Bad news? You can go from mourning to great joy!

Broken walls. Broken hearts. The story of the People of God from Nehemiah.

Do you remember a time when your heart was so broken you cried for days? You mourned and wept without ceasing? Maybe a spouse or child had died? Maybe something horrible happened to a friend? Maybe you moved across the land only to find that that which was supposed to be beautiful, turned out to be awful. It’s hard to weep and mourn for so long, isn’t it? It’s a challenge to recover from news that is so devastating, right? That’s my story.

My name is Nehemiah. And I was a cupbearer to the king, a wine steward.

I worked in the palace of the King in Susa. All of us Jews were scattered like the wind. Some were in exile, like me hundreds of miles away from our home. But the times had changed, some had weathered the exile in the Land and others had the good fortune to return to the beloved City of David.

My brother was one of those who had an opportunity to visit Jerusalem recently. Upon his return, I asked him about our fellow Israelites. I was hopeful that life in Judah was going very well. Deep in my soul I longed to return to the land of our roots.

The news from Hanani broke my heart. He said those who were there were in bad shape, adding that the conditions there were appalling. The walls of Jerusalem were in rubble. The city gates burned and in cinders. The city was unprotected and vulnerable.

What?

But hadn’t the people returned under Zerubbabel under the direct order of King Cyrus to rebuild the temple? Wouldn’t they have rebuilt the walls too? At that moment I was brought to my knees. I realized that the People of Israel, including me, had sinned greatly against the God of Heaven. We had built our own houses before building His house. We married foreign wives. We turned our backs against Him.

After all He had done for us. For years we didn’t even worship Him. And now, the walls of Jerusalem had been attacked. The gates were burned. And all the work and effort of the people to rebuild would be for naught. And more importantly God’s glory would be tarnished by us, his selfish children.

I wept for days. I couldn’t believe how the people had sinned against God… and I counted myself in that group as well.  We hadn’t followed His commands. I was a broken man with a broken heart.

I fasted. I prayed. I humbled myself before God. He gave me a plan. He told me that I should personally see to the rebuilding. Me? But where would I get the funds to rebuild the walls of great city of Jerusalem? Who would help? And what about those who would plot evil against this plan, and thwart our effort?

I love God. I trust God. So, I asked Him to move in the heart of King Artazerxes.  When I asked the monarch of this distant land, and others, to help me… God granted me favor! And the walls were rebuilt in record time. But more than that, the hearts of the people of Israel were rebuilt as well!

There was sadness. There was prayer. Then there was hearing from God. Then there was action. And finally, there was great, great joy!

Some of the words, actions and thoughts, perhaps, of Nehemiah, from the book in the Bible that bears his name.

This story opens with sorrow and mourning… and a call to God to please forgive our stubborn ways. And I wonder, who mourns today for that which breaks God’s heart? Who mourns for the most vulnerable of children? Who mourns that our nation turns away from God? Who mourns with the widow?

But Nehemiah’s story didn’t end there… no… when the people had ears to hear… and when they acted with courageous faith, this story ends with great joy!

And that’s our story, isn’t it?  That’s the truth of the Gospel. When you align your life to God’s word, when you are obedient after hearing from God, there is joy!

If you are in a season of mourning… a season where your heart is broken… let Jesus and His Holy Spirit rebuild your broken heart, your broken life.  He can do it. He will do it!

 

This is an excerpt of a sermon based on Chapter 21 of THE STORY. You can watch it here.

 

 

(c) 2017 Rich Ronald.

The Secret to Solomon’s Wisdom? Hearing God.

"Shema Israel. Hear o Israel." Solomon asked to hear God.

“Shema Israel. Hear o Israel.” Solomon asked to hear God.

Whenever we think of Solomon we think of wisdom, right? We say that he asked for wisdom so God gave him wisdom… and more!

Interestingly, he actually did not ask for wisdom.

 So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours? (1 Kings 3:9, NIV)

Yes, that collection of words translates to what we know to be wisdom, but he actually asked God for “a discerning heart.” Or some translations say “an understanding heart.” When you dig into the root of that word in Hebrew it is the word shama’ or “hear.”

If you are Jewish you say the “Shema’” prayer every day. In English it is:

“Hear O Israel. The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might!”

Hear.

Shema.

So I think Solomon asked to be able to hear God… to have this open communications pipeline from God’s heart to his heart. To have one of those new fiber optic cables that has an almost unlimited bandwidth to allow God to have the fastest amount of data transfer available. From God’s lips to Solomon’s heart. Instantly.

And with that endless and open line, Solomon was indeed wise.

Do you know that you and I have that same access to God?

“Through him (Jesus Christ) we both share the same Spirit and have equal access to the Father.” (Ephesians 2:18, The Message).

Yet, often our pipeline is clogged so that we are distracted from hearing God… with the things of the world that take our heart off of God’s best for us. With our job. Our family. Our finances. Our health. Our worries.

James encourages us to ask God for wisdom. “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” (James 1:5, NIV). As you do, recall that when Solomon asked for the same thing, he actually sought to HEAR from God.

May you have an open pipeline to hear from God’s heart to your heart. May you give God all your worldly distractions. Give Him those things that choke the conduit of His grace and His love.

Then, as you hear God’s voice today, may you have the strength and boldness to act and go where He leads.

 

© 2017 Rich Ronald.

 

 

We followed a star and our lives changed forever.

 

Following a star... lives changed forever.

Following a star… lives changed forever.

We have just left the place where I, personally, experienced the most significant event in my life! We saw Him, the infant, the child, the true King of Israel, indeed the King of all kings!  And we gave Him gifts. And we worshiped Him. And we are changed forever.

Let me back up for a minute. My name is Geshnavadar. I am a Magi of the east, from Babylon in Persia. I have two companions with me, one is twenty years my senior, the other is twenty years my junior. They call us “wise men,” and I guess, we are just that, but we are not kings, we are Magi.

Our people go back to the prophet Daniel, who was one of our own. He prophesied about a Messiah. Although Daniel was a Hebrew, we are Gentiles. But we love the same God as those of the 12 Tribes of Israel. He has given us this unique gift of interpreting dreams. Some also call us astrologers, for we study the stars in the sky. But we do so with a specific purpose and anointing, as we believe they point to what God is doing now and in the future.

Recently, something strange occurred in the night sky… three stars lined up and pointed to the West, right to the city of Jerusalem in Palestine. And what was significant about these stars is they were of the constellation Aries, the Ram. Three stars, from a ram, pointing to the City of David?

Ever since King Nebuchadnezzar took the people of Judah into captivity in our home country, we have known of the stories of God’s deliverance of His people. One oft-told account recalls a ram, stuck in a thicket that God provided as a sacrifice. It was on Mount Moriah in what is now Jerusalem. The intended sacrifice was Abraham’s son, Isaac. But God had another plan. And we have heard that one day God will deliver all of Abraham’s children, both Jews and Gentiles, by way of a ram, or a lamb.

So, the stars pointed to Jerusalem and we, along with a cavalry of slaves and servants, ventured out to seek the meaning of the stars. You should know that some have called us Magi “king makers” for no king in all of the East became royalty without the blessing of our little fraternity. And if the stars were calling out that a new king had arrived, it was our job to sanction his monarchy. Yes, we knew Herod was the so-called “king of the Jews” in Palestine, but that was merely a title bestowed on him by Caesar Augustus so he would have some clout in collecting taxes.

We arrived in Jerusalem a couple of months, and over a thousand miles, after our departure from Persia. When Herod heard we were in town looking for a new king he was shaken and irritated. Was his make-shift reign coming to an end? He called for a meeting with us immediately. We told him of the prophesy and the stars. He was familiar with the Ancient Word, but had no knowledge of the night sky pointing us here at this time. He suggested we search the neighboring town of Bethlehem, for his advisers recalled the Biblical text of Micah that says “You, oh Bethlehem, will be the birthplace of my King…” He told us to return to Jerusalem and let him know if we found this new monarch so that he might worship this King as well.

It took just a day and a night to reach the sleepy little village. Again we sought the night sky for direction. Another star appeared, and its travel actually stopped and reversed and stopped again… right over a simple peasant home in Bethlehem.

We approached cautiously. A carpenter appeared in the doorway, amazed at our large caravan. Could this be the man we were seeking? He assured us, no, he was but a simple man. However, his son… his son…

We entered the home and immediately we knew. We just knew. The Spirit of God was in that place. God’s peace was overwhelming. The boy’s mother was radiant. The child, now at least a year in age, sat in her lap. He was not the King we expected, but He was most certainly the King that the God of the Hebrews had anointed. We were instantly humbled in His presence. We offered Him gifts we had brought, although honestly they seemed insignificant… the gold, the frankincense and myrrh… a lifetime of gifts, if you will.  And we bowed before Him, no we fell before Him and worshiped… worshiped… worshiped… The little child alternated his gaze between us and his mother. And he smiled.

We stayed as long we could. Our lives and hearts changed forever. Transformed, really.

We are heading back to Babylon, by a different route. God has told us in a dream that we must protect the new King and not tell Herod of His whereabouts. Not really sure what we will do once we get home. I know we cannot merely go back and live the life we had been living. No, it will be different. After almost 500 years, He is here now! We sought out the new King, and we found Him! We found Him!

And we will tell the people of Judah living in our land that they, too, must seek out and find their new King! And if they let Him into their life, and into their heart, they will be completely transformed as well.

 

Some of the words, actions and thoughts, perhaps, of one of the Magi of Matthew, Chapter 2.

(C) 2016 Rich Ronald.

Something so simple can be such a blessing!

"I Care So I Run" for children around the globe with Team World Vision.

“I Care So I Run” for children around the globe with Team World Vision.

I’m training for the New York City Marathon. My “Long Run” this past week was 14 miles. In the brutal heat of August in South Texas. When the sun comes up and it’s 90+ degrees before you know it.

About Mile 12 I’m running up a long hill. For those of you in San Antonio, it’s New Braunfels Avenue, up from Austin Highway into Alamo Heights. It doesn’t seem like much of a hill when you are driving a car…

Anyway, I’m a hot, sweaty mess as the cadence of my feet pound out eleven-minute-miles. Up ahead I see an older guy mowing his lawn. He stops mowing and disappears into the garage. He reappears right as I’m approaching his driveway. In his hand is a single bottle of water, which I initially assumed he has gotten for himself. And then, with a big smile on his face, he reaches out and hands it to me! “Looks like you need this!” he says.

I told him he was a blessing. And truly he was! You see, I carry water on my belt. And I was rationing my water for the last two miles. I really didn’t need the water. But let me tell you… his water was COLD! Refreshing. It was extra, so I could drink some and then pour some down the back of my neck. Oooh, it was invigorating! It was a luxury. It was a true blessing!

And then I turned my thoughts to World Vision and their efforts in Africa. The water the kids walk 6 miles for each day is like the water on my belt. But then, when the local water committees team with World Vision to bring a water system to the village, that’s a luxury. It’s an abundant blessing!

I’m reminded of the words of Jesus to the woman at the well in John 4:14: ” whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

The image I see when I hear the phrase “welling up” is a waterfall. An abundant flow of God’s love that rushes in us to refresh us, then out of us to refresh others.

Like a cold bottle of water from a total stranger. A blessing.

And when we run for kids — for World Vision’s Clean Water or Child Protection programs — that’s what we get to do! We’re blessed to be a blessing (Genesis 12). And when you partner with those who are running, you are that blessing too! Thank you!

Running with joy,
-rich

 

*If you’d like to help children around the globe, go to teamworldvision.org/NYC and make a donation today! Thank you! *

Jesus taught gentleness. Peter caught it.

GentlenessI’m the rabble rouser.  I have enough grit and mettle for all of the Twelve. I wear my emotions on my sleeve. It doesn’t take much to really tick me off or to make me happy. And right now, as I reflect on the events of the past couple of months, I’m so amazed and full of great joy because of my Lord and my friend, Jesus.

My name is Peter. He called me “the Rock.” We would laugh because sometimes that meant that I was strong, like a building’s foundation. Sometimes that would mean that I was dangerous and hurtful, like when someone was being stoned. Sometimes that meant that I was just plain dumb as a rock. Funny, huh?

The thing that sticks out the most to me, ever since the Passover, is His gentleness. It started that night. It was my job to wash everyone’s feet when they entered the room. But the week had been crazy. The people shouted along a great parade for Him as he entered town a few days earlier. He had sent some of us ahead to prepare for the Feast. When we all sat down we were exhausted and distracted as the Romans were not too pleased with procession and the recent activities of His followers. Anyway, as the servant for the evening, I was supposed to wash everyone’s feet… but He did it. Our Lord the King! Stooping with humility and gentleness.  I arrogantly protested that He’d never wash MY feet. And then with His one sentence reply, I flip-flopped faster than Herod or any other politician and insisted that He wash all of me! I proclaimed that I was all-in! No one or nothing could cause me to ever leave His side, vowing “I’d lay down my life for you!”

He shook His head, furrowed His brow and predicted my betrayal. “Why, I’ll show Him!” I stubbornly said to myself. Just an hour later, in the Garden, I had my chance. When they came to arrest Jesus, and only Jesus, I drew my sword and attacked one of those with the soldiers! The Master’s gentleness towards our Roman enemy, and His admonishment of my actions, greatly perplexed me.

Three times that very night I had the opportunity to stand up for Jesus… to show the world that I would, indeed, follow Him to the ends of the earth, or to death… And all three times, I bailed on Him… I denied I even knew Him.

Oh, how He knew me better than I knew myself.

The agony continued into the night and as the sun rose on the new day… The trials, the long march to Golgotha, the pain of His crucifixion and death. And through it all, Jesus was like this gentle giant, letting it all play out as He had predicted. He was calm and temperate, yet exuded this amazing strength. Soldiers mocked Him. People spat on Him. Rulers belittled Him. Executioners killed Him.

For two days we were all dejected and hope was hard to find. Then, at dawn on the first day of the week, the women went to the tomb after the Sabbath, and His body was not there! Could it be? Was He alive? The joy we felt – and the fear we were experiencing – was this emotional fisticuffs in each of our hearts.

Jesus did appear to all of us on multiple occasions… each time with the gentle greeting: “Peace be to you!” Then, He was gone again.

Days past. We wondered what was next. Would He return? Feeling lost and aimless, I decided to go back to doing what I knew best… fishing. Although, my heart wasn’t in it. Where did He go? What were we supposed to do? All night my mind was racing as I merely went through the motions of throwing the nets overboard, and pulling them back in… empty. We caught nothing. Not even a single minnow.

At day break, we saw Jesus on the shore. Although we didn’t know it was Him at first. He called out to us and told us to once more throw our nets out, this time on the other side of the boat. I thought, “What difference does it make? Right side? Left side? We’re in a boat!” Hesitantly, we followed His friendly advice. And, believe it or not, we caught the most fish in a single net ever! At that moment, we recognized it was the Master!

When we landed on shore and sorted it all out, our hearts were overfilled with great joy! We laughed and cried together as we ate a breakfast that He had kindly prepared for us. And we shared stories of the past week or so. Here was our Lord, our friend, Jesus, just as we knew Him to be.

He took me aside, away from the warm campfire. With much more gentleness than I deserved, He asked me if I loved Him. “Of course I do,” I said. A second time He queried. “Lord, you know that I love you.”  A third time he gently pressed: “Peter, do you love me?”  I was hurt because I felt like I had to defend myself. But He wasn’t angry with me. His eyes expressed great love and deep compassion. And then it hit me and I fell to my knees. Three times He asked… three times I had denied I knew Him. He had to make sure! And I said: “Yes! Yes, Lord! You know me. You know all things! You know that I love you!” And one more time He said, “Follow me.”

I’m pleased to tell you that I have been following Him ever since. We celebrated Pentecost last week. Wow! The Holy Spirit, which Jesus promised would come, showed up in power. We baptized 3,000 people after I spoke that day! Jesus, even after He has gone up to heaven, is so gentle. He loves these people so very much; He has moved in their hearts, as He moved in mine.

So, my friends, I will always be ready to share the hope I have in Jesus. And I will endeavor to do so with the gentleness and respect that our Lord modeled for each one of us. And if I must suffer, I will suffer for doing good, not evil. And I am confident that I will receive a rich welcome into His eternal kingdom.

Some of the words, actions and, perhaps, thoughts of the Apostle Peter, as recorded in the Gospel of John, in Acts Chapter 2 and in 1st Peter.

This is the opening to a sermon from Oak Hills Church, North Central Campus. The video of the entire message is here: http://vimeo.com/161831718

(c) 2016. Rich Ronald.

I tried to run away while a people waited…

When I was in danger, I called to the LORD, and he answered me.

When I was in danger, I called to the LORD, and he answered me.

Looking back. I was so arrogant. The Lord had called me to a great task: Preach a message of repentance against the great and despicable city of Nineveh. These people are the hated enemies of the nation of Israel. They would surely not hear the message. In fact, I believed they might even do something awful to the messenger. Me.

So despite my love for God, I fled from Him and His assignment. I climbed aboard a freighter headed for Tarshish, the city that was at the other end of the Mediterranean Sea… as far away from Nineveh as possible. Silly, isn’t it? Thinking I could run or even hide from God.

The Lord used three things, then, to get my attention. A great storm. Sailors. And a fish.

One of the most violent storms ever to come across the Sea descended on us. Lifelong sailors were actually afraid for their lives! I just knew that this was God’s way of getting my attention. The sailors cast lots to see who on board was responsible for the raging waters. I knew the lots would point to me. Sure enough. They roused me from sleep, peppering me with questions: “Who are you?  Where did you come from? Why are you causing all this trouble for us?”

I had to acquiesce. No hiding here. I told them of my assignment. That I worshiped the Lord, the God of heaven. And that I was running from Him. And that my presence on their ship was indeed the cause of the tempest. I assured them the only way to calm the storm was to throw me into the waves. They rejected this solution at first, desperately trying to row to shore. But the winds actually increased and tossed the vessel more violently. Finally, they cried out to God in unison: “Forgive Us!” And with one final glance to the raging heavens, they pitched me into the icy water.

As I began to sink into the depths, the sea became amazingly calm. I tried to surface with the goal of swimming to land. Suddenly a great fish scooped me up! It was putrid inside the dark, slimy belly. There was seaweed wrapped around my head. My ears popped as the ocean mammal dove deep and then surfaced above the breakers. The gastric juices of the fluids swirled inside the finback.  But I was still alive! Oh, how God has such a fantastic sense of humor! It was dark. But He gave me life. For three days I existed in the dark depths. With each breath, I gave Him praise! I cried out to Him day after day, hour after hour. Minute after minute. Time. Time for me to replay the events of leading to how I got here. Time for me to be reminded that salvation comes from God and God alone.

I kept thinking of the people back home in Israel. And those sailors. And the people of Nineveh.

Finally, God saw fit to spare my life. The whale spit me out on the eastern shore of the Great Sea. With haste I headed for the city gates of Nineveh on the banks of the Tigris River. My urgency to the assignment fresh. I knew His grace must be made known to these people. For three days I went house to house, up and down every street, warning the people and encouraging everyone to call on the grace of God.

The people responded with faith, fasting and repentance. I wondered aloud, “Why? Why would God – slow to anger and abounding in love, God – why would He be so gracious to such a hated and despicable people?”

I’m sure that many wonder of my arrogance. Even I shake my head at God and ask, “Why would you still love me?”

And then the Lord reminds me: He is abounding in love! In the midst of storms. In the midst of misunderstandings between people. In the midst of our arrogance and pride.

And for that, I’m extremely thankful!

 

Some of the actions, words, and thoughts perhaps of Jonah, from the Old Testament book that bears his name.

 

(c) 2015. Rich Ronald.

First Person: Paul on the stoning of Stephen

The lifelong impact for Paul of the stoning of Stephen

The lifelong impact for Paul of the stoning of Stephen was likely very significant.

 

I’m not proud of the way I treated those first believers… but I was a young rabbi-in-training trying to make a name for myself.  You see, I was taught that these new followers of The Way were speaking against God and against the Law. 

There was this man named Stephen. He and I were actually about the same age. He had been speaking in the marketplace and in the synagogue about the man he called Jesus. The Nazarene had been executed recently and his followers were saying that He had risen from the dead.

All of the Pharisee’s and leaders of the Jews argued with Stephen, saying that he was blaspheming against God. At the time, I just took it all in, believing in my teacher, not in that rabble rouser.  But in the back of my mind I wondered…  How could a man like Stephen speak with such grace and power? And witnesses said he performed many amazing signs, even miracles. But truly, it was hard to hear of Jesus’ words that He was going to destroy the holy Temple and not be riled up against His followers.

The elders and teachers of the Law rallied the people to speak against Stephen and he was brought before the Sanhedrin. As a talmedim, a disciple, under Gamaliel, I was invited into the chamber and I listened intently to the testimony of this follower of Jesus. Some say his face glowed bright as he talked. He was wise for his age and spoke in great detail of our history as the chosen people of God. He told the story of Abraham… of Joseph saving our ancestors from Pharaoh… of Moses being given the Law by God and leading the people to this great land… of David and Solomon building the great Temple.

I was confused… if he wasn’t a Jew, he certainly knew a lot about the history of the Israelites! I just couldn’t imagine why he would want to follow the Nazarene.

And then, something snapped. He began calling the prestigious leaders of the Court “stiff necked!” accusing them of having uncircumcised ears and hearts. And he said they had betrayed the Law.

That didn’t sit well with anyone! The room became a cacophony of voices… all of them screaming at the other. These distinguished rabbinical men, were ready to cast judgement on Stephen. But none of it seemed to disturb the young man. He stood in the center of the Court, with elders and great rabbis circled all around, like lions about to devour a small deer. He looked up to Heaven. He then said that he saw Jesus, standing at the right hand of God… Our traditions teach that that’s the side of Mercy.  On God’s left? Judgement… and apparently these religious rulers.  Jesus, full of mercy, on God’s right… and He is welcoming Stephen to Heaven.

That was the last straw for the Pharisees. Stephen was drug out of the city… not just out of the Court… but far away, where he was stoned to death. I stood and watched in awe and in fear as many of the leaders threw their coats down at my feet, where one would guess, that I was to keep watch over the garments.

Everything changed that day for the people of The Way. Stephen totally surrendered to God… even unto death. In the months that followed, the teachers of the Law gained new momentum to squash this rebellion against the Law. All of the followers of Jesus were scattered. I saw it as an opportunity to begin a major persecution against all of them. I personally, put hundreds of men and women into prison. And, yes, I even murdered those who followed Jesus. And with my actions, I gained additional stature among the teachers of the Law.  I was given letters from the High Priest himself authorizing my arresting any who followed The Way.

I’m humbled to report, however, that Jesus got my attention one day on the road to Damascus. I’ve repented. He has forgiven me. He has empowered me. He has filled me with His Holy Spirit and He has blessed me!

Ironic, isn’t it? I was just a rabbi-in-training on the day of Stephen’s death. I grew into becoming a Jew’s Jew. A leader, even a teacher to teachers. Yet, that young man’s decision to totally surrender his life to Jesus – even to death — was the first thing I thought of the day the Lord knocked me to the ground and took my sight.  And in the days and weeks that followed, I too, began to totally surrender my life to the Lord of Mercy, who stands at the right hand of God the Father.

Someday soon, those Law-followers with whom I used to partner will come for me. I’m more than okay with that. For me, to live is Christ, it is life eternal. It is life in the presence of my Messiah… totally surrendered. To die, to leave this earth and spend the rest of eternity with Jesus… is to gain! I look forward to that day!

 

Some of the actions, words and, perhaps thoughts of Saul, who later became Paul. As recorded in Acts, Chapters 6-7-8.

(c) 2015 Rich Ronald