“Shelter in Place” – Blessings and Curses

During these strange times in the midst of the current pandemic, we can learn a lot. Of course, every situation in which we find ourselves can be an opportunity to learn. A good question to ask ourselves is, “What is God trying to teach us?” How can we grow closer to Him and closer to one another, even when circumstances are not ideal?

COVID-19 has changed our lives, at least for now. Will the changes lead to blessings or curses, though? How can we experience the former and not the latter? While I certainly do not have all the answers and realize we are all are different, I do think there are some ways we can see (and experience) blessings in the midst of the chaos. “Shelter in place” offers at least four unique opportunities that God can use for our good.

1. TIME WITH FAMILY

For the vast majority of us who do not live alone but rather live at home with our families (or at least with our spouses), most of us are obviously seeing our families more than usual. For my wife, this includes a lot more reading and schooling (like in the picture above) than she is accustomed to, and I praise God for her efforts! She is doing a great job, and our kids are blessed to have a stay-at-home mom who is adjusting well to the recent changes.

Are you enjoying extra time with your family?

The blessing – If we have the right attitude, recognizing that family is a gift from God, then we will be blessed. Let us use this time to have fun together, to play together, to pray together, to read God’s Word together, to say nice things to one another, and to build up one another. Sure, there will be times we get sick of one another and lose our patience with one another. Will we pray for God’s help, though, that He will use our increased time together to bless our family?

The curse – If we do not receive God’s favor and seek God’s help in honoring him through our families, then this additional time together can certainly become a curse. Rather than doing the above, we might find ourselves saying things we regret and acting like idiots who do not deserve our families. Beware, be careful, be wise, and be loving.

Let us seek and pray for the blessing and not allow our bad attitudes and habits to promote the curse.

2. TIME WITH SELF

This is obvious if you live alone and are practicing self-distancing right now. Even if you live with others, though, you might have more time alone than you typically do. Again, this can be a blessing, or it can be a curse.

The blessing – If we use the extra time with self to develop healthy habits (consistent exercise, healthy eating, regular prayer and Bible study, reading more, etc.), then this increased time alone can be a huge blessing. Furthermore, perhaps you will have even more time than usual to keep up with others via your phone and the internet. This has certainly been the case for me. While I do not have my usual meetings, visits, church services, etc., I have found myself to be even more busy over the past two weeks just trying to keep up with phone calls, text messages, emails, etc. This can be a blessing if we seek to honor God in the time He gives us.

The curse – If we allow the time alone to discourage us, rather than lead us to seek God more and maintain regular contact with others, then this time with self will quickly become a curse. We need God, and we need one another. Be careful, therefore, not to develop habits of self-distancing that will continue when the shelter-in-place orders are lifted. That would be a curse for you and for those who know you.

Let us seek and pray for the blessing and not allow our bad attitudes and habits to promote the curse.

3. TIME APART

On Sunday morning, Lord willing, my family and others throughout our church family will be alone in our homes watching my sermon on our church’s YouTube channel. Physically, we are spending time apart as a church family because of the current directives given for the purpose of limiting the further spread of COVID-19.

Of course, this time apart not only affects churches; it affects nearly all of our relationships outside of our households.

The blessing – If we pray that God will use this time apart to give us a greater longing to be together, He can certainly use this time apart as a blessing. God is always in control, and COVID-19 has not surprised Him. Perhaps He will use this to strengthen and grow His church. Perhaps we will have a greater appreciation for corporate worship and fellowship. Perhaps we will not take our need for one another for granted, but instead will become more committed to our church family. With that perspective and a proper response, our time apart can be a blessing. This can be true with all relationships, and I pray that it will be especially true for our commitment to our church.

The curse – If we allow this time apart to discourage us, it can be a curse. If we take isolation too far and fail to keep in touch with one another via phone, email, social media, etc., it can be a curse. If we do not pray for a longing to be back with family, friends, church family, and other Christ-honoring communities, this time apart can be a curse. If you do not have a community you long to return to when the distancing orders are lifted, you truly are cursed.

Let us seek and pray for the blessing and not allow our bad attitudes and habits to promote the curse.

4. TIME WITH GOD

Possibly the greatest gift that this sheltering in place can offer is more time with God. With the right attitude and intentional actions, God can use this in mighty ways.

The blessing – Maybe you have struggled to be consistent in your commitment to seeking God through His Word and through prayer. If so, what a better time to develop good habits of daily Bible study and ongoing prayer! Even if you are faithful in doing these things each day, what a blessing it could be to have even more time in the Bible and prayer! None of us is where we need to be in our relationship with God, and we will not be on this side of eternity. Thus, this extra time with God can be a huge blessing to seek Him more faithfully and know Him more fully. What changes can you make in your daily schedule to better prioritize your relationship with God? What can you do with your family to better seek after God together? How can you encourage others in their relationship with God via online meetings, phone calls, text messages, emails, and prayer?

Do not use this additional time at home to sleep in later. Go to bed on time, get a good night’s sleep, and start your day off with the blessing of prayer and Bible engagement.

The curse – If you fail to take advantage of this opportunity to spend more time with God, what a travesty that would be! If you refuse to develop consistent, godly habits that afford you the opportunity to grow in your relationship with God, you will surely regret your actions. Of course, the greatest curse in all of this is not being able to spend more time with God because of not having a relationship with Him. Do not wait if you have yet to call on Jesus Christ for eternal life. He died on the cross for your sins and rose from the dead to defeat sin and death for everyone who surrenders to Him. You can experience the blessing (both now and eternally) of a relationship with God by placing your faith in Jesus.

Let us seek and pray for the blessing and not allow our bad attitudes and habits to promote the curse.

ARE YOU BLESSED OR CURSED?

Depending on our attitude and actions, our current situation can be used for good or used for evil. What are you experiencing? What changes can you make in your daily routine to better facilitate good? Pray for God’s help, and maintain healthy relationships with those who will hold you accountable. Let us experience the blessings in the midst of the pandemic!

COVID-19. What if…?

Like so many others, I am praying for God’s grace and mercy in the midst of this Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. While the current projections are anything but favorable, I am asking God to do the impossible and bring an end to COVID-19.

What if, in the meantime, though, we ask God to do an amazing work in our hearts? What if we ask Him to do an amazing work in His church? What if we ask Him to use COVID-19 for His glory and for our good? What if we can one day look back on this pandemic and say, “Wow! God changed so many lives for His kingdom during that difficult time.“?

In the same way September 11, 2001, seemed to drastically increase patriotism in our great nation, what if COVID-19 drastically increases faith in our great God?

Would you join me in praying for three specific results in the coming weeks?

1. PRAY FOR A GROWING HUNGER FOR GOD’S WORD.

If we follow our government’s directives – and I believe we should to the best of our abilities – then we are going to have a lot more time at home until COVID-19 is “under control.” A lot more time isolated from those outside of our household. A lot more time alone, perhaps.

Hey, what a great time to binge-watch television shows and movies! What a plethora of time to waste on social media and the internet!

What if, instead, we prayed for a growing hunger for God’s Word? What if we used the increased time at home to spend more time reading our Bibles, praying from our Bibles, and memorizing Scripture? What if we developed a consistent habit of daily interaction with God through His Word? What if we established a regular routine of family devotions?

How happy are those whose way is blameless, who live according to the Lord’s instruction! Happy are those who keep His decrees and seek Him with all their heart” (Psalm 119:1-2).

If we pray for a growing hunger for God’s Word and sincerely prioritize our Bibles right now, our lives could be changed forever. Our families could be changed forever. Our churches could be changed forever. Our communities could be changed forever. Our world could be changed forever. What could and would God do in and through us if we truly grew in our hunger for His Word? Let’s find out!

2. PRAY FOR A GROWING COMMITMENT TO GOD’S CHURCH.

Most churches – including the church I have the privilege of serving – are wisely choosing to live out the great commandments (love of God and love of neighbor) by honoring our government’s leadership in the midst of this pandemic. Thus, we are canceling services, for now, to help limit the further spread of COVID-19.

People who are marginally committed to their churches might use this “break” as an opportunity to sleep in on Sundays. They might fall out of the habit of regular worship service attendance and church involvement. They might see this as an excuse to “drop out.” I pray that is not the case, but the possibility is real.

For those who sincerely love Jesus, though, a growing love for His church is evident. Thus, what if God were to use this time of separation from your church family to grow your commitment to your church family? What if, out of this pandemic, you realize what a privilege church involvement truly is, and your longing to be back with your church family is overflowing?

God’s multi-faceted wisdom may now be made known through the church to the rulers and authorities in the heavens. This is according to His eternal purpose accomplished in the Messiah, Jesus our Lord” (Ephesians 3:10-11).

If we pray for a growing hunger for God’s Word, and God answers our prayers, then I believe a growing commitment to God’s church will naturally follow. Let’s find out!

3. PRAY FOR A GROWING PASSION FOR GOD’S MISSION.

Likewise, as God grows our hunger for His Word and our commitment to His church, I believe He will increase our passion for His mission. Perhaps we cannot do quite as much as before or quite as much as we would like because of social distancing right now. Then again, perhaps we can do more, or at least different acts of mission and service.

Is this an increased opportunity to serve the elderly who have needs but are unable to leave their homes? Is this an increased opportunity to serve lost family and friends who are fearful and overwhelmed by financial instability and future uncertainty? Is this a vivid reminder to pray for the lost and pray for opportunities to reach out to them, even if only via the phone and/or internet?

Jesus said, “This is what is written: The Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead the third day, and repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations” (Luke 24:46-47).

What if we pray for a growing passion for God’s mission – the gospel to the world? What if God answers that prayer, and as a result, He uses this pandemic to bring about a great spiritual awakening for His glory and for our good? Let’s find out!

If you are struggling to find hope and peace in the midst of this pandemic, would you seek the Lord for His hope and peace? If you have not yet experienced this through a personal relationship with Him, check out The Story.

What’s YOUR Good News?

Our third son, Silas, turned nine on Sunday. Like pretty much all nine-year-olds, he was pretty excited it was his birthday. He was happy to talk about it and thrilled to get some gifts, his choice of supper, and his favorite (and my favorite) dessert – cheesecake. No one who spent any amount of time with Silas this past weekend would have failed to realize it was his birthday. He was too excited to hold in that good news!

Really, is this not the way it is for all of us? I do not mean that we all love and talk about our birthdays like children do. What I mean is that we all talk about exciting, good news. If something is important to us, we are compelled to talk about that something.

So, what is important to you? What good news are you sharing with others?

LIGHT

If you have believed and experienced the Good News – the gospel of Jesus Christ – then you will long to talk about this Good News. Advent – the Christmas season when we Christians celebrate the arrival of Jesus Christ our Savior and longingly anticipate His Second Coming – begins Sunday. Do those who know you see in you a love for the Christmas story, the gospel story? If you have placed your faith in Jesus, the answer is surely yes.

On Sunday morning, I will begin a new Advent sermon series – The Light Has Come. Jesus, of course, is the Light of the world, and He came to our dark world to bring salvation to all who turn to Him. In this series throughout December, we will be considering the Christmas story according to the gospel of John and challenging one another to respond rightly to the Light.

LIFE

If you respond rightly to the Light by turning away from your sins and trusting in Him for forgiveness and eternal life, is there any better news in all the world to share with others? What would a close examination of your life tell others about your greatest convictions, commitments, and passion? Is new life – eternal life – in and through Jesus Christ, the Light of the world, at the center of top of those priorities?

Again, I sincerely believe that if you have experienced new life, the answer surely has to be yes. When you have new life in Christ, you are either passionately talking about Him, or you are convicted that you need to be talking about Him.

How is your passion? What is your good news?

What I am MOST thankful for with Silas right now is his sincere search for the Truth. He asks a lot of great questions about Jesus and seems to genuinely desire to know and follow Him.

Grateful Ones Give

A week ago tonight, I returned from a great trip overseas with a couple brothers from our church and some other brothers in the area. I had the wonderful opportunity to travel with friends to visit old friends in Turkey. Praise the Lord!

One of the things all seven of us men wanted to do while we were in Turkey, was get gifts for our wives. Why? Well, not only because we love our wives but because we are grateful for their sacrifice in letting us go.

Five of us have small children at home, so our wives graciously agreeing for us to leave the country for two weeks is no small thing. And, when you realize that and are filled with gratitude, you want to give. While we did not have a lot of extra time while in the country, it seems like every little bit of extra time we did have was spent trying to figure out how we could bless our wives.

Although I do not believe I did a very good job in the gifts department, I am definitely reminded of the truth that grateful people are giving people.

On Sunday morning, Lord willing, I will be finishing my short Thanks & Giving sermon series, preaching from Exodus 35-36 on how “Gratitude Leads to Giving.”

Do you desire to give of your treasures, your time, and your talents for the glory of God? Do you long for the gospel to advance and, as a result, long to be a part of that advancement (via your treasures, your time, and your talents)? If you cannot answer those questions with an enthusiastic yes, I believe something critical is missing in your life. Only a changed heart and life – a new heart and a new life – will generate what is necessary to experience this kind of passion for God’s glory and God’s gospel.

Turn to God and to His Word today. Surrender your all to Him. Let us be grateful people who, as a result, are giving people.

If you recognize your need for growing gratitude to God but have not yet received the new life that is required for such ongoing gratitude, check out the Story.

The Visible Difference between the Righteous and the Wicked

There are several differences, of course, between those who know God and those who do not. God points out a very distinct difference, for example, in Malachi 3: “So you will again see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve Him” (verse 18).

SERVING AND NOT SERVING

Many claim to serve God but really just go through the motions, not really serving Him at all. What a dangerous trap that is, especially when people assume they will be counted as righteous, only to find out they are among the wicked.

When I was a teenager, for example, I considered myself to be a Christian. In fact, I considered myself to be a devout Christian. I was in church services every Sunday and Wednesday. I was actively involved with our church youth group. I read my Bible often. I prayed even more often. I talked and sang about Jesus.

I was serving God, right? No, I was not. I was not following Him and thus certainly could not be serving Him. Sure, some people may have thought I was. I even thought I was. But, everything I did was for myself. I was going through the motions in hopes of impressing girls, pleasing my parents, and getting what I wanted from God (not what God wanted from and for me).

Really, I was worshiping myself and my happiness. The lords of my heart were my pleasures and my dreams and my goals. All the while, I claimed to be a follower of Jesus and claimed to belong to Him. I did not, however, “fear God and have high regard for His name” (Malachi 3:16). Rather, I feared what others thought about me and had high regard for my own name.

Although I thought I was considered righteous by God because I was a “good person,” I was headed straight toward hell with no earthly idea.

WHO KNEW?

Living in mid-Missouri, I do not often see many of the people I knew as a teenager in north central Iowa. I cannot help but wonder, though, who knew I was living a lie? Who knew I was going through the motions? How many people did I actually fool?

Of course, I cannot accurately answer those questions, but I am confident that any genuine followers of Jesus who truly knew me then surely knew I was not who I claimed to be. I wonder why no one told me, though? Why did no one challenge me with the truth? Perhaps they tried, and I just would not listen.

One who definitely did know that I was counted among the wicked and not among the righteous, was God Himself. He knew, and, thankfully, He put people in my life during my college years to reveal His Truth to me. For the first time, as a sophomore in college, I heard and understood the gospel. I turned from my sins and asked Jesus to forgive me and take over my life.

Finally, I was made right with God in and through a personal relationship with His Son.

JESUS IS THE DIFFERENCE-MAKER

The truth is that none of us is righteous. Not on our own anyway. None of us can do a single thing to make ourselves right with God. “As it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one. There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away; all alike have become useless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12).

This is terrible news! And, the terrible news is for all of us.

But God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us!” (Romans 5:8). That is the good news.

Jesus is the difference-maker. He is the One who made a way for us to be righteous – counted righteous today and made righteous for eternity. If you have yet to experience the joy of knowing and following Him, would you consider surrendering your life to Him today? Check this out for a helpful summary of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

There are very few things I believe differently today than what I believed as a selfishly wicked teenager on my way to hell. What I do and how I do what I do with my beliefs, though, are drastically different. Not because I “have arrived” or figured out the tricks. No, I am different because Jesus is the difference-maker. Jesus has changed me.

I am no longer content to go through the motions and call that “serving God.” If and when I do go through the motions, God’s Holy Spirit convicts me to repent and follow Him faithfully. Daily I need His help, His guidance, His provision, His leadership, His grace, and His compassion.

On Sunday morning, Lord willing, I hope to preach on our “Great God of Compassion” from Malachi 3:13-18. I pray that I can encourage and challenge you to believe in and be changed by the Greatness of God.

Don’t Ask Dumb Questions

Have you ever asked God, like the Israelites did in Malachi’s time, “How have you loved us?” (Malachi 1:2). Even if you have not verbally spoken those words to God, surely you have at least thought them. We all have our moments of weakness, discouragement, selfishness, and foolishness. And, in those moments, we tend to lose sight of the big picture, if not lose sight of the truth itself.

THERE ARE STUPID QUESTIONS

We have all heard people say that there are no stupid questions, but that is not true. There are stupid questions – questions of foolishness. “God, how have you loved us?” is an example of a stupid question. In fact, is there a more foolish question than this?

Stupid questions are questions that, by intention, fail to recognize and/or remember Truth and rather attempt to justify our own shortcomings. Israel, for example, was an ungrateful people in Malachi’s time, often failing to remember God’s amazing love for them and instead, complaining about their circumstances. They forgot what God delivered them from, and they were instead focused on always wanting more.

Their question was filled with foolishness, much like a child who might ask his mother after not getting what he wants, “Don’t you love me?” Stupid question, whether we want to use such descriptives or not.

GOD’S LOVE IS UNDENIABLE

We would run out of time – run out of physical life – trying name all the ways God has proven His love for us. I will not even try to accomplish such a huge task. Instead, I want to briefly talk about one such proof – Vacation Bible School (VBS).

Our church had our annual VBS a couple weeks ago, and there are few pictures of God’s great love that are clearer than VBS. There are several reasons why VBS is so special, but I will stick to three… three reasons VBS is a great example of God’s undeniable love.

1. VOLUNTEERS SERVING

VBS is impossible without volunteers, and our church had more than 40 volunteers who served this year. Wow! Many of these volunteers showed up to our church facilities after a full day of work to then work for three more hours at VBS. And, let us be clear – VBS is work! VBS is hard work. VBS is exhausting and often overwhelming, but VBS is worth it. That is why so many volunteers serve.

God loves us and loves our children through volunteers who sacrifice their time, their energy, their resources, and even, at times, their happiness for the sake of serving others during VBS. God loves us through His church, and His church does amazing things during VBS.

2. CHILDREN RESPONDING

Children are a blessing from the Lord, even when they do not behave like blessings from the Lord. Oh, what a joy it is, though, when children respond to the gospel message during VBS (or any time)! If we know and follow Jesus, surely we must agree with the Apostle John: “I have no greater joy than this: to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 4).

That joy is true of our biological children and our spiritual children – those with whom we have the privilege of discipling and encouraging in “the truth.” What a great picture of God’s love when children respond to Him.

In their response, God’s undeniable love is clear for their sake – that they get to know and follow God. In their response, God’s undeniable love is clear for our sake – that we get to be a part of their journey. And, in their response, God’s undeniable love is clear for His sake – that He loves people enough to draw them to Himself.

Praise the Lord! God loves us by loving our children and opening their hearts to the truth about Jesus.

3. JESUS SAVING

None of this would matter – VBS, volunteers serving, or children responding – if not for the ultimate picture of God’s love: Jesus saving (saving people from sin and eternal death). We have VBS because Jesus saves. We prioritize VBS because Jesus saves. We exist as a church only because Jesus saves. Volunteers serve but not in vain because Jesus saves. And, children would have no reason to respond if not for the truth that Jesus saves.

How has God loved us?

God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us!” (Romans 5:8) If you have yet to experience this love, would you surrender your life to Jesus today?

Sunday morning, Lord willing, I will be starting a new sermon series – The Greatness of God – through the book of Malachi. And, as is the point of this post, I will be talking about our “Great God of Love” (Malachi 1:1-5). Do you realize and rejoice in God’s great love for you?

VBS Children Performing One of the VBS Songs during Our Sunday Morning Service on July 28th

Your Reputation Matters

We had Vacation Bible School with our church family this week, and dozens of parents and grandparents dropped off their children or grandchildren for three hours each evening, trusting that the children would be cared for and loved. Why such trust? In most cases, the trust was a result of relationships with one, if not many, of our volunteers working with the children. In other cases, there was a general trust in the church and the proven VBS program.

Simply put, reputation matters. This is true for us as individuals, and this is true for the church. This is true for everyone.

If our church or individuals in our church had a bad reputation in our community, who would trust us to teach and serve their children? Rightly so, most would not.

On Sunday morning during our VBS family celebration and worship service, Lord willing, I will be preaching through the short letter of 3 John and talking about the “Proof from Reputation” for genuine Christian faith. I hope to challenge people to ask themselves three questions for self-examination regarding personal character and reputation. The message, along with others in the series, will be available Sunday afternoon HERE.

In the meantime, I want to encourage you to consider three requirements of a godly reputation.

1. A GODLY REPUTATION REQUIRES TRUTH

Truth is essential when it comes to reputation. By this, I do not mean that everyone knows the truth about you, although that certainly affects your reputation. What I mean, and what John made clear in his letter, is that your understanding and commitment to the Truth are critical.

We must be “faithful to the truth” and “walk in the truth” (3 John 3-4) in order to be people of godly character, resulting in godly reputations. How? Well, only by God’s help “because of the truth that remains in us and will be with us forever” (2 John 2). That “truth that remains in us” is the Spirit of Truth when we surrender our lives to Jesus Christ, resulting in faithfulness to the Word of Truth.

Have you ever met someone who is faithful to God’s Word but does not have a godly reputation? No such person exists because someone who faithfully obeys the Word of Truth will be proven to be a person of character and integrity. A godly reputation requires Truth.

2. A GODLY REPUTATION REQUIRES LOVE

John wrote a lot about love in his three letters. He was certainly an expert, or as close to an expert as a human can be, for he was, after all, the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” John experienced God’s love in and through Jesus Christ, and he embraced Jesus’ command that we love God and love others. John knew love was essential for genuine Christian faith and likewise essential for a godly reputation.

Specifically in 3 John, there is an emphasis on the commitment to the mission of the church that demonstrates sincere love for God and others. If you truly love God, you will be committed to His mission. And, if you are committed to His mission, you will love and serve others; you will love and serve His church; you will long for others to experience the love of God through Christ Jesus.

Gaius and Demetrius are great examples of this in 3 John. Gaius, for example, was showing his faith by supporting Christian missionaries, including those he did not even know (verse 5). In other words, Gaius’s love for God was proven in his commitment to God’s mission, and his commitment to God’s mission was proven in his love for others in God’s church.

What was the result? A godly reputation. Have you ever heard of someone known to not be loving and yet known for a godly reputation? Of course not. A godly reputation requires love.

3. A GODLY REPUTATION REQUIRES GOODNESS

Are you known for your kindness and goodness toward others? This goes along with the love John mentioned earlier in the letter but is more about the visibility of love. Whereas the love is ultimately an issue of the heart, the goodness is about your actions, particularly those actions seen by others.

John shared a few contrasting examples in the letter, and in all three examples, it was each individual’s reputation that was proof of his goodness. Furthermore, goodness is proof of faith.

Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. The one who does good is of God; the one who does evil has not seen God” (3 John 11).

While people can “fake it” for a while and sadly deceive others, the truth eventually comes to light. And, most importantly, God knows the truth. He knows our real reputations because He knows our hearts. He knows if we are doing what is good or doing what is evil. Others will know and see this, too, though, which is why there is ultimately proof from reputation of genuine Christian faith.

If you were to sincerely examine your own heart and life right now, can you see faithfulness to the Truth of God’s Word, a love for God’s mission, and a desire for good, not evil? If not (if any of those three proofs are missing, would you humbly ask God for His help? Would you willingly surrender everything to Him? Only a new life can bring about such radical change.

The amazing volunteers of Richland Baptist Church exemplified godly character and sacrificial service this week, and I praise God for them! They are the reason so many parents and grandparents gladly dropped off so many kids each night and why those kids wanted to keep coming back. Thank you, Richland Baptist Family!

These are most of the kindergartners Marsha and my mom had the pleasure of teaching and leading this week in VBS.