Consider the Birds

Consider the Birds

I was awake at 3:30 in the morning. My mind racing as it’s been doing non-stop the past few weeks or so. Certain realities of life that have mostly felt concrete, prior to very recently, are suddenly gone or simply up in the air. Where will it all land? We don’t know, is what the professionals keep saying.

As my mind flitted about from one worry and prayer to another the sound of birds relentlessly pecked at the door of my thoughts. Why are the birds chirping at this hour? I moaned while fluffing my pillow for the countless time. Don’t they know it’s the middle of the night!

Scientists call this early morning bird singing the dawn chorus, which is most noticeable in spring when birds are migrating or mating. The name dawn chorus sounds so delightful except when you’re trying to sleep in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. And, yet, maybe this is the point: singing in the middle of a storm, reaping during a time of scarcity, staying on mission. Maybe the birds have something to teach us after all, I mused.

CONSIDER THE BIRDS

Before I could complete the thought I realized it’s not actually the birds but Jesus who has something to teach us through the birds. The comforting lesson found in Matthew 6:25-26 that Jesus delivered over 2,000 years ago about the birds of the sky feels particularly meaningful right now.

“Therefore I tell you: Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothing?  Consider the birds of the sky: They don’t sow or reap or gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth more than they?”

Some translations say look at or observe the birds. The Greek word means to look intently. In other words, we’re to reflect on them, really think about how they go about their lives, and then listen to what Jesus is telling us about our own, and about our heavenly Father’s provision. We notice from Jesus’ teaching that the birds don’t sow, reap, or store, which are have to do with our ability to plan.

Yesterday I sowed seed in my backyard garden and I checked the seed packet for the section that says, days to maturity. This tells me when I can reap the lettuce, kale, and spinach I planted. Sadly, my little raised beds don’t produce enough for me to store anything in barns (I’ll let you know when I’ve reached that level), but if I could store, I would. Planting, reaping, and harvesting require reason and foresight.

HOW MUCH MORE ARE YOU WORTH?

Point being, we humans have the faculties to plan, save, invest, freeze the ground beef until we need it in a few weeks. The birds cannot do this! They live day to day, meal to meal, worm to worm (ne’er was there a pleasanter thought). And still they are fed. Still, they are nourished. Still they have enough for their chicks.

How can this be? Jesus wants us to ask ourselves. He quickly answers. Because we have a heavenly Father who feeds them. And that heavenly Father isn’t just the Father of the birds; He is your heavenly Father. And how much more are you worth to Him than the birds? The answer is clear: infinitely more.

During this season where what you sowed might have just disappeared, or what you reaped is no longer enough to be stored into barns, or what you had in your barns was supposed to be for tomorrow but now needs to be for today, you can have confidence your Father will take care of you. This is not pie in the sky theology, but an evident truth seen in the fabric of nature of which God is the Creator.

YOU MAY BE PART OF GOD’S PROVISION

It’s natural to think, well, what about those who are homeless? Those in poverty? Those who go hungry? Part of what Jesus is demonstrating is a general principle that stems from God’s generous care of creation found in Genesis 1­–2. Jesus reminds us of this care by pointing to two everyday examples, birds and flowers.

Generally speaking, the birds of the air have food, and the flowers of the field are beautifully clothed. Through them we see the fundamental goodness of God, His care for creation, and the ways we can witness this in everyday life. Jesus wants us to remember that we’re infinitely more valuable to Him than birds and flowers and that He will provide for us in even more abundant ways.

In addition, if we go back to Matthew 5:13-16, we see that Jesus calls us to be salt and light, and to do “good works” for others, which can also be understood as “tangible deeds of mercy.” And if you go back to Matthew 6:19-24, Jesus teaches radical generosity. We can look to countless parts of Scripture where God clearly calls His people, His church, to meet the needs of the hungry, hurting, and homeless.

While God is generous in His care for us through creation, we as the church are part of His answer in meeting the needs of the world around us. We are part of God’s generous provision for others.

While God is generous in His care for us through creation, we as the church are part of His answer in meeting the needs of the world around us. We are part of God’s generous provision for others.Click To Tweet

You may be in a time of need where you’re trusting God and His provision. Or you may be in a time of abundance and He’s calling you to give to others. No matter what season you’re in, my prayer is that in the middle of the night, in the middle of unprecedented times, when we hear the birds chirping with purpose and delight, we will remember the words of Jesus and so add our hallelujahs to the dawn chorus.

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WAYS TO STAY CONNECTED AND TO GIVE

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The Nearness of God in Uncertain Times

The Nearness of God in Uncertain Times

If you’re anything like me over the past few weeks you’ve been vacillating between a confident trust in God and waves of panic and fear. For those of us who are Christ followers we want to trust the Lord but we get tripped up on wondering what exactly we can trust Him for—can we count on Him to spare us from looming hardship and make sure everything turns out okay on our terms? We know He’s bigger, greater, higher, stronger, but what does that mean for the very real and ominous threats we’re facing?

I’ve been reflecting on the account of Jesus calming the storm that threatened to overtake His disciples in Matthew 8:23-27. Since I think we can collectively agree we’re in a pretty big storm right now, I think this a timely passage that helps solidify what Jesus has promised us.

THE NEARNESS OF JESUS

“As [Jesus] got into the boat, his disciples followed him. Suddenly, a violent storm arose on the sea …” (vv. 23-24).

Right away we find it’s possible to be a follower of Jesus who follows Him straight into a storm. This is something we don’t talk enough about. The context is also important. Right before this story Matthew tells us of two other “disciples” who wanted to follow Jesus but who either didn’t count the cost of following Him or didn’t count the value. Regardless of their hang-ups, those two were safe on the shore while the true Christ followers were scrambling for their lives in the storm tossed boat.

My fears get the best of me when I believe that God delivering me from the storm is more valuable than His presence with me in it.Click To Tweet

But—and this changes absolutely every single detail of the story—the disciples who were in the storm were also the ones who were in the boat with Jesus. My fears get the best of me when I believe that God delivering me from the storm is more valuable than His presence with me in it. We don’t know what today or tomorrow holds, but we can lean into the unshakable reality that He is with us and promises to never leave us. He is able to comfort, speak, guide, and offer peace in tumultuous times.

THE GODNESS OF JESUS

We’ve often used this story to assure others and ourselves that God will calm the storms in our lives. And He certainly can, no question! He’s done it over and over in my life. But I think there’s more to the story here. I appreciate what Dr. Craig Blomberg says, “…the focus of this passage remains squarely Christological—on who Christ is, not on what he will do for us.”1

In Psalm 89:8-10 the psalmist describes Almighty God as the One who is able to rule the raging sea and still the surging waves. The disciples would have known from the Old Testament that the only One who had power over nature was The Lord of Hosts. By rebuking the wind and the waves Jesus was showing His disciples that He is God!

This doesn’t mean that Jesus won’t do mighty things for us during uncertain and troubling times. Of course He will. But what we can absolutely count on during the trials in our lives is that Jesus is God Himself. He alone holds the power over storms, viruses, stock market crashes, and our personal health and finances. It brings me great comfort to remember that just as He brought the wind and waves under His control, so any other storms He rebukes must also obey.

THE HOPE OF JESUS

The other night I read this story out of a children’s Bible to my 9-year-old nephew, Will. He said, “If I was in that storm I would have woken Jesus up and asked Him to read me a bedtime story, because I would know everything was going to be okay since Jesus was there.” And Will’s not wrong. But the question he will wrestle with later in life is, what does it mean for everything to be okay?

My prayer is that he will continue to understand that in Jesus everything will ultimately be okay because of the enduring hope we have in Him. And because of Jesus’ ultimate power over death, sickness, and evil, one day all will be made right and we will dwell with Him forever. In the meantime, He is present in us and through us now to bring redemption here on earth.

We hear this ring of hope in Jesus’ question to His disciples, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” (vs. 26.) I think Jesus was trying to communicate to His followers, though not yet in full, that they were ultimately safe because He had come to conquer the storm of sin through His death and resurrection. He had them once and for all whether He stilled the immediate storm of the moment or not. And He has us both now and forever.

1 Blomberg, C. (1992). Matthew (Vol. 22, p. 150). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.​

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Slow and Steady Faithfulness in the New Year

Slow and Steady Faithfulness in the New Year

As we untangle the lights from the tree, store our precious ornaments in the attic, and make tentative plans to come off sugar at least until the second week of January, many of us will make resolutions for the coming year.

Charting plans and making goals at the top of the year seem like wisdom to me—no time like January to consider what we want to do with a fresh beginning. But what will prove more significant than the one or two major tasks we hope to accomplish this coming year will be our small, daily, faithful acts of obedience to Jesus. These are what will make a far greater difference in our lives when we pull those lights back out next year (and half the bulbs aren’t working). Our daily obedience to Christ in the seemingly small and hidden places will also put us in the best position to experience our Savior.

ZECHARIAH, ELIZABETH, AND THE NEW YEAR

Though we tend to think of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s account in Luke 1 as a Christmas story, their faithful obedience is also a good New Year’s one. Luke goes out of his way to detail how good and faithful these two servants were (Luke 1:6). He also goes out of his way to detail the plight they bore as a childless couple (Luke 1:7). Can you imagine how many times Zechariah showed up for work for his daily tasks as one of 18,000 priests? Or how many times he ran through his ritualistic duties, offered a sacrifice, or prayed for a worshipper, meanwhile wondering when God was ever going to answer his and Elizabeth’s own prayer for a child? Not to mention their prayers for a long-awaited Redeemer to come and rescue their people. Elizabeth and Zechariah’s daily obedience was being worked out when it’s most difficult to obey—in their trials and longings.

 
How many times do we tire of taking the next right step or simply doing the next thing we know we’re supposed to do? The regular and sometimes mundane tasks of the day can seem like the least likely place for God to show up. And yet isn’t it true that most of the supernatural happenings we read about in the Bible took place in the middle of someone’s otherwise “normal” circumstances. While supernatural happenings solely belong to God, our daily faithfulness and obedience tend to put us in the places where we’re most likely to encounter Him. This is exactly what happened to Zechariah and Elizabeth.
 

A LONG OBEDIENCE IN THE SAME DIRECTION

After decades of serving, Zechariah was chosen for a special task of service in the Lord’s temple. This sacred opportunity came around once in a priest’s lifetime. As Zechariah was burning incense and the priests were outside the temple praying, an angel of the Lord appeared to him and said, “Your prayer has been heard.” Those words changed everything for Zechariah and Elizabeth. All those steps of quiet obedience, every faithful act, every uttered prayer had led to this moment. I’m not talking about works-righteousness here or the false idea that if you do the right thing you’ll earn a blessing. No. I’m talking about how much the Lord delights in a long obedience in the same direction (as Eugene Peterson wrote about), and how our small acts of daily devotion make a difference over the long haul.

As we begin a new year, do you find yourself praying the same prayers you were praying last year? Are you wondering if your daily faithfulness and obedience are really worth it? Zechariah and Elizabeth’s story should give you confidence. Not in your ability to be righteous and blameless, but in God’s power to accomplish His good work in your life. Not in your strength to crush the goals on your list for the new year, but in His grace to empower you to take daily steps of obedience, even when they seem small and insignificant. After all, God has been known to show up in the most unexpected places. And we want to be there when He does.

 

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Bible Studies For Your New Year

Bible Studies For Your New Year

As we head into the New Year I hope you’re making plans to study the Bible. So many wonderful tools and options are available and the most important thing is that you choose something and commit to it. If one of my studies could be of help to you I’d love to come alongside you. As you think about what you might want to study, here’s a little information about each of the studies I’ve written and the heart behind writing them.

Finding God Faithful: A Study on the Life of Joseph

I loved getting to write on Joseph’s life because he’s one of the most beloved in all of Scripture. His story has fascinated me since I was a little child sitting in Sunday School. As I’ve grown, so have both my joys and pains, which is why I love Genesis 37-50 even more. Joseph’s story welcomes us with open arms, summons us into the living room and invites us to sit down awhile and listen. So many have found a dear companion in Joseph because his life displays so much of the human experience. We all “get” Joseph on some level. We can relate to him. We’ve probably never owned a multi-colored robe that nearly cost us our lives, or traveled as a slave by camel to a foreign land, but we understand difficult family relationships. We’ve experienced betrayal. We know unfair. Broken dreams have nearly sunk us. And almost every one of us has wondered at some point in our lives, where is God?

Joseph’s story doesn’t necessarily answer all of our questions, but biblical stories rarely do. They actually accomplish something more important. They reveal truths about God, our world, and ourselves, and in doing so sweep us into the much bigger story that’s being told: The saving story of Jesus. No matter what season you’re in, Joseph’s story speaks to all of us. (Teaching videos are available for this study, as well as a teen version.)

No Other Gods: The Unrivaled Pursuit of Christ

People often ask me what my favorite study was to write. While my favorite is typically whatever I’m writing at the time, No Other Gods is definitely what I would call my life-message. It’s the most personal of all the studies I’ve written because I struggled and fought this one out with the Lord years before, and even while, I was writing it. I was thankful to recently add teaching videos to No Other Gods while updating the content because no journey has been more full of blessing and freedom than the journey of turning from the things I’d put my hope and trust in (my personal idols), and being obedient to Jesus. There is nothing and no one like Him.

In this study we’ll spend a good amount of time looking at the Israelites, since they had so much experience with idolatry, while also jumping to the New Testament for a good measure of the power and freedom and healing we have in Christ. If you only do one of my studies, I would encourage you to do this one. (Teaching videos are available for this study.)

All Things New: A Study on 2 Corinthians

I was initially drawn to this letter because of Paul’s thorn in the flesh and the sufficiency of Christ that met him in the midst of his trial. But I realized how much more there was to 2 Corinthians. For starters, the city of ancient Corinth was much like our own modern-day cities. It was a melting pot of electrifying cultural experiences, along with the myriad pitfalls of spiritual depravity. Still, Paul wrote to the church of God in Corinth. Consider that—God’s church in the middle of a booming culture. Through Paul’s letter we see that God’s church is meant to thrive in any city and every circumstance, making his message as timely as ever.

If you’ve never studied 2 Corinthians before here are a few things we’ll explore: What it means to bear treasures in jars of clay; How to meet Christ through a pressing trial; How to open your heart in the midst of hurtful relationships; What it means to embrace the lost and lonely; The joy and adventure of living generously; And perhaps what was most meaningful to me, what it means to live as ministers of the new covenant (the new covenant changes everything, by the way). Because of Jesus the old has gone, the new has come. 2 Corinthians is a great book for the new year and new beginnings. (Teaching videos are available for this study, as well as a teen version.)

What Love Is: The Letters of 1, 2 & 3 John

I was drawn to John’s letters because he speaks refreshingly in absolutes. He tells us what we can know about God and what we can be certain of. He draws straight lines between truth and lies, light and dark, and loving God versus loving this temporal world. John’s letters were written to encourage followers of Jesus to remain faithful to the truth, a message that’s as relevant and needed as ever.

I also love John’s emphasis on the meaning of true fellowship and community. He was big on us loving God and walking in the light in the context of rich community. And I learned a great deal about the doctrines of the Christian faith, which can sound academic, but when pressed into our daily lives are more grounding and hopeful than I could have imagined. John was all about the unfathomable love of Jesus, and he wanted you and me to know Him more than anything else in this world. (Teaching videos are available for this study.)

Nehemiah: A Heart That Can Break

Nehemiah had always been taught to me from a leadership angle (which it does lend itself to), but as I began studying it I realized it’s a book about missions. Nehemiah’s heart for the hurting, suffering, and poor stands out in dramatic fashion as he leaves the comfort and security of the Persian palace for the broken down city of Jerusalem. Nehemiah’s heart for the oppressed and suffering is a reminder to the church that we’re to be the hands and feet of Jesus.

While writing this study I was also working a good deal with a ministry in the Amazon Jungle. The Lord showed me a lot about how Nehemiah’s story is relevant to the work that needs to be done today all over our world. This study addresses teamwork, integrity, generosity, truth in culture, God’s compassion, and much more. It was one of the most practical and tactile studies I have gotten to write. Discover what God has put in your heart to do through the study of Nehemiah’s story. Let God break your heart for the lost and hurting, because a breaking heart is often what God uses to restore the broken. (Teaching videos are available for this study.)

Ruth: Loss, Love & Legacy

Now this study may actually be my favorite. It practically wrote itself, because what more can you add to the book of Ruth? While it has all the elements of an epic story of love and redemption, God as the hero of the story is unmistakable and points us to the coming Messiah as clearly as any Old Testament book does. Plus, it shows us how God is always at work in our lives even when we can’t see it (or how it’s right in front of our face and we just don’t want to accept it). If you’ve ever been devastated by loss, struggled as a stranger, or longed to be loved you’ll find a place with Ruth. She is one of my very favorite women in the Bible. And the way God shows Himself present and faithful—when life’s circumstances seem anything but—is profoundly hopeful and encouraging. (No teaching videos available for this study, so more time to discuss with your group.)

A Place at the Table: Fresh Recipes for Meaningful Gatherings

Okay, so this isn’t a Bible study. Not even close. But it is a great way to get cooking and cultivate community in the New Year! I wrote this cookbook with my dear friend and accomplished chef, Regina Pinto, and it’s a lot more than a cookbook. I had the chance to write about my own life, share gardening and hosting tips and tricks, and also reflect on how nourishing people around our tables fills both bodies and hearts. If you’re wanting to reach out to others in the new year, invite people over, and cook more, I hope you’ll grab a copy of this cookbook. (Hint: the best deal on A Place at the Table is at Amazon.com, LifeWay.com, Barnesandnoble.com)

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A Place at the Table For You

A Place at the Table For You

Day 1: Preparing Our Hearts

As we seek to turn our hearts to the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ, I pray these devotionals will be an encouragement to you, an anchor in a season that thrives on busyness and activity (and materialism while we’re at it.) For some of us the Christmas season is truly one of our favorite times of the year, yet we can blink and miss everything that matters about it. For others, it’s a challenging time when we’re reminded of what we don’t have or all the ways our Christmas can’t measure up to our ideal. No matter how you’re entering the season, we can all find hope and refuge by turning our hearts to the Christmas story and the life-changing message of Jesus. 

We often think that Jesus’ birth begins the Christmas story, but there’s a story before the story. Luke 1 opens with a couple named Elizabeth and Zechariah. Both were from distinguished Jewish lines and both were righteous people who earnestly followed God’s commands. What’s more, Zechariah was a priest in the house of the Lord. In modern terms these are the people who can trace their ancestors back to missionaries or church-planters, who teach the kids in Sunday School, who always have a casserole ready for the neighbors. We love these kinds of people, and if we’re honest we expect that the really good guys should enter Christmas blessed in all the ways we think of as blessed. 

But there was a problem. An ache. A prayer that had long gone unanswered. Luke 1:7 tells us that Elizabeth and Zechariah had no children. Elizabeth was barren, and both of them were old and past child bearing years. Not being able to bear children in first century Judaism was a deep grief not only because of the obvious void, but also because it cost you your legacy in Jewish culture. You were unable to carry on your family name and line. In many ways, it cost you your status in society and even your standing in your religious circle.  

We’d expect Luke to write that because they were righteous God blessed them with a large family, filling every room in their home with children. But that’s not what the verse says. Something that’s always stood out to me about this story is the way Luke puts Zechariah and Elizabeth’s blameless walk before the Lord right up against their barrenness (Luke 1:6-7). I think Luke wanted to tell us many things here, but one is that just because you’re going through a trial doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong. And just because you’ve prayed a prayer that hasn’t been answered yet doesn’t mean God has abandoned or forgotten about you.

Scripture Reading and Questions for Reflection:

Read Luke 1:1-7.

  • According to verses 3-4, why did Luke write the way he did and what did he want his readers to feel confident about?

  • What two reasons does Luke give for why Zechariah and Elizabeth couldn’t have children (verse 7)?

  • Are you going through something that seems impossible for more than one reason? What are they?

  • Does it encourage you or discourage you to see that two really good people who were following the Lord also were experiencing a painful void in their lives? Explain.

DO YOU NEED A FRESH WORD?

DO YOU NEED A FRESH WORD?

For the past year and a half, I’ve been positively captivated by Matthew’s Gospel, specifically how he crafted the material about Jesus’ life in between Matthew 4:23 and 9:35. What Matthew states in 4:23 he repeats in 9:35: Jesus went all over Galilee “teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.” Matthew tells us in both verses what he shows us in between—that Jesus’ ministry was made up of both healing and teaching. In Matthew 5-7 we get Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (the teachings of Jesus), and in chapters 8-9 we get an assortment of His miracles and healings.

MORE THAN MIRACLES

I’ve been moved and inspired by Matthew’s writings because he’s reminded me that Jesus’ teachings are as majestic as His miracles. So often I’ve prayed for Jesus to move spectacularly in my life and the lives of others, to do the marvelous, to work miracles. But do I see the power of His teaching, and incidentally my obedience to His Word, as important as His supernatural workings? For clarity, I think it is good and right for us to long and pray for Him to do great and mighty things that are absolutely outside of our abilities to accomplish. After all, Matthew goes out of his way in chapters 8 and 9 to highlight the extraordinary power and authority that Jesus has over sickness, disease, darkness, and sin. They’re astounding chapters that I’ve benefited from reflecting on and studying over the past several months. But we can’t forget that Jesus’ teachings are as powerful as His miracles. They both hold tremendous power to change our lives.

ASTONISHED AT HIS TEACHING

After Jesus gave His Sermon on the Mount, Matthew records that “The crowds were astonished at his teaching” (Matthew 7:28). Jesus taught with a power and authority that the crowds had never before experienced. He spoke with a conviction the scribes and Pharisees couldn’t begin to rival. Jesus’ miracles were astounding to the crowds, but so were His words! Being reminded of the preeminence of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s gospel has inspired me to better learn from Christ, not only so He can change my life, but also so I can articulate His words to others. I’m thinking of the broken marriages around me, the fractured friendships, the jealousy that festers and steals our joy, the unforgiveness that robs us of moving forward. Wherever we find ourselves Jesus has hopeful and restorative words for us—we must listen and put them into practice.

To emphasize this truth, a bit later in Matthew’s gospel Jesus says, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). I was freshly reminded of the significant place that learning from Jesus must have in our everyday lives. Our rest, restoration, and direction are dependent upon it. Sometimes we want the miracle when the miracle is that God spoke to us through His Son Jesus, and we simply need to listen and obey.

No doubt Jesus calls us to a radical obedience of loving those who have betrayed us, putting away our anger, making things right with our neighbor, forgiving as we’ve been forgiven, ceasing to worry, generously giving, and so on… We can’t miss that the grace Jesus gives us to obey His words is a miracle in itself.

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