A Matter of Life and Death

Since I was a little girl, I have known and loved the story of Dorcas in Acts 9:36-42 – for obvious reasons. This was “my story” because, in my childish mind, she was me. I loved to tell about Dorcas, a kind and generous woman who loved the Lord and loved people.

Dorcas’ story has become mine for more reasons than just a shared name. Dorcas was a seamstress and I have also done a good deal of sewing. She used her talent to benefit her neighbors, and I have also sewed to bless others. And Dorcas died and was restored to life through the prayers of Peter. “Now, wait a minute,” you may be saying, “you have never died.” Well, I haven’t in the literal sense of the word, but I have in other hard ways. Dorcas died a physical death – I died emotionally and my very spirit became lifeless and gray. She was laid on a bed in an upstairs room. I have laid before the Lord in deepest pain and soul-rending anguish. When she died, Dorcas’ heart stopped beating and her breath ceased. I have had seasons of brokenness where my heart lay in shards and splinters around my feet and the simple act of drawing a breath was more than I could manage. Dorcas entered the darkness of death. I have been in the darkness of depression and despair – surrounded by the deepest hues of black.

But God restored Dorcas to life – and He graciously restored me too. He heard my prayers and my cries and sat with me in the dark and gloom. His Spirit spoke life to my spirit. His tender mercies restored the pieces of my heart and He breathed hope and peace into my lungs. He restored my soul. He brought light and He brought Joy.

This is for the one who feels dead in your soul today. You have cried an ocean of tears and you have given up on ever feeling alive again. Beloved, please hear my words and my heart: God will restore you back to life. That is His specialty. Bringing life from death. Making broken hearts whole. Bringing light into the darkness. Breathing hope and peace and Joy into your soul.

Please do not give up, Beloved. I died. God restored my life. He will restore you too. I am living proof.

I [Don’t] Got This!

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“You hang in there, girl. God will never give you more than you can handle.” I never wanted to call someone a liar as much as I did the woman who made that statement to me.  But I’m southern and we don’t call our elders liars, so I thanked her and hugged her, and flushed her counsel from my brain. While that may sound full of warm fuzzy faith, there’s not a shred of support for it in Scripture. The Bible is clear that God often gives us more than we can handle.  Paul said, “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia.  We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life.  Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death” (2 Cor 1:8-9a). Not so warm and fuzzy, is it? Friend, if you’re hanging onto that opening statement as a rock for your life, you are going to be very disappointed.

If you’ve walked with Him for very long you know that God indeed allows situations and hardships that are more than we can handle. He does it so that we will turn to the only One who can. Paul continued, “This happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (v. 9b). I almost stopped that verse after the comma but I realized that those last four words are pivotal to the passage. What is harder to handle than death? And who is it that overcame death? If you’ve got a problem that’s bigger than raising a dead man to life, then you may have reason to worry.

Paul goes on to say, “He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and He will deliver us. On Him we have set our hope that He will continue to deliver us” (v. 10). He has. He is. He will continue. He has been faithful. He is still faithful. He will continue to be faithful.  Your circumstances do not define Him. He defines your circumstances. I can’t stress this enough – God WILL give you more than you can handle. But He will never give you more than HE can handle. Stop trying to carry it all yourself, Beloved. Hold tightly to God and He will carry it – and you through. That’s why it’s called FAITH.

All In

A hen and a pig were looking at the farmer’s breakfast plate, with toast, grits, eggs, and bacon. The hen strutted around saying, “Look at the hen’s contribution to this fine breakfast – see those eggs there on the plate!” The pig looked at the hen and said, “You hens make a contribution, but for us pigs, it’s an all-or-nothing commitment.”

“Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25). Jesus has very high expectations for His followers. He doesn’t just want contributors, he wants people who will surrender it all to Him. People who will Joyfully “lose their life” for the Kingdom.

What does that really mean? When I study His Word – and look at the world – I realize that Jesus meant exactly what he said. I researched the words Matthew recorded and He said that those who deny Him are more concerned with keeping their earthly lives safe and sound and free from suffering and danger than they are with His Kingdom. (Have you noticed a “suffering” theme in my devotionals lately? That’s not my choice. I believe that God is preparing us for something.) And the life we lose – or destroy according to the Greek – is our souls. When we chose our lives over the Kingdom of God we throw away eternal life with Christ in heaven.

I’ve always heard to lose your life for Christ’s sake means letting go of everything that the world tells us life is all about. Certainly, it’s recognizing that whatever reward this temporal life offers – pleasure, fame, wealth, power, status, or intellect – cannot compare with all Christ offers. But losing our life literally means being willing to die for His Kingdom. We have the examples of the apostles and the martyrs of the faith who died with the name of Jesus on their lips. It’s not only about denying worldly attractions, but it’s being ready to face lions and swords and all manner of suffering – even death. It is trading the small sphere of this world for the much bigger eternal Kingdom of God. So I ask you, Beloved, are you making a contribution to the Kingdom of God or are you all in?

The God of the Bible

We’re New Testament Christians – why should we read the Old Testament? What good does it do me to study old laws and rituals? Why should I learn about people so far removed from my own life? Because we don’t study the Bible to learn about laws and rituals and long-dead people – we study the Bible to learn about and draw hope from God. I am in a group that is writing through the Bible, we’ve been mired in Job for months. Lots of misery and grumbling and arguing. But by slowing down the pace and paying attention to the text, we’ve come to understand Job – and God – from a whole new perspective.

Paul said, “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). He’s talking about the Old Testament. When I am discouraged, I go to the stories of God’s deliverance in Exodus. When my life has fallen apart I turn to Nehemiah where God enabled His people to rebuild the broken-down walls. When I face a frightening situation Esther is my go-to book as I remember how God rescued His people. And when the world looms dark and evil, I turn to Daniel and witness God’s sovereign control over human events.

The Old Testament is filled with evidence of God’s power, purpose, love, and faithfulness. The same power, purpose, love, and faithfulness is found in the New Testament and in my life two-thousand plus years later. In the Old Testament, I find the God who delivered Israel, rebuilt Jerusalem, and rescued the Jews. In the New Testament, I see the same God who delivered mankind, broke the bonds of sin and death, and changed the world. He is the same God I call to in this present season of struggle. I know He is able to do for me today all that He did then. I put my name in those verses of rescue and promise and the God of the Hebrew people, of Nehemiah, Esther, and Daniel becomes the God of Dorcas Elizabeth. He hasn’t forgotten how to rescue and restore. His power hasn’t diminished one bit. This God is your God too if you have trusted in Jesus. Beloved, get to know the God of the whole Bible. Get to know the God of your life.

The Valley

This morning I was thinking about something I needed to do, something I didn’t really want to do because it often raised up a temptation I’ve been trying to put down for a long time. I prayed for help and a verse came to mind. It comes out of Psalm 23 – The Shepherd’s Psalm. Verse 4 says “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Now, what does that have to do with temptation?

This valley is not a pastoral scene of gentle slopes between the hills but a steep, narrow gorge where the sun never reaches. The valley most attributed to this passage was the Valley of Hinnom outside the walls of Jerusalem. It was a horrible place of death as bodies of criminals and animals and the town’s rubbish were thrown there and fires burned continually to consume them. The ”shadow of death” is a place of extreme danger and thick darkness – an apt description of the valley. It was also a place where kings and priest sent their own children to be burned alive to appease the gods – a horrible sin.

Death and sin go hand in hand. From the very beginning, God told the first humans that when they sin (disobey God) they “will surely die” (Gen 2:17). Paul said that “The wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). The valley was a terrifying place of sin and death. But it was also a place people had to pass to get to the gates of the city. Here’s where this all comes together. You and I will be faced with sin and its consequences as long as we are on this earth. We can’t escape it. But we don’t have to fear it. God is with us. If we walk closely with Him we can traverse the sin and death of this world without falling into it. That’s what God was saying to me this morning. “Don’t be afraid of what you need to do. I am with you. I will not let you fall.” And He didn’t.

Beloved, the world is filled with sin and death, but if you belong to Christ you can face it with faith in your Shepherd. Your very Good Shepherd who died to save you – His precious little lamb.

Spiritual Math

My favorite way to study the Bible is to slowly chew on small bites of Scripture to get every bit of flavor from it I can. But there is also great value in looking at the bigger picture. I was reminded of that when a memory popped up on my Facebook feed this morning. It said: Light + Truth = Life 1 John 1.

John made several proclamations in this first chapter. He proclaimed Jesus as “the Word of life” (1 John 1:1), much the same way He called Him “the Word” in his gospel (John 1:1). He was the “Word made flesh” (Jn 1:14). The walking, talking Scripture who came to deliver the message of the Father in person.  What is that message? “God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all” (v. 5). Wherever God is, light exists; not just a lamp, but a floodlight. That’s why John said we can’t claim to be a Christian and walk around in the darkness. It’s impossible. That’s also why, when a light-filled believer enters a place where there is spiritual darkness, one of two things happens. Either the light changes everything it touches, or the darkness and the ones living in darkness flee. Light illuminates, it reveals, and it forces us to confront the things that were hidden or take them and slink farther into the dark recesses.

Because light shows us things – including ourselves – as they really are. That’s the “truth” part of our equation. Light says, “If you run from me it’s because you don’t want to know the truth.” I’ll admit, sometimes the truth is hard to take, but who wants to live by lies? I know I don’t. The truth is, I was born a sinner and lived like it. Then the Light came and I saw what I was. I saw the lies that said I was “good enough” and my wrongs were too petty to keep me out of heaven. I saw how the enemy and the culture said that my sins were just “lifestyle choices,” “addictions,” “illness,” “personality quirks,” and “errors in judgment.”  And I saw the corollary to the 1 John equation. If Light+Truth=Life, then Darkenss+Lies=Death.

Beloved, I pray you will choose Life. I pray you will choose light and truth. I pray you will not run away from the sin you see in the light, but will put it all in Jesus’ hands. The darkness is no place for you.

Death vs. Love

“In all these things, we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” Romans 8:37.

It was the rallying cry of the martyr in the early church, the prayer of the saint drawing his last breath. It is the hope and promise for God’s people. “We are more than conquerors.” But what does that mean? And what are “all these things,? Trouble. Hardship. Persecution. Famine. Nakedness. Danger. Sword. Death. Where does your life fall on this list? Do you have trouble? Do not despair – God will help you. Are you under hardship? Do not faint – God will bring you through. Are you being persecuted? Do not shrink back – God will give you strength. Not many of us are experiencing famine or nakedness – most of us live in plenty to one degree or another. Nor do we face danger or threats to our lives, though that day seems not far off.

But all of us – sooner or later – will meet death. And here is where our Conquering Hero leads the way. Jesus made an astounding promise: “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). The greatest threat we face is death – but not the end of our mortal lives. No, our enemy is eternal death – separation from God forever.

Jesus drew a final breath. His heart stopped beating. He was placed in a tomb. But He rose from death to complete life. And in doing so, He conquered our chief enemy. Because of His resurrection, we too have the promise of eternal life. Oh, most of us will likely draw a final breath, and our mortal heart will cease its beating. But another life is coming for those who believe in Jesus – a life that cannot end. A life that will never be taken away. A life that cannot be touched by trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword. Not even by death.

What is the power that overcomes? Love. Holy love. Love that went to the cross. Love that succumbed to death. Love that lay in the tomb. And love that rose again. Paul said that “Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8). The empty tomb proves it. In Christ, dear one you are more than a conqueror – you are the Beloved. What could possibly be greater than this?

Do You Believe?

No other event on the stage of world history is as important as the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Skeptics have long sought to discredit Christianity’s claims with attacks on the foundational veracity of the gospel.  So is it really true? Let’s take a look at the facts that are recorded in the secular history of the time.

The Jewish and Roman historical records note that a man named Jesus from Nazareth was crucified at Golgotha and buried in a garden tomb.  The grave was sealed and Roman guards were posted to prevent the theft of the body.  History records that the condemned man’s tomb was found empty three days later, despite the extreme measures the Romans took to secure the grave.  Jewish records note the claims of Jesus’ followers that their Lord had been resurrected.  Historical writers of the time frequently mention eyewitnesses to the risen Jesus, just as Paul spoke of Peter, the Apostles, more than five hundred brothers, James (Jesus’ own doubting brother), and finally Paul himself (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).  In these verses, Paul reminds the believers of the gospel message “that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, and he was raised on the third day according to the Scripture” (v. 3-4).  These verses are almost certainly a creed that was well established in the ancient church and based on the testimonies of the very ones who firmly and emphatically believed they saw the literal resurrected Lord.  These are men who had been transformed from terrified, despondent fellows cowering behind locked doors (John 20:19) to bold witnesses willing to die for their faith, confident in what they saw (Acts 4:1-20).

The gospel message – the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus – is strongly supported by men and women who had an encounter that transformed their lives and the landscape of world history.  The evidence is clearly shown in their testimonies and the traditions that are built on the foundation of their testimonies.  The eyewitness accounts of Peter, James, John and Paul, and hundreds of others, combined with the early creedal statements of the church provide good support for the claims of the resurrection of Jesus. 

Still, facts alone cannot convince anyone of the reality of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Generations of believers who have also experienced this life-changing Jesus provide the greatest proof that the claims of Christianity are true. People like me. I was a sinner, lost and bound for hell, but I heard the good news that God loves me and send His Son to die for my sins and rose to life three days later. I believed in Jesus. His Spirit lives in me and I have been changed. Forever.

Beloved, this same Jesus died for you too. He can change your life and your eternal destiny. Will you believe today?

Heaven Wept

“It was preparation day, and the Sabbath was about to begin. The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how His body was laid in it. Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.” Luke 23:54-56

It was the darkest day of their lives – the day after Jesus had been crucified on the cross. They’d heard the hammers pound the nails into His hands and feet. They listened to Him cry out to His Father in anguish and surrender. They saw His body slump as He give up His Spirit. They watched the soldiers pierce His side and witnessed blood and water drain from His battered body. They held their breath as Joseph and Nicodemus took His lifeless body down from the cross. They followed in a sad processional to the garden where their Lord was entombed.

In our modern understanding of these days, we hold solemn vigils on Good Friday, remembering the death of Jesus, and we come together for joyful celebrations on Easter Sunday to celebrate His resurrection. But Saturday is the day for egg hunts, travel, shopping, and preparing our Easter Sunday finery.

More and more the Holy Spirit is teaching me to sit in the moment with the Bible characters. To put myself in their sandals and their experience and not rush on to the end of a familiar story. He is teaching me to take a holy pause.

What must this day have been like for these devoted women? Were they numb with grief? Or was it the kind of sorrow that aches deep in the bones? This day – the day after darkness filled the noon-day sky and the curtain was torn in two – must have left them empty inside – confused, in anguish, and filled with disbelief. How could this be? Their Jesus was dead.

Looking back from this side of the Cross, we want to take their faces in our hands and tell them, “Just hold on! Don’t grieve. Everything is going to change tomorrow!” As Paul Harvey says, we know “the rest of the story.” We know death cannot keep its grip on Jesus. We know they will soon find the tomb empty. We know this is only the day between death and life. But they didn’t. In their world, death was final. It was all over.

They didn’t know they were only waiting. . .

Hebrews: The Disgrace of being a Christian

I became a Christian at nine years of age. I still remember sitting in the pew after I was baptized and feeling the water dripping from my hair and down my back. I remember standing in front of the church and receiving “the right hand of Christian fellowship.” One of my teachers hugged me in class on Monday and congratulated me on my decision for Christ. But for first-century believers, being a Christian was vastly different.

The writer of Hebrews said, “Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publically exposed to insult and persecution, at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated” (Hebrews 10:32-33). For a Jew to make a public profession of faith in Jesus was, at best, to open yourself to public ridicule and often worse. Many lost their employment or the community would cease doing business with them. Sons were disowned by their fathers and wives faced severe repercussions from their husbands, including beatings. They were stripped of their possessions, even their homes, and many were imprisoned just for taking hold of new life in Christ.

How did these early believers respond to such awful treatment? Better than I would have. “You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property . . .” (v. 34a). They found Joy in the persecution they faced. Why on earth? Because they weren’t thinking about earth. “You knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions” (34b). They were thinking about heaven and eternity. They were thinking about what Peter called, “an inheritance that can never perish spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you” (1 Pet 1:4).

They remind me of the apostles who, after being beaten by the Sanhedrin for preaching the name of Jesus, rejoiced “because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41).

I live in the US where the cost of being a Christ-follower is mild compared to the early Christians and to believers today in places where faith in Jesus is tantamount to a death sentence. We might get insulted on social media, and some factions are working through the liberal courts to shut down Christian businesses, but on the whole, being a Christian here is not a hardship. And maybe that’s the problem. But I am certain it’s coming. The cultural winds are shifting to the left and blowing in real hatred for God and His people. You and I need to be ready. It takes a firm faith and an eye to eternity to rejoice in the face of persecution. Beloved, are you willing to suffer disgrace for the Name?