Stars in the Night Sky

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“Therefore we do not lose heart…For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” 2 Corinthians 4:16, 17

“Light and momentary?” I want to ask Paul. “Do you have any idea what we’ve been through this week? It isn’t light! The past 18 years? That’s longer than a moment!”  But then I remember I’m yelling at Paul who endured thirty-nine lashes on five occasions, who was beaten with rods three times, stoned once, shipwrecked three times, spent a night and day floating in the sea, facing constant danger, persecution, sleepless nights, without food, water, or clothing – all for the gospel of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 11:24-27). He may not know the specifics of my life – or yours – but the man has known suffering and hardship and pain.

My next question then is, “Why, if we are God’s children, do we have to endure so much difficulty?” Paul never stopped serving the Lord; even in prison, he shared the gospel with the guards (Philippians 1:13). I’m trying to be faithful to God’s call to study and write and teach. You’re trying to stay faithful to what God has set before you in your family, work, church, and community. Shouldn’t that get us a pass from troubles? Yet not even God’s perfectly faithful Son was exempt from suffering.

But I think I found a clue to our struggles and sufferings. So that we may “become blameless and pure children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation in which you shine like stars in the universe” (Philippians 2:15). When are the stars the brightest? When the night sky is at its blackest. When is God’s glory most visible? When things are at their darkest. Like now –in my family, in our nation, and in the war-torn country of Afghanistan.

Friend, believe me when I say, I understand. Just because I’m a Bible teacher doesn’t mean I am exempt from the harsh things of life. In fact, I feel like it puts me constantly in satan’s crosshairs because he would love nothing more than to beat me down until I quit. But I won’t. Paul didn’t. Jesus didn’t. Because this world needs shining stars to bring light into the darkness. The world, Beloved, needs you.

Muddy Child of God

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Do you remember the old saying: “You made your bed, now you have to lay down in it.”? In essence, I have to live with the consequences of my own foolish choices. Sometimes the consequences cost us money like my son having to replace a window he broke, or rest – like losing sleep finishing an assignment I put off too long. But some consequences are painful. Ask any prisoner in a cell or my cousin who cut his foot off playing around with a chain saw. Sorrow and suffering are magnified when the offense against us is our own.

The people of Israel found themselves in just such a situation. Against God’s direct command, Israel allowed the pagan Canaanites to remain in the Promised Land. The Canaanites worshiped Baal and Ashtoreth, and their worship was largely sexual and perverse. Their evil practices spread throughout Israel. In their lust, they forgot the Lord who rescued them and broke their covenant agreement to worship only Yahweh. Judges 2:14 says “In His anger against Israel the Lord handed them over to raiders who plundered them. He sold them to their enemies all around.” They had danced to the devil’s tune, and now it was time to pay the piper.

What misery is greater than witnessing our own fingerprints in our suffering? I’ve been there several times. I expect you have too. Perhaps you’re sitting right now in a mud pit of your own making, wondering how you could have been so foolish and how will you ever get out of it. I used to believe that God was unwilling to help me when I got myself into trouble. “Sorry child, this is your problem, I’m stepping out on this one.” But that is not Him at all.

Even after the Israelites rebellion, “The Lord was moved to pity by their groaning” (Judges 2:18) When His children are suffering, God hears, He sees and He rescues. His compassion is boundless. “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for His compassions never fail, they are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness” (Lam 3:22). That’s good news if you’re struggling with the consequences of your own decisions and actions. Beloved, God has not and will not abandon you – even in your self-made misery. He hears your cries. He sees your tears. His heart is moved on your behalf. He rescued His people, He rescued me, and He will rescue you.

Hebrews: Why Did Jesus Come?

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Over the past several weeks in Hebrews, we’ve focused on eight theological reasons why God sent His Son from glory to this sinful earth. Let’s put them all together for a recap.

  1. God sent Jesus to “bring many sons to glory” (v. 10). To bring lost human beings – now redeemed – into His eternal family.
  2. He sent Jesus to earth to “Make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering” (v. 10b). Remember that “perfect” means complete and doesn’t imply that Jesus was every imperfect. His role as “the author of [our] salvation” was completed by his suffering on the cross.
  3. Jesus came so that He could present us to God as “the children God has given me” (v. 13). Children who were set apart for Him and transformed into His own image.
  4. God sent Jesus to “destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil” v. 14). Jesus came to fulfill God’s first promise “to crush the head” of the devil (Genesis 3:15).
  5. In destroying the devil, Jesus came to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (v. 15). As children of God, we do not fear the end of this life because we know that we have eternal life with Him in heaven forever.
  6. God sent Jesus to be for us “a merciful and faithful high priest” (v. 17). He is the only high priest who does not need to make atonement for His own sins before He can atone for ours.
  7. As our high priest, Jesus came to “make atonement for the sins of the people” (v. 17b). By His death, He made us “at one” with God as we were “me[a]nt” to be.
  8. God sent Jesus “to help those who are being tempted” (v. 18).  He suffered from the same demonic temptation you and I face. He understands and He is able and more than willing to help us.

All of this comes back to one core reason God sent Jesus to earth: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God loves His creation. He wants to redeem sinful humans and restore the relationship for which we were created. He did that through His Son. He did that for you and me. Beloved, God gave the most precious thing in heaven to save you forever. Because He loves you.

Hebrews: Perfection

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Many profess Romans 8:28 as their favorite verse: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.” But what is God’s purpose? That we would be “conformed to the likeness of His Son” (v. 29). Our purpose is to be like Jesus.

In our ongoing study of Hebrews, we’re looking at several reasons why the Father sent His one and only Son to earth to die for humanity.  One of those reasons also answers the question – “How does God accomplish His purpose?” Hebrews 2:10 says “. . . it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.” Jesus was made perfect through suffering.

Now wait just a minute, you’re thinking, Jesus was always perfect! What does this mean? The word used here is teleioo and it means “to accomplish, bring to a planned end.” Its root word is telos. Another word that shares that root is in Jesus’ last words on the cross: “It is finished!” (John 19:30)  Jesus was “made perfect” in that His purpose for coming to earth was accomplished – it was perfected.

But back to our question: How does God accomplish His purpose? Through suffering. Through the cross. Through beatings and a crown of thorns and nails through His hands and feet. Will be any less for you and me? Suffering is the hammer and chisel He uses to shape us into the very image of His Son. This was important to the Hebrew recipients of this letter who were undergoing intense persecution for the name of Jesus. They were contemplating giving up. The author was encouraging them to stay firm in their faith because their suffering had a purpose to make them perfect. Just like Jesus.

The same is true for you and me Beloved. The “all things” from Romans 8:28 includes suffering. But the teleioo – the perfection is worth it. We will be like Jesus! Beloved, suffering means that God is perfecting you, just as He did His Son. Oh, but when He’s finished you won’t believe how good you’re gonna look!

Bitter or Better?

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I don’t know much about Josh Shipp, other than he had a rough start to life. Abandoned at birth and passed from one foster home to another, he was on a self-destructive path until a foster family intervened and invested in his life. I don’t know his faith story – of if he even has one, but I love his quote:

You either get bitter, or you get better.

It’s that simple.

You either take what has been dealt to you and allow it to make you a better person, or you allow it to tear you down.”

For something outside of Scripture, that is a powerful truth. His words immediately took me to a familiar verse: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Both of these speak volumes, especially for those of us who have had to struggle in life. Like my daughter-in-law who is preparing to start college this fall. She wants to be a child psychologist. She wants to be for other children the person she needed in her childhood. She could let the hard things in her life make her bitter, but she’s put them in God’s good hands and is determined to let Him use them to make her better. And make other kids’ lives better too.

It’s a story repeated often in Scripture and in human history. Difficulty + God + time = purpose. Ask Joseph. Ask Ruth. Ask Paul. Ask me. I grew up the butt of everyone’s jokes at school and at home because I was naive and often said and did dumb things. My sense of self-worth was shot. I was stupid. So I determined to keep my mouth shut and learn so that when I said something it was well thought out, sensible, and would build others up. In the process, God built a fire in me for the Bible. The words you’re reading now are the product of God taking bullying, shame, and abuse and turning it into a ministry of The Word and words.

Beloved, whatever hard thing that has happened in your life can either make you bitter or, placed in the hands of God, become the mission and ministry of your life. It’s your choice. Choose the better path.

Becoming Like Jesus

See the source imageI asked God to teach me how to love people as Jesus did. He brought people into my life who were hard to love. I asked Him to help me trust Him and He took away everything else I trusted in. I asked Him for peace and He set me in a storm – then sat with me as it raged. I asked for greater faith and He put mountains in my path. I asked Him for wisdom and He set challenges before me. I asked Him to give me a kind and gentle heart, and he allowed me to face heartbreak and disappointment. I asked Him for joy and – well – He sent Joy!

I thought He would just make my heart grow three sizes, and make trust and faith shoot up like a well-watered plant. I thought He would just infuse me with peace, and give me a shot of wisdom. I thought he would just change my nature from grumpy to kind and gentle. I thought it would be easy.

Maybe it’s been different for you, but God and I have always had to do things the hard way. I don’t think I’ve learned a single life-lesson without some blood, sweat, and tears along the way. Even the Joy in my life came with a struggle.

We love to quote Romans 8:28 in times of trial and trouble: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.” But what is His purpose? Read on. “For those God foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of His Son” (v. 29). Everything in your life is designed to make you more like Jesus. The writer of Hebrews said that God made Jesus “perfect through suffering” (Heb. 2:10). Why, Beloved, do you think becoming like Him would be any different?

Why?

Reading in Acts 16 this morning where Paul and Silas are in prison for preaching the Gospel. There are a lot of why’s in this story. At the beginning of Acts 16, Paul wants to go to Asia, but God wouldn’t let them. Why? They were stripped, beaten, severely flogged, thrown in prison, and fastened in the stocks (vv. 22-24). Why? Despite it all, in the middle of the night, our boys “were praying and singing hymns to God. Why? But wait, it gets better. A violent earthquake shook the prison and “all the prison doors flew open and everyone’s chain came loose. But they all stayed. Everyone. Why?

Why did all this happen? So the jailer would see and believe in the power of God and so that he and his family would hear the gospel and be saved. I suspect a few prisoners also believed that night.

I take tremendous hope in this story because it tells me if God would go to such lengths to bring the man and his family to salvation, He will move mountains to save my loved one too. I have no doubt that when these new believers came up out of the baptismal waters, Paul and Silas realized all their suffering was worth it. God had directed every single thing to save this family.

Beloved, I know that you are suffering. I know that you are asking “Why?” I know it’s hard and painful. Believe me, I know, because I am there too. But I’m going to pray and praise God in the suffering because I believe He will use it to show His power. And He will break the chains that bind my loved one and throw open the prison door and set them free. It’s going to be worth it all one day. Suffering in God’s hands always – always – brings Joy. Just ask Paul and Silas. And Jesus.

Facing Trials With Joy

 

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“Consider it pure joy, my brothers [and sisters], when you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2).

“God – I don’t understand this trial. Why are you making me go through this?” Ever said that before? So have I, and so have believers through the ages. And we will again and again because life on this rock is hard sometimes.  James says that as believers we are to greet every trial as a cause for joy.  Excuse me?   I don’t like trials and I’ll bet you don’t either.  But we can have joy because our trials are not without purpose.  God has a plan for every trial we face.

James follows up our key verse and gives us one reason for rejoicing in the face of trials: “Because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.  Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:3-4).  We become physically stronger when we work our muscles, and any trainer will tell you that resistance training is the best strengthening exercises.  Our faith becomes stronger when we have opportunities to exercise it as we strain against some resistant force – like a trial.  How will you know that God is faithful if you never have opportunity to trust Him?  Trials strengthen our faith and lead us into spiritual maturity. 

Trials also accomplish God’s wider purposes.  Joseph was hated by his brothers, sold into slavery, falsely accused of rape and unjustly imprisoned.  But all of those very hard things occurred to position him to be in the right place at the right time – God’s place and God’s time.  Joseph was used in Egypt to save thousands of lives, most importantly the life of his own people – the Jews, through whom our Savior, Jesus, would come.   Through recent trials in our life, God moved us back home positioning us for many good blessings including placing me in a great job.  Trials often become the catalyst for a God-ordained redirection into His good plan.

Our trials prepare us to minister to others.  Paul said, “The Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). I have benefited greatly from the wise counsel and comfort of others who have “been there, done that” and survived.  Their testimony brought me hope and confidence in God and they gave good advice drawn from their own experience.  Perhaps your trial today will give you wisdom to come along side someone in a similar situation one day and offer them hope. 

Sometimes trials are a means of discipline in our lives.  The psalmist declared, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey Your Word” (Psalm 119:67).  Hebrews adds, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.  Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).  Trials that come as a consequence of our sinful and foolish behavior are meant to teach us valuable life lessons.  Or as my mother used to say, “Bought lessons stay with you longer than taught lessons.”  If you can connect your trial to your actions, take that as a means of discipline and training.  God is being a good Father to you (Hebrews 12:5-10)

Most importantly, trials reveal God to the world.  When Jesus and His disciples encountered a man who had been blind from birth, He declared that “This happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (John 9:3). When the Lord healed this man everyone knew it, and he became a living testimony to the power of God.  You and I are the canvas on which God paints His own portrait for the world to see.  Just as silver and gold show up most brilliantly against a dark backdrop, the power and glory of God is on vivid display in our trials.  Our difficulties become the means by which God shows up and shows off.

Beloved, I don’t know what trial you are facing today, but I know that God has brought you to it for a good purpose.  He is at work in your life, stretching your faith, moving you into His will, preparing you to minister to someone else, teaching you discipline, and making your life a display of His glory.  Every trial is an opportunity for you and I to draw closer to God, to walk in faith, and to point others to Him.  Yes, we can count it all joy when trials come, because we know God has a purpose and a plan – and we will be the richer for it.

“Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him” (James 1:12).

When Your World is Shaken

“At that time His voice shook the earth, but now He has promised, ‘Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.’ The words ‘once more’ indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.” Hebrews 12:26-27

There are two perspectives taught in the church about suffering, one is that suffering is inevitable and unavoidable and the other is that suffering is evil and its presence should be rejected, and in truth they are both correct.

Suffering and hardships are part of human life. Since the fall of Adam and Eve, mankind has been subject to the travails of life outside of the perfect world of the Garden.  Sickness, death, failure and even the ravages of nature are all part of the consequences of that very first sin.  In that sense suffering is unavoidable.

Suffering is also part of the Christian’s life—Jesus told us as much: “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). He said the world would hate and persecute His followers because they hated and persecuted Him (see John 15:18-21).  It is both a painful experience and a joyful one to suffer for the name of Christ.  As we watch the world turn farther and farther away from God, it is reasonable to believe that suffering in this way is inevitable.

Suffering is also rooted in evil, as we noted—a direct consequence of the actions of the first humans who listened to the evil one rather than their Creator.  In the Garden, all was perfect.  No disease, no death, no hatred, no failure, do destruction.  Evil entered the picture and Adam and Eve were banished from their perfect home.  If only they had resisted . . .  Now mankind and creation are subject to evil in the forms of hatred, war, crime, poverty and abuse, to name a few.

How are we to comprehend a good God who allows suffering to befall His beloved creation—human beings, animals and the planet He spoke into being?  Look around the world at what evil men have done, at the pain they have inflicted. Why would God allow this to be?  Let’s bring this closer to home—how can we understand when He allows suffering to touch our lives?  Is it possible that God has lost control?

Beloved, God has never lost control of this universe; He is just as sovereign over the affairs of creation—including suffering—as He has ever been.  And He has never lost control of the lives of men.  He continues to hold the reigns of the world, just as He continues to hold your life and mine in the palm of His hand.

So how do we reconcile God’s sovereignty and suffering?  Do we become spiritual Eeyores and resign ourselves to it?  Pat each other on the shoulder and say “Just trust God,” with a sigh?  There are many theological reasons we can consider, but I don’t think that will comfort our hearts.

Our key verse is the hope I hang on to in suffering.  This verse references a passage in the Old Testament book of Haggai, which is written to the Israelite refugees who had returned to Jerusalem after their 70-year Babylonian exile.  The weary and bedraggled Jews came home, not to the shining city of their past, but to a burned out shell.  The walls had been knocked flat, their homes decimated, and worst of all, the temple of the Lord has been burned to the ground.  In their recovery efforts they restored the wall and built homes and even began the work on the temple, but they were too overwhelmed to finish.  God declared to His people, “Be strong and work, for I am with you” (Haggai 2:4), and the Jews did indeed complete the task.  Yet they became discouraged because this second temple was much smaller and less opulent than Solomon’s temple.  So God declared to them that an even greater Temple was yet to come, a heavenly temple far beyond their wildest and greatest dreams.  This is what the writer of Hebrews was drawing on in our key verse.

Times of suffering in the lives of God’s people are tools He uses to prepare us for what is to come.  In this verse, the author used the image of being shaken.  Some things are “shakable,” unstable and unfixed.  They are the temporary things that we too often set our hearts on in this life.  Power, popularity, prestige, wealth, health and beauty—all things that fade away.  God wants us to realize that these things, so sought after in this world, have no value or permanence in the eternal.  So He shakes things up, causing these worldly “treasures” to fall away, and with them our dependence on and affection for them.

What remains after all the shaking is done?  Look at Hebrews 12:28: “a kingdom that cannot be shaken.” What remains is the eternal, unshakable Kingdom of Jesus Christ.  The New Jerusalem, the Holy City where we will live forever in the presence of the Lord.  What value is there in worldly treasures when we stand before the King of kings and Lord of lords?  Those things that captured our hearts in this life are meaningless in the light of heaven.  Oh why do we hold on to the unstable things of this world when an unshakable destiny awaits us?

What is God shaking loose in your life?  What are you holding on to that has no eternal value? Dear one, He will not take anything from you that is lasting and true.  Let God have His way with the temporary treasures of your life so that you may inherit the unshakable and eternal.

Holy Father, in my hand are worldly treasures, trinkets and false gemstones set in fool’s gold.  Shake them from my hands that I may grab hold of that which is unshakable and eternal.  Amen.

In the Wineskin of Suffering

communion-wineI am in the middle of packing and moving, so I am re-posting a devotional I wrote two years ago.  I pray these words may bless and encourage you.

“Those who suffer He delivers in their suffering.”  Job 36:15

 Why must we endure suffering?

The question of suffering has plagued mankind since the days of Adam and Eve, and the answers we have crafted vary far and wide, often raising even more questions.  Why do some suffer and others seem to live a life of ease?  What possible good can come from suffering? Why would a loving God let His creation suffer? How can we avoid suffering?  Should we avoid suffering?

I have had seasons of suffering, and so have you.  At times I thought I would not survive those sufferings, the depth of pain and struggle was more than I could bear.  I have prayed for people I love in their times of suffering.  I have looked around at the ease of others, and questioned God’s fairness is allowing me to suffer while He showed His favor to someone else.  At the same time, someone else has considered my life one of ease and comfort in comparison to their own sufferings.  We will all encounter trials and troubles – no one, no matter how wealthy, brilliant, beautiful or godly, will be exempt from suffering.  I have wrestled for some kind of understanding in the matter of suffering.  By no means do I think I have all the answers or have figured out God’s mind on the subject, but I have found tremendous insight and comfort in His Word, and I hope it will be a blessing to you.

I find that suffering is one of God’s most effective tools in shaping us.  Like a sculptor with a chisel, sometimes God must use His tool of suffering to “chip away” at those things in our lives that would mar His finished masterpiece.  His plan is to make us like His Holy and Perfect Son, Jesus Christ, and He must remove anything from us that is not Christ like.  It is a lifelong and often painful process.  We can take comfort in knowing that the Father also allowed His Beloved Son to suffer.  The writer of Hebrews identifies two reasons for the suffering of Jesus.  Hebrews 2:9 says that “he suffered death so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.” In His great mercy and grace, God allowed His Son to suffer that we might be saved from eternal death, that is, eternal separation from Him.  This thought completely fills me with awe: Jesus Christ endured separation from His Father so that we would not have to.   He endured tremendous suffering for you and me.   Amazing!  Hebrews 2:10 follows by saying, “It was fitting that God should make the author of [our] salvation perfect through suffering.” If Jesus was made perfect through suffering, and God’s purpose for us is to be like Jesus, we will also endure suffering as God’s means to achieve His end.   This is why Peter wrote “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.  These have come so that your faith-of greater worth than gold may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Peter 1: 6-7)” The good that comes from suffering is that our faith is being perfected and we are becoming more and more like Christ.

As I was reading recently in Jeremiah, I discovered something I had never considered before.  Jeremiah 48 is God’s message of coming destruction against the nation of Moab, one of Israel and God’s many enemies.  Jeremiah 48: 11 says “Moab has been at rest from youth, like wine left on its dregs, not poured from one jar to another-she has not gone into exile.  So she tastes as she did and her aroma is unchanged.”  You see, in making wine, the grapes are first crushed to extract the juice which is placed in bottles or wine skins and allowed to ferment.  During fermentation, the dregs, or sediment, settle at the bottom of the container.  After forty days the wine is poured into another container to allow the dregs to be removed.  If the dregs remain, the wine becomes too sweet and thick and it is spoiled.  Moab had always been largely at peace, and their turmoil-free life had made them spoiled.  The Lord gives the same description of the city of Jerusalem when he says, “I will search Jerusalem with lamps and punish those who are complacent, who are like wine left on its dregs, who think the Lord will do nothing, either good or bad. (Zephaniah 1:12)”

Sometimes God has to “shake” us out of our complacency.  I know that this has been true for my life.  God has used times of suffering to pour me from one container to another so that He can remove the dregs, and keep me from become thick and spoiled in the syrupy sweetness of complacency. If you find that hard to believe, consider that the Gospel of Christ and the Holy Spirit are the most powerful and effective in countries where Christianity is prohibited and Christ-followers are persecuted.  The suffering they are enduring for the Name of Jesus Christ strengthens their faith in ways the Western Churches do not see, because – at least for now – we do not endure real suffering for our faith. We have become satiated and complacent, and our witness as the Body and Church of Christ has become thick and sweet on its dregs.  Is it any wonder our nation has such disregard for God – as if to say “the Lord will do nothing, either good or bad.”?

Suffering in the life of those who claim the name of Christ is not without purpose.  Suffering shakes us out of our settled complacency, and removes the influences of the world that threaten to spoil our witness.   Suffering makes us more like the One who suffered for us, perfecting us to fulfill God’s purpose and will.    Revelation 2:10 is a powerful message to all of us as we endure suffering: “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer…Be faithful, even unto the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

Holy God, I do not want to be complacent in a world of people who think “the Lord will do nothing…”  Shake me up that I may be a witness for Jesus Christ.  Amen