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Worship First

By |2024-07-13T02:33:20-04:00July 13th, 2024|

I’d never planned to start a non-profit organization about adult friendship, and when I felt called to do so, I had so many questions. How would the charity be financed, and who should help me build it? My greatest help on these matters ended up coming not from a business book, but a biblical one.

The book of Ezra is essential reading for anyone called by God to build something. Recounting how the Jews rebuilt Jerusalem after their exile, it shows how God provided funds through public donations and government grants (Ezra 1:4-11; 6:8-10), and how both volunteers and contractors did the work (1:5; 3:7). It shows the importance of preparation time, with rebuilding not beginning until the second year of the Jews’ return (3:8). It shows how opposition may come (ch. 4). But one thing in the story particularly stood out to me. A whole year before any building began, the Jews erected the altar (3:1-6). The people worshiped “though the foundation of the Lord’s temple had not yet been laid” (v. 3). Worship came first.

Is God calling you to start something new? Ezra’s principle is poignant whether you’re starting a charity, a Bible study, a creative project, or some new task at work. Even a God-given project can take our attention away from Him, so let’s focus on God first. Before we work, we worship.

The Valley of Praise

By |2024-04-19T02:33:16-04:00April 19th, 2024|

Poet William Cowper struggled with depression much of his life. After a suicide attempt, he was committed to an asylum. But it was there through the care of a Christian physician that Cowper came to a warm, vital faith in Jesus. Soon afterwards Cowper became acquainted with pastor and hymnwriter John Newton, who encouraged him to collaborate on a hymnal for their church. Among the hymns Cowper wrote was “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” which contains these words pressed from the crucible of experience: “You fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds you so much dread, are big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head.”

Like Cowper, the people of Judah also met God’s kindness unexpectedly. As an alliance of armies invaded their nation, King Jehoshaphat gathered the people for prayer. As Judah’s army marched out, men in the front ranks praised God (2 Chronicles 20:21). The invading armies turned on themselves, and “no one . . . escaped. . . . There was so much plunder that it took three days to collect it” (vv. 24-25).

On the fourth day, the very place where a hostile invading force gathered against God’s people was dubbed the Valley of Berakah—literally, “the valley of praise or blessing.” (v. 26). What a change! God’s mercy can turn even our most difficult valleys into places of praise as we give them to Him.

God Made Them All

By |2024-03-10T01:33:14-05:00March 10th, 2024|

My three-year old son, Xavier, squeezed my hand as we entered the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. Pointing to a life-size sculpture of a humpback whale suspended from the ceiling, he said, “Enormous.” His wide-eyed joy continued as we explored each exhibit. We laughed as the otters splish-splashed during feeding time. We stood in silence in front of a large glass aquarium window, mesmerized by the golden-brown jellyfish dancing in the electric blue water. “God made every creature in the ocean,” I said, “just like He made you and me.” Xavier whispered, “Wow.”

In Psalm 104, the psalmist acknowledged God’s abounding creation and sang, “In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures” (v. 24). He declared, “There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number—living things both large and small” (v. 25). He proclaimed God’s generous and satisfying provision for all He created (vv. 27–28). He also affirmed that God determined the days of each one’s existence (vv. 29–30).

We can join the psalmist in singing this declaration of devotion: “I will sing to the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live” (v. 33). Every creature that exists, from the big to the small, can lead us to praise because God made them all.

Tell of God’s Goodness

By |2023-11-16T01:33:08-05:00November 16th, 2023|

Testimony time was the segment in our church service when people shared how God had been at work in their lives. Auntie—or Sister Langford as she was known by others in our church family—was known for packing lots of praise into her testimonies. On the occasions when she shared her personal conversion story, one could expect her to take up a good bit of the service. Her heart gushed with praise to God who had graciously changed her life!

Similarly, the testimony of the writer of Psalm 66 is packed with praise as he testifies about what God had done for His people. “Come and see what God has done, his awesome deeds for mankind!” (v. 5). His deeds included miraculous rescue (v. 6), preservation (v. 9), and testing and discipline that resulted in His people being brought to a better place (vv. 10–12). While there are God-experiences that we have in common with other believers in Jesus, there are also things unique to our individual journeys. Have there been times in your life when God has particularly made Himself known to you? Those are worth sharing with others who need to hear how He's worked in your life. “Come and hear, all you who fear God; let me tell you what he has done for me” (v. 16).

Jesus’ Ultimate Victory

By |2023-11-09T01:33:05-05:00November 9th, 2023|

In the midst of some military camps across Europe during World War II, an unusual type of supply was air-dropped for homesick soldiers—upright pianos. These instruments were specially manufactured to contain only ten percent of the normal amount of metal, and they received special water-resistant glue and anti-insect treatments. The pianos were rugged and simple, without frills, but provided hours of spirit-lifting entertainment for soldiers who gathered around to sing familiar songs of home.

Singing—especially songs of praise—is one way that believers in Jesus can find peace in the battle too. King Jehoshaphat found this to be true when he faced vast invading armies (2 Chronicles 20). Terrified, the king called all the people together for prayer and fasting (vv. 3–4). In response, God told him to lead out soldiers to meet the enemy, promising that they would “not have to fight this battle” (v. 17). Jehoshaphat believed God and acted in faith. He appointed singers to go ahead of the soldiers and sing praise to God for the victory they believed they would see (v. 21). And as their music began, He miraculously defeated their enemies and saved His people (v. 22).

Victory doesn’t always come when and how we want it to. But we can always proclaim Jesus’ ultimate victory over sin and death that has already been won for us. We can choose to rest in a spirit of worship even in the middle of a war zone.

Everybody Worships

By |2023-11-02T02:33:10-04:00November 2nd, 2023|

I recently visited Athens, Greece. Walking round its Ancient Agora—the marketplace where philosophers taught and Athenians worshiped—I found altars to Apollo and Zeus, all in the shadow of the Acropolis, where a statue of the goddess Athena once stood.

We may not bow to Apollo or Zeus today, but society is no less religious. “Everybody worships,” novelist David Foster Wallace said, adding this warning: “If you worship money and things . . . then you will never have enough. . . . Worship your body and beauty. . . and you will always feel ugly. . . . Worship your intellect . . . [and] you will end up feeling stupid.” Our secular age has its own gods and they’re not benign.

“People of Athens!” Paul said while visiting the Agora, “I see that in every way you are very religious” (Acts 17:22). The apostle then described the one true God as the Creator of all (vv. 24–26) who wants to be known (v. 27) and who has revealed Himself through the resurrection of Jesus (v. 31). Unlike Apollo and Zeus, this God isn’t made by human hands. Unlike money, looks, or intelligence, worshiping Him won’t ruin us.

Our “god” is whatever we rely on to give us purpose and security. Thankfully, when every earthly god fails us, the one true God is ready to be found (v. 27).

Open the Eyes of My Heart

By |2023-10-11T02:33:33-04:00October 11th, 2023|

In 2001, a premature baby named Christopher Duffley surprised doctors by surviving. At five months old, he entered the foster care system until his aunt’s family adopted him. A teacher realized four-year-old Christopher, though blind and diagnosed with autism, had perfect pitch. Six years later at church, Christopher stood onstage and sang, “Open the Eyes of My Heart.” The video reached millions online. In 2020, Christopher shared his goals of serving as a disability advocate. He continues to prove that possibilities are limitless with the eyes of his heart open to God’s plan.

The apostle Paul commended the church in Ephesus for their bold faith (1:15–16). He asked God to give them “the Spirit of wisdom and revelation” so they would “know him better” (v. 17). He prayed that their eyes would be “enlightened,” or opened, so they would understand the hope and inheritance God promised His people (v. 18).

As we ask God to reveal Himself to us, we can know Him more and can declare His name, power, and authority with confidence (vv. 19–23). With faith in Jesus and love for all God’s people, we can live in ways that prove His limitless possibilities while asking Him to keep opening the eyes of our hearts.

Hope That Holds

By |2023-05-29T02:33:19-04:00May 29th, 2023|

I know Daddy’s coming home because he sent me flowers.” Those were my seven-year-old sister’s words to our mother when Dad was missing in action during wartime. Before Dad left for his mission, he preordered flowers for my sister’s birthday, and they arrived while he was missing. But she was right: Dad did come home—after a harrowing combat situation. And decades later she still keeps the vase that held the flowers as a reminder to always hold on to hope.

Sometimes holding on to hope isn’t easy in a broken, sinful world. Daddies don’t always come home, and children’s wishes sometimes go unfulfilled. But God gives hope in the most difficult circumstances. In another time of war, the prophet Habakkuk predicted the Babylonian invasion of Judah (Habakkuk 1:6; see 2 Kings 24) but still affirmed that God is always good (vv. 12–13). Remembering God’s kindness to His people in the past, Habakkuk proclaimed: “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior” (3:17–18).  

Some commentators believe Habakkuk’s name means “to cling.” We can cling to God as our ultimate hope and joy even in trials because He holds on to us and will never let go.

Reasons to Rejoice

By |2022-10-19T02:33:12-04:00October 19th, 2022|

When Ms. Glenda walked into the church commons area, her infectious joy filled the room. She had just recovered from a difficult medical procedure. As she approached me for our usual after-church greeting, I thanked God for all the times over the years that she had wept with me, gently corrected me, and offered encouragement. She’d even asked for forgiveness when she thought she’d hurt my feelings. Whatever the situation, we always ended up praising the Lord.
Mama Glenda, as she lets me call her, wrapped me in a gentle hug. “Hi, Baby,” she said. We enjoyed a short conversation and prayed together before she left—humming and singing as always, looking for someone else to bless.

Mama Glenda always invites me to share my struggles honestly and reminds me that we have many reasons to praise God.

In Psalm 64, David boldly approaches God with his complaints and concerns (v. 1). He voices his frustrations about the wickedness he sees around him (vv. 2–6). He doesn’t lose confidence in God’s power or the reliability of His promises (vv. 7–8). He knows that one day, “The righteous will rejoice in the Lord and take refuge in him, all the upright in heart will glory in him!” (v. 10).

As we wait for Jesus’ return, we’ll face tough times. But we’ll always have reasons to rejoice in every day God has made.

True Worshipers

By |2021-11-22T08:06:09-05:00November 22nd, 2021|

She finally had the chance to visit the church. Inside, in the deepest part of the basement, she reached the small cave or grotto. Candles filled the narrow space and hanging lamps illuminated a corner of the floor. There it was—a fourteen-pointed silver, covering a raised bit of the marble floor. Bethlehem’s Grotto of the Nativity—the place marking the spot where, according to tradition, Christ was born. Yet the writer Annie Dillard found herself less than impressed, realizing God was much bigger than that spot.   

Still, such places have always held great significance in our faith stories. Another such place is mentioned in the conversation between Jesus and the woman at the well—Mount Gerizim. It was sacred to the Samaritans, who contrasted it to the Jewish insistence that Jerusalem was where true worship occurred (John 4:20). However, Jesus declared the time had arrived when worship was no longer specific to a place, but a Person: “the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth” (v. 23). The woman declared her faith in the Messiah, but she didn’t realize she was talking to Him, “Then Jesus declared, ‘I, the one speaking to you—I am he’ ” (v. 26).

God isn’t limited to any mountain or physical space. He’s present with us everywhere. The true pilgrimage we make each day is to approach His throne as we boldly say, “Our Father,” and He is there.

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