affirm we definitely need to “turn back to God.” But what does this mean?

I fear, while our walk with God is at the heart of the discussion, some of the messages I have seen in the name of “God” only create greater confusion. A friend of mine has a standing quip he uses when Christians attach Jesus name to their political views or some effort at self-promotion. He says, “Please, don’t bring Jesus into it!” Does Jesus care about politics? Absolutely! Should biblical principles be shared in the public square as a part of the conversation for building a stronger society? Yes! But just putting Jesus on our platform doesn’t make us right, and when our actions run counter to the teachings of Jesus, we hurt Him much more than He helps us.

It is hard for me to resist the temptation to be specific in calling out those who have evoked Jesus’ name to support their cause. Honestly, these kinds of things make me very angry. How would we like it if people put our name on their banners and cardboard posters, and then violated every principle we hold dear? However, I force myself back to the question, “What does it mean to turn back to God?” I share these possible answers for your consideration:

It means we begin with personal reflection and repentance. It doesn’t help to tell others what they need to do while ignoring glaring issues in our own lives. Jesus said, “First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:5) If everyone prioritized the need to be personally right with God, I feel confident most of our big problems would disappear.

It means we stop using God as a vehicle for our purposes, and become His servants once more. A single word for this approach to life is “humility.” All of my life I have watched people use the Lord for their personal ambitions, whether it be to spiritualize a business so they could take people’s money because they were “doing God’s work” or to twist scriptures to judge others and feed their personal egos. I have been disappointed and disillusioned by parachurch ministries which have criticized the local church while they continue to embrace unethical practices in matters of accountability and fund distribution (even as they receive financial support from the local church). In addition, in my own life I have felt the urge to promote a cause by trying to convince others it is God’s will, when in fact I am just using “God-talk” to make God fit into my plan. Any attempt to “turn back to God” requires that I take myself off of the pedestal and put the Lord where He belongs. Until I do this, my words and actions are nothing more than a form of “spiritual calisthenics.’ I am convicted by the words of Isaiah, repeated by Jesus: “’These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (Matthew 15:8)

It means we recapture a healthy fear of God. No, I do not fear God’s judgment in the sense of questioning my salvation. I have already resolved that I would be headed for hell were it not for God’s grace in Jesus. Because I have received this grace, my relationship with God is not one of fear, but of love and mercy. On the other hand, I still possess a healthy fear of God. Proverbs 1:7 reminds us that, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.” I feel certain you are aware of the recent prayer by a congressman where he finished by saying, “amen and awoman.” Obviously, the suggestion that “amen” is a sexist word is etymologically illogical. But the greater sin is the audacity anyone might have to use a conversation with God as a platform for a political statement; and this on a national stage. Once we remove the shock value of the “amen-awoman” incident, how many other occasions can we remember where personal agendas were surgically slipped into a public prayer? How can we imagine God is pleased with these behaviors? No, He will not be mocked. We are careful not to draw a connection between the trouble we experience as a nation and the judgement of God. This is often wise since we are not capable of perfectly discerning how God’s judgement is being brought upon a people. It is also not kind to suggest to a group of people who are suffering a loss that their pain is a result of God’s judgment on our country. Yet, in our effort to be loving, we must not forget there is a point at which God’s patience runs out. Before He called Noah to build an ark, the Bible tells us, “The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.” (Genesis 6:6) We all know what came next. “Turning back to God” requires that we stop testing God and reclaim a healthy fear of Him. This includes our behavior toward His church, His bride, and the people He has called for His purpose.

It means we begin listening to God more than our favorite news outlet. There is nothing wrong with listening to the news, and certainly there are times when we are glued to a breaking story. It is good for the Lord’s people to be aware of current events and to be able to speak intelligently on a number of social issues. But if we are not spending as much or more time in the Word of God then we run the risk of letting the world control our perspective. When Israel first came to the Promised Land, Moses sent 12 spies into the land to gather intelligence. Ten of the spies caused the hearts of the people to melt as a result of their findings, and Israel had to spend forty more years in the wilderness. Surely the people of Israel reasoned that the testimony of ten spies was worth more than that of the other two who encouraged them to take the land. The volume of truth we hear will sway us, which is why God must have the time He deserves to speak into our lives. In Psalm 25 David wrote, “Show me your ways, O LORD, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.” (Psalm 25:4-5)

I conclude by reminding us all, we cannot impose these actions on others. Yes, if everyone did these things our country would be much better off, but we must start with ourselves. Then we must practice many other things God’s Word tells us as we hope to bring others to a better place with God. It doesn’t do a lot of good to flash a banner in the face of an unbeliever, but we can change his or heart with love and grace. I believe we can turn our nation “back to God”, but we will only do it if we are the people we should be first, and if the true nature of Jesus shines through our lives in a way that makes it appealing to the lost.

Many of the topics before us in the wake of yesterday’s event are worthy of our attention. Christians can and should engage in healthy conversations to bring about change. But I am convinced if we are consumed by how others ought to do things differently, we are going to miss everything. We must always begin with ourselves and remember the ultimate cure for the things that ail the human heart is Jesus; not the Jesus on a protest sign, but the one who died for our sins and should reign in our hearts.

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Growing Kingdom People – Words Matter

Words Matter

In the midst of recent events in our country, several have shared their heart in regards to race, violence, law-enforcement and justice.  It is only natural for us to express our feelings as social unrest unsettles us and we seek some way of bringing order to the chaos.  If nothing else, the exercise of putting our thoughts into words helps us clarify or reaffirm our personal convictions, and possibly reevaluate our assumptions.

Unfortunately, as the forming of our words facilitates clarity, it can also create pain.  In recent weeks, words have hurt some of my African-American friends who fear their children will be falsely accused or abused because of the color of their skin.  Words have disturbed some of my young friends who have entered a law-enforcement career with the goal of protecting and serving everyone in our community, without regard to race, gender or creed.

And words have troubled me.

Normally, I am able to process unkind words, with the possible exception of those that are carelessly directed at my closest loved ones.  At this point, I must admit that I do become quite irrational.

But, apart from this, I can handle strong rhetoric of various kinds.  I don’t have to agree with everyone, and everyone doesn’t have to agree with me.  People have a right to be passionate with their words, and there is nothing ungodly about a disagreement, as long as respect is shown.

Yet, words hurt.  And they often hurt in ways that are not immediately apparent.  This is the burden I bring to the table as I attempt to share my heart.  We must not lose sight of James’ admonition: “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” (James 3:6) I wish to humbly suggest three places where words can hurt in ways that are not so evident, but deadly just the same.

Words damage our children.  Most of us would not willingly hurt our children.  But it is easy to forget the things we say are imprinted on their minds forever.  The problem with words and children is that the things we say may take years to produce fruit, good or bad.  For example, when we constantly criticize our children and refuse to be transparent about sins and weaknesses that lurk in our own lives, we run the risk of driving our children to their own secret sins and stripping them of the self-confidence they need to be successful.  And, in relation to our current public debate, when we make hateful comments toward others, we plant weeds in the soil of our children’s hearts that will lead to struggles in the future.

I am not suggesting we should shield our children from all of our feelings or thoughts.  But there is a difference between sharing our opinions in a rational way and spewing angry words like hot lava; words that can produce a life “set on fire by hell” (James).  It is easy to blame rebellion in young adults on society, or the infusion of secular thought in our schools.  There is certainly much truth to this claim.  However, this can also be a handy deflection to excuse our habit of speaking our mind, no matter who it hurts.  We must realize the “no matter who it hurts” could include those we would never want to hurt; our children.

Words damage our relationships.  Sometimes, the impact of our words on relationships is quickly evident, as a contentious conversation leaves an obvious mark.  However, more times than not, perhaps out of courtesy, other people decide not to respond to the things we say.  At least with words.  Instead, they begin to question our hearts, and they might determine we are not the people they once believed us to be.

The sadness in this is that, often, other people misinterpret our words, or fail to put what we say in the context of our fundamental convictions.  Yet, sometimes they are right.  We are not who they thought we were, and they grieve the loss of someone they considered to be their friend.  And all the while, we are oblivious to what we are doing because we assume the people who know us best will respect our opinions.

On one hand, we can’t live our lives on pins and needles, with the fear that anything we say that is contrary to someone else’s view will be used against us.  Nor should true friends expect us to live this way.  On the other hand, our friends will sometimes withhold their thoughts, even though they are shocked by the words flowing out of our mouths, or in the case of social media, our fingers.

In case we have forgotten, we are all always asking the questions, “Do you like me?  Do you care about me?”  We might pretend these things don’t matter to us and that we don’t care what people think about our words.  But if this is true, then why do we argue our points?  We do care what others think and whether or not others care about us.  This is true of everyone!  Why is this important?

It is important because, as people who already feel unliked or unloved are listening carefully to determine what we think or feel, a careless or bitter word will pierce their soul like a dagger.  Proverbs 12:18 tells us, “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” (ESV) We may think we are making a strong case for our convictions, when in fact, we are eating away at the trust others have in us.  Our words are like violent waves eating away at a beach where we once all played in the sun together.  In time, there is no place left to gather and a friendship is lost.

Words damage the gospel.  This is the most serious consequence of all when it comes to careless words.  Our children know us well enough to possibly navigate the difference between our careless words and our sincere love for them.  If we lose a friendship due to the things we say, we might be saddened, but we can move on and perhaps build new relationships.

But once we harden a sinner’s heart to the gospel, they might be lost for eternity.  This doesn’t mean we are fully responsible for the decision people make to reject Christ.  Satan works overtime in this department and uses every sin imaginable to separate people from the love of God.

However, I think we sometimes fail to think about the unsaved before we speak our mind.  I find it interesting, in the shadow of a pagan empire, Jesus didn’t spend His time speaking against Rome.  Instead, He condemned the words and actions of religious leaders who were so caught up in their righteous conversations they couldn’t see the broken world around them.  “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” (Matthew 23:23 NIV)

What a great statement from Jesus!  Yes, we must be faithful and not abandon our convictions.  But what good are personal convictions if we use them to push a lost world farther away from God?

Make no mistake.  Words matter!  One of the reasons so much bitterness is being expressed in our country is because we are discovering the words we thought were unimportant were, in fact, very painful.  I will continue to be dismayed by the things I hear and read and the reactions of others.

But I will be most troubled by the seeds our unkind words sow that are buried deep in other people’s hearts.

For now.


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Growing Kingdom People – Why I Do What I Don’t Want to Do

Why I Do What I Don’t Want to Do

In recent weeks, believers in Christ have been asked to behave in ways that are counter to their personal values and instincts.  I would like to share a few personal thoughts on the specific regulations, guidelines and requests made by our government in light of the COVID-19 season.

Before I continue, I want to acknowledge some valid points:

  • My freedom to worship as I choose is protected by the U.S. Constitution.  It is found in the First Amendment in what is often referred to as the “Free Exercise Clause”.
  • There are some in positions of political power who have treated the church unfairly as a means of advancing a social agenda or for monetary gain.
  • During the COVID-19 season, the importance of the church’s work in the community has been trivialized by labelling corporate worship as “non-essential” and abortion clinics and liquor stores as “essential.” I realize this distinction may have been based, partially, on the number of people who would assemble at one time.  But it is still difficult to see restrictions placed on the church in order to save lives, while an institution that intentionally chooses to end human lives is considered essential.  If nothing else, I believe our government should have used more appropriate terminology.

You might ask, “Then why do you allow the government to tell you what to do?”  The answer is two-fold:

First, I follow my government’s instructions because I am commanded to do so in the Word of God.  “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” (Romans 13:1-2) is

This doesn’t mean God is pleased with every government on earth, or that He honors ungodly behavior on the part of leaders.  It also doesn’t mean Christians should be silent about their convictions.  However, I must remember, my allegiance to God doesn’t give me a moral right to disobey my government just because I am offended by the actions of politicians.  I need to respect the principle of law, even when I dislike those in power.  If I don’t like those in power, I must participate in the political process to bring about change.  If change doesn’t occur, I can practice social disobedience, but in doing so I must be ready to accept the consequences.

I will add that, in history, there have been a few occasions where people of God have felt compelled to terminate a government that was thoroughly evil (such as Nazi Germany), but these events are relatively rare and should not be taken lightly by anyone who fears God.

In general, I should try to be a good citizen, respect and obey those in authority over me, and support the rule of law.  This is one reason why I follow the direction of a government with which I do not fully agree.  It is why I wait at a red light at 3:00am, when there are no cars in sight.  It is the right thing to do (You guessed right – I have been tempted to do otherwise).

Secondly, while God is my supreme authority, I believe He has asked me not to use my freedom as an excuse to overlook the needs of others.  In 1 Corinthians 10:23, the Apostle Paul wrote, ‘I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive.’ This passage is foundational to the Christian principle of something known as “Christian Liberty” (Along with Romans 13:1-15:13).  Briefly, Christian Liberty involves a broad range of free choices I exercise while considering the needs of my brothers and sisters in Christ.  For Paul, the main topic was dietary restrictions, as the early church wrestled with cultural differences between Jews and Gentiles.

For me, in this COVID-19 season, the discussion encompasses the things I do for the sake of others who could be offended or hurt by my actions.  I don’t wear a mask around others, or practice 6 feet of social distancing because I have been told to do so by my government.  If I wanted to disobey these guidelines, I could find plenty of places to do so with little consequence.

I practice good COVID-19 protocol because I am convinced it will save lives, and out of deference to others.  In my personal circle of relationships I have friends with underlying health conditions, those with relatives at home with compromised immune systems and some whose financial security is dependent on staying healthy.  I don’t want to do anything that makes the people I care about afraid, or keeps them from feeling safe.  If my actions keep someone else from gathering in worship with others or puts their health and well-bring at risk, then I have exercised my freedom in an unconstructive way.

It takes some self-control to keep some of the “valid points” I shared above from leading me down a path that hurts my brothers and sisters in Christ.  But I believe this is something God has called me to do.

I don’t expect you to agree with me.  That is also a part of the principle of Christian Liberty.  But I do ask that you consider what you might be willing to do for the sake of others who are in a weaker position.   Indeed, we do serve a higher authority!

Which is exactly why I don’t always do what I have the right to do.

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Growing Kingdom People – Be Careful with the “Spirit of Fear”

Be Careful with the “Spirit of Fear”

In recent weeks, as followers of Christ have been asked to curtail their practices, some have warned us against giving into the “spirit of fear.”  To be honest, I have been so busy working through the logistics of the new normal, I haven’t taken the time to address the concerns I have over the misuse of this phrase.  But I have a few moments today to share the thoughts that have been churning in my mind.

When we have concerns about the use of a spiritual word or phrase, we should turn to scripture first to discern root meanings.  The “spirit of fear” phrase comes from 2 Timothy 1:7 where Paul wrote, “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.”

The context of this verse is Paul’s encouragement to Timothy to remain faithful in proclaiming the gospel of Christ in the face of hardship and persecution.  Timothy was serving in a hostile environment where Christians could be harassed, imprisoned or killed for sharing the message of salvation.  There were even false teachers within the church who had shown their willingness to betray their brothers and sisters to the authorities.

Therefore, it appears to me, the “spirit of fear” Paul is talking about is the one Satan puts in our hearts to prevent the spread of the good news of Jesus.  There are those who equate this with being told they cannot worship in large groups out of fear of COVID-19.

I understand this is a complex issue, and modern attacks on religious liberty have made us much more suspicious of government interference.  We have all seen examples recently of “overreach” where government leaders have put insane restrictions in place that appear to target segments of the population.

I get this, and I will be on the picket line if someone truly tries to take away my right to assemble with others and worship God.

But I wish to share a few other perspectives.

First, the decision to practice CDC guidelines is not the same as the “spirit of fear.”  It is a way of respecting the authorities God has put over us and showing deference to our health care workers who must deal with the consequences of our behavior.  I have actually been able to share my faith more as a result of the restrictions in our community at this time.  God has given me opportunities to meet more neighbors, encourage those who are growing in their faith, and show love to people through caring acts.  There are those who attend our on-site worship services (under normal circumstances) who have not yet given their lives to Christ, but in many ways the church has now been pushed back into the world to share its faith with more people.

Secondly, our worship practices are not bound by culture.  They are defined by scripture.  The first church was made up of house churches, where small groups of people gathered to worship Christ and encourage one another in the faith.  Don’t get me wrong.  I absolutely believe in large gatherings of believers and get excited when I see mega-churches draw tens of thousands of people for worship.  What a testimony to our world!  But if we think we aren’t gathering for worship when we are singing along with a praise team over the internet and taking communion with our family, we are mistaken.  In this case, we are actually closer, culturally, to the model of the first church.  Incidentally, one reason house churches were popular was due to the risk of persecution.  Yet, Paul didn’t accuse anyone huddled together in a house to worship of having a “spirit of fear.”  Rather, it was those who shrunk from opportunities to share their faith with unbelievers.

Finally, some of the “insider” rationales I have heard for equating the “spirit of fear” with a cautious approach to reopening places of worship are more fearful than the fear that is claimed.  These rationales include the fear of losing members to other churches, struggling financially due to lower offerings and personal fears of what Satan might do in people’s lives if we are not with our church family.  I know there is some truth to these concerns.  But is our God so small that He can’t deal with these matters?  And are these godly reasons worth putting people’s lives at risk?

I understand the psychology of fear.  I realize, we can spend so much time worrying and watching newscasts about people getting sick and dying that we stop living.  And I am going crazy without interaction with my church family!  This is one of the hardest things I have ever done as a minister.  Last week I conducted a funeral service where a family was restricted to ten people and children sat alone in chairs six feet away from their parents.  I wanted to reach out and hug everyone, but refrained.

However, we need to be careful we don’t use a verse from the Bible to promote an opinion.  More than this, we should never use scripture out of context to manipulate people into doing something that is not in their best interests.

I know everyone doesn’t share my view expressed here, and that’s alright.  I also think God has given us the freedom to go in one of many directions in a time of crisis.  We just need to be careful we don’t put words in God’s mouth for our own purposes.

That is something that should make us afraid.

Very afraid! (Revelation 22:19)

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Growing Kingdom People – Isolated No More

Isolated No More

In this time of isolation, I have been searching the scripture for examples of those who were isolated and found strength from God in their circumstances.

To be honest, some of my searches have ended in a less than encouraging place. For example, John the Baptist was placed in prison isolation for speaking candidly about King Herod Antipas’ sinful behavior toward his brother Philip’s wife Herodias. While in prison, John the Baptist struggled with his faith and sent some of his disciples to confirm Jesus’ Messiahship. John was ultimately executed by King Herod at the request of Herodias’ daughter Salome. There’s more to the account, but let’s just say isolation isn’t necessarily the pathway to happiness.

But it does provide an opportunity. Even in John the Baptist’s case, his doubts led to this amazing statement by Jesus in Matthew 11:4-6, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”

I believe I can make a theological case for the notion that Jesus was never isolated against His will. In this way, His situation was different than John the Baptist’s. The only thing that comes close is Jesus’ abandonment on the cross where He cried out to His Father, “Why have you forsaken me?” But again, this horrific moment was not forced upon Jesus. Instead, it was a result of His choice to empty Himself of glory to absorb our shame.

This brings me to a place of isolation that bookends that moment on Calvary. At the cross Jesus said, “It is finished.” But at the other end of His ministry was a wilderness where Jesus voluntarily fasted for 40 days. I would call His experience there “solitude” were it not for the battle He fought, and the redemptive plan of God that hung in the balance.

In Jesus’ wilderness isolation, He faced three temptations by Satan. They came in the form of these challenges: 1) “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread”, 2) “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command His angels concerning you’”, and 3) Showing Jesus all the kingdom of the world in all their splendor, Satan said, “All of this I will give you, if you will bow down and worship me.”

In each of these three cases, Jesus responded with the Word of God, respectively: 1) “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God”, 2) “Do not put the Lord your God to the test, and 3) “Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him daily”.

I could easily write many devotional thoughts on Jesus’ time in the wilderness. However, my desire here is to pose the question of whether or not it is possible for anyone, human or Divine, to be completely isolated, as long as God’s Word is present.

Scripture is “God breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16), and its truth comes to us as clearly as it did to those who first heard it. When we hear it, read it or remember it, the presence of God is revealed.

My point is that we are never alone as long as we have the Word of God. I am not speaking metaphorically in the same sense we are not alone as long as we have a good novel by our favorite author. Rather, the Word is alive. It is His very breath and presence.

This means, if you are feeling isolated during this time of crisis, and you access God’s Word, you are no longer alone. As soon as you engage on any level with the Word, you are connecting with God.  Perhaps, in this way, once John the Baptist heard Jesus’ response from his disciples, he was no longer isolated.  Jesus was, after all, the Word of God, the Divine Son.  I would like to think John was comforted by Jesus’ words, in spite of his demise.

For this reason, I encourage you to read God’s Word in your isolation. If you don’t already have a Bible reading plan, just start reading. I would suggest the Psalms, the book of Proverbs or the Book of John as good places to start.

Oh. And one more suggestion.

When you read God’s Word, try to find a quiet place so you can concentrate on what God is saying. When you do, your isolation will cease.

You may be quarantined.

But you won’t be alone.

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Growing Kingdom People – Isolated Servants in the Bible

Isolated Servants in the Bible

I didn’t see this coming.  Did you?

I guess I should have.

In recent years I have followed news stories about SARS, MERS, Ebola and the Measles.

And now COVID-19.

In my wildest imagination, I never dreamed I would be limiting my social gatherings to 10 people at once and working online from home out of an abundance of safety.

Apart from the serious impact the coronavirus can have on our physical health, the anxiety and isolation associated with our response is a valid cause for concern.

The Bible is full of examples of the latter.  The causes may vary, but God’s servants regularly faced anxiety and isolation.  Consider these examples and how they responded:

Job.  I know Job wasn’t persecuted in the traditional way.  He was not mistreated for his faith in God, or because He had a message to deliver from God.  Instead, he was persecuted by his friends!  Of course, I am using the word “friends” loosely.  At a time when Job had lost almost everything and was suffering physically, some religious guests came to torment him by accusing him of wrongdoing.  Job repeatedly declared his innocence and was eventually blessed by God.  His guests were rebuked by God.  Job teaches us, even the most faithful servants of God will suffer, and we should not presume we know why.

Joseph was tragically separated from his father Jacob through the treacherous actions of his brothers, who sold him into slavery.  Later, he was falsely accused, imprisoned, lied to and abandoned.  Eventually, God raised Joseph up to a place of prominence and used him to save others from starvation.  How isolated Joseph must have felt in a strange land where one wrong move could cost him his life.  Yet, God used Joseph to set the stage for the migration of Jacob’s (Israel) household to the land of Egypt.  Over the next 400 years, Jacob’s descendants were reduced to slavery, but through this unfortunate period of hardship they were fashioned into a nation.

Jeremiah was a persecuted prophet.  Once, he was beaten and put in stocks at the Upper Gate of Benjamin (Jeremiah 20:2).  Jeremiah resented his treatment and considered going on strike as a prophet.  But he knew, if he did, the Word of God would burn in his heart and he would be unable to hold it in (Jeremiah 20:9).  Jeremiah teaches us it is normal, even for a faithful servant, to be angry about the sacrifices God might ask him to make.  He also shows us how our sense of calling pushes us onward, as the thought of denying what God has put in us is more painful than acting on our convictions.

Finally, we come to Isaiah, also known as the “suffering servant.”  Isaiah is significant, not just because he was willing to suffer anxiety and isolation to fulfill his ministry, but also because he is a foreshadowing of Christ.  “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7).  Certainly, no one was ever so isolated as Jesus when he cried out from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

I am not suggesting the faithful life is a long, dreadful journey of anxiety and isolation.  Some callings are more hazardous than others.  But we should also not be surprised when these things occur, or when God uses such seasons to do His greatest work.  In those moments when we can’t feel God’s presence or see His hand move, He might be doing His greatest work.

For now, the coronavirus situation has left us disoriented, and perhaps anxious and isolated.  We might wonder what God is thinking, allowing us to experience so many trials at once.  What possible good is there to be gained?

I must admit, I have some similar questions.  But I have learned this is a time for building endurance, loving my neighbor and trusting God with things over which I have no control.

There are some things God can only teach us through our trials.

And to be honest, I know a lot of people who have been enduring more than the coronavirus for a very long time.

Perhaps, I just need to watch, listen and learn.

At the present, there isn’t much else I can do.

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Growing Kingdom People – Three Highly Contagious Diseases

Three Highly Contagious Diseases

I do not wish to diminish the critical nature of the current spread of the Coronavirus.  Regardless of the statistical contrast between COVID-19 and other contagious viruses, lives have been lost.  COVID-19 is particularly frightening because it involves unknowns and we do not, as yet, have a vaccine.  We pray for those whose lives have been turned upside down by the Coronavirus, and we are saddened by those who have lost loved ones.

With these concerns in mind, I would also like to turn our attention to some highly contagious diseases found in the Bible.  I don’t mean to alarm you, but we are all vulnerable, and those who are infected can suffer irreparable harm to themselves and others.

The contagious tongue.  James writes, “Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.” (James 3:5) The tongue, which represents the words we speak, can bless others with kindness.  But it can also destroy others with things such as gossip, slander and complaints.  I once heard a fable about a man who had trouble holding his tongue.  An older, wiser man gave him a feather pillow and asked him to slice it open.  When he did, the feathers were blown away by the wind.  Then the older man asked the man with the tongue problem to put the feathers back in the pillow.  He replied, “That is impossible!  They have blown away and can’t possibly be put back.”  The older man said, “That is correct.  This is also true of the careless words we speak of others.  Once they are spoken, they cannot be unspoken.” I shudder sometimes to think of how deadly our words can be.  For this reason, we should always strive to say things that are “life-giving” to those around us.

Contagious yeast.  Jesus warned His disciples against the yeast of the Pharisees.  In this case, “yeast” represented the legalistic teaching of the Pharisees (Matthew 16:6) as they prided themselves in keeping some portions of God’s Law while neglecting things such as love, mercy and justice.  Later, the Apostle Paul spoke of the “yeast of malice and wickedness” (1 Corinthians 5:8).  Yeast causes dough to “rise” or expand.  Therefore, something that is akin to yeast starts small and grows large.  We might think a little ungodliness won’t hurt anything, but sin has a way of expanding.  Legalism, malice and wickedness can infect an entire community.  If you don’t believe me, spend a little time studying the witch trials that took place in the American colonies.  Take the advice of Jesus and Paul and avoid the yeast.

Contagious godless chatter.  Similar to the disease of the tongue, “godless chatter” involves careless instruction by those who enjoy hearing themselves talk more than they value the truth.  In his second letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul called out some false teachers and said, “their teaching will spread like gangrene” (2 Timothy 2:17).  We might think we are immune from this disease if we are not Bible teachers.  However, as our culture grows less knowledgeable of God’s Word, and more prone to create its own truth, words become emptier and the possibility of destroying lives through false teaching becomes greater.

These are dangerous diseases, to be sure.  The good news is, there is a vaccine!  God’s Word is our reliable source of truth and wisdom.  We may not understand it all, but it will guard our hearts, minds and tongues from feeling, thinking and speaking in destructive, contagious ways.

I will add that “contagious” is not necessarily a bad thing.  Words of truth, encouragement and love can also spread, lifting the spirits of the heart-broken and leading others into the waiting arms of our Savior, Jesus.  “Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” (Proverbs 16:24)

If you are going to be contagious with your words, make sure they are the good kind of words.  Anything else can be downright deadly.


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Growing Kingdom People – Dazzle and the Devil

Dazzle and the Devil

My wife works for a popular maritime museum where every artifact tells a story.  Recently she introduced me to the concept of “dazzle.”

Just so I don’t miss the opportunity…

Yes, my wife is dazzling!

But the dazzle she described to me is noteworthy for other reasons.

In World War I, dazzle was used as a form of camouflage for British ships.  By way of description, the camouflage involved zebra-like patterns, painted in varying directions and sizes on the exterior of the ships.  Since German U-boats surfaced only temporarily to fire torpedoes at ships, it was thought the irregular appearance of camouflaged ships would make it more difficult for those firing the torpedoes to calculate direction, speed and distance.  By the wars end, more than 2300 ships had been dazzled.

The jury is still out on the effectiveness of dazzling.  Statistics suggest it helped some.  But it is the concept itself that interests me.  Not just the idea of camouflaging a ship, but the believe that making a ship more visible, but with a disorienting paint job, was better than striving for invisibility.

It would be hard to maintain this argument today with stealth technology.  But at the time, it made sense.  And since there was little means to make a ship appear invisible, the best defense was to create confusion.

Did you know Satan uses camouflage?  I’m not referring to the line in the old Terri Gibbs song, “I’ve heard about him, but I never dreamed he’d have blue eyes and blue jeans.”  Although, I suppose these words are not completely irrelevant.

I am also not suggesting Satan doesn’t try to undermine our lives in secret ways.  However, it appears, he prefers to alter his appearance.  In a teaching to the Corinthian church on the danger of false teachers, Paul writes, “And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.” (2 Corinthians 11:14)

There you go.  Satan tries to catch us with his own “dazzle.”

What does the camouflage look like?

Sometimes he masquerades as the will of God.  If something we want to do is clearly a violation of God’s will, then…

And I know this may seem obvious, but…

It is not God’s will.

We might wish it was God will.  We might even feel as though it must be God’s will since if feels so right.  But if our plans are sinful, according to God’s Word, then He must want us to go in a different direction.

Sometimes Satan masquerades as a quick fix.  We might think the easy thing is the right thing because all of the pieces are falling into place.  But just as the dazzled ships made it harder for the U-boats to calculate their speed, the quick and easy could be a diversion from the path God wants us to take.  Often, the hard and long path is where God wants to take us to mold us for a purpose.

Finally, sometimes Satan masquerades as a feeling of spiritual intimacy.  It is strange to hear people say they have never felt closer to God when they are engaged in an obvious sin. Unfortunately, “closeness” is a feeling, that may or may not indicate a heart for God.

Do you see the resemblance to the dazzled ships?  Direction, speed and distance; God’s will, God’s timing and God’s closeness.  Satan can simulate all of these.

I know my metaphor here is a bit off since the British were the good guys in World War I.  Their dazzle was for a good cause.

But dazzle is dazzle, regardless of where it comes from.

Don’t fall for Satan’s camouflage trickery.

Scope up and torpedoes away!

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Growing Kingdom People – A Most Dangerous Illness

A Most Dangerous Illness

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis is creating global chaos.

Communities are being quarantined.

Factories are shutting down.

Travel to some countries is screeching to a halt.

Meanwhile, health organizations are trying to track the spread of the virus, and determine the various ways it might be transmitted.

But then, most all of us already know these things.  We are praying COVID-19 doesn’t breach our country’s ability to effectively control its spread and treat its victims.  Hopefully, this frightening season will pass soon, and the world can stand down.

But there is something more dangerous than the virus itself, and we are all at risk!

The danger?  Human arrogance!

Human arrogance thinks it can’t happen to us.

Human arrogance thinks we are too smart or strong to be impacted.

This dangerous condition (HA), stopped construction on the Tower of Babel.  It sunk the Titanic.  And it has been the ruin of world leaders throughout the centuries.

“HA” leads us to believe we are above sin.

Immune to error.


No wonder Jesus said the meek will inherit the earth.  Not the “weak”, but the “meek”.  The meek recognize their deficiencies and work hard to overcome them.

I don’t mean to suggest we should stop fighting the Coronavirus, or fail to praise the hard work of those who have been on the front lines of defense, once the battle is over.  I thank God for the brilliant minds who are engaged in the race to protect our world from a catastrophic pandemic.

However, I feel most secure when the people leading the charge demonstrate a healthy humility.

“HA” has the power to destroy us all!

If COVID-19 doesn’t find us, something else will.

If we are consumed by arrogance.

Before a downfall the heart is haughty, but humility comes before honor. (Proverbs 18:12)

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