My sweetest daughter-in-law got me a wonderful birthday preset this past year. It's an online writing project called "Storyworth". Once you sign up, you get a prompt each week for a year with a question that you answer about your life. It is recorded on their site and then at the end of the year, you can turn it into a book. Great idea!!! This week the prompt was "Have you ever given or been the recipient of a random act of kindness?
That's an interesting question. I haven't generally pondered over these questions long. To keep in step with the writing schedule, I usually write about the first thing that comes to my mind when I hear the prompt. This is the first thing:
I was golfing at First Tee, which is my home course. When I came back to my car, I noticed an envelope under the windshield wiper. When I opened it, there was a gift card for golf at First Tee and a most beautiful note:
Please accept this gift in honor of my grandfather, Robert Ludlow Sr. He was a family man, a Navy veteran and an avid golfer. He lost his battle with mesothelioma on December 10, 2016. He left behind a wife of 57 years (together for 62) who also shared his love for golf. I hope these rounds bring you as much happiness as it did them. I only have two requests:
-Pay it forward to someone
-Go home and hug your family.
A grieving granddaughter.
It was one of the most beautiful gestures I have ever been a recipient of and I've kept that note to remind me of that gift. That was six years ago and I still think about it. Just a thought that those kind of selfless and loving gestures go a long way.
I was speaking to my friend Kay over the phone. She’s a recent widow. I asked her if she was alone and she replied very matter-of-factly, “I’m never alone.” She had been reading the Bible in the middle of the day. “God is always with me” can almost be a Christian cliché. We say it without the revelation of what it really means. For Kay, it is a reality that keeps her from not only feeling alone, it keeps her from BEING alone. It’s not a crutch. It’s her reality and it IS true for the Christian who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
For my birthday every year for the past five or six years, I spend the day with God. Does that sound odd? It really shouldn’t if we understand God’s Presence. I had my time of birthday parties with friends and family, which were wonderful. But, it seems reasonable to celebrate the day you were born with the Person who made you.
This is not an article about me being hyper-spiritual. Pleeeeeeease….
It’s an idea that you may want to consider as part of a spiritual discipline; one that has brought me some balance in my life.
It started several years ago when I went to the mountains with my friend and mentor, Hank Graeser. He would lead me in many different forms of spiritual retreat. It was once a year and normally for only a few days. No outside communication. Lots of rest. Bible study. Silence. Worship. Hikes and meditation on God in nature. He would teach me ways to study the Bible like Lectio Divina. We read Dallas Willard and talked about the ancients and some of their disciplines. It opened my eyes to the benefits of spiritual disciplines and their purpose in our Christian faith. Nothing crazy…I promise.
One year, Willard had recommended an experience in his book, “Renovation of the Heart” called Presenting Your Body to God. Basically, it’s rededication or recommitment of your SELF to God. Since that first year, I have done it every year in the same place; CRABTREE FALLS. It’s a beautiful spot near the Blue Ridge Parkway outside of Charlottesville, VA. You climb two miles to the top of the spillway and stand overlooking a majestic view of Virginia hardwoods nestled in the valley below. In May, the water is still gushing from spring rains, making the majestic sound of the thunderous waterfall below you. It reminds me of Psalm 93. Standing near the falling water is like nature’s air conditioner on a warm day. Perfect. Did I mention the rhododendron and the mountain laurel are in bloom? That’s where I go for this ‘sacred’ event.
This is where you come in. I have found this discipline so helpful that I wanted to share it with you for your consideration. I’ve taken some liberties with the original idea as it has evolved for me over the last many years. Here’s a working outline:
Find a spot. It needs to be quiet and a place you can focus. Of course, when you are hyper as I am, you make the best of it. I find mountains holy. I know that the reference is not the same (theologically) but I consider Psalm 121, which is…ironically, part of the Psalm of Ascents. The Psalms were spoken on the temple steps as people made their way into the courtyard. “I lift up my eyes to hills. From where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Make of heaven and earth.” The Psalm is a reference to the high places where the priests of Asherah would set up their ‘altars’ . They were idolatrous places and reminder to all that help didn’t come from idols. Still…..
You may consider the beach, a room in your home, your back yard, a prayer closet, etc. I will add that traveling to that spot makes the whole experience more intentional; an odyssey. Crabtree Falls is 2 ½ hours from my home. I love the drive to that place through the mountain ranges and high into the hills. It gives me time to prepare and I have to plan for the trip. It’s a commitment.
And God goes with me. There it is again. He always goes with me. But like my friend Kay said, I am never really alone and on these trips I’ve very aware and consciously engaged with the fact that He Is Present. I have a friend who talks about the man who taught him to pray. My friend said that the man sat him down and then placed a chair in front of him. The man said to pretend that God was in that chair and speak to him. That’s prayer. Oh…and take time to listen. It’s a conversation.
So I sing and we talk. Does that sound weird? It doesn’t if you understand Presence. By the way, the ultimate book on this subject is by Brother Lawrence, “Practicing the Presence”. He was a Carmelite monk that lived during the Reformation period who was well known for his unique and abiding relationship with God.
Once I am at the site and relaxed, I begin my annual ceremony with a prayer of dedication. “Lord, I am here to dedicate my whole self to you again. I am thankful for your faithfulness in my life, expressed through everything that I need. You have given me life and I want to use it to serve you. My body is your dwelling place. I consecrate this spot through your Holy Spirit and declare it sacred for the purpose of recommitting my body to you today.” How’s that for a start?
Then, I follow Willard’s circle of transformation from his book, “Transformation of the Heart.” The journey is ‘inside out”. By the way, this whole process only needs to be as long as you want it to be. I usually take about an hour for the actual ‘dedication’. It takes me the rest of the day to get there and back. So the route is:
Heart/Will: We start at the center of it all, the heart. All of Jesus’ teachings deal with the heart. He turned the religious world upside down by taking their laws and turning them into heart attitudes. Oddly enough, the heart is the only part of our being that is transformed by God directly. Jesus has done that work for us on the cross. No one comes to the Father except through the Son (Jesus) and that is the work of the Holy Spirit; Go Team Trinity. In other words, God does all of this when you say “Come, Lord Jesus”. And once the Holy Spirit has come into your heart, it is sealed. You can quench and grieve Him. But he’s not leaving. So, I use this place as a time of thanksgiving. I remind myself that He has captured Me and not the other way around. God was never lost.
Mind: This is the battleground. It is the first place of spiritual warfare. You really are what you think. In wars today, battles are being won and lost based on who controls the narrative. My son is in an officer in PSYOPS, Psychological Operations. The wars of today and the future are being fought on this front. The point is that spiritual wars are also won and lost here.
Romans 12: 2 says, “Do not conform to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” The transformation of the mind comes through the work of the Holy Spirit and the disciplines of knowing God’s Word: Scripture memory; Bible reading and study; meditation on God’s Word. You can’t recognize the lies unless you know the Truth. Despite all naysayers in the world, the Bible IS truth. It must be. It is the Word of God. Don’t overthink it. But until you believe that (BY FAITH), you’re lost. Don’t waste your time reading on.
And so, I ask God for the renewal of my mind away from worldly thinking. I ask for wisdom, starting with the fear of the Lord. I consider Philippians 4: 8-9: “Finally, whatever is true, noble, right, perfect, lovely, admirable, if anything is praiseworthy or excellent, THINK about these things.” The way I think is my world view. Many of these ‘thoughts’ are wrong, but they are automatic. Jesus said “REPENT”. What he meant was, “You’re THINKING about this wrong. Change the way you’re thinking.” There are thoughts we all have that are contrary to the Word of God. We are not even aware of some of these. They are as automatic as breathing. But rededicating yourself to God assures you that the Spirit will start to reveal things to you about the way you think. Get ready. You’ll be amazed.
Body: Okay. This is the big one and I think it’s the thing churches today miss the most. Discipleship is not something we do well anymore. It’s so much easier to present the Gospel and move on. Evangelist do a fine job and are very necessary. But Jesus spoke MUCH MORE about being His disciple. You see? There it is again. Evangelism without Discipleship is just a Gospel of Sin Management. And so, we must engage in the battle with the flesh.
Romans 7: 22, 23 says, “For in my inner being, I delight in God’s law. but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.”
The flesh is strong and the strongholds of the enemy, rest in your ‘members’. Evil is very hard to sort out of your body. You are no longer a slave to sin as a child of God. However, the sin in your members (flesh) doesn’t just go away; not without a fight. These automatic responses originated as coping mechanisms to help you make sense of the pain and rejection you felt as a child. Some of the best material I’ve heard on this subject is a podcast called “The Place We Find Ourselves” with Adam Young Counseling. Episodes 42 and 43 are very insightful.
What you are thinking manifests as reactions in your body. Once you have done them long enough, they become reflexes. They are automatic. To dislodge them takes the work of the Holy Spirit AND a disciplinarian. God will not do this without you. Nothing changes when nothing changes.
I start with my head and I work my way down to my toes. I mention a list that is external limbs and internal organs. I ask for healing, protection, and renovation. I speak the blood of Jesus over my entire body. This past year, I have developed a problem with arthritis in my fingers. I spent an extra amount of time on my hands this year. I speak life with the authority I have living as royalty in the Kingdom of God. I speak against death and destruction and disease. I claim God’s promises for my body according to His Word . You get the picture. This, however, is my only itemized list. This is also a good spot to ‘cover’ your body with Armor of God from Ephesians 6.
Social Circles are the friends you’re keeping and the circles you run in. Being transformed into the image of God will/should eventually shape the friends you keep. (Proverbs 12:26) I normally do not spend a lot of time here other than to ask God to shape relationships that matter for the kingdom of God and eternity. The idea of ‘soul’ according to Willard is an all-encompassing term for being.
The people of Israel were required to make three pilgrimages to Jerusalem a year as part of their spiritual life. I consider this exercise as one of those journeys for me in the present age. It’s a centering trip; a day of thanksgiving, reflection, and rededication. Since it’s the start of a new ‘year’ of sorts, I consider it an offering of ‘first fruits’, like the Feast of First Fruits in the Bible and I can assure you God will bless it throughout the year. I know He has in my life.
Have you ever seen the Pixar film "Inside Out"? As Pixar evolved in its storytelling, this movie stands out to me as masterful in it's idea and construction. It's the coming-of-age story of a girl who leaves her friends behind when her family moves. The characters are her emotions and the background is the magical world of these characters (emotions) and how they express themselves and maneuver for control of the young girl. At the center of the story is "JOY". She's the happy-go-lucky emotion of a child-like life; exuberance, hope, and happiness. (Biblically, I would argue that she actually should be "Happy" and not "Joy" because you can't have JOY without the Spirit of God. It is a fruit of the Spirit. Happiness is its earthly counterpart.)
Anyway, the story is about how the life change (moving) affects JOY as it brings Sadness more to the forefront of the young girl's emotions and even takes control of her outlook on life. JOY is the main character. But she must figure out how to manage Sadness. What she learns in their 'journey' together is that she doesn't have to be in control. There is room for Sadness. IN effect, SADNESS and JOY learn to work together. It's a brilliant plot and an important process that people must navigate when they experience grief.
I have a friend whose name is JOY. (Seriously). She lost her husband suddenly and very unexpectedly. One moment her life was whole and in the next it was ruptured, fractured, and broken into pieces. Sadness consumed her. Her journey since that loss has been something to behold. We have stayed close enough to her throughout to get glimpses of her struggle. We have been friends and tried to help. Mostly she's had to go it alone. That seems to be the way of grief and the struggle between joy and sadness. No one else can go through it for you. And you MUST go through it. There's no (emotionally healthy) way around it.
At some point, you're going to learn that the area of your greatest struggle in life becomes the center of your ministry to others. The empathy you find in sorrow becomes a touchstone for you to relate to others. Your job/ministry becomes helping them along by sharing what only YOU know. By the way, if you don't do this with God, I encourage you NOT to help others get through their struggle. You don't have the words of life that come from allowing God in to bring the healing and restoration of joy and hope that only HE can bring. Just my two cents and apologies to my secular counselor and psychologist friends who aren't Christians.
And so I asked JOY to help a friend who recently became a widow at a young age. I asked her to write a letter to her (they do not know each other personally) and share what she has learned in HER journey. THAT is ministry. She wrote the letter below and I've attached it with her permission. The only thing I edited was her contact information.
If you are a widow or widower, perhaps you will find JOY in JOY's words. Perhaps you might be encouraged by this blog article to start sharing your own story with others on whatever path you had to endure. This is your ministry now. It's not one you would have chosen, but...
From JOY to Sadness....
I am a friend of Jeff and Debbie Smith and I just wanted to write you and encourage you. I lost my husband 3 1/2 years ago to a sudden heart attack. I did not think I would survive. And I will be honest with you and tell you I had my pills all lined up one night to end my life. But with family, friends, hope and God I can say 3 1/2 years later I am finally in a good space. I would say that I spent over 2 1/2 years in intense grief and very slowly with a few steps forward, and then a step or two back, I finally came to the realization that I could be hopeful and happy again and I had to fight for it. It was not easy. Do I have still have bad days? I sure do, but there are more good days and bad days. And I still miss my man incredibly. We were married for 33 years and he was my all.
Some thing that really helped me was joining Facebook groups of widows. I read a lot about grieving. I just needed to know that I wasn’t the only one feeling this way. I saved a lot of articles and quotes and I go back and read them often. I just came across this recently and it describes me to some extent and thought if it may resonate with what you are feeling right now. The most important thing that I can say that helped me was connecting with a very good Christian therapist. I still see her and I believe I will see her as long as I can because I feel that everyone needs a good therapist in their life.
Grief can hit like a punch to the stomach.
Anxiety and worry can feel like bricks crushing our chest.
Overwhelm can consume us, leaving us feeling so weak.
There are times in life that no matter how hard we try to think “positive”, we cannot deny or outrun the emotions we are experiencing.
David explains what so many of us experience, in Psalms 31:9-10,
“Be merciful to me, O Lord, for I am in distress, my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and body with grief. My life is consumed by anguish and my years by groaning, my strength fails because of my affliction, and my bones grow weak.”
Sorrow, grief, anguish, groaning, affliction, weakness.
It’s not a “maybe”, it’s a “for-sure” that at some point we will all walk through these emotions.
In fact, some of us are experiencing them right now.
When you’re in the midst of life’s greatest hardships, it feels hard, impossible even, to see beyond it.
It’s like suffering has a way of blinding us from hope, and making us feel like we will never get through it.
But we do get through it.
You will get through this, too.
Because like everything in life, this too shall pass.
And listen, I know there’s some pain and loss we’ll carry for our entire life on earth. I’m not saying we’ll get completely “over” it (although that’s possible, too).
But the way you feel completely slammed and overcome by your emotions right now… that will pass.
I know it’s hard to believe.
But there will come a day when you will be able to think about other things, too.
You’ll be able to laugh and smile again.
You’ll be more open to people and life.
Even if you are carrying around grief.
When we turn to God for healing, He heals. Period.
It can be a long process, but you will not remain in the same spot that you are right now.
So as much as it hurts to be in this place, remember that it won’t always feel like this.
David, who was no stranger to suffering, also wrote this in Psalm 9: 9-10,
“The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. Those who know your name will trust in you, for you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you.”
He doesn’t leave us as we are, friends.
This will pass because He will carry us forward.
Someday you’ll see.
You’ll see how that hopeless situation turned.
You’ll see the purpose that came from the heartache.
You’ll see how God healed your wounds.
You’ll see His goodness.
It’s a promise.
~The Unraveling Blog with Kelli Bachara
I can’t say I’m on the other side because I’ll never be on the other side as Alan will always be a part of my life and I will always miss him. But I’m moving forward with him in my heart and my memories. I can even say that some day I may let my heart enlarge and make room for someone else. I never thought I’d even say something like that. And I still deal with anxiety about certain things. I have hard time in stores and just walking into church by myself. But I really make myself fight it and I feel strong when I’ve overcome it and proud of myself and thankful to God for being with me during those moments. He has always been with me and for me.
I’ve also come to the realization that it’s okay to have sorrow and joy/celebration in your heart at the same time. You will always have the tears for when you hurt but you will start to see joyful moments to.
Like I said I have a lot of things saved and my biggest need was to read and see that there were people out there who knew what I was going through. I will post one more for you.
Widowhood has been the most difficult and gut wrenching thing I’ve ever had to endure. I feel lost and overwhelmed most days. I miss my person more than words can adequately describe. I am living one day at a time.
Widowhood is more than missing your spouse’s physical presence. It is adjusting to an alternate life. One that you never would have asked for. One you never would have even imagined. It is growing around a permanent amputation. It’s having your heart shattered into a million little pieces and realizing your life will never be the same. A part of me feels like it has died along with my husband. He was the love of my life, a once in a lifetime love, my soulmate, my protector, my best friend, my confidant, my encourager, my partner, my everything.
Widowhood is going to bed for the hundredth time, and still, the loneliness never feels normal. The empty bed a constant reminder. The night no longer brings intimacy and comfort, but the loudness of silence and the void of connection.
Widowhood is walking around the house you have lived in with your spouse and it no longer feeling quite like home because “home” incorporated a person and they’re no longer there. Homesickness fills your heart and the knowledge that it will never return haunts you.
Widowhood is seeing all your dreams and plans you shared as a couple crumble around you. The painful process of searching for new dreams that include only you amount to climbing Mount Everest. And every small victory of creating new dreams for yourself includes a new shade of grief that their death propelled you to this path.
Widowhood is second guessing everything you thought you knew about yourself. Your life had molded together with another’s and without them you have to relearn all your likes, hobbies, fears, goals. The renaissance of a new person makes you proud and heartbroken simultaneously.
Widowhood is being a stranger in your own life. The unnerving feeling of watching yourself from outside your body, going through the motions of what was your life, but being detached from all of it. You don’t recognize yourself. Your previous life feels but a vapor long gone, like a mist of a dream. You begin to wonder if it happened at all.
Widowhood is the irony of knowing if that one person was here to be your support, you would have the strength to grieve that one person. The thought twists and confuses you. If only they were here to hold you and talk to you, you’d have the tenacity to tackle this unwanted life. To tackle the arduous task of moving on without them.
Widowhood is missing the one person who could truly understand what is in your heart to share. The funny joke, the embarrassing incident, the fear compelling you or the frustration tempting you. To anyone else, you would have to explain, and that is too much effort, so you keep it to yourself. And the loneliness grows inside you.
Widowhood is struggling with identity. Who are you if not their Angie. What do you want to do if not the things you planned together? What is your purpose when the life we were building together is gone. Who is my closest companion when my other half isn’t here?
Widowhood is feeling restless because you lost your identity, partner, lover, friend, travel companion, security, and life. And you are drifting with an unknown destination.
Widowhood is living in a constant state of missing the most intimate relationship. No hand to hold. No body next to you. No partner to share your burden.
Widowhood is being alone in a crowd of people. Feeling sad even while you’re happy. It is looking back while moving forward. It is being hungry but nothing sounding good. It is every special event turning bittersweet.
Yes. It is much more than simply missing their presence. It is becoming a new person, whether you want to or not. It is fighting every emotion mankind can feel at the very same moment and trying to function in life at the same time.
Widowhood is frailty. Widowhood is strength. Widowhood is darkness. Widowhood is rebirth.
Widowhood…..is life changing BUT….it isn’t something we have to go through alone. Below are some Scriptures that have been comforting and reassuring to me during the hardest days of my life. I hope that they bring some comfort to you as well.
The Lord hears his people when they call to him for help. He rescues them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; He�rescues those whose spirits are crushed.”(Psalms 34:17-18)
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” (Psalms 46:1)
I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living. Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD. (Psalms 27:13-14)
Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to His purpose.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.
(2 Corinthians 1:3)
Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank Him for all He has done. (Philippians 4:6)
I will never leave you or forsake you.
Widowhood is NOT an easy life but life can be good again. I enjoy my grandchildren and my children. I enjoy weekends away with girlfriends where I can let loose and have fun. I enjoy my alone time. I enjoy my career with special children.
I’m sorry if I did a lot of rambling but I pray that you hold onto Hope. Be proud of yourself for just getting up, being here and living. I know it’s not easy. Let God touch your shattered heart so that healing can begin.
I know you will experience joy, peace and love again. Be open to it. It’s okay. It does not mean you don’t love your husband any less. So many things will be different but your identity in Jesus will never change and He remains and will be the same yesterday, today and forever.
God’s blessings to you,
Joy Van Dyke
Note: This is NOT an easy read for the casual reader. If you're interested, sit down, get your Bible, take some notes and meditate on this blog. I hope you enjoy it.)
It’s Easter week and one of my favorite stories is about the penitent thief in Luke 23. The stories of this man are also in Matthew and Mark who both include accounts of how THIS particular thief was at one point mocking Jesus from the cross. So, we know that he was a criminal and was being crucified for his crime(s). And we know that he was not a believer until the very end of his life. I would consider this is a death-bed conversion. This is the story of someone who has a dramatic conversion at the end of their life right before they die. There seems to be little doubt that he was ‘saved’; a word that Christians throw around without really knowing what it means.
Let’s talk about that for a moment. What was he ‘saved’ from? Can you articulate the answer to that question? Sometimes, I think we use it without considering what it actually means. The Greek word is Soteria, from which we get our word, soteriology which is the theology of being saved. It means a commemoration event or in expectation of deliverance from a crisis; in a specific sense the word was often used in reference to large-scale commemorative festivals held at planned intervals. It’s about deliverance.
In fact, Jesus death saved us from sin. John 1: 22 says, “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” John the Baptist called him “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” 1 Peter 1:19 says we were delivered “by the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” There’s more. But it has to do with the holiness of God and our faith, by grace, in Christ’s death, that takes away our sins.
But what else? He saved us from death or that part of death which would eternally separate us from God. He did this when he defeated death at his resurrection.
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?
For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor 15: 55-57)
So ,the thief was saved from sin and death. By the death and resurrection of Jesus, he could live with God forever. Is that what happened? Do you hesitate at all when considering the fate of this thief? If so, why? Many people would say (emphatically), “It’s just not fair!” That’s what a friend of mine said recently when considering the fate of people who don’t live good lives or even live bad lives and then turn to Christ on their death bed and get ‘saved’.
This thief’s tory reminds me of several other stories in scripture:
-Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9).
-The prodigal son story in Luke 15: 11-32
-The parable of the lost sheep or lost coin (or lost son) in Luke 15.
But my favorite story is the parable of the vineyard owner in Matthew 20. In this account, a vineyard owner hires workers for the day at a certain amount. Later in the day, he hires more workers and then later on, more. When the work is done, the workers line up for their pay, starting with those hired last and going back to those hired first. Those who were hired last got the full amount as those who were hired first but only worked a small portion of the day. When questioned about the ‘fairness’ of this, the owner simply responds, ‘it’s my money and so if I want to be generous, what is that to you?’ Still, the echo, “it isn’t fair”.
Romans says that if you want to be saved you must:
-Confess you’re a sinner (Romans 3:23)
-Recognize that your sin separates you from God forever. (Romans 6:23)
(These two points together require an act of ‘repentance’ or acknowledgement of our position as being hopelessly lost.)
-Jesus died for my sins as a way to save me from sin and eternal separation from God. (Romans 5:8)
-Confess with your mouth, “JESUS IS LORD” and believe in your heart God raised him from the dead and you will be saved.” (Romans 10: 9,10)
Did the thief do this? He said, “We are being punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.” CHECK. He as much acknowledges the reality that they should die for their sins. CHECK. “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He may not have understood the ‘soteriology’ of what was happening, but his confession of faith in the person of Jesus Christ, who was dying next to him for HIS (thief’s) sin nature, was enough. Because Jesus tells him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” CHECK. Not only was he saved that day, he may have been the first person to enter PARADISE.
This is a sidebar, but it’s worth noting. NO one was in ‘paradise’ at this point in time. The righteous saved were in a place referred to as “Sheol, Hades, or Abraham’s Bosom” (Luke 16). When Jesus died, he DESCENDED to this holding place and made himself known as the Great I AM. Since it is only by the name of Jesus that men can be saved (Acts 4:12), those righteous saints had to believe in Jesus who made himself known to them. (1 Peter 1: 18-20). He then led the ‘captives’ free to Paradise. Accordingly, the conversation between Jesus and thief may have gone something like this:
Jesus: Hang out here until I go and get your brothers and sisters. I’ll be back soon.
It is conceivable that this thief was the very first person to actually enter ‘paradise’. (Note: The word for ‘Paradise’ in the Greek is NOT the same word used for heaven. We tend to refer to ‘heaven’ a lot without really understanding what/where it is.)
That will turn your head upside down, won’t it? There can be no doubt that the man was saved because Jesus declared it so. And it is the very heart of God that no one should die and be separated from him forever. John 3:16 says as much. Hell was not created for people. It was created for demons. God does not send anyone to Hell. They choose to go there.
What in the world happened to change this man’s mind in such a short time? How could he possible put his hope in a man who was dying next to him. Regardless of what Jesus claimed to be, all seemed hopeless. Well, didn’t it? The people on the ground there thought so. The religious leaders thought so. Even the disciples thought so. Satan thought so. Why would this man think differently?
First of all, the Bible clearly says that no one comes to Jesus unless God draws them. (John 6:44). So, ultimately, it was a work of God. Still, the man couldn’t help but amazed by:
-“Forgive them father, for they know not what they do”
-The sign over his head said, “Here Is the King of the Jews”
-People sneered at him. The guards mocked him. The religious leaders hurled insults. He said nothing. “He went like a sheep before his shearers…” (Is 53).
-His mother and followers at the foot of the cross were a testimony to his life and ministry.
The centurion who stood at the cross would later say, “Surely, this was the Son of God.” (Matthew 27:54). He knew it. Somewhere along those three hours of hanging on that cross, the thief knew it too. Thanks be to God. Even in death, Jesus’ compassion for us never failed. What a magnificent demonstration of grace.
One of the amazing stories about Easter is that no matter what you’ve done or who you are, Jesus died on the cross for you.
But going back to my friend’s response….
It’s just not fair.
Let me say this: I would NOT want to be that thief.
Salvation is a verb. It’s a process. You are not just saved. You are being saved. You will be saved. Salvation is three phases really: Justification, Sanctification, Glorification.
Regarding the first, Romans 4: 14, 15 says, “Now, when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trust God who justifies the wicked, this faith is credited as righteousness.” You see, what we deserve is death. We can not ‘do’ anything to ‘earn’ salvation. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” Ephesians 2:8. You see, my friend is wrong when he applies the notion of ‘work’ or ‘earning’ to justification.
However, there is a part of the salvation process that we must ‘work’ or ‘earn’ what justification brings. That part is ‘sanctification’ and it requires that we partner with the Holy Spirit to become more and more like Jesus. It is the narrow way and it requires our full and active participation or it will produce NOTHING in you. I have much to say about this in my book, “The Funnel: Framing Your Life in View of Eternity”. And it really is the matter of a whole book to discuss. Glorification comes when we move on to eternity.
What happened to that thief and why wouldn’t I want to be him? Because heaven is not it’s only reward. Oh, it’s VERY good. But there’s so much more to heaven than just getting there. If that is your goal, you live by a gospel of sin management, as Dallas Willard describes it in his book, “The Divine Conspiracy.” And you play Russian Roulette with your eternity. Do you want to take that chance? Can you time it so that you can have a ‘death bed conversion?’ I know three people who died in car accidents THIS WEEK. Let me know how that goes for you.
Becoming a Christian is so much more than going to heaven. First of all, eternity doesn’t begin when you die. It begins the moment you accept Christ as your Savior and step into the “Kingdom Among Us.” ---(That’s Willard again!). You learn to live a victorious and abundant life now and not when you die. The thief may have had a saved soul, but he had a LOST LIFE. Solomon says, “Remember God when you are young.” (Eccl 12:1) Why? Because eternal life starts the moment you ask Jesus to save you from your sin and receive the Holy Spirit in your life to help you learn what it means to live in the Kingdom now! It’s eternity…here. You can not live a victorious and abundant life in THIS world apart from the Holy Spirit. And don’t even get me started about what that means when you die. What if the character you die with is the character you go to heaven with? Your character matters. If it didn’t, Jesus would have said so. And he spoke a lot more about discipleship than he did about salvation.
Is it fair that he got into heaven? Yes. Did he deserve it? None of us do. Would I want to be him in eternity? Definitely not. He is going to be sad and frustrated that he didn’t follow God’s plan sooner. (Yes there IS room for this type of sadness and frustration in the spirit realm. Read the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25.) I am working on character because I am going to rule and reign with Christ in the Millennial Kingdom and then for eternity after that. I am living in the Kingdom of God now. As Colossians says, my heart AND my mind are focused on things of heaven and not earth. Thank you Jesus for making yourself known to us. Thank you for dying for my sins. Thank you for defeating death and making a way (the only way) for me to live with God in heaven forever. Happy Easter.
I recently heard that Jane Marczewski died last week after a 5-year battle with cancer. You may have heard of her as “Nightbirde”. She competed on the 16th season of America’s Got Talent as was awarded the Golden Buzzer for singing an original piece called “It’s Okay.” If you have never watched that clip of her performance, I encourage you to do so.
It’s 7:32 of bliss. In that amount of time, I went from my chair to the Garden of Gathsemene, to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and then straight to the throne of God. I’ve watched it many times since and I have always been blessed. The final scenes of her audition are the image I have of the Judgement Seat of Christ.
I won’t get this all correct, but when she died last week, she was 31. She had gone in and out of cancer three times, been through a difficult divorce and had her dreams of being a singer/songwriter…what do I say…interrupted? And here she was. A SHINING witness of hope and joy. After hearing her story at the audition, which was probably more than she ever intended telling anyone, she radiated with the ‘smoke’ of someone who was truly….borrowing a word from Howie Mandel…authentic. Her witness was so much more than her words. She was genuine.
Following her since, I have found a few ‘quick quotes’ from Jane for all of us to PONDER.
Thank you for not being afraid.
Everyone once in a while something happens that makes you go, ‘huh?”. I met Benny at the gym today. I was working on crunches and apparently making some noise. He stared at me until I had to acknowledge him and finally asked if I needed him to call an ambulance. Turns out Benny is 91. I would never have guessed that. I might have said mid-70s. So, I was interested enough to engage him for a little while. In the conversation, Benny told me several things which were very interesting:
1.Benny had cancer in his lymph nodes in his late 80s. They told him they wouldn’t do anything about because of his age, so he got a new doctor. During the chemo, he said he went to Wendy’s and got chocolate Frostys. He would drink one before chemo, one after chemo and on that night. He never had a problem and swears it was the Frostys.
2.Laughter is medicine. Laugh a lot if you want to live a long life.
3.Work your mind. He told me about the trips he would take to Outer Banks in the Carolinas. He would make up math games to play while he was driving. Now, I can’t figure this out, but he talked about figuring out how many times the wheels were turning a mile. Then, he would try and figure out how many times the wheels turned as he was driving through a particular state. Then, he would shift the speed and do it all again. I didn’t follow much of that, but the point was, keep your mind moving because it shrinks as you get older. That’s what Benny said.
4.Actually, his name was “Hey Benny”. He worked in marketing and when he would go to these big cities someone would eventually recognize him on the street and call out ‘Hey Benny”. The guys at work thought it was funny and so they changed his name to “Hey Benny.” I don’t know if there’s a space between the two names?
That’s it. Nothing too profound. But, if I guy looks that good at 91, he deserves a little respect and worth my time. By the way, I noticed he had about an hour work out on some pretty strenuous equipment. Dear Lord, I want to look as good as Benny when I’m that age! Keep laughing....and drink Frostys.
Where Do We Go When We Die?
My friend Ann and I like to talk when we work out at the gym. Sometimes, she’ll pose a question about the Bible, which I love to talk about. Here was her most recent questions:
What happens to us when we die?
I told her that it might be better if I wrote down my answer to that instead of trying to explain it between short puffs of breath.
That was about a week ago and I’m still writing. Since I’ve spent a good bit of time on it, I thought I would just share with all of you.
Before I begin, let me say two things:
Because I love the subject of Eschatology, I’ve formulated some ideas about it based on a Judeo-Christian worldview found in the Bible. The Bible frames the way I look at everything. So, this is my understanding (at this point) of what the Bible says about the afterlife.
To begin with, I think that where we go when we die will move around a little bit based on the timeline of human history and then eternity. I will provide my scriptural basis for each phase of this progression. Generally, I believe it will go something like this FOR THE BELIEVER.
The NT/OT word, Hades or Sheol is interpreted to mean:
1. The Grave - The Place Of Bodily Decay
2. The Place Of The Punishment For The Wicked
3. Possibly As A General Term For The Unseen Realm Of The Dead
This is NOT a place of punishment. It is an intermediate state where all were sent upon death prior to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Remember that no judgements have been declared by the Righteous Judge of Revelation. The Bema Seat Judgement set aside for CHRISTIANS alone, will be the first of (probably) five judgements as described in the Bible. Prior to the resurrection, this intermediate holding place was best described in Luke 16: 19-31. I have included it here for reference.
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
You can see that Hades is ‘compartmentalized’. It has a place of pleasure and a place of torment separated by a large chasm that can NOT be crossed after death. The righteous dead were in Abraham’s Bosom. The forsaken or lost are in ‘a place of torment’. I refrain from calling this place “Hell” because this place is not their final destination.
We are told in several places of scripture that Jesus descended to Hades to ‘set the captives free’. Since Jesus is the ONLY way to heaven, the righteous dead in Abraham’s Bosom, were given the chance to put their faith expressed during their lives on earth in Jesus. I do not believe that Jesus shared that message with the unrighteous because as Abraham told the rich man in the parable. If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead. I also believe that Abraham’s reference to the chasm was a separation that would never again be bridged. If this were not so, Abraham would have told the rich man otherwise.
Jesus speaks to the thief on the cross next to him at his crucifixion saying, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) The Greek word is paradeisos which means “a garden or pleasure ground.” In Persian kingdoms it was a well-watered, shady park where animals were kept. In every translation, it’s considered pleasurable. The word is only used three times in the New Testament. In Luke, and then again by Paul when he was taken up to ‘paradise’ in 2 Corinthians 12:4. Perhaps the most telling verse is Revelation 2:7: Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. It’s interesting that the paradeisos sounds very familiar to the Garden of Eden. I don’t think this is a coincidence since God’s intention was to be WITH man in a paradise where man had dominion over God’s creation and regular communion with the Creator. Of course, as in Revelation 2:7, the “Tree of Life” was in the center of the Garden of Eden. This is all to say that the text says that after the repentant thief on the cross died (Jesus, when you come into your kingdom, remember me! Luke 23:42), he went to paradise to be WITH Jesus. (“Today you will be WITH ME in Paradise”.)
When Jesus died, he did not ascend directly to ‘heaven’ where God is. He told Mary as much after his resurrection. (John 20:17). But, he did tell the thief that ‘today’ you will be with me in Paradise. While I have not done an exhaustive study of any of this, I would say that means exactly what it says. In fact, the thief on the cross may have been the very first person who entered Paradise. THAT is an extraordinary thought. While we know little about this man, we know that his confession of faith alone and his contrite and repentant heart was enough to bring him salvation that very day. Perhaps Jesus took him to Paradise straight away and told him to “hold down the fort until I go get your brothers and sisters in faith.” Then Jesus descended to Abraham’s bosom, set the captives free there, and brought them all to Paradise. Moving on….
As to where “Paradise” is, we get more into speculation. To say that Paradise is heaven is hard to support. First of all, that’s not what the text says. Secondly, the Greek word for ‘heaven’ is Ouranos and has several meanings to include the air, the sky, and/or the heavenlies. When Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6 he said, “Our Father who are in Ouranos…” Jewish belief was the heaven was the air around them. It was a dimension outside themselves. In fact, God is everywhere. Still, Paul speaks of being taken to a “third” heaven. In 2 Cor 12: 2-4. This was a real physical place that Paul must have been referring to when he said “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared in His Wonderful World for those who love him.” 1 Cor 2:9.
I do know this: Paradise is NOT eternity. Randy Alcorn, who has several books on “heaven,” says there is a “present heaven” and a “future heaven”. I like this language because the word ‘heaven’ is very nebulous in interpretation. I would agree that the ‘present heaven’ is Paradise. It is only a temporary dwelling where the saints of God go to await being joined to their resurrected bodies. This occurs at Rapture.
Think in terms of continuity. If you’re looking for a shining example of what you’re resurrected body will be like, look no further than Jesus’ as he walked the earth for 40 days after his resurrection. He had a body. It was glorified and could do a variety of things that our current bodies can’t. It is also adaptable to both the present heaven and the present earth’. Jesus was NOT translated again at his ascension or not at least that the Bible mentions. God made you perfectly. But your frame and form were sinful. So, they have to be renewed. This is exactly why you have to have a new body to get into the ‘future heaven’. But God is not starting over. He will take your old physical form and remake it in the very ‘image’ of Christ. Remember that other than Mary Magdalene and the two friends on the road to Emmaus, Jesus was recognizable to everyone. You won’t look that different in heaven. But your old body will be raised incorruptible. 1 Corinthians 15 has much to say about this subject.
At this point in the discussion, I say that all believers are in the ‘Present Heaven/Paradise” and all unbelievers are in Hades. What happens next is the Rapture of the church; the bride of Christ.
Future Heaven/Wedding Feast of the Lamb
This imagery of Jesus returning for his bride is NOT coincidental. The Jewish idioms used for the rapture of the church are generally about a wedding and wedding festivities. Jesus said in John 14: 2-4, “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”
Jewish custom dictated that the FATHER of the GROOM announced when the wedding would take place once the house of the bride and groom was ready. Do you see it? When Jesus said that he didn’t know the time or date of the rapture, he was saying that only the FATHER knew because that was the understanding of the Jewish wedding customs. (Matthew 24:36) One day, the Father (God) tells his son the Groom (Jesus) to go and get his bride (The Church) because their place is prepared. The bride took the groom to the wedding chambers for seven days. That would be a parallel time to the Tribulation. So, after the Rapture, the ‘bride’ and the ‘groom’ are together in the wedding chambers and celebrating the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. One of the best parables Jesus shared on this subject is the Parable of the Talents. (Matthew 25: 14-30). I do NOT know if this Wedding Feast happens in a separate place than what I’m referring to as the ‘Future Heaven’. I would think that it is the same general ‘place’.
I believe in a Pre-Tribulation view of the Rapture, which is to say that the next prophetic event in scripture that must happen is the rapture of the church. It is also at this point that believers will be judged at the Bema Seat, which means AT THIS POINT IN TIME, they will….for the first time….have incorruptible bodies to go with their eternal spirits. WOW. So, during the Tribulation, the last seven years of prior to Christ’s return to earth, we will be at a place where Jesus promised us that he would take us as His bride. My best guess is that this is the eternal city, the New Jerusalem which is STILL in heaven.
Now, if you’ve made it this far hold on; we’re almost home.
When Jesus returns, he will reign from Jerusalem. We will reign with him in his Millennial Kingdom. (2 Timothy 2:12). Because we have resurrected bodies, we will be able to dwell both in ‘heaven’ and on ‘earth’. I assume it will be like going to work each day. And don’t be alarmed by the notion that we will work forever. Again, think of the Garden of Eden. That is the restoration of all things and THIS has always been God’s plan for us. What man did there was work, and it was part of a holy calling. WORK is good. You may have to take that out of the context of your daily grind! I assume that this ‘work’ will have something to do with the Kingdom of God on earth. So for 1,000 years, we’ll be dual citizens. I can only assume we’ll have residence in the “future heaven” and residence in the Kingdom of God with its capital in Jerusalem. But that’s still not ETERNITY.
Finally, after the judgement of all peoples at the Great White Throne, (Revelation 20: 11-15) people will only be in one of two places: The New Heaven and the New Earth or The Lake of Fire. Those who denied God’s plan and purpose for their life and rejected His plan for their salvation will spend eternity in The Lake of Fire. The horrors of this place can not be overstated. More than anything else, it will be eternal separation from the Creator God.
On the other hand, the New Jerusalem is described in Revelation 21. It is a glorious site where the presence of God will dwell forever with those who love Him. In his book, “The Book of Signs”, David Jeremiah has this to say about the city:
“Revelation 21:15, 16 says, “He who talked with me had a gold reed to measure the city, it’s gates and it’s wall. The city is laid out as a square; its length is as great as its breadth. And he measured the city with the reed: twelve thousand furlongs. It’s length breadth and height are equal.” I today’s terms that means New Jerusalem will be about 1500 miles wide, 1500 miles long, AND 1500 miles high.”
There are 2 million square miles on the first floor ALONE. Even if each floor was a mile high that’s still 1500 floors and each floor the size of a continent. Assuming that the entirety of the new heaven and the new earth is inhabitable by our new bodies, there will be PLENTY of room in eternity.
In his seminal work, “The Divine Conspiracy”, Dallas Willard says:
“The intention of God is that we should each become the kind of person whom he can set free in his universe, empowered to do what we want to do. Just as we direct and intend this for our children and others we love, so God desires and intends it for his children. But, character, the inner directedness of the self, must develop to the point where that is possible.”
As I close, I return to what I said at the beginning.
In closing, I would add the plan of salvation so you can START your journey towards an eternity with God.
 David Jeremiah, “The Book of Signs”. (Nashville, Thomas Nelson Publsihing, 2019), p.407
 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy. (San Francisco, Harper San Francisco, 1997), p. 379
 Jeff Smith, The Funnel. (Chesterfield, VA, 2021).
They’ve Asked Me to Be a Small Group Leader in Children’s Ministry.
What do I do?
Written by Jeff Smith
Small Groups. It’s the building block of all `ministry. You are creating an emerging community. In children’s ministry the large group/small group model has made its way into all types of macro and micro programming. I recently had the opportunity to speak at a church that was changing their kid’s church model to a large group/small group model. I googled the subject to find a list of bullet points for teacher training and leadership development. But mostly, I didn’t find anything that fit the bill for this particular church. So, I decided to develop my own outline and share this resource on my blog.
This is an acronym base on the word of Dallas Willard, as far as I can tell. It outlines transformative ways to engage with God. It stands for:
MEANS. ( I sometimes substitute the word methodology here.)
To begin with, changing to a small group model involves two primary paradigm shifts. The first is spectator or volunteer to pastor. The second is a shift from teacher to storyteller. In my presentation this morning, I spent the first two hours on the latter subject. That material can be more than adequately covered in my book, “RIVET: Making Your Message Stick”. It is about engagement for effective communication. The ideas in that book are tried and true and very helpful if you want to be a better communicator.
I would like to use the VIM acronym to discuss the paradigm shift from spectator to pastor. Pastor? Does that sound intimidating? I’m not sure how you’re recruiting your small group leaders, but they need to know that their primary function as a small group leader becomes pastoral. So, we start with vision.
How do you see yourself in this role? Proverbs 20:19 says, “Without a vision, people perish”. If you can’t see yourself in an active role in a child’s spiritual formation, you’re not suited to be a small group leader. First of all, you’re working with a demographic that has the greatest opportunity for receiving Christ.
For years, church leaders have heard the claim that nearly nine out of ten Christians accept Jesus as their savior before the age of 18. If that statistic was accurate in the past, it no longer depicts U.S. society. The current Barna study indicates that nearly half of all Americans who accept Jesus Christ as their savior do so before reaching the age of 13 (43%), and that two out of three born again Christians (64%) made that commitment to Christ before their 18th birthday. One out of eight born again people (13%) made their profession of faith while 18 to 21 years old. Less than one out of every four born again Christians (23%) embraced Christ after their twenty-first birthday. Barna noted that these figures are consistent with similar studies it has conducted during the past twenty years.
Ecclesiastes 12:1 says, “Remember God when you are young.” That sentence was written by a guy who wanted to tell everyone after him that you don’t have to get hit by a Mack Truck to know that it hurts, right? The School of Hard Knocks is people that want to learn the Hard Way. You have a chance to bring them into the Kingdom of God at an early age. You need to see yourself as being life-giving and vital in that process.
What are you here for? Let me introduce you to an idiom I’ve heard. THIS is not about THIS. That’s not easy to explain in a blog like this. The short answer is that you may think you’re presenting a lesson in a small group, but what you’re really doing is building relationships. This is your new mantra: Ministry is relationships, relationships, relationships. So be prepared to communicate a lesson but be intent on building relationships.
I had a friend in ministry who was called to rebuild an ark. Not any ark. Noah’s Ark. It would be a sign of God’s return. He called his church “God’s Ark of Safety.” He actually built a part of the frame along the highway outside of Frostburg, MD. It was an amazing story. However, Ken Hamm came along and beat him to the punch. (The Ark Encounter in Williamstown, KY, is a powerful experience and visual replica of that edifice.) The Lord told my pastor friend to build the church and he would build the ark. That’s what he was faithful to do. He reached many with the Gospel using the ark as sanctified bait. I’ve not spoken with him about how he feels regarding the ark. But THIS was never about THIS. Do you see? Relating the Bible lesson may not be the primary reason you are there. As a pastor, you are building an emerging community and developing relationship. No one cares what you know until they know that you care. That includes kids. They are very intuitive. These relational platforms will be the place of your ministry to these kids.
Finally, you have the meat of your outline. What is your methodology? Means will be provided for by the Children’s Pastors or kid worship teams. They will give you curriculum, space, supplies, etc. But how will you go about building these communities that you will pastor?
Let’s start with your greeting. I assume that most small groups will be age specific. The church I was working with called their small groups, ‘huddles’. It reminded me of teams. So perhaps you could have a team mascot? Your group could be the Wolverines? You might have a group cheer that you start or end small group time. What about first contact? Make your greeting unique. Learn names as quickly as possible. The next thing you may want to learn is love languages. Be strategic in your initial contact by better understanding a child’s love language. I know it’s a lot of work. But, it will pay huge dividends.
· words of affirmation,
· quality time,
· receiving gifts,
· acts of service,
· physical touch.
Generally, the large group time will be first, right? Use this time to watch. Hopefully, the children’s pastors or ministry leaders will lead worship. This is not your personal worship time. You do that somewhere else. A pastor does not use worship for their personal worship. Worship is the litmus test of a person’s spiritual condition. This period of service is your BEST opportunity to gauge where your kids are that day: emotionally, spiritually, physically, etc. Take note. Again, I have a great resource on this subject called “Points for Praise”. It’s on the subject matter of children and worship. My grandpa was a farmer. His old adage, “You got to make hay while the sun is shining” is relevant here.
Let’s assume that worship is followed by offering and then it’s small group time. Huddle time. Tribes. Pods. Camps. Classes. Schools.
Again, this short article is not about the communication component of small groups. It’s about the relational component. It’s not a small person. It’s a small group. It’s a community. There is much to learn about managing community.
First of all, it’s messy. People in groups are messy.
One child won’t speak or engage. The next one hijacks every conversation. Another, talks while you’re talking. Only one will pray aloud. Everyone is so self-conscience; especially the older grades. “He’s touching me.” Did I mention you also need to be a social worker, psychologist, doctor, policeman…Yikes.
These are typical small-group issues, and you will face them at some point if you haven't already. Here are some steps for addressing these types of small-group problems:
• Pray. Don't use prayer as a last resort; stay on offense with prayer. You’re talking to the Divine Creator of the Universe. He’s still the Smartest Person in the Room.
• Address the issue first with the person individually. Be natural and seek to understand from their perspective. Make "observations" instead of accusations. For instance, "I've noticed that you don't comment much in the discussion. Is there something we can do to make it easier for you to engage the topic?"
• Be creative. This is especially helpful for the person skipping down rabbit trails. Come up with a time limit, a hand signal, or some other means to help them stay on track. You can actually make this fun and not burdensome. Jim Carrey is not my favorite actor (anymore). But his teacher saw a raw talent. Instead of trying to squelch it, she offered him ‘stand up’ time at the end of every class, if he would be quiet and behaved the rest of the time. It worked.
• Be patient. None of these problems will kill your group, and taking the time to allow them to be solved naturally will create a culture where community can emerge.
As a matter of fact, there is only one behavioral problem that I would like to address here. REBELLION. Sin is attractive. Can a bad apple spoil the whole bunch? I know Jesus went after the one lost sheep and left the other 99….somewhere. But, that’s not a winning strategy in small group leadership. You have to consider the group first. Rebellion is an attitude. It’s not necessarily behavioral. It’s a hard heart. It says, “I won’t and you can’t make me.” It must be broken for the sake of the individual and the group. It requires discernment. It must be handled deftly and within rules laid out by the leadership. Here’s how I used to handle it as a children’s pastor.
First of all, I always framed the issue in terms of rebellion. For example, “If you push Joe again, I will set you outside the group (until you’re ready to be a part of the community/group within our rules.) My kid’s church was called “Tabernacle”. I did a lot of teaching within that construct of how God dealt with “sin in the camp” as told through stories in Numbers and Deuteronomy. God’s presence can not abide where sin resides. This is true on every level. Framing an issue this way was always my last resort. See the story of Achan in Joshua 7-9. But once I said it, I meant it. How many times have you been in public and heard a parent say to a child, “If you do that one more time, you’re going to get a spanking.” It makes me cringe. Not because of the punishment, but because when that action happens again, stated punishment is not carried out. Rebellion has no consequence. That is NOT a spiritual reality.
Once framed, I would set the person outside the group, alone in a separate area of the space. The only acceptable response to rebellion is a contrite heart; repentance. Once that repentance occurred they were welcomed back into the community without fanfare and with open arms.
There are some other tools and ideas you can use in managing your small group of children.
I’m not saying that your “successful” if your kids answer both of those questions well. But it doesn’t hurt.
If you’re taking the time to read this and feeling overwhelmed already, then I’ve misinformed you. “Greater is He who is in YOU than HE that is in the small group” The work is dwarfed by the rewards, and there are many. To include that most sought after commendations, “Well done good and faithful servant.” (Matthew 25:21)
(All of my books referenced in this blog are available on my website at www.saltandlightmin.org)
 Barna, G. (2004, October). Evangelism Is Most Effective Among Kids. Barna. https://www.barna.com/research/evangelism-is-most-ffective-among-kids/
 Gary Chapman, Ross Campbell, The Five Love Languages of Children (Chicago: Norfield Publishing, 2016).
It’s Super Bowl night. While the world watches a temporal game, we continue to focus on eternal things; things that matter for ever.
As I was considering this, I’m reminded about the nature of faith and how it plays into who we are as sojourners and aliens in this world.
Faith is the essence of things hoped for and the promise d0 things unseen. It’s not science for that very reason. It is not things that are observable or about things which we can see. Yet they are things that are certainly more important than a game that is the most highly watched event on television.
Hebrews tells us that without faith it is impossible to please God.
I recently did study of the Gospels and how Jesus commended faith. I found that the spectrum went from “No faith” to “Some faith” to “Faith” to “Faith that was great” to “Great Faith.” I wondered who fit into each of these categories and how did Jesus seem to assign the various levels of faith.
So, who wins the Super Bowl of Faith in the Gospels? In the “No Faith” category we have:
In the “Little faith” category, we have:
The phrase for ‘little faith’ is Oligopistos (Trusting little; lacking faith). Interesting that so far, the faith losers have included the man whose confession of faith would be the foundation of the church and the disciples whose faith would change the world. This says something important about faith, in general. It’s not about the amount of faith you have (although more is better); it’s about the subject of that faith. “If you have the faith of a mustard seed…”
Then, there are those commended for their faith. My definition of faith is “Move and God will meet you there.” I like that. It requires that we do something to demonstrate faith. Miracles worked this way in the Bible. All things spiritual work this way. Again, remember that faith without works is dead.
The word used for faith in the New Testament is Pistis/Pestice: It means a conviction of truth, moral convictions, or beliefs. In every one of these cases, the person had to do something, maybe even something out of the ordinary, in order to show faith and for the healing to occur.
But the winners of the Faith Super Bowl in the Gospels are two of the most unlikely characters you would find. In one case, Jesus calls their faith ‘great’. In other he refers to ‘great faith’.
Matthew 15 tells the story of a Gentile woman whose daughter had a demon. She begged Jesus to heal her. The disciples try to silence her and chase her away. Even Jesus brushed her off. But the woman would not be turned away. She was desperate and she knew that Jesus had the power to heal her daughter. She may have not known all the answers, but she did have GREAT FAITH. The Greek word is “megas”. When Jesus tells her that it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs, she is undeterred. I’ll bet her response was instantaneous. “But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the masters table.” WOW. She didn’t argue. She stated the truth and it showed humility and great understanding and Jesus saw in that moment that her faith was certainly great. It was great enough to be noticed by the Author and Perfecter of Faith himself. THAT is quite a commendation,.
But the winner of Super Bowl of Faith was even more unlikely. He was a Gentile. He was a Roman. He was a Centurion. Enemy. Enemy. Enemy. Matthew 8: 15-13 is worth your time to read again. I believe this specific Centurion was sympathetic to the Jews. I believe he understood Jesus’ claim as being the Messiah. But what he understood the best was authority. He knew the nature of it and how it worked. He explained it in his response. The Bible says that Jesus was amazed by his faith. “I have never found such GREAT FAITH in all of Israel.” Not among the chosen people. Not among the learned of those people. Not among his followers. Not among his family, neighbors or friends. This man was UNRELATED. Yet, he understood faith and exercised its power because he recognized authority. BINGO. The modifier for faith used here is “Tosotos” and means, ‘so many, so much, so great’.
So, we see in the New Testament, varying degrees of faith being exercised. The go from no faith to great faith and in between. It begs the question: What must I do to have more faith?” The disciples asked Jesus to ‘increase our faith!”
Here’s my Super Response to increasing your faith!
A. Know the game:
It's important. It's not a game at all. Why do you think we do what we do and call it faith? It's the air we breath in the spirit realm. Oh, And I know who wins!
Abraham and the Great
by Jeff Smith
I am God
God I Am
And I rename you Abraham
I like that name
God I am
I like the name of Abraham
Would you like
to covenant with me, I AM
And I will make your family tree
A holy nation unto me
I would like that
God I AM
To bless the seed of Abraham
I would like it for my tree
I would like it just for me.
Would you like your family
To be like kings and royalty?
Would you like them to be crowned?
Would you like their names renowned?
I would like that
God I Am
All the seed of Abraham
I would like my family
To be kings and royalty
I would like them to be crowned
I would like their names renowned
Oh, I would like it very much
All that royalty and such.
Well would you like it Abraham
If you could own all of this land?
All the land around you now
Over there to yonder cow
Over there to farthest knoll
Or up there to that canyon hole?
You see that groundhog near that tree
That would be your property
Everything the sun hits low
The animals and plants that grow
OH I would like that God I AM
If all of it was Abrahams
All the land around me now
As far as yonder spotted cow
Or over there to farthest knoll
I’ve got relatives down in that hole
Or where the groundhog burrows down
I won’t evict him from my town
I’ll sit and watch the sun set low
And know I own it all below.
We’ll sit and eat our bread and jam
Sarai and her Abraham
Oh Sarai! That will never do
We’ll change her name to something new
We’ll call her Sarah, Abraham
She’ll be the mother of your fam.
Do you like it Abraham?
The name that’s given by I AM
Oh, I like it. Yes. I do. I do.
I like the name that comes from YOU.
I’ll say it by the yonder cow
I’ll say it over my land now.
I’ll say it when on farthest knoll
It echoes down the canyon hole
I’ll say so the groundhog knows
Whether up above or down below
I’ll say it when the sun arises
I’ll say it loud so it surprises
I’ll say it when we have our jam
Sarah and her Abraham.
Then one more thing, old Abraham
Just need to mention ‘fore I scram.
You will need to have a son
To carry on when you are done.
I will do that Abraham
Because I am a GREAT I AM
A boy to play around your feet
You’ll need to add another seat
For when you eat your bread and jam
Isaac, Sarah, and Abraham.
Would you like that Abraham?
To have a son to share your jam?
OH. I would like that most of all.
To have my own son grow up tall?
We could milk the spotted cow
And ride the camels to the brow
And take a hike to farthest knoll
And throw rocks at the creek below
And chase the groundhog when it rises
And watch the sunsets and sunrises
And we could have green eggs and ham
When we eat our bread and jam
That would be the best, I AM
A son for this old Abraham.
But I’m afraid it’s past the time
To speak of things in children’s rhyme
We’re much too old I fear, I AM
We’d make a better Gramp and Gram.
It’s almost laughable to say
Sarah’s son is on the way
We couldn’t even do the laundry
Being old is quite a quandry.
THEN the GREAT IAM he thundered:
Would you like it ABRAHAM
To be reminded WHO I AM.
I’m the one who made the cow
And camels and the camel’s brow
The farthest knoll? Well you should know
I made it many years ago.
That sound you heard? The splash of rock?
I made it on a morning walk
To see the groundhog in the hole,
The canyon like a mixing bowl
The sunrise and the sunsets too
I even made the sky for you
And I made you Oh Abraham
Because I am the Great I AM
And I can make green eggs and ham
And bread and jam and Abraham
I can make for you a son
And now the conversations done
So be it in a year from now
You’ll take that walk to see the cow
So do you like that Abraham?
Well, could I call him Sam? I AM?
His name is Isaac, Abraham.
Got it. Thank you God the Great I AM.