Lessons From the Arizona Desert

It was 29 degrees when I left the Pittsburgh airport headed to Phoenix. I knew warmer weather, friends and new experiences were waiting for me on the other end. The plan was to speak for a couple of my friends (Howard Gwartney & Mike Cash) and share with their church families about what God was doing in and through Flagship FWB Church in Erie, Pa. I was looking forward to seeing them and their families again, as well as visiting the great state of Arizona.

Pastor Gwartney suggested a few places to go sightseeing and after taking his suggestions into consideration and looking online I decided to do some hiking on the Peralta Trail in the Superstition Mountains. The website suggested a hike that would take 3-4 hours and after speaking to the Ranger at the trailhead that’s the hike I decided I would take.

I wanted this to be more than I hike. I wanted to spend some alone time with God. I needed Him to teach me some things and minister to my soul. I wanted and desperately needed His encouragement from my Father. When it was over, I felt like this hike was just what the Great Physician ordered for my soul.

While on this journey God taught me and reminded me of many things. I was desperate to hear from God and He did not disappoint. I was desperate because the last several years have been filled with spiritual warfare, difficulties, concerns and mental, as well as spiritual exhaustion. I’d like to share with you some ordinary things God used along the trail to encourage and help me as I continue on this other journey, called life.

First He reminded me to be an encourager to those who are struggling. The trek to the top was exhausting. I was breathing heavy, sweating and at times my pulse rate exceeded 140 bpm. As I was hiking I kept seeing people who had already conquered the mountain. Some of these people appeared to be older than me. This motivated me not to quit. As I gradually made my way up the incline, occasionally people would say, “You are getting close now. Only a few more minutes.” I think they could sense my exhaustion and they didn’t want me to give up without conquering what I had come to see.

I am so thankful for the many other encouragers I have in my life. Countless people pray for us regularly. Our daughter, who has battled some very severe physical and spiritual issues has been prayed for by people all over the globe. Occasionally I will receive a text message or a phone call from someone who supports the ministry in Erie and they will just remind me they are praying for us. They are like those on the mountain who say, enthusiastically, “Keep going. Don’t quit. It will be worth it.”

I was able to return the favor for others as I was coming down the mountain. I was able to say, “You are getting close. Only a few more steps. It will be worth it.” There are many things I cannot do, and there are many talents I do not have, but I can be an encourager and share an encouraging word with those who are struggling on their journey. Be an encourager!

Another thing I was reminded of was this: sometimes all you can do is keep putting one foot in front of the other. There were times on my way to the top I could barely keep moving. I was wheezing and exhausted. There were times I felt as if I would just fall over. However, I was determined I was going to conquer this trail. I slowed down, I stopped to rest, but I was resolved by God’s grace I was not going to give up. There were times on the journey I seemed to be barely moving and making any headway. However, I was determined to keep moving and I did.

There have been so many times in life I’ve felt the same way on this church planting journey. There have been days I have had so much to do, my head would spin. I do not want to complain, but I do think people should know that church planting is not all glitz and glamour. Until you get people trained and discipled, until you find willing and able volunteers, much of the work of the ministry falls on your shoulders as well as those on your leadership team (if you are blessed to have one). Without the volunteers, you are also the treasurer, the deacons, the trustees, the janitor and the list goes on. Sometimes you feel like you are taking a step forward, only to feel like you’ve taken two steps back. There are times when people leave, often without explanation, and it’s very hard not to take it personally.

I have also felt exhausted spiritually. There are times when the enemy whispers, “Just quit, it’s not worth it. You aren’t really making a difference. No one would miss you if you packed up and moved closer to your family. You could find an easier place to serve.” The “father of lies” is an expert discourager, but dear friend, even when you are exhausted, decide by God’s grace you are going to continue putting one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward on the trail God has for you.

Third, your pace does not have to be the same as everyone else. It took me three hours and forty minutes to complete this hike. I am sure that is a very slow time compared many who have done the same journey. As people walked by me on the way there, it was a little discouraging to know I was slower than them. If my only focus was the pace of this trip I would have gotten discouraged quickly. However, I realized this was not a race, but a hike. I had a goal in mind and it did not include a specific time limit. My goal was simply to make it to the top and safely make it back home. By God’s grace that is exactly what I did.

One of the biggest temptations I face in ministry is to play the “comparison game.” I have struggled with this ever since I began ministering over twenty years ago. I know it is a result of my sinful nature and I have to confess and repent of comparing regularly. When I look at other pastors who are about my same age, or other church planters who have been on the field the same length of time I have, I can get very discouraged because they seem to be much more “successful” than I am. The way I often define success is far different than God’s definition of success. God’s definition seems to do more with faithfulness than with numbers. I’m not going to be judged on the number of people who sit in the pews, the offerings that come in on a weekly basis, how stylish the church logo is, the number of likes on the ministry’s social media page or how well I pulled off a big day. God’s Word tells me we are stewards and it is required that stewards are found faithful.

I am thankful that God doesn’t require stewards to have the same pace as someone else with different gifts, personalities or abilities. He wants me to be faithful and by His grace, I can be. It is God’s business who He gifts and how He gifts people. It is our business how we use these gifts and abilities for His glory. We must be sure we are on the right trail and move along that trail faithfully every day. There will be people ahead of us and there will be people behind us. There will be those who will pass us along the way. However, it is not our job to try to “keep up with them,” but rather walk step in step with the Holy Spirit and move in His direction. There have been far too many times in my life that I have been so enamored with the “success” others and my lack thereof, that I have literally felt paralyzed from even doing what God has called me to do. Do we really think that is of God? Certainly not! It is a ploy of the enemy to keep us discouraged and distracted! Stay focused on Him and His path for YOUR life!

Another truth I was reminded of is when you get off the trail, go back and correct your course. The trail I was on had no markers or signs (except at the beginning). The ranger whom I spoke with said that the main trail would be clear, and if you got off the main trail you would eventually hit a dead end or a lot of brush and undergrowth. One particular occasion I missed a turn and mistakenly got off the main trail. I knew I needed to turn around and find out where I went off course. Sure enough, I was able to backtrack to the main trail and get back on track.

There are times in life when we do the same. We make choices outside of God’s will and we take detours. Whenever we do so, it leads to problems. However, we serve a merciful and gracious God who gives us the opportunity to confess and repent and get back on track. I am reminded of the verse of Scripture in Revelation where Christ commands the church to “repent and go back and do the first works.” Go back to the detour point and get back on the path God has for you.

Obstacles can serve as stepping stones. The trail was extremely rocky all along the way. There were even a few places that were slippery and treacherous. However, those same rocks that could be perceived as obstacles, ended up serving as places to step upon or hold onto to as I ascended and descended the mountain.

Once again I see a parallel in life. There are always obstacles, however, I believe God can enable these difficulties to serve as stepping stones. When Joseph confronts his brothers at the end of the book of Genesis he confesses the things they meant for evil against him ended up being used by God for good. Joseph could have easily used these difficulties in his life to destroy him, however, he responded with faith in God and overcame. He allowed obstacles to become the stepping stones that enabled him to be exactly where he needed to be in God’s providential plan. We must do the same. Though obstacles may come into our lives, God can turn trials into blessings and He will work all things together for our good and His glory.

There are several other life lessons I wrote down that day in the Arizona desert. It was a trip I will not soon forget, if ever. I wonder how many life lessons I miss because I don’t take time to ask God to teach me or because I am so busy with the hustle and bustle of life I just do not take the time to listen. I am thankful for this trip and I am sure there will be many days and trials ahead that I will need to remind myself of these principles. In some way, I hope they can be a blessing to you as well.

Advertisements

“Unplugged”

Unplugged 

by Guest Columnist Marie Drakulic

     A very dear friend of mine does not own a cellphone.  She has a landline.  Remember those?  It is the kind of phone that you have to plug into the wall and have to stay in the house to use!  She says cellphones drain too much energy.  Crazy, right?  Well, maybe she isn’t so far off base.

I should have known I had a problem when my email stopped working on my phone.  I actually had to go to the computer to bring it up and read it.  Oh no!  Perish the thought!  It was only a glitch in the server, and a couple days later it was fixed.  Yet, I wasted a lot of time fussing over the minor issue.  Shortly after that, this verse from 1 Corinthians started rolling around in my mind:

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.” (1 Corinthians 6:12 ESV)

“I will not be dominated by anything.”  Another translation uses the word “mastered.”  I came to realize that I was being mastered by my smart phone.  Not so smart, huh?!  It was practically glued to me 24-7.  At home, it would follow me to every room in the house.  When I went out, it was either in my hand, my purse (attached to my shoulder), or in one of my pockets.  It even ended up in my bed next to my pillow sometimes at night!  As I prepared to listen to my pastor’s Sunday sermon on fasting, I knew that I needed to spend some time “unplugged.”

As I write this, I am in the middle of a week away from my phone.  Sure, I have used it to make ordinary phone calls, and a few times I have used my “smart apps,” but I have, in the Lord’s strength, denied myself the ease and dependability of using it every waking moment.  Here are a few things I have learned:

  1. My smart phone CAN’T do everything, and I CAN function without it.
  2. Some people really do appreciate a phone call rather than a text message.
  3. It is more important for me to enjoy spending with my kids than making sure I post about them.
  4. I don’t need to reach for my phone before I reach for my Bible or bow my head in prayer in the morning.
  5. My iPhone is not I AM.

Please do not misunderstand me; I am not saying that smart phones, tablets or advances in technology are bad.  I am only saying that, for me, my iPhone had become a god in my life.  Wow, that was hard to write . . . and hard to admit.  How could something so material, so breakable ever become greater than He?  There are many beneficial uses of a smart phone, but they had become a weight in my spiritual walk with the Lord.

Is there something weighing you down today?  Maybe you don’t struggle with smart phone overuse like I do.  Maybe your struggle is with food or the TV or work.  None of those things are wrong on their own, but when they become distractions from time with the Lord, when they become little ‘g’ gods in our lives, then we have a problem.  Take a look at what the writer of Hebrews said:

. . . let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us . . . (Hebrews 12:1 ESV)

In a few days, my phone will become smart again, and I will plug back in.  Yet, I pray that I have learned to reap its benefits without letting it master me.  God is God alone.  May I always recognize that “every good and perfect gift comes from above” (see James 1:17) and meant for use to His glory.  And just maybe, I can convince my friend to at least get an iPod so she can have all those “really cool” apps, too! 😉

Open Their (Our) Hearts

In Acts 16 we read an interesting statement which is found in v. 14: “The Lord opened her (Lydia’s) heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.”

We find that Lydia was a “worshiper of God” and was a business lady whom Paul crossed paths with. However, she had not been baptized and possibly had not clearly understood the Gospel up to this point. It is obvious that God was working in her heart, drawing her to Himself and had set up this divine appointment with the Apostle Paul.

The word here for worship means to: “hold something in high respect, to adore and to revere.” (http://biblesuite.com/greek/4576.htm) However, it seems there was something still missing in Lydia’s life. It is possible she had yet to understand the message about the “Lamb of God who was slain for the sins of the world.” Regardless of what was missing, she had responded to God in love and faith and God responds to her in ensuring she hears the Truth.

Scripture tells us that God opened her heart so she could pay attention to what was being said by Paul. The word “open” has a couple of different connotations. First it carries with it the idea of “opened up fully.” However, it can go much deeper than that and can also mean “to rouse in one the faculty of understanding or the desire of learning.” (http://biblesuite.com/greek/1272.htm)

My question to us is this: “What if God would do the same thing in the hearts of everyone that will be sitting under Gospel preaching on Sunday? What if God would do the same thing every time we pick up His Word and read it? What if God would do the same thing every time we share the Gospel with a lost soul?”

The God who loved Lydia is the same God who loves the souls in your family and mine, in your congregation and mine, and in your city and mine. Sure, we need more Lydia’s who will respond to the light they have, but we also need more messengers like Paul who will faithfully proclaim God’s Word and be sensitive to the Spirit’s leading.

Would YOU join me in prayer for the countless confused and/or misinformed souls that will have an opportunity to hear God’s precious Word? Let’s pray together that God would “open their hearts to pay attention to what is said from God’s Word.” God’s Word is Truth and it is the Truth that sets people free! Faith comes through hearing and hearing from the Word of God!

Prayer: “Father, I come to YOU today and I ask that YOU would open the hearts of everyone who will sit in the pews of Flagship Church and every church that preaches the Gospel tomorrow. Open their mind and the window of their soul to YOUR Truth. Give them understanding of YOUR great love for them and YOUR desire to save their souls and reconcile them to YOURSELF. Give to them a desire to learn YOUR Word and YOUR ways. Give us men like the Apostle Paul who will faithfully discharge their duty to be ambassadors for Christ in their Jerusalem, their Judea, their Samaria and the uttermost parts of the world. Encourage the laymen and laywomen with the Truth that YOUR Word can change lives for eternity. Finally Lord, though we may know YOU as Savior and Lord our hearts need to remain open as well. Please keep us tender and sensitive to the leading of YOUR Holy Spirit, the Truth of Scripture and the power of the Gospel.

Image

Perception

Too many times we are consumed with perception. Don’t get me wrong. The way people perceive us is important. After all, as Christ followers we are the ambassadors of Christ and His representatives to a lost and sin sick world. Therefore, it is important to let our light shine before men that they may see our good works and glorify our Father which is in Heaven (see Matthew 5:14-16).

However, there is a difference between letting our light shine through our good works and putting on a show. If we are really surrendered to Christ and are walking in the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18) there will be a natural overflow of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-24). When we walk by faith and in humility, surrendered to God’s Word, then what God is doing in us will be reflected through us!

We need to keep in mind that even in the Christian the flesh is still driven to perform. The flesh produces jealously (Galatians 5:17-20) and pride. As a matter of fact Paul asks the Galatians in chapter three “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:2-3). Sometimes we are erroneously convinced that God’s power saves us by grace through faith, but somehow we then are to live the victorious Christian life through our flesh and “trying harder.” Our flesh may be jealous of the Spirit’s power and capability and the great deceiver plays upon that weakness, encouraging us to live the Christian life in our own power. After all we’ve got to keep up the perception that we are good Christians.

This is exactly what we see happening in Acts 5. Ananias and Sapphira were very interested in being perceived as dedicated, sacrificial Christ followers. They obviously had close ties to the church because they were aware that others were selling their possessions and giving to the church and others in need (see Acts 4:34-37). They decided to come up with a scheme to be perceived as a part of this generous group. They decided they would sell a portion of their property, bring a portion of it to the church and secretly keep a portion for themselves. They did not have to sell their land (Acts 5:4a). The problem was not they kept a portion for themselves (Acts 5:4b). The problem was they wanted to be perceived as a Christ follower who had given it all even though they had not!

Christians still have a battle with the flesh. We no longer have to be controlled by the flesh and we can reckon our flesh to be dead through the power of Christ, but if we are not extremely careful it will raise its ugly head time and time again to trip us up. It will even lead us to do the right thing for the wrong reason or seek to get us to try to do the right thing in our own power and energy. The enemy knows this leads to failure and frustration and may eventually lead us down a road of such despondent failure that we just walk out on the possibility of living in victory at all.

Yes, we should want to be perceived as people who bring God the glory. However, we all need to understand how God is brought the glory! He is not brought the glory by anything we can accomplish in the power and the energy of the flesh. Our righteousness adds up to nothing but filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). Without Him we can do nothing (John 15:5). We bring God the glory when we let His supernatural power work in and through us to do things that point others to how awesome He is!

Jesus went on to remind His followers in John 15:5 that the key to producing fruit was not in “trying harder” or “doing better” but rather was simply found in abiding in Him. If we want to give the perception that we are Christ followers, then through His grace and power of the Holy Spirit we must simply follow Him. If we want to produce fruit, then we must simply through His grace rest in and abide in Him and His power. If we want to be perceived as Spirit-filled people then we must through His grace walk in His Spirit step by step.

Your flesh will always be there to try to trip you up. It will always seek to get you to live the Christian life in your own strength. It will lead you to depend upon the arm of the flesh, but the arm of the flesh will always fail!

I’m not sure what the Holy Spirit would have led Ananias and Sapphira to do had they been following His leadership. But whatever it was, it would have been something that glorified God, not Ananias and Sapphira! It would have been something that said, “Look at what GOD is doing in and through their life,” rather than, “Look at what they are doing for God.”

Yes, perception is important. But the right perception can only be produced through following and being surrendered to the leading of the Holy Spirit through His Word and the power of the Holy Spirit working within.

Dirty Words-Is it Just a List to Avoid?

The word “profanity” comes from the root word “profane.” The word profane, according to “Merriam-Webster’s” online dictionary means: (1) to treat (something sacred) with abuse, irreverance or contempt; (2) to debase by a wrong, unworthy, or vulgar use…therefore profanity is the use of “language that treats sacred things with abuse, irreverance or contempt…language that debases things or others.” As Christians and “temples of the Holy Spirit” we should not want to say things that reflect irreverance upon the name of Christ, nor should we use our language in a way that dishonors Christ.

Isn’t it interesting that even the “world” recognizes the use of “profane language.” This is regularly seen when one picks up a movie and it says something like: “Rated PG-13 for profanity or explicit language.” Many individuals who reject Christ and His Word know that there is a difference between “language” and “explicit or profane language.” (Let me run a little rabbit trail here…that line continues to be blurred and I am sure that one day in the not too distant future the line will dissapear as far as the world is concerned).

So what does the Bible have to say about this subject? After all, that is the standard…certainly not Hollywood’s rating system. Certainly not a list that changes from state to state. What type of language should we and should we not be comfortable with?

In Ephesians 4:29 the Holy Spirit inspires Paul to instruct Christians regarding their language (this certainly isn’t a comprehensive view of acceptable language…we are just looking at one passage to help us with this issue today). He says: Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers. He goes on to indicate that when Christians do such things we “grieve the Holy Spirit” that lives within us (see also verse 30).

Paul makes it explicitly clear that we are to stay away from “corrupt communication.” This refers to: polluting, evil and even worthless language. If we breath polluted air we are taking in the toxins that are in the air and breathing them into our lungs. The same is true with profanity…it is spoken, then it is heard, then it is processed in the brain and then it produces thoughts that are not appropriate and finally produces a response. Others are affected either positively or negatively by the words we say and even the tone we use. Therefore, as a Christian, and as an individual who should be seeking to live their lives to please and honor Christ, we should not say or write things that would “pollute” someone else’s thought process. Scripture reminds us that we will be held accountable for the words that we use!

Paul then gives us HOW we should use our language. First of all are to use words that“edify.” Words that “edify” are words that are spiritually beneficial for others…they are words that BUILD UP! Do the words you use BUILD UP others? You see I think some people think that as long as they stay away from the “bad word list” they are ok. However, you can stay away from your list and still use your mouth to hinder people’s faith and discourage people in their walk for the Lord. This is corrupt communication as well.

Secondly, our speech is supposed to minister grace to the hearers. How can the words you use minister grace to someone else? Grace, as far as our salvation is concerned refers to God’s undeserved favor toward us. It is through this undeserved favor that our sins can be forgiven and we can become part of the family of God. Therefore, God’s grace helps or enables us to be delivered from the penalty of our sin. Then we think of what some refer to as “sustaining grace.” Sustaining grace is God’s undeserved help from day to day to face whatever may come our way. In this passage we are told that God can use our words to minister grace or help to someone else. How can help someone else if the language we are using doesn’t honor the Holy Spirit that resides in us…if the language we are using treats that which God calls sacred as something that common and unimportant?

May we as Christians never get comfortable with language that doesn’t glorify God (give a right representation of Him to the world), that doesn’t build up another Christian, or that doesn’t help others clearly see the Christ of Calvary and help God’s family to grow in the grace and knowledge of Him.

Yes I think we should stay away from the “list” but I hope it goes far deeper than that. I hope we will look deep within our hearts and think about this verse the next time we open our mouths.

Don’t Give Up

In the latter part of Luke 18 we read about a blind beggar sitting near the roadside asking for help. In those days many people who were crippled or blind were at the mercy of others. Government assistance was non-existent, and if their families did not or could not care for them they often resorted to a life of begging.

We can only imagine the desperation that must have been in this man’s heart as he heard that Jesus was passing by. It is obvious that somewhere along the way he had heard of this man who touched blinded eyes, made the lame walk again, and was offering hope to the hopeless.

Scripture tells us that he cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” However, the crowd wasn’t very merciful to him. The crowd told him to be quiet. The crowd told him to stop. To the crowd he was simply a nuisance and a bother.

But he wasn’t going to let the crowd keep him from calling out to Jesus. The Bible says that he cried out even more. His concern was not the crowd, his concern was Christ! He was not going to be quiet until he heard from Jesus. Even though he couldn’t seen Jesus, he believed that Jesus was his only hope, and the solution for his blindness.

Jesus is attracted to our weakness. He doesn’t walk by and ignore the cry of faith and desperation. He is the Great Physician, not only for our bodies, but most importantly for our souls. He is waiting to show Himself strong on our behalf.

Jesus stops and heals the man. However, the man’s life is never the same. His faith in Christ not only allowed his sight to return, but it also brought reconciliation in his soul. Jesus said that his “faith had made him well.”

When he left that day he didn’t forget what Christ had done. He didn’t use Jesus as a “spare tire” to get what he wanted out of Him and then forget about Him. He left that day glorifying God! This miracle, and his response to it, caused others to give praise to God as well.

Regardless of what voices are telling you that “waiting on the Lord” is just a waste of time…don’t give up.

Regardless of who is telling you that you are beyond help and beyond hope…don’t give up…turn to Jesus.

Regardless of where the circumstances of life may bring you…don’t give up…through a personal relationship with Christ you know that He is right there with you!

In the words of Winston Churchill, “never give up!”

Choose the Best Part

Who is the most important person in your life? Pretend you haven’t seen them in 18 months and they were coming for a visit. You knew they would not be able to stay long and you are not sure how long it will be before you will see them again. However, you are filled with joy and excitement because you are going to be able to spend a little time with this friend or family member. You want to make it special so you begin to plan for the celebration of the ages. You spare no expense in your preparation and finally the time comes! The doorbell rings and standing on your front porch is the one you have been longing to see and hold in your arms. The greeting is sweet and your entire household is thrilled. You invite your guest in and you rush into the kitchen to finish the final preparations for your exquisite meal with them. The rest of the family gathers in the living room to hear the latest stories from your honored guest.

Minutes and hours pass by as you put the final touches on the food, the trimmings and the dessert. The dining room table is decorated with your finest china. The crystal glasses from attic have been washed and they glisten in the candlelight. Everything is now ready and you walk into the living room to invite your guest and your family to come in for dinner. However, your guest looks at you with tears in their eyes as they place their cell phone back into their pocket.

“I have to go,” they say. “I just received word that my mom has been rushed to the hospital after a tragic car accident and they are not sure she will make it. I’m so sorry, I will have to catch the next flight out.”

Your heart breaks as you watch them speed out of the driveway and then reality hits. While you have spent the last three hours preparing to entertain and feed your guest, you have spent no time with your guest. Now the opportunity is gone and you have no idea when you will have it back. The last three hours have been a waste and the very one you wanted lavish your love upon has now gone away.

The same is often true with us as Christians. We are “busy” for the Lord and in the Lord’s work…yet how much time do we really spend with Him?

In Luke 10:38-42, Martha was busy preparing a meal for Jesus. There is no more important guest than this. Martha was doing a good thing for a good reason. However, she was upset at her sister who was enjoying the presence of Jesus, but not helping in the kitchen.

Martha asks Jesus, “Do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.”

Jesus’ answer may have surprised Martha and it may surprise you as well. He said, “Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”

Jesus reminds Martha that she has gotten so busy try to do things “for Jesus” that she has neglected spending time “with Jesus.” Jesus lets her know that He is not going to rebuke Mary, because Mary has chosen the best over what was good. Yes, it’s good to serve Jesus, but when serving Jesus causes us to neglect Him it becomes a burden rather than a blessing.

As a matter of fact Scripture indicates that our service to God will be much more productive if it is preceded by time spent with God! So let me encourage you today to just spend some time with Him in prayer and His Word. It will be time well spent!