“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, 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, 2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” – Hebrews 12:1-2
The air is fresh and clean, but a welcoming blanket of humidity greets us today. The thunderstorms that rolled through the area overnight left in their wake an overcast dawn. Outside, the forest before me likewise slowly awakens, reminding me of my home in the holler of the enchanted wood back in North Carolina. Unlike there, the chorus of birds here only before me, not surrounding me as in my wooded home. Here, it is as if a stage is set before me in some grand theater as I sit on the edge of the woods. Birds of all varieties perform their best songs, every one of them a perfect rendition of the voice their creator bestowed upon them. Here and there, in the sings of this great state, domesticated avian crow their morning greetings – the reminder that this performance hall sits amongst a conflicted countryside, torn between the bucolic world it once was to that of the coal mines and growing suburban retreats, each a necessity of the other. A gentle breeze passes by, caressing the hair on my arm, causing my writing to pause and allowing one the momentary respite – acknowledging again God’s refreshing reminder that we are not alone.
Going out each day, seeking those with whom we can share God’s word, should be as purposeful as setting significant goals in our life – those that affect our long-term existence on earth, for we are continually surrounded by, as Hebrews tells us, a great cloud of witnesses. The challenge is to find them that are willing to allow us into their personal space. It isn’t easy to talk to a total stranger regarding breaking through without inciting some sort of defensive barrier. In order to make such a connection, one has to be portrayed as someone that exudes a personality of a loving, compassionate soul. To this end, when we walk in our faith, not promoting self-righteousness, but rather a humble, kind humility, we can then bridge those gaps of suspicion, allowing the stranger to open up and bare their innermost thoughts.
However, it is never easy to walk as Christ, emanating that radiant light from within. There are burdens in our life that are often difficult to overcome – the weight of life that besets us. They become our stumbling blocks, so much so that they become excuses we easily fall back on when the challenge before us causes us to hesitate. This is the enemy’s desire that we should falter in our effort to reach others. Interjecting our love of self, the one that is the very thing we are warned about, we become fearful of tarnishing that self-image. Our pride then overwhelms our purpose, the sin that clings so closely, and we cave into the feeling of either embarrassment or, worse, the belief we are incapable of acting in such an honorable manner. But as Paul writes in Hebrews, we must run this race with endurance. Our work toward perfecting our life’s mission is neither easy nor a sprint. The sanctification is a marathon – lasting the rest of your life. There will be hills and valleys. There will be challenges and setbacks. But through it all, we are to place our eye upon the prize, Christ – the perfecter and finisher of our faith.
Today looks to be a very full day – my plate is full. Yet, even on such busy times as this, we should pray that the Lord gives us the discernment to know when to pause, and drink it all in, allowing us to set this moment in time into one’s collective memory. For someday, it will be that place to which your mind returns, to once more be comforted through God’s grace. Yes, step out into the forest, and welcome the song of the woods, for each gentle breeze is a story in life’s journey. Make today one that lasts for that lifetime.
Outside, the rain falls – a gray overcast day, perfect weather for sitting inside the coffee shop. Around us, brick walls bring the outdoors inside, giving a sense of rustic behavior among the amenities of one’s home. Here, among the public, one can catch the occasional glimpse of a writer, an artist, or just someone surfing the internet researching their next vacation. One can find motivation from those around you; it’s where the community comes into play. Yet, with regard to worship, being with others in the community isn’t only for the inspiration of seeing someone else seeking God; it’s the fact that together, we are united in our quest to call out to Abba, the Father, inviting the Holy Spirit to join. As Jesus told us, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
As my journey here in southern Indiana continues, I’m finding a perspective that’s probably more common than what I usually encounter. More and more I find those who are living life without any direction regarding their spiritual well-being. Unlike a college campus, their direction isn’t temporary; it’s long-term. Most people, but not all, go through the motions, living life day-to-day. For some, this struggle is real. Chronic ailments increase with age. There are doctor visits, medical concerns, and a host of other self-care requirements necessary just to make it through the day. The battle is real. Often, they feel that their prayers are the key to their spiritual health, disregarding studying and applying God’s word. They’ve read enough to believe in some greater power yet, seldom apply those concepts to more than just their own well-being. Trapped in their sole existence, they find little time or opportunity to share Christ with more than just a handful of people. They might as well be on a deserted island. Their world slowly closes in around them until the last. There, they come to that final rerun of their life’s journey, which left little trace showing the path to salvation. It is as if they never existed.
Then there are some, healthy, robust, living their life as if there would be an eternity to deal with those things of the spirit – putting off today what one can do tomorrow. Procrastination, Satan’s desire for each of us, lures one into a false sense of security. He [Satan] tries to keep our eye off those things of eternity, living for tomorrow instead of today. For if one were to live for the present, they would find eternity through Christ, which, if you think about it, is quite the irony.
Those baby steps of being pulled away from our focus on God become layers of distractions that build one upon another until one becomes buried beneath their burdens. C.S. Lewis wrote in the Screwtape Letters, “Finally, from the corner of the room, a small whisper came. It was one of the younger demons. Hesitantly, he suggested, “You’ve missed our most effective strategy… Just tell them they have all the time in the world to decide. Tell them it’s not that important. Tell them to wait another day…” Before you know it, you’re in the hospital facing mortality with little to nothing to show for all those years of working toward that worthless goal. You are overwhelmed with the reality that you spent your life chasing after silly treasures that do nothing more than collect dust on the shelf in your earthly home, the one you will soon be leaving. Meanwhile, your future home, if you have even chosen to go to that next place, is barren, the rooms empty – a hollow chamber of empty souls.
Although life can be busy, we must make a concerted effort to reach out to those around us, not just when we are on vacation. Daily, there is a battle going on in the world around us. It’s that person sitting next to you at the stop light. It’s that person at the other table in the coffee shop. It’s that stranger that opened the door for you at the library. They surround you every day of your life. The challenge is to find a way inside their world, to gain a foothold, to share something more than what the world has to feed them. This is where we must work the hardest –finding opportunities to share, for it is here in the chance encounter of life that we build the guest list for the Kingdom of God. The names written in the Lamb’s Book of Life become our neighbors in life eternal. “To him that overcometh, I will give a white stone, and in the stone, a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.”
May you find someone today to share the Good News of Jesus, and in so doing, find the white stone with your new name in life eternal.
“For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows. Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake. And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another. And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold. But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.” – Mt. 24:7-14
What you are about to read is based on a true story. The name of the mission and its members have been changed or omitted for safeties sake. May the Lord speak to you through this message.
The men walked with their families, wives, children, and the elderly. Some held hands with their loved ones. Others carried babes in arms, cherishing the last moments that would forever be etched into their hearts. As they approached the border crossing into Poland, they could see up ahead the checkpoints created to secure those passages to freedom, to safety, a place beyond the horror of war that they had just escaped. Yosef could feel the lump in his throat grow as he watched those with him become ever more anxious. Everyone knew that when they reached the border, Yosef would have to return to their village, leaving them, possibly forever.
Each able body man was asked to return from escorting their family to the border to fight for their country, their freedom, their lives. Yosef was no different. He knew that he could not escape with the women and children, that he and the other survivors of his village would do all they could to defend their country, their homeland, and their faith. Standing up for what is right was easy back in their town when they still had a home. But now, the shelling and destruction forced them to abandon all they knew and loved. It seemed that all they had left of their former life was their faith, for everything else had been stripped away.
Yosef and his brother Caleb had both worked with missionaries from America, training to become evangelists in Ukraine. Their work was to seek out others and share the gospel of Jesus Christ. Although they had worked regular jobs during the day, their eventual goal was to become full-time evangelists traveling around their country and becoming missionaries in their own way. But weeks before Russia attacked Ukraine, the American mission teams were asked to leave for safety’s sake. The missionary leaders and their families were as heartbroken as were their trainees, but everyone knew it was for the best. Besides, it would just be a precaution, and they would all be back together continuing their ministry before they knew it.
That was over a month ago. For Yosef, it seemed like an eternity.
It was Friday morning, the day before Sabbath, and Yosef could remember getting ready to go to work. The small hospital where he and his brother worked continued treating patients even though the attack on their country had begun. Yosef and Caleb were only orderlies, but due to the recent influx of war injuries, they were asked to help bandage and care for the less severe wounds. He was just about to go out the door when his daughter rushed up to him and begged him to come back and help her put on her boots for school. “Mommy’s busy with little brother,” she said, pointing to the back room of their small but modest home, “I need you to help me, Papa.” Yosef knew his wife, Evette, was busy with their newborn son, so he was happy to oblige.
“It’s okay, baby. Papa’s got you covered.”
She smiled as he knelt down to the ground, pulling the boots up as she pressed her little feet into the pink unicorn galoshes. Her hand rested on his back, and he could feel the tender touch of her sweet disposition, warming him through and through. When he finished, he lifted her up and gave her a big hug as she wrapped her little arms around his neck, returning the embrace.
“Now, I am off to do God’s work. You be a good little girl and have fun at school. You hear me?”
“Yes, Papa,” she smiled ear to ear, waving as he turned to walk out the door. Across the street, near the newly constructed apartment complex, Caleb waited in his car. He and Yosef always rode together, and today was like any other. Although Caleb was always there, always on time, he hated being late. So, when he saw Yosef emerging a second time from the house, he waved toward him as if to say, “C’mon, we’re going to be late.”
Yosef smiled and waved back. It was all too funny. His brother could never relax, even when they were witnessing to others. He seemed to never be content with just learning the verses their mentors had asked them to memorize. No, Caleb had to push himself, learning entire chapters that contained those verses. He was always driven to give his all. It was just who he was. It was this thought of his dear brother that remained when the flash of light suddenly erupted before him.
Out of nowhere, a sound like thunder ripped through the air. The ground folded under itself as the rumble of the earth shook Yosef to his core. One minute, Yosef was waving at Caleb, the next, he was blown backward, his feet trailing behind him as he watched his body being lifted up by the force of the blast. All Yosef could see was the image of his brother, smiling and waving, and then it was as if the screen on the television had gone blank, and the silhouette of the ghostly image of Caleb remained. His brother’s soul was burnt into his eyes.
Clouds of smoke, dust, and debris began raining down. The light was broken, and darkness had prevailed. Somewhere a dog barked as car alarms started blaring. Yosef didn’t know how long he had been unconscious, nor where he was, when he finally sat up. People ran before him in all directions. There was no sound in this landscape of destruction, just the images running through the fog of silence, interspersed with mouths that had no voice. Across the street, the entire structure of the apartment complex that once stood was now gone. The road beside it was a crater. The cars there were now either blown to pieces or burning embers. Yosef realized that Caleb would not be waiting anymore.
Painfully, he turned to look at his own house. The entire front of his home and all the others on their side of the street were caved in. People poured out, frantic, screaming, yet their lips were muted by the searing pain that shot through Yosef’s head. It was as if the world had gone insane, and nothing made sense. Softly, and gently, from behind him, he felt the touch of a little hand. He turned to see his daughter, still wearing her little pink unicorn boots. Her eyes were rimmed with fear as tears fell down her rosy cheeks.
“Papa, papa,” she sobbed. Yosef’s hearing began to return like a wave of emotion as he reached for his baby girl wrapping her in his arms as she sat on his lap. Soon, Evette emerged with their son in her arms, weeping and crying. There they sat amid the rubble as the world around them spun out of control. It was then Yosef realized he only had one thing left he could do and began to pray. His heart poured out to the Lord as the tears fell down his face.
From that day forward, their lives were never the same. It seemed that each day, more lives were lost, more arbitrary destruction, none of it made sense. Finally, when the shelling became so dire, they realized to stay would mean certain death for everyone, so Yosef did what all the others in their village had decided, to take the women, children, and elderly to the border then return to fight, until the end.
Yet, each day, since they had begun their painful march to exile, they felt the hand of God on them, protecting them, delivering them from harm. Yosef knew that had he not listened to the voice of his daughter that fateful morning when Caleb was killed in the bombing that he too would have died. It was as if God had spared his life for a reason. God had spoken through a child to save his life. How much more could he do to return the favor? Each day, Yosef could feel the faith inside him growing. Evette seemed to sense it as well and encouraged him by reading from their tiny Bible she had brought along. The scriptures spoke to them more and more each day.
Reaching the crossing, Yosef turned and embraced Evette. He didn’t want to let go, for he knew when he did, it would be the last time. “Yosef, you will make a difference. Don’t forget who you are, and take this,” she passed the little Bible into his palm as she leaned into him; close now, face to face, “You’re going to need this more than ever before,” she whispered as they kissed goodbye.
Down by his side, he could feel the tiny hands holding onto his pant leg. As he bent down, his heart began to melt. The tears filled his eyes, and he realized this would be their last time.
“Papa, you are going to do God’s work, right,” the little voice said, sincerely and without fear?
“Yes baby, yes, papa will…,” and he stopped, choking back the flood of emotion.
He hugged one last time and turned to leave.
It was his time. This would be the end.
He would not look back.
The Bible in his hand reminded him that this was all that made sense. So, mustering every ounce of strength he could find in his weeping soul, Yosef silently began to pray. As his voice lifted up to the heavens, a tingling sensation began to rise from the earth, pouring through his legs, up through his spine, until it reached the top of his head. It was an energy that made him want to shout, Amen! It was a sense of urgency, a sense of purpose. It was something that finally made sense.
It was time to do God’s work.
Unexpectedly, those strained, war-weary faces became the pulpit, their souls became the fields white ready to harvest, and his voice began speaking words of faith and encouragement. The voice of God began speaking through Yosef like a runaway freight train. He was a man on fire for the Lord. If he were to die, he would go out doing what he was meant to do. There was nothing to lose and everything to gain.
From the corner of his eye, as he made his way through the crowd, loving, praying, and finally evangelizing like he always hoped he and his brother would do someday, the flash of a familiar color caught his eye. A tiny flame of hope. The diminutive form in the bright pink unicorn boots was waving her encouragement from the top of the steps of the train station.
Like a man in the middle of battle, he paused, and he returned the motion. The little face smiled and gave a thumbs-up gesture and turned to leave. His heart melted in two. In the pause of the moment, Yosef heard a voice from somewhere up above saying, “It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.”