What are some experiences you have never had at church?
I can think of several: I have never sung a duet, though I did sing an unfortunate solo once (and have never been invited to do so again). I have never played the organ, though I did “play” the guitar when I was a youth minister (if knowing four chords constitutes “playing”). And while I have overseen thousands of offerings over nearly forty years as a pastor, I have never been given money during a service by the church.
That’s because I’m not a member of Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas. It’s a congregation made famous by Max Lucado’s ministry there over the years, but the church is in today’s news for a very different reason.
Last Sunday, lead minister Travis Eades told the church: “Today, we’re flipping the script. Today we’re reversing what we would normally do. Every week, we remind ourselves, we don’t give to the church; we give through the church. And friend, I want you to know, you are the church. You are the church and you know needs that we will never know. And you can reach people that we would never be able to reach.”
So the church gave out 762 envelopes at two services. Each contained $100. Families were invited to keep the money to cover their needs or “pay it forward” to “bless somebody else that only you could possibly know about.”
Mother saves child from mountain lion attack
Pastor Eades is right: Christians are the church. You and I know people our church likely does not. We can meet needs the pastor and staff cannot. And we can change someone’s life forever.
Examples abound in the news each day.
A mountain lion attacked a five-year-old boy in his front yard in Calabasas, California, last week. His mother heard the commotion, ran outside, and “started punching and striking the mountain lion with her bare hands,” according to an official. He added that “she absolutely saved her son’s life.”
Orion Jean won $500 in a speech contest, then he used the money to start a toy drive for children in a Dallas, Texas, hospital, eventually collecting more than six hundred toys. He then launched the “Race to 100,000 Meals” to help food-insecure people in his community for Thanksgiving. He followed this with the “Race to 500,000 Books” to help families who couldn’t afford books. He has also written a book titled, A Kid’s Book about Leadership, which comes out this fall.
By the way, Orion is ten years old.
We could go on: a man lived on the streets of Uganda as a child but fostered more than a dozen children during the pandemic; a woman grew her hair for seventeen years before cutting it off and donating it for wigs for kids; a helicopter pilot and his fiancée rescued seventeen people from floods in Tennessee; prison inmates in Missouri are making personalized quilts for children in foster care.
The “doomsday variant” and rising hate crimes
Earlier this week, we focused on personal ways to help people in a storm. Yesterday, we identified ways to trust the power of Jesus to defeat our spiritual enemy. Today, let’s discuss practical ways we can leverage that spiritual power to change a life forever.
Here’s why I’m writing on this subject: you and I are living in days filled with paralyzing anxiety and stress. More than ever, we need to be armed with the power of faith to defeat the power of fear.
- Newsweek recently ran a cover story with the title, “The Doomsday Variant: COVID keeps mutating into scary new threats. How worried should we be?”
- A physician writes: “COVID-19 has caused a tsunami of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and psychological and mental distress.”
- A major study of children and adolescents reported that “the prevalence of depression and anxiety symptoms during COVID-19 has doubled, compared with pre-pandemic estimates.”
- The FBI reported Monday that hate crimes have risen to their highest levels in twelve years.
“I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold”
In Psalm 69, David cries out: “Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. I am weary with my crying out; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God” (vv. 1–3).
Not the encouragement you were hoping for so far, I would guess.
It gets worse: “More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause; mighty are those who would destroy me, those who attack me with lies” (v. 4). And even worse: “I have become a stranger to my brothers, an alien to my mother’s sons” (v. 8).
David understandably prays for God to “deliver me from sinking in the mire” (v. 14) and to “ransom me because of my enemies!” (v. 18). He adds: “I am afflicted and in pain; let your salvation, O God, set me on high!” (v. 29).
However, here’s his next prayer and the reason I’m studying his psalm with you today: “I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving” (v. 30).
We have no evidence that God has yet answered any of David’s prayers. So far as we know, he is still in the “deep mire,” hated by his enemies and rejected by his family. But he chooses to praise and magnify his God anyway.
Then he makes a claim I want us to take to heart: “This will please the Lᴏʀᴅ more than an ox or a bull with horns and hoofs” (v. 31).
Here’s the point: when we worship and trust God, not because of our circumstances but despite them, we please the Lord of the universe in ways that empower and transform us and our witness.
“He makes me tread on my high places”
We find such faith throughout the Scriptures: from Joseph, who saw God’s providence in his brothers’ betrayal (Genesis 50:20); to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who refused the king’s idolatry at the risk of their lives (Daniel 3:16–18); to the apostles who proclaimed the death and resurrection of Jesus to the very men who arranged his execution (Acts 4:5–12).
The next time you need encouragement, take a moment to read Hebrews 11, where you’ll discover story after story of women and men who trusted and served God despite their circumstances. Then read 2 Corinthians 11, where you’ll encounter Paul’s catalogue of suffering and his testimony of faith.
The prophet Habakkuk’s prayer speaks for them all: “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lᴏʀᴅ; I will take joy in the God of my salvation” (Habakkuk 3:17–18).
Here was the result of such unconditional faith: “Gᴏᴅ, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places” (v. 19).
We can sum up the process: we find ourselves in fearful places, we choose to trust God anyway, our faith pleases our Father, and we experience his presence, power, and transcendent peace.
Paul put this process into a promise: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6–7).
Hurting friends on my heart today
Faith in the face of fear is a common theme across God’s word in large part because such faith was required so often of God’s people. The more Christians face opposition, discrimination, and trauma today, the more vital such faith will be for us as well.
I’m thinking this morning about a dear brother in Christ battling cancer in a hospital ICU. And a dear sister in the faith recovering from a broken femur and hoping to avoid further surgery. And a member of our ministry team whose husband is battling cancer. And another whose newborn child is facing multiple surgeries.
Each of them and their families are trusting God despite their circumstances. Each is battling fear with faith. Each is pleasing our Lord and impacting lives in ways they will not know on this side of eternity.
Whom do you know who fits our profile? Whose faith in the face of fear has impressed and encouraged you?
Now I’ll be even more personal: What fear do you need to fight with faith? Why do you need such encouragement today?
A miraculous report from Cuba
I’ll close with an example of courageous faith that is very close to my heart.
Life in Cuba is painfully difficult these days. The coronavirus pandemic, severe lack of medicines and medical care, food deprivation, economic impoverishment, and governmental oppression are all facts of daily life there.
And yet, after ten trips to the island over the years, I can genuinely say: I have never seen more vibrant and triumphant Christians than I have met in Cuba.
Yesterday, I received a newsletter from a Cuban ministry with whom I have partnered for more than two decades. It begins: “In Cuba, the coronavirus continues its path of destruction and heartbreak with many people losing their lives while hospitals are collapsing. Fear and terror have overcome the people who are desperate for basic healthcare, food, and lasting change.”
It continues: “Amid such sorrow and frightening times, it is easy to despair, yet there is reason to praise God for his provision and mercy in Cuba today.” Then it offers such reasons from their ministry so far this year:
- 9,230 professions of faith
- 506 baptisms
- Over 4,500 children reached with the gospel
- 1,571 students attending seminary
- 7 new churches proposed to officially form
They continue to feed people and provide medications as well.
Their newsletter closes by citing Isaiah 41:10: “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
Their pastor, one of my dearest friends in the world and a man for whom I pray daily, adds his word of testimony: “I ask God to give me the opportunity to evangelize Cubans and bring them a word of life. I want my hands to stay glued to the plow without looking back.”
Will you choose faith in the face of your fears?
Are your hands “glued to the plow” today?