Gather • Devotion #3: Identity

Christian, what is your identity?

An identity that comes from the world, what others may think or say about you, cannot compare to the identity you gain when you have been born again. 

If you are saved, you have been set free. John 8:36 (NIV) says, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

You are chosen. Paul tells us this in 1 Thessalonians 1:4 (NIV), “For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you.”

You are a child of God. Galatians 3:26 (NIV) adds, “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.”

One of my favorite songs to sing is “Who You Say I Am” by Hillsong Worship. The lyrics are incredible because it speaks the truth of our identity in Christ Jesus. I am filled with joy and hope as I declare, 

“Who the Son sets free, is free indeed.

 I’m a child of God – yes, I am!

I am chosen, not forsaken.

I am who you say I am.

You are for me, not against me.

I am who you say I am.”

You are not going to be chosen by everyone.

I do not know about you, but I need this reminder. It can be easy to fall into the trap of placing worth in how others view or identify you. What others say or think about you can mistakenly become what drives your actions. It is an exhausting and frustrating way to live. The identity that the world may give you is worthless compared to the price that Jesus paid for you on the cross. This world will make you feel unwanted and unchosen but remember that the highest King has welcomed and chosen you. This world will make you feel like you do not belong, but remember you belong as a child of God.

I pray that you never let the enemy hold you back from having confidence in who you are in Christ.

Gather • Devotion #2: “I Choose to Praise”

I count on one thing

The same God that never fails

Will not fail me now

You won’t fail me now

In the waiting

The same God who’s never late

Is working all things out

Is working all things out

Yes I will, lift You high in the lowest valley

Yes I will, bless Your name

Oh, yes I will, sing for joy when my heart is heavy

For all my days, oh yes I will

I choose to praise…

“Yes I Will” by Vertical Church

As I write this, the summer of 2019, it has been more than four months since my wife went to Heaven. Our seventh anniversary is five days from now. I met and married her knowing her medical prognosis was pessimistic, and our time together could be much shorter than a lifetime. After years of waiting and looking, it was clear to me that God was telling me to marry her. I never second-guessed God’s plan.

Five years into our marriage, cancer showed up again. It had spread significantly. We were told most patients in this situation have two to five years left. I had to say goodbye less than two years later. 

I am thankful that I had several months to prepare for the possibility of losing Heather. While my hope stayed high, I could see the decline in her condition. I knew God could miraculously heal her, but He might not. My understanding has always been that life does not always go the way we want it, but God is in control. He has a plan that is beyond our understanding and perspective. This understanding has really helped me through my heartbreak. It has protected me from anger towards God. I have submitted to His will.

If you are facing or dealing with the loss of a loved one, I can testify that there is peace and freedom in surrendering it all to God. 

“For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will lift me high upon a rock.” Psalms 27:5

“Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7

Gather • Devotion #1: Fast Food

Flying into Tel Aviv for the first time is an exciting experience. For a less than a seasoned traveler, the glide on the flight path is one of awe and wonder. I am never disappointed at how different a destination looks when I see it for the first time. Not looking like I had imagined it, Tel Aviv is a very clean and neat place compared to many. Boundaries are well marked and delineated. The biggest surprise for me was all the seemingly endless agriculture within the city limits. Each city block had large gardens and greenhouses in the back yards of many homes and businesses. It did not take long to realize how this would influence how we would eat for the next ten days. Only the freshest produce was offered and prepared in the healthiest way. If there is one thing I can say about food in Israel, “It is very consistent.” From one establishment to the next, food always was prepared the same way: Falafel, Hummus, Shwarma, Lentil Soup, along with tomato and cucumber salad, white cheese, and of course, olives. Excited to try all the new foods, I could not wait until dinner. Trying every new dish I could find, it was not long before I found my favorites. Yet, after about the eighth day, my excitement was starting to dim, and I began to yearn for what I knew best. It is funny to think about what I would have done for some over-processed, chemically infused fast food.

Exodus 16:2 says, “And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.”

Times become tough for a leader when the excitement of those that they lead becomes dim. Insubordination and even insurrection are possible when people believe they have been let down or led astray. For Moses, experiencing the power and glory of God, it must have been a tough pill to swallow when the people began to complain. Witnessing the very same wonders and miracles as he did, you would think that they would have the same faith. Yet, because their expectations were of another nature, they became disillusioned. Moses could probably assume that they may mutiny or even worse, remove him and Aaron from the leadership in any way possible. Once again, the Lord lifts his hand and sustains the people of Israel. So, Moses and Aaron begin to instruct the people that they will see the glory of the Lord and be prepared. Yet, they continue to complain about their unmet expectations. I realize I am taking a leap here, but by chapter nine I believe he has had as much as he can handle and basically tells his brother, “You deal with them, because I am fed up with their constant complaining!”

Luke 6:28 says, “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

How often have you tried to do the right thing only to find you are not appreciated? You feel you have sacrificed your hard-earned time, money, and resources only to be rebuffed. Imagine Moses trying so hard to help his people, and time and time again to find that their trust in him and ultimately, the Lord, was short-lived. However, even with the abuse Moses would receive, we see him intervening in prayer for his people. He is constantly urging the Lord to show grace and mercy even when it was not warranted. That is what good leadership is all about, standing in the gap and taking it on the chin for those you lead. It is a servant who is willing to give more than they receive for those that are entrusted to them.

Philippians 2:3 adds, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”

For those of us in leadership roles, we should realize that we too are capable of becoming disillusioned by our own desires. Even visiting a place of “milk and honey” where the food is good, we can find a reason to complain. It does not take long to realize, like the Hebrew people of Moses’ time, we too can return to enslavement. Because we do not always recognize the ways of the Lord or have faith in Him, we can easily return to what we know best, whether it is good for us or not. That is why godly leadership is so important. 

When we gather together as a Church, we can strengthen, direct, and encourage each other. It is a great time to worship and be recharged together. We need each other and the reminders of how blessed we are. When left to ourselves or with harmful voices, we can become discouraged and complainers.

By the way, can I have two Crunch Wrap Supremes, two Crunchy Tacos and a large Baja Blast to go?

Reach • Devotion #6: The Least of These

Five years ago, I had an opportunity to go on a prison trip to Ohio. I did not know what to expect. I had some anxiety, fear, and a little trepidation in anticipation of encountering the inmates. So many things run through your head. You could very easily talk yourself right out of going if you just let your mind run wild. Little did I know, but that trip would change my life forever in many ways.

While on this trip, I encountered men that were waiting only a few months before being released, to men that were going to be in prison for the rest of their lives. I did not have any idea how much I prejudged people and their worthiness of receiving the gift that I had so freely been given until then. 

In Matthew chapter 25, we find the parable of the sheep and the goats. Jesus is telling His audience what the Kingdom of Heaven will be like. In the parable, the king is talking to the righteous and lists off a number of charitable actions that they had performed. In verse 36, He says, “I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” The second half of that verse is on the back of the shirts we wear into prison. I had read the verse many times, but now the reality was right in front of me. Was I willing to look past what horrible sins these men may have committed to sharing with them the only thing that could give them hope?

I met a man, and he started telling me his story. He had been raised in a family that attended church regularly, but in his late teens and early twenties strayed away. He was arrested, sentenced, and sent to prison. He wanted to get plugged back into his religion. I told him my story on how religion let me down. Religion could not save me. God sent His Son to die for all of our sins so that when we accept His redemptive work on the cross, we could be restored to a right relationship with God. What God really wants is a relationship, not religion. I prayed with him and encouraged him to develop his relationship with God, not to focus on his religion. I do not know what happened to him or the decisions he made or did not make.

As he walked away, I realized I had just shared the truth of the Gospel with someone that the Bible categorized as “the least of these.” I just stood and stared. The truth that I had just shared was the truth of which I needed to be reminded. We all are the least of these. Without the relationship I told this man about, all of us would be in prison, without clothes, hungry, sick, and thirsty, without hope of being rescued.

This is why in Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus gives us the Great Commission. He is commissioning us to reach the world by giving the hopeless hope; the homeless, a home; the sick, a cure; the hungry, the Bread of Life; the thirsty, living water; the prisoners, freedom. We are to reach them so we can teach them about that freedom from our sin, and create in them an insatiable hunger to grow in their newfound hope and faith, so their desire is to repeat the process with others.

Like I said, the prison trip I went on changed me. My prayer is that God gives me the opportunity to share how I have a relationship with Him, and that when He does, that I am bold enough to speak the truth of the Gospel. It changed me and is the only thing that changes people to what God meant them to be.

John 3:17 says, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Reach • Testimony #5: Emilou Irwin

My life has always been in the church ever since I was a baby. So I thought that it would make for a boring testimony, but everyone has a story! My mom has actually been the rock in our family and the consistent one. It makes it hard for me to read James, even though it is my favorite book of the Bible, because it shows what a godly family should be. That leads to how my life had been hard with my dad. He was not always a godly father and was not always being the one to lead us into the Word or taking us to church. Yet, I have always loved the church and being apart of it. The nursery is my favorite thing. I just love loving on those kiddos! 

When I lived out in Arizona, my grandpa became the pastor of his church. I decided that I wanted to get baptized by him. So I took lessons with one of the ladies at his church; she became a very sweet friend of mine. She walked me through what it meant to get baptized and taught me a bunch. I still remember a lot of it. After that, I got baptized with my family and cousins all around me. 

I have always been homeschooled by my mom, so it has been really nice because I got to do all the extra things and always get to study the stuff I wanted. I got to study my Bible when and wherever I wanted. 

We have always moved around, and it was always hard. This last time (five years ago), moving from Arizona to Michigan was the hardest because my life was “perfect,” or so I thought. I was mad at my parents and God for almost a year. I was in a rut and could not see past it all. It also did not help that we found out and moved in 14 days. However, as time went on, I grew to love it here and grow in my faith in a small group, as it was called back then. I am so grateful for Ryan Story and Anita. Ryan later did a group called leadership, and it was my favorite. It was where we would go really deep into Bible chapters and verses. We all loved it and grew so much. We were required to do homework and extra things. We all had fun mostly when we would do stuff together. We also had a leadership camp that they still do. It was deeper, and it always my favorite camp because it was all of the kids that really wanted to be there!

God’s plans are better than mine. I look forward to seeing how He continues to use me.

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