Attention Getter

“One day Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro,the priest of Midian. He led the flock far into the wilderness and came to Sinai, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire from the middle of a bush. Moses stared in amazement. Though the bush was engulfed in flames, it didn’t burn up. “This is amazing,” Moses said to himself. “Why isn’t that bush burning up? I must go see it.” Exodus 3:1-3.

Today people use social media to grab people’s attention. God used a more dramatic approach with Moses. God got Moses’ attention when he was living in Midian as a shepherd, far removed from the splendor and glory he had known in Egypt. For 40 years, he had lived this humble existence of tending the flocks, looking forward to the ease and comfort of retirement. No one had bothered him, not even God. Then one day, Moses got a wake-up call. He saw a bush burning, but it wasn’t so much that the bush was burning, it was that the bush did not burn up. God had his attention.

What can we learn from Moses’ experience? The obvious answer is when God appears, we need to give Him our undivided attention. But is that it?  Verse 4 continues the story: “When the Lord saw Moses coming to take a closer look, God called to him from the middle of the bush, “Moses! Moses!” “Here I am!” Moses replied.

Did you catch that? Only when Moses took the time to investigate the improbable scene in front of him, and only when God saw that Moses was paying attention, did God call him over. Curiosity got the better of him and he was now paying attention; that attention changed Moses’s life and the fate of the nation of Israel.

It begs the question: what burning bushes in your life should you be paying more attention to?  Is God doing something near you that is strange, exciting, dangerous, or unknown? Is God trying to get your attention? It may be the moment God uses to start something amazing in your life. Craig Groeschel said that “God doesn’t have to shout to grab your attention. He whispers to draw you close. He is right there with you.” 

God wants your attention for a reason. In the case of Moses, God had seen the misery of His people in Egypt. He wanted someone to request their release from Pharaoh. He wanted someone who knew Egyptian culture, language, policy, law and mindset. Who was better to handle that task than Moses? God got Moses’ attention to call him into service to lead the children of Israel out of slavery and into the Promised Land.

God gets our attention because He has something He wants us to do. He always calls us to action. What would God have you to do? 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is it possible to know when God is trying to get our attention? If so, how?
  2. How can we be more receptive this week to God speaking to you? 

Spirituality Recipe

“Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. 3 For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God.”  Luke 8:5-8.

Spirituality has become a buzzword in the church. I want to worship with that group across town–they are so spiritual. The devotionals on that website are so spiritual–the small groups are so spiritual–our youth group is so spiritual. But what is it that makes those people and those groups spiritual? What is the criteria? The common answer is that spirituality is the process of becoming more mature in our relationship with Jesus Christ; someone who is growing spiritually will become more and more like Christ. Our spiritual connection with God is the guiding force in our life. It is always there. It is when we are growing spiritually that faith thrives.

But what happens when our minds are occupied? There is the spouse to think about, and the kids, and the job, the bills, the repairs from Hurricane Michael. And it is not just casual thinking: there is planning, strategizing, communication, paperwork about today, next week and next year. How can we ensure that spirituality stays in the forefront without getting lost in all the other things we are dwelling on? 

Computers have a helpful tracking mechanism that enables us to better interact with websites. They are called cookies. Many of us are familiar with “cookies.” For those who are not: when you visit a site that uses cookies for the first time, a cookie is downloaded onto your computer. The next time you visit that site, your computer “knows” that you have been there before, and in some cases, tailors what pops up on the screen to take account of that fact.

What kind of spiritual cookies do I have in my mind? We know what our priorities are, but what would I learn if I could look at a report of these files in my mind?  If so, what do they look like. Would they show that I read my Bible every day? Would they show a desire to grow spiritually? Would the cookies indicate a love for others? Would they show that I long for and strive for holiness? Would I be a frequent seeker after righteousness? 

But God does want us to walk with Him every moment of the day and the recipe for spiritual cookies is to develop the way and means to remain fixed on Him. Begin the day with Him setting aside a few minutes to be alone with God. Pray about things you know you’ll be facing that day, and read a portion of God’s Word, the Bible. Then let that portion of the Bible take root in your soul all day long, remembering it and calling it to mind.

But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don’t take yourself too seriously—take God seriously.” Micah 6:8 (MSG)

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are some “spiritual cookies” that can help us in our walk with God?
  2. What can we do this week to put those “cookies” into action? 

Hope In The Face Of Fear

“My enemies, whom I have never harmed, hunted me down like a bird. They threw me into a pit and dropped stones on me. The water rose over my head, and I cried out, “This is the end!” But I called on your name, Lord, from deep within the pit. You heard me when I cried,“Listen to my pleading! Hear my cry for help!”Yes, you came when I called; you told me, “Do not fear.” Lord, you have come to my defense; you have redeemed my life. You have seen the wrong they have done to me, Lord. Be my judge, and prove me right.” – Lamentations 3:52-59.

People who have never experienced a hurricane have a hard time understanding why anyone would want to. Why would anyone stay in the path of one? The prudent thing would be to point the car in the opposite direction of the storm and drive as fast as traffic will allow. Some people chose to stay during Hurricane Michael because they had to, others stayed trusting the storm would miss them or diminish in intensity before it arrived and others when they tried to leave were told it was too late. Those who stayed experienced the full force of nature. They saw the wind wrap steel around a tree, boats being flung on dry land, roofs ripped off and houses simply crushed inward. They saw how trees can snap like matchsticks. Many of the people who stayed would not stay if another hurricane came. Because they have learned that a category 4 hurricane is something to fear.

Many things can arouse fear within us. It can stem from our own weaknesses or life experiences. It can rise from a lack of control. Regardless of the form it takes fear is universal. We all suffer from fear at one time or another. The question is are we stuck in neutral, or are we moving forward as a result of our fears? While the natural tendency is to stop or turn back when things are going poorly, that is not the answer. We were never meant to fall victim to fear, but to overcome it. God is greater than your fears. Fear robs us of God’s best. And reaching your full potential in Jesus is on the other side of your fears.

David wrote in Psalm 27:1: “The Lord is my light and my salvation—so why should I be afraid? The Lord is my fortress, protecting me from danger, so why should I tremble?

In the book of Lamentations, Jeremiah had been singing the blues. In fact, if you look at the first verse in chapter 3, he says, “I am the one who has seen the afflictions…” Here was Jeremiah’s reaction: “I called on your name, Lord, from deep within the pityou came when I called; you told me, ‘Do not fear.'” Then he adds, “Lord, you have come to my defense; you have redeemed my life. (Lamentations 3:55, 57-58)

When you face fear remember Lamentations. There is hope to be found even in the middle of despair. We can wait with confidence if we put all our hope in our great God.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What do you fear and how does it affect the way you live? Does it lead to anger, worry, or anxiety?
  2. Is there something God has commanded from His Word that you are fearful to do? Why are you fearful? What truth about God gives you courage in the midst of fear?

A Fixed Focus

“I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back. So let’s keep focused on that goal, those of us who want everything God has for us. If any of you have something else in mind, something less than total commitment, God will clear your blurred vision—you’ll see it yet! Now that we’re on the right track, let’s stay on it.” – Philippians 3:13-16 (MSG).

“So let’s keep focused on that goal” – simple but compelling words. Every one of us has a story; things that have happened in our past, a few weeks ago, or even earlier today, that could throw us off course. The truth is we can be distracted and focus on people or opinions or circumstances and fail to maintain a fixed focus on God. When we lose our focus on God is when we find ourselves adrift in the our circumstances.

Paul was talking about that focus when he wrote to the Colossian believers: “Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:2-3).

The writer of Hebrews says “We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith…” (Hebrews 12:2) Elsewhere, Paul again advises us to focus steadfastly on God: “…fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.” (2 Corinthians 4:18)

Joshua was a good example of this kind of focus. The nation of Israel had known only one leader, Moses. Moses had led them out of Egypt and formed them into a nation during the 40 years they were in the wilderness. Now Moses was dead and a new leader had been appointed by God. Moses told the people who would be their next leader in Deuteronomy 31:3: “…Joshua will lead you across the river, just as the Lord promised.”  

Joshua 1:7 says, “Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the instructions Moses gave you. Do not deviate from them, turning either to the right or to the left. Then you will be successful in everything you do.” Joshua’s message? Stay focused. Don’t deviate. Always obey God. These instructions were so important Joshua repeated them in his directions to the Israelites at the end of his life: ”So be very careful to follow everything Moses wrote in the Book of Instruction. Do not deviate from it, turning either to the right or to the left.” (Joshua 23:6)

God is the only thing that does not change with our feelings, circumstances or challenges. Whatever our circumstances, we need to stay focused on God. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. In the midst of trials and struggles how can we stay focused on God?
  2. What can we do this week to strengthen our focus on God?

Finding Strength to Go On

“ It was three months after the shipwreck that we set sail on another ship that had wintered at the island—an Alexandrian ship with the twin gods as its figurehead. Our first stop was Syracuse, where we stayed three days…. There we found some believers, who invited us to spend a week with them. And so we came to Rome.” – Acts 28:11-12, 14.

How do we find the strength to weather the storms in life when family is far away, where there is no help on the horizon, and your faith in God is being tested as never before? When everything is in pieces, where do we find the strength to put the pieces back together again. There is a story about Paul in Acts 27 on this very subject. 

After more than two years of waiting, Paul was finally sailing for Rome. His whole life, his training and experience had led up to this moment. The trip starts. The ship is headed for a place called Fair Havens to spend the winter. But then everything goes south in a hurry.

“. . we encountered strong headwinds that made it difficult to keep the ship on course.” (vs. 4).  “We had several days of slow sailing, and after great difficulty we finally neared Cnidus….” (vs. 7)…”We struggled along the coast with great difficulty…” (vs. 8) “… We had lost a lot of time. The weather was becoming dangerous for sea travel because it was so late in the fall…” (vs 9)

Acts 27 goes on to say that the wind carrying Paul to his mission in Rome suddenly shifted. It was as if God himself was blowing against Paul. You can imagine Paul onboard the ship wondering if God had called him to go to Rome, why was it so hard to get there. Many of us have been in the same boat. We believe God has called us to minister here, to take this job, etc., so why is He making it so difficult? Why does He place obstacles in the way?

When the winds are against us and no fair haven is in sight, we have to find our strength in God. We have to remember that it is possible to get so wrapped up in doing something for God, that we can lose sight of what He is doing in us. There is a reason that He leads us into storms or puts obstacles in our way. God has a purpose.  Paul’s trip to Rome went from bad to worse as gale-force winds battered the ship and the crew threw everything overboard. But in Acts 27:22-24 Paul tells the crew “…take courage! None of you will lose your lives, even though the ship will go down. For last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me,  and he said, ‘Don’t be afraid, Paul, for you will surely stand trial before Caesar! What’s more, God in his goodness has granted safety to everyone sailing with you.’ 

God kept His promise to Paul. We can find our strength in the fact that God will keep His promises today.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the greater pressure/circumstance you are facing right now? How can Paul’s example in Acts 27 help you? 
  2. How would being anchored to God (finding strength in God) help in that situation?

Black And Good Friday

“ As for me, may I never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of that cross, my interest in this world has been crucified, and the world’s interest in me has also died.” – Galatians 6:14.

Ah, Black Friday. It’s a term that has been used to describe the day after Thanksgiving in a variety of contexts, but the phrase is now synonymous with the shopping rush that marks the beginning of the Christmas shopping season — and all the madness that goes with it.

The low, sometimes really low prices can make people do crazy things. It is always interesting to sit with a group of friends to share the real life experiences of Black Friday shopping. I’m sure there are even better stories out there, but people aren’t willing to share them. The stories range from the hilarious to surreal to even terrifying. But there is also the ultimate love story that took place on a Friday many, many years ago. The Friday that Jesus died and became the final and complete sacrifice for our sins. We cannot erase our guilt, nor can we overcome our sins by our good deeds. But Christ did what we could never do for ourselves, by dying for us on what seemed a truly black Friday.    

As I continue to seek God more in my personal walk with Him, I am still awed and surprised by the cross.  I remember that line in the song by Michael Smith, “Here I am to Worship,” where it says, “I’ll never know how much it cost to see my sin upon that cross.” We will truly never know the magnitude of the grace and love of Jesus Christ. It’s going to take an eternity to know and grasp the fullness of Christ’s infinite love and grace towards us. Yes, we know Jesus is our redeemer, but do we truly know the magnitude of the cost? I don’t think we can even ever come up with a figure or currency to match that price, and that price was paid for each of us.

John Piper said, “Life is wasted if we do not grasp the glory of the cross, cherish it for the treasure that it is, and cleave to it as the highest price of every pleasure and the deepest comfort in every pain. What was once foolishness to us—a crucified God—must become our wisdom and our power and our only boast in this world.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the hardest part of the cross for you to understand? Why?
  2. What can we do this week to better understand and appreciate the significance of the cross?

Be Thankful

Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.” – 1 Thessalonians 5:18.

Thanksgiving is upon us and already stores are putting up their Christmas decorations. It’s that glorious time of year set aside for giving lots of stuff and to stuffing ourselves a lot. And it is a time to be grateful.  Ephesians 5:20 adds, “And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We know God commands us to be thankful in all things, but sometimes it’s just hard, especially in hard times. Some of you have had a tough year. You’ve endured your share of criticism. Maybe you’ve lost a job. Maybe you’re going through a rough patch in your marriage. Now comes Hurricane Michael.

God has been challenging me with one verse over and over again. “Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

Really God? In all circumstances? Back when life seemed perfect and easy, that verse was a breeze to apply. Now it feels more like a giant mountain I have to overcome every time I drive by my house or read my emails from friends and relatives, or look at the photos on Facebook of people trying to put their lives back together.  But I am reminded of Romans 8:28: “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.”

And let’s not miss the the four words of this verse where we are reminded that it is all “according to His purpose.” God has a purpose, and His plans to accomplish that purpose are perfect. Trusting God’s purpose, and seeking to understand that He takes all the events from our life and orchestrates good from them, leads to a different perspective on troubles. We would prefer that God follow our script, but we should be thankful that God is not going to set aside His plans for the sake of yours.

Can we thank God even when times are tough? Yes, we can. But it requires a crazy loves for Jesus, a love that says I am thankful even when life gets hard and messy.

So although it may be difficult to maintain the right attitude with the internet and cable not working and the roof leaking, it’s important to trust and thank God and have the faith that in the midst of all the wrong things, God will make it right. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. If we can’t be content with what God has given you today, we won’t be content with what God will give us tomorrow. Agree or disagree and why?
  2. What can we do this week to be more thankful, even in bad circumstances?

When The Storm Passes

“The little reed, bending to the force of the wind, soon stood upright again when the storm had passed over.” – Aesop.

Going to a major college football game is quite the experience. An optimistic crowd of 90,00 people makes the atmosphere electric. Every good play by the home team brings the crowd to their feet, high fiving, fist bumping and hollering support at the top of their lungs. One of the great things about going to a game if you’re a sports fan is that it’s a shared experience; we’re all in this together even though we are strangers for the most part.   

When the game is over, you walk out of the stadium, find your car, navigate out of the parking lot, and drive home. As exciting and rewarding as the experience was, you probably won’t give it too much thought after that. Nor will you give much additional thought to all the strangers who shared the experience with you. We had a shared experience in Hurricane Michael as well. It was a shared experience as people came together to support and help people who were mostly strangers. But what do we do when the storm has passed, when life crowds in again, when things get busy, and other responsibilities seem more important. 

Hurricane Michael taught us a great many things. We learned we serve a God that is bigger than this storm, and we continue to hear stories on how God used this disaster to bring people together, to grow relationships, and to see thousands of people coming together in community to serve their neighbors. We learned to look at and love people as Jesus would, with a personal touch. And we learned that in the midst of this disaster, that we as Christ followers could shine the light of Jesus. That is not to say that everything is back to normal. We still have a long way to go. We know that restoring whole towns is a massive undertaking that will take months, if not years. But we are moving forward, slowly and progressively. 

Reaching out beyond the walls of Northstar has always been at the very center of the mission of our church. Northstar has always been blessed with caring and compassionate people. That was evident during the days following the hurricane. It is what we are called as Christians to do … to serve God, to serve each other and to serve the least of these. My hope is that we emerge from the storm with a “different viewpoint” that translates into a commitment to serving others in a deeper and more meaningful sort of way. My hope is we will have that same level of engagement and mentality of serving even when the storm clouds are long gone. My hope is that we will have the same level of attention to the needs of others as we did in the aftermath of Michael. 

And finally my hope is that people in our community during the rebuilding process discover a community of friends who inspire them toward a more authentic and honest understanding of the God who loves them and want to start a personal relationship with God as a result. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is it possible to have that serving mentality that we demonstrated after Hurricane Michael all year long?
  2. How do we go about making a serving attitude our normal way of doing things?

Who Are You and Whose You Are

“When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” “Well,” they replied, “some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and others say Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” Then he asked them, “But who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” – Matthew 16:13-16.

If someone asked you, “Who are you,” how would you answer?  You would probably give the person your name. But what if the person said, “I did not ask for your name. I asked who are you?” You would probably provide some type of identification, like your driver’s license. But the person is not satisfied and said, “I did not ask you for identification, I asked who are you.”  You are now annoyed; and without thinking you blurt out, what do you want? An address? My educational background? My occupation? And the person listens intently and says, “I want to know who you are.”

It’s the question that occupies everyone’s mind at one time or another. We often ask that question when there is a change in our lives, especially when that change is negative. Dealing with negative circumstances can make us question God’s plan and purpose for our life.

It is in these times of disappointment, failure or loss that we need to remember who we are and whose we are. As a child of God, our identity is in Jesus Christ. We can’t let our circumstances define us. We are His people. Psalm 100:3 says, “Acknowledge that the LORD is God! He made us, and we are his. We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.” We belong to Him because we were made by Him and for Him (Colossians 1:16). Made in His image (Genesis 1:26-27). Made for His glory (Isaiah 43:7). And when we know who we are, we can endure even the toughest of times. Psalm 16:8, tells us, “I know the Lord is always with me. I will not be shaken, for he is right beside me.”

When life throws us for a loop, it’s easy to doubt ourselves, God’s plan, even God Himself. But when we’re hurt, disappointed or frustrated by our thwarted plans, we need to take a second and remember who we are and how valuable we are to God.

The Scripture says, “God paid a high price for you, so don’t be enslaved by the world” (1 Corinthians 7:23) Who owns you?  What was paid for you? Christ owns you and paid for you with His life. God exchanged his own Son for you. The cross proves your value. Jesus gave His life for you. And Jesus didn’t die for junk.

When you know whose you are, it changes everything.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How would you answer the question “who are you”?
  2. How can your life this week answer the question of whose you are?

In All Things…Give Thanks

“ Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.” – 1 Thessalonians 5:18.

If you have been a Christian for any length of time, you’ve probably discovered that some commandments in the Bible are easier for you to obey than others. When reading 1 Thessalonians 5:18, the difficult part of the verse is the three words, “in all circumstances.” We know what Paul is saying, but we may not be sure how we can possibly do this. Maybe if it said, “In good things give thanks,” we’d know exactly why we should obey this command because it makes perfect sense. But when we consider the phrase “in everything,” we begin to question whether all-inclusive gratitude is even possible.

What about those times when you’re discouraged, disillusioned, overwhelmed, overextended, and just fighting to not be over stressed? And what about when the storms come, and your relationships and the car breaks down at the same time?   

Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians celebrates a flourishing church. God was blessing Paul’s preaching and witnessing of Paul and his companions. But amidst this, riots started against Paul and Silas  A mob formed, looking for these two. Paul and Silas were spirited out of the city barely escaping. The Thessalonian believers stayed behind, and they had to deal with the persecution and anger that remained. 

It was to these people that Paul wrote the words, “Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.” Would you feel like giving thanks if you were experiencing such persecution?  If your leaders had to flee, how thankful would you be?

How can we be thankful “in all circumstances?” First, let’s remember that this text doesn’t say that we should be thankful for all circumstances, but in all circumstances. For example, we are not thankful for death, but when death does touch a loved one, we can still be thankful in the midst of death, because Jesus has risen from the dead and has conquered death.

Jesus really is the key to giving thanks in all circumstances.  Notice how the text says, “for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.”  “In Christ Jesus,” we can be thankful even in the worst of times, because in Christ Jesus, we have God’s mercy, forgiveness, and eternal life.  In Christ Jesus, we can be thankful even when the news from the doctor is bad. In Christ Jesus, we can give thanks for His care during difficult financial times. In Christ Jesus, we can rejoice in the resurrection, even as death brings us pain in this life.

Gratitude is not dependent upon good circumstances but is based on our confidence and trust in the Lord and His promises. He is with you in whatever situation you are facing today. Although you may not be able to see the good He’s working at the moment, we can be thankful that He is. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is being thankful really our choice? Can we actually decide that we will be thankful people?
  2. Where has being thankful ranked on your list of required Christian qualities up until now? Has this devotional changed your mind at all? If so, how?