preparation, Spiritual Growth

The Appointed Time

 A few years ago, my husband and I, including our cousins, missed our flight to the Dominican Republic. We pleaded with the airline to let us check in since our plane had not yet arrived, but they would not budge. I was appalled by their lack of grace. The nerve of them!

Okay, okay, the nerve of us. We knew the rules—arrive two hours before departure, no refunds for a missed flight unless you have insurance (does anyone really pay extra for that?), bags should be checked online to save time at the airport, etc. We broke all of those rules.

Needless to say, our designated chauffeur was my sister whose car had been giving her trouble all week! We should’ve just called a cab, which we ended up doing anyway because my sister’s car stopped on the road. We wasted half an hour pushing the cursed vehicle to the nearest gas station, ten minutes calling other family members and friends to pick us up, and another ten minutes waiting for a taxi because those family members and friends did not pick up their phone. We ended up spending more money (for cab fare and new plane tickets) than we wanted to all because we failed to prepare and manage our time effectively.

When the disciples asked Jesus about the signs of the last days and His return, He revealed to them that there would be wars, famines, earthquakes, persecution of Christians and other tragedies. He also told them that His return would be unexpected. He said, “When the Son of Man returns, it will be like it was in Noah’s day. In those days before the flood, the people were enjoying banquets and parties and weddings right up to the time Noah entered his boat. People didn’t realize what was going to happen until the flood came and swept them all away” (Matthew 27:37-39, New Living Translation).

In true Jesus fashion, He backed up His response with a parable so that the disciples would not miss the spiritual lesson in His teachings. He told them a story about ten bridesmaids who had an important meeting with the bridegroom. When the bridegroom took too long to show up, the bridesmaids fell asleep. They were awakened by a loud announcement, “The bridegroom is coming! Come out and meet him!” All the bridesmaids got up and prepared their lamps. Five of them, who are labeled as foolish in the Bible, asked the other five for some oil. “Our lamps are going out,” they said. It’s important to note that these lamps were like torches. The others replied, “We don’t have enough. Go buy some for yourselves.” So the five foolish bridesmaids went out to buy some. But while they were away, the bridegroom showed up. The wise bridesmaids were ushered into a marriage feast and the door was locked behind them. When the other bridesmaids got back, they stood outside asking to be let in. They cried, “Lord! Lord! Open the door for us!” But He replied, “I do not know you!”

It may sound like the bridegroom was being harsh, but He gave them more than enough time to prepare for this meeting. It would have been unfair for Him to accommodate the latecomers since the others did what was required of them.

The five bridesmaids who were considered wise demonstrated their belief in Christ by keeping their lamps burning in a dark environment. The oil in their lamps represented their salvation. The five bridesmaids who were considered foolish had knowledge of Christ and His imminent return, but they did not have a relationship with Him, hence their lack of oil.

Jesus shared this parable with the disciples to teach believers like us the benefits of making the most of the time while we still have it. One way to do that is to let our light shine (or keep our lamps burning) for those who are still in the dark. Jesus was also stressing the importance of preparation. We may be able to make up for missed opportunities, such as an important flight, but we cannot redeem the time we’ve wasted on trivial things on the day of His return.

“Get ready; be prepared!” Ezekiel 38:7 (NLT)

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Against all Odds

dice“For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.” 1 John 5:4

On Father’s Day, just a few hours before the big game, NBA player Chris Bosh addressed the media about his team’s 3-1 deficit in the Finals. One reporter asked him what his attitude was going into a game where the odds were heavily stacked against the Miami Heat (no NBA franchise has ever rallied from such a hole to win the Larry O’Brien trophy). His reponse: “Odds are for people who can’t do it.” The Heat’s star Lebron James added, “Why not us? History is made to broken, why not be part of it.”

That’s a lot of confidence, but unfortunately it was not enough for Bosh, James and their teammates. They succombed to the San Antonio Spurs in a game – best-of-seven series – that many sports analysts and basketball fans described as a “jaw-dropping masterpiece.” But that doesn’t mean they haven’t defied the odds before; they are one of four teams in NBA history to have gone to the finals back-to-back four times or more. That says a lot considering how long the NBA has been around and the amount of teams that compete each year. That is why the Miami Heat can afford to be hopeful in the face of adversity…and so can we.

We have a lot of odds stacked up against us in our own personal endeavors. Research show and tell us that the ratio of Americans who go on to become billionaires are one in 785,166; one in five marriages will end within five years; the chances of a normal, healthy woman getting pregnant are only 20 to 40 percent; the odds of having identical triplets sans fertility treatments is one in every 2 million; the chances of dying from heart disease is more than one in three if your’re a woman; men have one in two chance of developing cancer; and the chances of living to 100 years of age is one in 1,000.

These statistics, including family history and past experiences (whether personal or interpersonal) cement this idea in our minds that we cannot beat the odds. As a result, when faced with challenges while trying to pursue a seemingly unattainable goal, we shrink back in unbelief, become discouraged and give up.

But a careful look at the lives of the saints in the Bible reveal that perfectly flawed humans who find themselves in compromising situations can defeat the odds as long as they trust God.

When Gideon was given the daunting task of delivering the Israelites from the aggressive Midianites the first thing he did was measure his failures against the enemy’s success. Gideon was the “least in [his] father’s house” and came from a weak clan. On the contrary, the Midianites boasted an army as numerous as the sand on the seashore and they always succeeded in their raids against Israel. How could Gideon not be afraid? An angel of God had to encourage him: “God is with you, you mighty man of valor” (Judges 6:12).

Gideon was still unsure if it was truly God asking him to combat the Midianites. He said, “Show me a sign that it is You who speak with me” (Judges 6:17). More specifically, Gideon asked God to make a piece of wool wet overnight and He did. He also asked God to keep another piece of fleece dry while making the surrounding dirt wet and God complied. Gideon finally obliged.

He assembled a formidable group of Israelite men but God commanded him to downsize lest Gideon and his crew take credit for the victory. If anyone was and is deserving of all the glory, it is God.

Gideon’s shrunk his troupe from 32,000 to 300 and they went on to defeat the Midianites. Their victory was truly an anomaly to those watching from afar because the Israelites did not boast an impressive resume. They clearly lacked the strength and size to conquer their enemy, but they had the favor of God upon them. And that was more than enough.

Like Gideon, we may become fearful in the face of adversity and begin to doubt God. In desperation, we may even seek out other options to guarantee a win. But God will always remind us, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit” (Zechariah 4:6). He knows our faith is best developed when we have done everything humanely possible only to fall short.

So He does not only use the odds to build our faith; He employs us in our vulnerable state – by His grace – to test our faith and allow us to defeat the odds for His glory.

 

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Know Better, Do Better

“Let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance for understanding proverbs and parables, the sayings and riddles of the wise.” Proverbs 5:6

Knowledge-is-Power

Reading the Bible can be overwhelming and hard to understand if you approach it literally. In fact, the complexities found in Scripture can be enough to discourage you from reading the Good Book all together.

That’s why it is important to pray and ask the Holy Spirit for guidance before you read and to attend weekly Bible services where a qualified teacher, like your pastor (you’ll know when you find one) can teach you the word of God. Otherwise, you’ll become vulnerable to false teaching and find yourself engaging in unnecessary religious activities.

A month ago, Pastor Jamie Coots from the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name Church died after a rattlesnake bit him. He was known for handling serpents during church services and became a reality TV star because of this practice. Even more disturbing, he had been bitten numerous times before – even losing a finger – but refused treatment each time. He usually recovered, but this time, he did not survive.

According to reports, Coots belonged to a small circle of Pentecostal Holiness pastors who take Jesus’ words literally: “They will pick up snakes with their hands; and if they drank any deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all” (Mark 16:18).

They view this passage as a divine commandment, demonstrate it (or a portion of it) during their church services and pass these practices down to their children, who in many cases become their successors.

But there is more to the verse than what some people, like Coots, get out of it.

In the passage (the context in which the verse appears), Jesus gave his disciples a set of instructions and prophesied about the miracles that would take place among the believers.

He said: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well” (Mark 16:15-18).

He wanted to assure them that they would be protected from all forms of danger while fulfilling his commission. The ministry of Apostle Paul is a perfect example of Jesus’ prophecy being fulfilled.

After arriving to Malta, an island, Paul built a fire to keep him and his disciples warm. While laying a bundle of sticks on the fire, a serpent came out of the brushwood and bit Paul. But Paul shook the snake off and suffered no ill effects (read Acts 28:3-5).

Paul did not go looking for the snake. The snake attacked him. Even then, he was able to continue preaching the good news, drive out demons and heal the sick. God made sure nothing hindered Paul’s work in ministry.

Perhaps through reading this passage, a lot of snake-handling pastors believe that God will spare their bodies and their lives as he did for Paul. What they fail to realize is that they are testing God’s faithfulness as opposed to allowing God to test their faith.

When Jesus had fasted for 40 days and 40 nights, the devil came to tempt him. He dared Jesus to throw himself off the edge of the temple and even used the Word of God to justify his challenge. In other words, he misconstrued the meaning of a particular verse to get Jesus to do what he wanted. He said, “For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone’ “ (Matthew 4:6).

But if anyone knew and understood the holy text better than the devil, or anyone else for that matter, it was Jesus. He replied to the devil, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’ “ (Matthew 4:7).

What Jesus did was cross-reference two different passages to reveal the depth of the verse that the devil had quoted. He was basically saying, yes, God will send angels to protect me from getting hurt, but God does not want me to intentionally get hurt just so he can prove (to me or anyone) that he will in fact protect me.

The devil certainly had no rebuttal for that!

Looking at Coots’ story, it’s easy to conclude that he was radical or perhaps even crazy. After all, there is nothing wise about handling poisonous snakes before a group of people to prove God’s presence and power.

But we can still learn something from all of this: “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). It does not come by seeing, and certainly not from being bit.

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Life began with the Word

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  John 1:1

word-of-godOne of my favorite past times is reading. Growing up, I enjoyed going to the library and checking out five-seven books a week. I always chose the thick paperbacks because I wanted my reading experience to last me a couple of weeks. I also hated to see a good story come to an end.

My favorite books to check out were from The Babysitters Club collections, including anything else by Ann M. Martin. I always got lost in the lives of the characters and pictured myself right alongside them. Reading made me feel so alive, so inspired and so creative.

Every time I finished a book, I would write a poem, a song or a short story in my journal. As I got older, I became even more fascinated with reading and writing. It was my way to escape my reality, express my true self and engage my colorful imagination. Interestingly enough, I never thought that writing would be a part of my career nor my purpose.

I started reading the Bible when I became serious about my relationship with God. I had been attending church since I was a baby. I knew about God, but nothing about Him and His love toward me. I knew He loved the world — so much so that He gave His Only Son to die for it — but I did not know that He knew me before I was in my mother’s womb and that He had great plans for my future.

Discovering this truth made all the difference. I had been wandering aimlessly, thinking the wrong thoughts, hanging out with the wrong people and doing the wrong things for a long time.

Sure, I had goals. Sure, I fantasized (indulged in daydreaming about something desired) about what I wanted my future to look like. Sure, I wanted a better life. But that’s where it stopped for me. I didn’t have the ambition to go after my dreams nor the faith that they could ever come to pass.

I accepted Christ as my personal Savior after high school. When I began to delight in the Word of God, I began to see my heart’s desires manifest. One of my dreams was to get married. My mother used to study me and my sister’s hands when we were kids. She told us the creases in our palms formed an “N.” She said that it meant “no marriage” and revealed to us that some girls had “M’s” in their palms. These girls were the ones that would someday become wives. She told us that we had inherited her curse. My father never married her even after she had us. They entered a cohabitation agreement when they began dating and never pursued a deeper level since. My mother longed for that sort of commitment. But truth be told, my father was abusive and he was a cheater. Even worse, he was not a believer like she was. They were completely, unequally yoked.

She planted a seed in me. It was a seed of failure and death, as far as relationships and finances were concerned. I watered that seed with confidence that what she said would be. I had no idea that I had subconsciously agreed to the terms of generational curses. Thank God for Jesus. When I gave my life to Him, I saw the light. I saw a way out of despair. I saw life after years of inhabiting a dead place.

I realized I had a purpose just as long as God was not dead in my life. Slowly, but surely He showed me…sometimes in dreams, sometimes through sermons, but most of the time, through the Word.

I rediscovered my passion for writing my senior year in high school. Initially, I had my mind set on becoming a doctor (pediatrician to be exact) at my parents’ request. But I knew, there was more to God’s plan for me than some worldly status quo.

Since I love movies–they are the manifestation of a written story– I decided to pursue a career in film. Things did not go as I planned. My parents could not afford to pay for my tuition, nevertheless take out a loan for me so that I could attend school at the International Fine Arts Academy in Miami. I ended up going to my local community college.

Soon after, I transfered  to another community college eight hours away from home. I was relieved at the opportunity to leave my parents’ home because their semi-marital issues began to take a toll on me. All I saw or heard was negativity. Seeing that convinced me more each day that their plight would soon become my own. Going away saved me from the noise and got me alone into a quiet place with God.

I prayed and read the Bible more when I went away. I focused better on my courses and passed them effortlessly without the added stress. I discovered what I wanted to do — become a journalist. I figured it would be the only way I could do something that I love which is writing. Also, I had developed an admiration for the evening news. Thanks to my dad, the majority of my childhood was spent catching up on local and world affairs instead of tuning in to my favorite cartoons.

When I finally graduated from college, I transferred to a university back home to pursue a Bachelor in Arts degree. I chose to live on campus to maintain some sanity. I eventually graduated in 2007 and let me say, I was excited and confident about my future. I could not wait to share news with people through writing or broadcasting (I figured a career in television would be equivalent to one in film). I did not get the job I wanted at my local television news stations, but I did land one with my local newspaper.

I started off as an editorial assistant which gave me the opportunity to publish stories about the school board. One day, my supervisor proposed an idea–for me to write about something I was more passionate about. That was easy. I love Jesus! We weren’t sure how the Editor-in-Chief would feel about a weekly religion (I like to call it my personal faith) column, but by the grace of God she obliged.

Let me just say, my column took a life on its own. Every week, I shared an experience combined with a biblical story and lesson in the paper. This generated a lot of buzz in the community. Everyone was writing me to tell me how much they enjoyed reading my articles. My supervisor and her boss said I was the only one among all the writers in the office that got so much feedback. Soon I was being invited to give lectures at retirement homes and women Bible studies.

It’s funny how God can take the foolishness of man to confuse the wisdom of man. I wanted to share news through writing and He had me doing just that. Only, it was the Good News instead of the horrid stories of debt, theft, murder and injustice!

I was grateful for the experience. The ability to encourage people and impact their lives with the Word brought so much joy to mines. It also confirmed that I was not destined for failure. God did not only prove this to me by connecting me with the man of my dreams and allowing us to get married, but He revealed it to me through all those years I spent in college and in my career.

I didn’t graduate from college in four years. It took me seven years to pass the courses (math classes) that I failed over and over, overcome health issues and a financial challenges to finally walk across that stage.

It took me a year and a half (after being jobless for two years) for me to get hired by my current employer. Every set back was literally a set up. I could not see it then, but I see God’s glory now. I am grateful to know that my mom was wrong about me and that God had me in the palm of His hands all along.

And you know what, I am not mad at my mother. She was a victim of her cultural upbringing and the dangerous environment she found herself in after she met my father. In spite of her religion, she was without hope. She didn’t have peace because she was surrounded by darkness and she lacked faith because all she saw was a dead end.

I am happy to say that she is in a prosperous place these days. My mother left my father after 27 years of being with him. She declared 2007 as the year of deliverance because my siblings and I were adults that time. She said she stayed with my father because she did not want us to be raised without structure.

As strict as my father was, I am actually thankful for the way he raised us. It was traumatizing sometimes, but God allowed it to work out for our good. We respect people as well as ourselves, we value hard work and most importantly, a good education. We didn’t have a choice growing up.

It was a great thing that my mother kept us near the cross, literally, in the midst of such turmoil. We were at church six days a week. Sometimes, we went to three different churches in one day because she kept us involved in children Bible programs that our home church could not offer. We increased in our knowledge of Christ, which set the foundation for our faith today.

All because of the Word, my life was given a chance to catch up with my destiny. All because God lives, I can finally face all of my tomorrows!