Persevere

I didn’t expect to learn such a huge life lesson when I stepped off the bus before a high school track meet my sophomore year.

It was a dual meet, so many of the kids who normally wouldn’t participate had the opportunity to run. My friend Tom was one of those kids. He was to run in the two-mile race—eight laps around the track.

Tom didn’t have much athletic ability or speed, and he was running against some fast runners. One had already qualified for the Olympic tryouts.

As soon as the race started, Tom dropped to the back. As it continued, he fell farther and farther behind—to the point that when every one of the other runners had crossed the finish line, Tom still had a full lap to run. At that point, the track meet official stepped in front of him and told him the race was over and he was to step off the track.

But Tom didn’t break stride. He simply stepped off the track and kept running. Soon the rest of us realized what he was doing—he wasn’t going to quit until he finished his race.

When he was about halfway around the track, our opponents realized what was going on. As Tom rounded the final curve, members of both teams met him, cheering him on and clearing a path on the infield of the track so he could finish. Before Tom reached the finish line, the spectators in the stadium where on their feet, cheering loudly.

I still remember his smile and look of joy as he finished his race. He was a winner, not because he won the race, but because he finished the race set before him.

That day Tom taught me what enduring to the end—persevering—really means.

Let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:1b-2).

I don’t know what your race looks like—it’s different for each of us—but it is still to be run with perseverance and endurance.

One common race is that of meeting all the needs and demands of leadership in your church’s children’s ministry. VBS, summer camps, and the missions trip are done, and now you find yourself neck-deep in the fall push and the looming demands of preparing for the Christmas pageant and special events.

Added to that is the fact that you still need three nursery workers, two children’s church workers, and “a partridge in a pear tree” (all of whom must pass your background checks) to meet your minimum staffing needs.

Or maybe your race includes juggling all the demands of family, church ministry, and your marriage while attempting to actively build relationships in the community and sharing your faith.

For some, the race seems to be run in the dark where abandonment, loneliness, and a lack of purpose are your running mates.

So how do you run the race with perseverance in these kinds of situations?

Let’s learn from the instructions in Hebrews 12:1-2. 

Lighten your load.        

Make a habit of regularly stepping back and doing a personal inventory of your life (see Psalm 139:23–24). Allow the Holy Spirit to begin to open your eyes to the amount of garbage you’ve allowed to become attached to your life and schedule. If He uncovers hidden sin, deal with it immediately. If you don’t, you are essentially trying to run your race by cheating and you will fail.

I have found that it is often the weight of the unnecessary or worthless activity that I allow in my life that holds me back in my race. I have found it beneficial is to annually keep a detailed time log during a two-week period. When I do, I am always surprised with how much time I am wasting by allowing the dribble of life to again become attached to my life. For me, this dribble includes the mindless use of social media, watching too much TV, playing games on my i-phone, and just wasting time being busy with things of no importance.

Commit to finish the race

Marathon runners don’t start the race with the attitude of “I think I will run until I get tired or until something better comes along.” They are committed to run the race to the best of their ability, with an understanding that they will face hardships, hazards, and difficulties—to endure to the end.

Sometimes while we are running the race the Lord will move us into another ministry or even cause the ministry in which we are serving to come to an end. We need to realize this is not failure on our part, nor is it the end of the race. Rather, the Lord is revealing to us that our race is on an unexpected path. We are to continue running the race, even during times of transition. 

Keep your eyes on Jesus and the example He set.

The race we are running is all about Jesus. It starts, ends, and is all about Him every step of the way. He is our reason for running this race. It is He who enables us to run it and gives us the example for us to follow.

Jesus promises to never leave us or forsake us while we are running. And He is our reward and joy at the finish line!

Through the years I have had the privilege of competing with some great athletes who set records and won awards. For the most part, I don’t even remember their names. But I do remember Tom.

Thank you, Tom Nestor, for teaching me a lesson that day. It greatly impacted my life. You are a winner!

 

Avoiding the Self-focused Gospel

Oprah Winfrey recently delivered a commencement speech at the USC school of journalism, inspiring graduates with this message: “Your life journey is about learning to become more of who you are and fulfilling the highest, truest expression of yourself as a human being. That’s why you’re here.”1 Oprah’s message exemplifies the self-focused culture in which we live. Our children are growing up in a society that tells them to find self-defined happiness through self-expression and self-made success (see 2 Timothy 3:2).

Meanwhile, many of our well meaning kids’ ministries focus their curriculum around godly character traits such as integrity, generosity, self-control, and honesty. Weekly Bible classes include lessons about “being brave like David, wise like Solomon, or forgiving like Jesus.” Whether intended or not, the self-focused message our children hear is that the Bible tells us how to be happy, successful people.

But happiness and success, whether empowered by secular self-expression or biblical lessons in self-improvement, aren’t the reason we’re here. We are here to worship and reflect the triune God, who saved us from the very self we idolize (see Psalm 86:9). Thankfully, we’ve seen a welcome return to a gospel focus in many churches—we’re talking about Jesus more! Many children’s ministries are reading Bible stories in a way that points to Jesus instead of merely promoting improved moral character.

Yet in our excitement to teach kids about Jesus, we must remember that kids can still become self-focused in their understanding of the gospel. Living in our self-centric culture, it’s easy for children to hear the gospel in a way that makes salvation all about “me”: I am special because God saved me, God helps me on my spiritual journey, God has plans for me.

It’s easy for children, just as it is adults, to see God as an important character in their story, rather than discovering their place in His story. It’s easy for their eyes to stay on their own faces, instead of beholding the face of the eternal, infinite, omnipotent, I AM (see Psalm 27:8).

So how do we avoid teaching the self-focused gospel?

We need to point our children away from the worldly focus on self to the character of God.

It’s important to teach kids the great things God has done but also who He is, because in the person and character of God lie all the answers to our life and purpose—to know, love, worship, and reflect the God in whose image we are made. Worshiping and glorifying God starts by understanding how He is completely unlike us in His self-sufficient eternal omniscience. Living out the greatest two commandments—to love God and others (Matthew 22:36–40)—starts by knowing Whom it is we love and by what example we love others.

John Milton famously said that the end of all learning is to know God, and out of that knowledge to love and imitate Him. So let’s teach our kids who God is!

Three practical steps to avoid the self-focused gospel:

  1. Teach kids who God is—study His attributes. What do our kids think when they hear the word “God”? A.W. Tozer said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” It’s important to teach children what God is like. They are curious, and we should answer their curiosity with deep truths about God’s character, which is revealed in the Bible. How is God different than us? (He is omniscient, eternal, infinite). (We can exhibit mercy, truthfulness, faithfulness). Children’s hearts are soft soil; their small souls are craving to know the God who made them.

  And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (John 17:3, ESV).

  1. Encourage kids to read the Bible, looking for “clues” about who God is. Help kids understand that the Bible not only teaches us how to live, but through His Word, both written and incarnate, God tells us about Himself! Once, they’ve learned the attributes of God, help them look for those attributes in each story or lesson. God has revealed to us some of who He is, and we have the privilege of with His Spirit to guide us.

          You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:13, ESV)

  1. Teach kids to praise God when they pray. So often children learn to pray by asking God for what they want and then thanking God for what He gives. Praise and adoration is easy to leave out, perhaps in part because our kids haven’t yet experienced or understood the multi-faceted nature of who it is they are praying to. When kids learn the character of God, they can learn to thank God for more than just His gifts; they have reason to praise Him for who He is!

“Praise the Lord! Praise, O servants of the Lord, praise the name of the Lord!” (Psalm 113:1, ESV)

The important role we have as children and youth ministries workers:

Holocaust activist and survivor Corrie Ten Boom famously said, “If you look at the world, you’ll be distressed. If you look within, you’ll be depressed. If you look at God you’ll be at rest.” Children and youth ministry workers are uniquely positioned to point the hearts of children away from the world, beyond themselves, to the soul filling gospel and character of God.

Lydia is the author of The Attributes of God. The Attributes of God for kids is a devotional or curriculum resource for kids ages 4-11. With 64 full color pages, this bright, engaging book walks through 10 unique and 11 moral attributes of God’s character. http://attributesofgodforkids.com/ 

1 https://www.eonline.com/news/934704/9-most-inspiring-quotes-from-oprah-winfrey-s-usc-commencement-speech

Shh

Does anyone else notice that the voices of our culture are getting louder? I don’t mean the message. I mean the voices. The voices are loud. They are strong. Sometimes filled with high-octane, celebratory energy. More often they are angry and disagreeable. The intense volume of voices sets some alarm bells off for me, because our children are exposed to more media than ever before. Although I have no hard evidence to support my claim, I will say it all the same, because I believe common sense accepts my conclusion—voices are getting louder.

When my children were little there was a new cartoon show featuring a character with a knapsack, a map, a multi-ethnic worldview, and an adventurous spirit. I should have loved this character, but I could not enjoy the show at all. To my ears it sounded like the main character was yelling. All. The. Time. Oh, how I longed for the dulcet and calming voice of that friendly neighbor, Fred Rogers.

When I first began children’s ministry it was at summer camp. I was told I was a natural fit. I had a clear, strong voice that commanded attention and that kids would follow. This voice was every camp director’s dream. It is true that when working with large numbers of kids I still bring out that loud, rallying voice from time to time. But, oh, how I long to work more frequently at engaging kids with a hushed, quiet, yet inspiring voice.

In a culture that puts loud voices on TV programs, YouTube clips, and even in church leadership positions, I wonder—how do we help kids learn to listen to the still small voice of God? It is a worthy question given our “louder is better” social environment. I wonder upon this today, and invite your wondering too. This is what I am pondering:

1) Redeeming Quiet Time. Spend enough time in children’s programming and you will come to observe a noticeable absence of quiet times. The logic, I suppose, has been that a busy kid is a happy kid—and I agree. While I in no way bring criticism toward well-programmed children, I do desire to see us redeem the notion of quiet time. Quiet time is too often focused on making kids be quiet. What would it look like if instead quiet time was redeemed to be a time when kids are invited to become extraordinary listeners? Passionate intercessors? Deep thinkers? Filled with questions? Imagining what God imagines? Quiet time can be highly effective in building a dynamic children’s program, but it will never happen accidentally. Quiet time will require explanation, invitation, and freedom for experimentation.

2) Increasing Dynamic Range. It is all too tempting to hop on board the loud voices train. As a trained musician, I became aware that one of the best ways to highlight a crescendo (getting louder) is to precede it with a decrescendo (getting softer). This is the effective employment of dynamics. So too in our children’s programming, I wonder what it looks like to increase our dynamic range? We are likely already good at making loud voices louder. How are we doing at the other dynamic settings? Are big, compelling presentations countered with moderate volume group dialogue? Are quieter exchanges made easier to enter into with silent contemplation? What is your current dynamic range? What would it take to widen the range? My guess is the most opportunities to expand exist toward quiet and silent times.

3) Expect God to Speak. I will only speak for me, but if I’m honest, I often find these quiet times a challenge because of my doubts that God will speak, or move, or in anyway honor the efforts of kids to engage in this counter-cultural activity of silence. To this I have only one reflection to offer: God is so much bigger than my doubts. Time after time these opportunities result in genuine spiritual encounters that the kids are eager to share about. I will add that time after time there are also kids that feel nothing but frustrated by the exercise. Still I am encouraged in my faith as I hear what God is actively working out in the lives of those who are learning to expect His presence. These gentle engagements are worth any temporary discomfort in trying something unfamiliar. God speaks all the time. How are we shaping kids to expect to hear His voice?

It just may be that wrestling with these ideas will help shape how a generation draws near to God in intimacy and with expectant hearts. How do we foster opportunities for children of all ages to encounter truth that comes quietly, insight that comes calmly, direction that comes in silent spaces? Shh. Let us listen together. Quietly. What is the Lord saying?

Bread for Today

Why Only Jesus Satisfies Our Hunger

I have felt lately that God is trying to teach me a lesson, and I’m trying to avoid having to learn it the hard way. My heart has been hungry, and I haven’t been able to put my finger on what it is that I’m starving for. I think what God’s trying to teach me is that Jesus is my daily bread.

I’ve always struggled with worry and depression, so I tend to shut down when the to-do list stretches into the distant horizon, and I can’t find rest anywhere in it. My heart, mind, and soul are hungering for something; and it’s not something I can provide for myself.

As I read the Old Testament, I see how God provided manna for the Israelites – but only a day’s worth. The people tried to provide for themselves and gather extra (against his instructions), and it rotted and became inedible. God knew his people. They had a reputation of turning from God every time they didn’t feel they needed him anymore. So, in his mercy, he gave them this act of daily dependence for their most basic need…for daily bread. They needed a need to keep their eyes focused on their Provider.

In Deuteronomy 8:3 we read, “He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” Fast forward to the Gospels where Jesus quoted this verse to Satan to resist the temptation to turn stones into bread to ease his hunger (Matthew 4:1-4).

And just before the passage in which Jesus taught about why we don’t need to worry or be anxious (Matthew 6:25-34), He taught us to pray, saying, “Give us today our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11).

When Jesus sees thousands of hungry people he miraculously, mercifully multiplies food to feed everyone. So, the next day they come back looking for the same physical provision. Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (John 6:51).

There is a thread throughout scripture that begs us to see that the hunger in every heart is satisfied only through consuming the gift of Jesus’ body, which was broken for us. Jesus Christ. Living Bread. Broken and offered freely to all who would eat.

He is the daily bread he told us to ask the Father for. We need Jesus, the Word made flesh, to be the thing we need today.

I don’t know about tomorrow…but is Jesus enough for today? If God provided me with nothing else today, would He be enough? I think this is the reason Paul could say that he’d learned to be content, or full, in all circumstances, whether plenty or need – because as he said, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength [or feeds, nourishes me]” (See Philippians 4:11-13, inserted words mine).

Most of us have never wondered if we’d have food to eat tomorrow. We seek out food at the slightest hint of hunger. Don’t we need to hunger for Jesus in EVERY circumstance so much more?

What I am learning from all of this is:

Since Jesus is our daily bread, we:

“Never again will they hunger;

    Never again will they thirst.

The sun will not beat down on them,

    Nor any scorching heat.

For the Lamb at the center of the throne

    Will be their shepherd;

He will lead them to springs of living water.

    And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

 

How do you need Jesus to be what you need for today? If you know you have Jesus, can you get through today? Is He enough?

I’m praying that the hunger in our hearts would drive us to Jesus and that we would also break the Bread of Life with others.

Dependent on Him,

Whitney Julian