A Journey Through the Psalms – The Language of Our Faith

For the next several months at New Life, we’re teaching and praying through many of the iconic Psalms that have shaped the language of our faith.  Take some time to read this brief introduction and explanation of why the Psalms are so important for us today. 

Why do we love the Psalms so? One could drop into the Psalter almost at random to illustrate the point I would like to make, but consider for a moment one of our most beloved, Psalm 63:

You, God, are my God,

earnestly I seek you;

I thirst for you,

my whole being longs for you,

in a dry and parched land

where there is no water… (v.1)

It is hard to read such words and retain any semblance of objectivity. More or less immediately, a transition begins to occur in how we are engaging the text. We move from being detached observers to finding ourselves caught up, involved, even implicated in the poetry. The words on the page mysteriously and perhaps even without our noticing it become ours.

On my bed I remember you;

I think of you through the watches of the night.

Because you are my help,

I sing in the shadow of your wings.

I cling to you;

your right hand upholds me… (vv. 6-8).

Before we know it, we find ourselves claiming the words of the Psalmist as our own words, as devastatingly accurate statements on the condition of our own souls, as cries emerging from the depths of our own lives. We are the thirsty ones. We are the ones who long for God as in a dry and weary land. We are the ones who remember God on our beds, whose hearts search for him during the long watches of dark and desolate nights. We are the ones clinging to him with all our might, finding therein our lives mysteriously upheld by his righteous right hand.

And so we sit, early in the morning or late at night or during a break in our busy day, with the text of Scripture on our laps, walking the pattern of spiritual devotion that the Psalmist many centuries earlier laid out for us by taking these ancient-yet-living words on our lips. In so doing, deep reservoirs of emotion open up in us. Tears fall. Joy surges. Hope returns. And even more: When our time of devotion is concluded we discover that the words of the Psalmist are, entirely on their own (so it seems), burrowing into our souls, creating new patterns of thought and feeling and action. Before long, the deep music of our days and weeks and months and years goes something like: You God, are my God, earnestly I seek you…

This is the power of the Psalter. It is one of the important reasons it is part of our canon. It speaks to us where we are but refuses to leave us where we are. The Psalms, we may say, convert us precisely by involving us—messy, complex, altogether unfinished, and full of contradictions—in the great cogent sweep of God’s redemptive work. It does this by putting words on our lips and inviting us to make them ours. John Goldingay notes that “the Bible assumes that we do not know instinctively how to talk with God but rather need some help with knowing how to do so.”

The Psalms are instruction. It’s no wonder that many have theorized that the five books of the Psalter are intended to correspond symbolically to the five books of the Pentateuch. When we come to the Psalms, we are entering the school of prayer. Martin Luther commented that the Psalms were given to us in order to help us “adapt and adjust our minds and feelings so that they are in accord with the sense of the Psalms,” which for Luther were a picture into the will of God for his people.

We are not born into this world instinctively knowing what is available to us in covenant relationship with God. But the Psalms can teach us; they “make it possible to say things that are otherwise unsayable…they have the capacity to free us to talk about things we cannot talk about anywhere else.”

The Book of Psalms dignifies our lives by converting our imaginations to a God-enriched, covenant-shaped world, fraught with challenge and yet shot through everywhere with energetic hope. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me…?” finds its completion in “They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!” (Psalm 22). The ebb and flow of desolation and exultation, of lament and praise, is the texture of the Psalms, even as it is the texture of our very lives. When we pray the Psalms, we find the music of our little peaks and valleys caught up in the great fugue of God’s historical, redemptive work.

 

Special thanks to Andrew Arndt, Glenn Packiam and Jason Jackson, and our New Life teaching team for helping write this introduction to the Psalms.

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Three Levels of Generosity

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 

Acts 4:32

I believe most Christ followers want to be givers, not just consumers. Most want to be free from the love of money and to be seen as generous with their time, their abilities and their monies. All of us instinctively know that money is a terrible god, promising us something it cannot deliver. We also see the immense needs all around us and we want to help. We really do.

Giving our money is a lot like losing weight. We have to make daily choices and be patient with the process. We have to set attainable and measurable goals with our lifestyle and spending, knowing that one day we can win the race if we will just be faithful.

There are three levels of generosity, each requiring a different level of faith and discipline.

1. Tippers

These people give the leftovers of their money. This level requires little faith and is motivated primarily by guilt or duty. They are typically inconsistent, giving only when prompted by a Pastor at a church, or by an appeal on social media. If they have money, they will give a portion, but the amount never stretches them out of their comfort zone and always makes “sense”. They love the idea of giving, but are often ill-prepared to give.

2. Tithers

These people have set aside the first 10% of their income to give to the local church. This is a huge step up from the first level, because some faith now enters the equation. These people believe that God can do more with the remaining 90% if they are willing give the first. Tithers typically give consistently and seldom have to be prompted or “motivated” to give.  These are people who have disciplined themselves to live with less money than they make. They have made some sacrifices to get to this place of generosity, which shows a great deal of maturity.

3. Extravagant Givers

While still tithing, they give even more to ministries, single parents, missionaries, and struggling neighbors. These people are super budget conscious, intentionally living below their means and setting aside money now, knowing they will have lots of chances to give later. They are attracted to bold vision and are never offended at being asked to give because they see it as a privilege and as worship.

They carry the same faith as the widow seen by Jesus in the temple giving everything. They completely believe that God owns it all and they are just stewards. They are prayerful and wise about their giving, but will not hesitate to give large percentages if God directs. This group prefers anonymity and will ask a lot of really good questions because they need details. They take their time getting to know ministry leaders and only give when they see high levels of accountability and integrity.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. – The Troublesome Prophet

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” 

Marting Luther King, Jr. 

No one likes being wrong, and we especially despise the prophets who have the audacity to show us our fallacies, misconceptions and outright errors. Growing up in the Deep South in the 1960’s and 1970’s, I was wrong about a lot of important things. We all needed a troublesome prophet to rattle our sensitivities, to upset our worldview. My generation had such a prophet.

I was a baby when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on the second floor balcony of a motel room in Memphis. He was there to protest unfair treatment of black sanitation workers. He came as a prophet and died a martyr that afternoon, killed by someone that hated his message of fairness and equality.

Our sacred Scriptures are full of prophets who confronted evil with good news. Most were not treated well. Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos, and Ezekiel all found scorn before renown.  Jesus was certainly troubling to the Jewish and Roman power establishment with his message of serving and worship. He was crucified.

We should all be grateful for Martin Luther King, Jr., for disturbing us.  He rattled our cages and caused us to argue, to rethink and to reimagine race relations. He caused us to evaluate our policies, to rewrite our laws, but more importantly, he caused us to look at the dark places of our hearts, places that would have never been exposed, except someone shine the light.

He marched through our streets, was held in our jails, and spoke in our capital, always elevating the conversation above our conventional wisdom, helping us see a better country that would only be realized if we would confront our fears and suspicions about people who looked different than us.  He transcended us because he was a prophet to us. Prophets see something different and are not fearful about pointing out unseen truths to a blinded people.

Today, we’re mired in tribalism, divided by politics, ideology, theology and geography. We’ve made remarkable progress in so many spaces only to discover that we still have miles to go in so many others. We can either grow weary in our well doing or we can redouble our efforts and plow forward. The wilderness of our culture still needs guides and pioneers.

All of us can be prophetic voices, even in a world complicated by the tangle of opinions. Each conversation, social media post, and every prayer should be saturated with the bold proclamation that Christ is King and every person created bears His image. Let us not be silent until justice comes to the oppressed and those on the margins are known, embraced and helped.

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Following the Light – A Christmas Story

When I was a boy, my dad would load up me and my younger brother in his Ford pickup on cold December evenings and we would go duck hunting in the swamps, sloughs and muddy bayous of Pace Bottom. It was only a few miles from my North Louisiana home, but to me, it was the wildest place on the planet. Pace Bottom was thousands of acres of unspoiled wilderness, ripe with stories of panthers, trophy Whitetail deer and enough ducks flying overhead to block out the winter sun.

My dad would walk us a few miles into these backwaters and position us next to a Cypress tree with my 20-gauge single shot. I was more of a duck terrorist than an assassin. Mostly, I fired at ducks that were flying by at Mach speeds and rarely did I touch even a feather. Once the sun went down, my dad would come back to me and whistle, signaling the end of our hunt.

My brother and I would fall into line behind my dad for the long, cold walk back to civilization. My dad had hunted these lands since he was a boy, so he knew the logging roads and pig trails, but invariably, we would wander off the path, finding ourselves lost. For some reason, we always had just the one flashlight that my dad carried. We would inch our way through the brush thickets as young boys, trying to stay as close as possible, because he was the only one who knew the way home.

If we followed too closely, my dad would forget we were right behind him and  he would let go of the small branches. The tiny limbs were like iced barbed wire strands and would snap back, whacking us across the face and neck. If we lingered too far behind, we could not see the path in front of us and we would stumble in the night. My dad had the only light and he was the only one who knew the way home.

 

Isaiah 9:2 NIV

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.

 

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the son of Joseph and Mary, the world looked a lot like the Pace Bottom of my boyhood. Israel was cold and dark, and danger was everywhere. There was no light to lead the people home. Maybe it was God’s intention all along to provide only one light, hoping we would stay close to him and not wander too far away.  He never promised us a pain free journey or a world where we would not stumble. He did promise to lead us though, if we would walk right behind him.

 

Psalm 119:105 NIV

“Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light for my path.”

 

Jewish people knew this passage well. It had been their song, their want and their hope for a thousand years. In fact, John opens his Gospel story describing Jesus as the Word, becoming flesh.

 

John 1:1, 5 NIV

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

 

In this season of Christmas, let’s decide to follow Jesus more closely, to find our way home from the light he has provided. We live in a dangerous world that can easily cause us to stumble. His light is enough, and His light is for us. Jesus is the only one who knows the way home.

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Jesus the Coach

My childhood was centered around coaches. My dad coached my little league teams and when I entered 7th grade, a retired Marine sergeant was my middle school basketball coach. He terrified us in practice with his gravelly voice and stony scowls.  In high school, we were led by young men wanting to prove themselves in their first jobs as head coaches. Practices were long and hard and there was no grace for bad attitudes or smart-alecky comments.

I did not always like my coaches, but I did respect them. They shaped me as a young man, pushing me to my limits at times. They often yelled and hardly ever smiled, even after a win. We learned how to be serious and focused, how to fight through pain. My parents never let me quit a team once the season started. If we joined the team then we finished the season, even if playing time diminished or the coaches yelled too much.  There was no quick escape.

Sports was also great fun. It was not all drills and grueling practices. We won a state championship and beat teams much better than us. Celebratory dog piles in the middle of the field and getting “District Champion” letter patches on my jacket are all rewards that were earned.

When I became a young man in the workplace, my coaches were replaced by bosses, who had deadlines and quotas. They spoke directly to me and hardly ever smiled. They pushed me to be serious and focused. Fortunately, the sandlots and hardwoods of my youth prepared me for this rough, new world of work. Somewhere along the way, I had learned to be coachable and teachable in my youth.

This was not true for many of the people I met in ministry and the marketplace. Coaching was tough on them as adults because they had never been challenged as children. They quit easily and complained quickly. Coaching did not feel good to them.

Jesus called together a band of untrained, and sometimes unruly men, who stopped what they were doing and followed him through the hot desert. These men were not ready to take the good news to the world when Jesus first met them, so they needed a coach.

Jesus made them a promise:

“Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” Matthew 4:19

They were not fishing for men when he met them. They were fishing for Tilapia. They spoke, acted and emoted like hardworking fishermen, accustomed to long hours in small spaces.  Their hands were rough from handling coarse nets and they certainly did not trust outsiders, much less want to give their lives to share good news with them. That would change in just three years, because Jesus was a coach.

He challenged them about their pride. He confronted their greed. He pushed them past their prejudices. He did not tolerate their thin faith.

Jesus was not a drill sergeant or a bully. He was not unkind or rude. He was sometimes angry, but never irate. He did speak directly to the problem, though. He loved his disciples enough to be honest with them. He needed them to grow up and to do better.

We all need a coach, especially ones that love and model Jesus to us. We need people who will confront our pride, our greed, and our self-centeredness  We need coaches who will make us better but not let us quit. We need jostling, disruptive language from coaches who care about us.

Ministry life is not easy but it is easy to fall into sloppiness. We need coaches and mentors who will remind us of our mission and point us to a better finishing line.

 

 

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Four Things I’ve Learned About Money From Proverbs

The Bible has a lot to say about money, possessions, and riches.  Nowhere are these topics covered more thoroughly than in the book of Proverbs. For over 30 years, I’ve found myself immersed in these passages – first as a young man trying to make a living for his bride, then as a father wanting to take care of his children, and now as a middle-aged man wanting to leave a legacy of generosity and integrity.

These four trusted sayings have been instrumental in forming my ethos about work, money and the things money can buy. Even today, these succinct passages speak strongly to me as I wander through the financial wilderness of adulthood. I hope these lessons are helpful to you, as well.

A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed. Proverbs 11:25 

God is a generous giver. That, I am certain. We cannot know God without bumping into his kindness and his extravagant gifts of grace, forgiveness, healing and hope. He gives to us, and when we start following Him wholly, we are compelled to give all we have. We do not give to get something from God, we give because we are following God. We give as worship, as a response to what we’ve already been given. We give because we have been given so much. Generosity with our time and money is one of the first signs of spiritual maturity and one of the first indications that we’re speaking with and hearing from God.

Those who work their land will have abundant food,  but those who chase fantasies have no sense. Proverbs 12:11

Very few people get rich quickly. Most wealth is earned because we spend less than we make for a really long time. Sure, there are some speculative opportunities that might flush out a quick profit, but I’ve found that people who chase quick wealth usually end up quickly broke and disappointed. If it sounds too good to be true, ask more questions, talk to wise people and proceed with extreme caution. Be faithful in the land God has given you, for a long time. Time is our friend. Do not chase fantasies or trust those who do. Lazy people look for shortcuts, but faithful people are willing to put in the work.

Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward them for what they have done. Proverbs 19:17

I’ve been poor and I’ve known poor people all my life. I remember my parents giving to others when we had very little ourselves. I also discovered early in life just how much Jesus cares about the poor. He lives and moves among them in the most remarkable ways, listening to their cries and lifting their heads.

When we use our abundance to serve the people that Jesus is living alongside, we get invited into a journey with Jesus. We realize the poor are not a problem to be solved but a people to join. (Eugene Peterson) When we engage with his work among the poorest in our communities, we find a Jesus incarnate, active, alive and speaking. The Jesus we find here cannot be found anywhere else.

One more thing. Every time we get serious about caring for the poor, we’ll always have enough resources to help them. I can tell you scores of stories of miraculous provision when the poor were being served.

A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold. Proverbs 22:1

How we get our money is much more important than actually obtaining more money. I know so many people who have traded away their integrity and reputations in the pursuit of wealth. I have heard excuses like, “This is just business” or “Only the strong will survive.” It seems, many can justify any bad behavior if it makes them another dollar.

We must always do the right thing, for the right reason, even if it costs us a profit. Our integrity is more important than any financial gain because we’re first called to be ambassadors of the Good News, carriers of the Holy Spirit. This is one of the greatest temptations we will ever face as followers of Jesus. We must get this right.

I’ve learned to ask some questions before any financial deal:

1. Is this fair to everyone, not just me?

2. Will this help or hinder my witness?

3. Will this deal open doors or burn bridges?

4. Can I tell my kids and grandkids about the details and not be ashamed?

 

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Some Thoughts on Church Security

Ten years ago, our church suffered through its darkest day when a gunmen came on our property, opened fire with an assault rifle, killing two of our teenage girls, injuring others, before taking his life in the hallway. This Sunday, I was taking a special guest to our memorial site to tell her the miracle story of our healing, when the news broke that another church in South Texas had just experienced the same horror.

A military trained man with an assault rifle with the intent to kill unarmed people is almost impossible to stop. No amount of training could have prepared that tiny church in Texas for this evil. We’re now living in a violent society where even small town America and small rural churches are not insulated from assault.

Church security was something I never heard discussed while growing up in North Louisiana. Guns were plentiful, but there seemed to be no threats to our safety in the sanctuaries of my youth. Today, the world has changed and violence is seemingly always at our doorsteps.

The sad reality is that every church should have a strategy to protect its members when they gather. We had a great plan on December 9, 2007 that saved scores of lives and today, we are even more prepared. In fact, our church may be the safest public gathering place in our city. We take it seriously.

We have learned some valuable lessons. First, every church should hire at least one uniformed police officer to be visible in the main lobby and parking lot. Every Sunday, there is a police car parked in front of our church. These off-duty officers are paid by us to be present. They are now our friends and we see them as part of our vital team each weekend. Most crime studies show that criminals can be deterred by the physical presence of the police on property. If local police are not available, hire a very visible security guard.

When we first employed uniformed police, people were concerned that church would feel unsafe, but actually the opposite has happened. So many people have personally thanked me for having the officers present, because it is so reassuring. That is a huge testimony to our local police and sheriff’s department, who both have stellar reputations in our community.

Because we live in a military town, we’re able to recruit and train dozens of men and women to serve our church as volunteers. They spend all week protecting our nation and they love serving their church the same way. They dress in plain clothes, but walk the property during our worship services, serving our people.

We live in a state that allows most people to carry concealed weapons and to carry openly if they choose. We discourage our members from bringing guns into the church. In fact, if we know someone has a weapon, we escort them out to their car and watch them put it away. We have plenty of trained and qualified people who are appropriately armed, so extra weapons are not necessary and can actually cause more harm should there be a violent episode.

We train our team to be watchful and diligent, but not obtrusive or aggressive. In fact, most of the 10,000 or so people who attend our church are not even aware of the security team, other than noticing a police car out front.  We are a church, not a sports stadium, so we do not have metal detectors, and we are not checking handbags as people enter.

Most of the violence that happens in a church is a spillover of some sort of domestic issue. Families target one another at church because they know they can be found at a certain time and place each week. Our pastors are sensitive to families going through divorce or some type of custody dispute with their children. If there’s a problem at home that could affect our church, we alert the police officer on duty. Many times, that officer has diffused conflict before it ever turned ugly and violent.

With all this attention to violence and securing our worship space, we have made sure that we have not lost our innocence along the way. We are not fearful, but we are wise. We are not downcast, but we are watchful. We gather every week, to pray our songs, to sing our prayers and to learn the Scriptures. We have chosen to forgive those who wish us harm and to bless those that speak evil against us.

Church is a holy gathering of imperfect people. People wrestling with mental health and those struggling with relationships come through our doors every day. Our security team makes it possible for them to find hope and healing in a very safe environment.

 

 

 

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The Miracle Story of New Life

The Fruit of Faithfulness: A Decade of Hope for Colorado’s New Life Church

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Bored Churches and Dragon Fireworks

My heart, O God, is steadfast;  my heart is steadfast;
    I will sing and make music.
Awake, my soul! Awake, harp and lyre!
    I will awaken the dawn.

Psalm 57:7-8

I remember exactly where I was sitting when I prayed the prayer that changed my life. On a friend’s ranch in southwest Arkansas, watching the muddied waters of the Saline River pass in front of me, I told God I was bored. It was rainy and cool, but lightning did not strike me. In fact, my prayers were met with deserved silence.

There was no reason for my stupor. My pastoral work was challenging and rich with relationships. The church where I served was reaching the lost, growing really fast, empowering leaders and giving me opportunities to serve all around the world. It seems selfish, now, for that prayer to have ever escaped my lips. God responded a year later by sending me to Colorado, on the adventure of my life. I’ve never prayed that prayer again.

We’re called to be faithful in the ordinary, but we’re not meant for lethargic living. Instead, we are Hobbits needing an adventure. When Tolkien wrote his masterpieces, the Hobbits were cast as a careful tribe of people, pious in their work, committed to their privacy and suspicious of anything that seemed disorderly or unpredictable. They were comfortable, well fed and far from any enemies that might disrupt their worshipped routines.

Bilbo Baggins is the most famous of the Hobbits – middle-aged, fond of his pipe and in love with leisure. He was certainly not thinking about killing dragons, and recovering the lost treasures of Lonely Mountain.  The wizard, Gandalf,  invited him out of his boredom and to the surprise of everyone, Bilbo followed him and discovered giant spiders, angry Orcs, and a Middle-Earth that he never imagined existed.

Today, I’m the pastor of a thriving congregation in one of the most beautiful cities in our country. The economy is booming, our team is fun and my family is on the front row every Sunday, serving the imperfect church and loving God with me. One recent Sunday morning, the congregation seemed sleepy and the sermon flat. It seemed we were getting bored with the same success that had stymied the Hobbits.

One of my favorite scenes in the Tolkien sagas, is Gandalf arriving at the retirement party with some fireworks. With a wave of his wand, fire-inspired Dragons went flying through the air. A predictable and safe party was suddenly upended by the uproar of pyrotechnics. I’m not for fireworks in church and I’m certainly not advocating hype to serve as some kind of false fuel. It seems, though, the role of pastor is to sometimes awaken the congregation, like a Gandalf, with some well-timed fireworks.

We can never berate, but we should correct, rebuke and encourage. (2Timothy 4:2) We should awaken the sleepers! We cannot allow boredom to seep into our souls. If pastors are shepherds, we should often guide the flock to green pastures and sometimes over troubled waters. Bored pastors lead bored churches, and bored churches are the Shire, where adventure and  faith take a back seat to the status quo and a debilitating comfort.

 

The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.

Romans 13:11

 

 

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Are We In Revival?

Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?

Psalm 85:6

I grew up in churches that were always praying for revival. We had “Revival Services” every year which usually meant a guest preacher came to town and we went to church every night for a week. We spent hours singing, kneeling at the altars and we anointed ourselves with enough olive oil to start a forest fire. If revival tarried, it was not for a lack of praying, attending, repenting and fasting. For some reason, the revival we were hoping for never seemed to last. It was always “close, but not quite here.”

Maybe it was our definition that was a bit off. The word ‘revival’ was never used by Jesus, Peter, Paul, James or John.  They certainly saw a church that was prone to lethargy and they prayed for a renewal of the Holy Spirit. I suspect the early church fathers were constantly fanning into flame the gifts of the Spirit, but what they really wanted was Christ. They instinctively knew if Jesus was central, the Holy Spirit would always be near.

They encouraged people to make room, every day, for more of the Holy Spirit. They wanted daily rains, not torrential floods. They wanted to be full, but not gluttonous; hungry, but not downcast. They wanted the gentle rain of the Spirit to fall every day.

Today, in our self-focused, experience saturated church culture, we seem to want a revival that may not be good for us, or even Biblical. We want the book of Acts experience, minus the 20-plus years of waiting. No, the book of Acts did not happen in a week’s worth of church services. Luke’s stories happened in multiple cities over a 20-year span, marked by the immeasurable suffering and perseverance of saints who cared little about the personal experience, but longed to be counted faithful.

At 50 years old, I’m more aware than ever of my need for the person, power, and presence of the Holy Spirit. I’m aware that I can grow cold and stale in my efforts to follow Jesus. I need constant renewal and a constant infilling of God’s power, grace and mercy. But, I’m also weary of chasing the mirage of a modern revival, probably created by own imagination or even spiritual boredom.

Maybe I’ve been chasing an experience that’s not good for me. What I need is daily bread and less hype. What I need is more silence and less noise. What I need are listening ears and fewer ultimatums. What I need is to meet God on his terms and less demands that He meet me where I want to find Him. 

For the past 20 years, in the multiple cities where I’ve lived, I’ve witnessed the sick be healed, sinners find salvation and the poor being rescued. I’ve been in countless gatherings where the Holy Spirit has been miraculously present. Maybe, I’ve been living in revival all along, but am just now getting the eyes to see it.

 

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