Read short inspirational articles by Olive Tree staff members.
It’s funny to me that spring is at once bursting with promise and notoriously lean. The bursting-with-promise part is easy to imagine as spring bulbs begin to pop up everywhere. However, the notoriously lean part only occurred to me after reading (or re-reading) one of my favorite non-fiction books, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver. The second-to-last chapter in Kingsolver’s book about eating locally with her family for a year is entitled “Hungry Month: February-March.” She writes:
“January is widely held to be the bugbear of local food, but the hungriest month is March, if you plan to see this thing through. Your stores are dwindling, your potatoes are sending pale feelers out into the void, but for most of us there is nothing new under the sun of muddy March, however it might intend to go out like a lamb. A few spring wildflowers, maybe, but no real eats. Our family was getting down to the bottom of our barrel” (322).
When I take my almost daily walks, it doesn’t look like spring will ever come. The grass is dank and yellowed and it’s hard to imagine it will ever be lush and green or that the trees will ever have blossoms and leaves. If you really do live off the land and what you have to eat is all in your freezer and root cellar, you have to be creative with what you have left. The root veggies of winter are wrinkled and woody and the asparagus, lettuce, and spinach of spring are only just beginning. It’s an awkward, in-between time.
I’m definitely in the thick of my Lenten discipline of fasting from dessert. We’re already almost five weeks from Ash Wednesday, but we’re still two weeks from Easter. For one deprived of sugar on a daily basis, Easter seems especially distant. If I’m honest with myself, I am longing for Easter, but I also like that Easter feels distant and that my deprivation weighs on me and temptation surrounds me. These are the necessary and even, dare I say, good rigors of Lent. I love that the Church Year acknowledges the times in the course of a normal human life that are in limbo. It’s not winter and not yet spring. It’s not Christmas and not yet Easter. Primroses on racks outside the grocery store and royal purple crocuses are the only harbingers of spring.
That makes me wonder about the harbingers of Easter. When we look to Jesus’ life and ministry, I would say baptism, temptation, cross, and grave. The road ahead of us to Easter is Lenten and is so very like this time between winter and spring. Where there is life after Easter and spring, we see only death during Lent. Yellowed grass and gnarled trees. Temptation and deprivation. Sin and selfishness.
But the great news about Easter is that it radically changes everything, and it’s not just the appearance of things that change. It’s not just that the grass becomes green and lush and the trees bud and the flowers bloom. It’s not just that I can once again eat cookies and ice cream. It’s that our very nature changes.
“We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ…for when we died with Christ [in baptism] we were set free from the power of sin. And since we died with Christ, we know we will also live with him” (Romans 6:6-8).
Temptation gives way to victory. Darkness becomes light. Death leads to life. And, best of all, the crucified Christ becomes the Risen Christ.
Meeting my firstborn for the first time was not quite what I expected. After waiting patiently in a hospital corridor pacing and praying for an hour, I had a short moment with my daughter in the hallway outside the operating room. I was permitted but a few seconds to see Soraya as the neonatologist wheeled her by in an incubator. She was so tiny and thin, about the length of my hand. The image of her beet-red body and hairless, translucent skin are forever etched in my memory. She looked more like a baby rat than a baby girl, but she was my baby rat!
It was a surreal moment, a moment when the shock and awe of crisis temporarily put a damper on the joy of fatherhood. Here lay my newborn daughter sucking her tiny thumb with an oversized CPAP affixed to her face. I wasn’t even permitted to hold or kiss her before she was whisked away to the NICU.
Meanwhile, my wife still lay on the operating table in serious condition. When we arrived at the hospital that morning, little did we know that a regular checkup would end in an emergency c-section. During her doctor appointment, Meljoné began to vomit and her blood pressure skyrocketed. As they tried to stabilize her, our daughter’s heart rate dramatically dropped, and that’s when the decision to perform surgery was made. At two pounds and thirty weeks, Soraya was abruptly brought into the land of the breathing two and a half months premature.
Throughout the next seven weeks, we spent every waking moment at that hospital. God was more than faithful to answer our prayers and give us supernatural assurance with every new obstacle we faced. Meljoné recounts hearing the Holy Spirit whisper to her that He was with her as she was being carted into the operating room. From that moment on she was never without peace.
Not Why but How
The gravity of any tragedy always settles in eventually, and for me it was during our second night in the hospital. I sat in the Intensive Care Unit at Meljone’s bedside while Soraya was in the NICU. As I began to think back on the past forty-two hours, it all finally hit me. I started to breakdown and cry and found myself asking questions. “Why is this happening to me and my family? Where did we go wrong? Was there something I did to deserve this? Could I have done something to prevent this?”
As I poured out my fears and cares to God in prayer, He reminded me of Paul and Silas being thrown in a Philippian jail for preaching the gospel. They were apostles, doing the will of God, but they never bemoaned their lot. They weren’t demanding God to give them an answer as to why He allowed them to be mistreated. They didn’t look for an opportunity to quit once things got dicey. Instead, in the midnight hour, beaten, bruised and bloodied, they praised God, and the prisons doors opened!
Asking God why is neither an inappropriate nor illegal question to ask. He is certainly big enough to handle our issues and complaints. The why question, however, is just not the best question to pose when going through adversity. There is a better question – the question of how. How will God be glorified through my deliverance? How can I praise Him through this circumstance? This is a more constructive inquiry that helps cultivate a kingdom mentality.
As I sat in that hospital room, I started to praise the Lord, and my whole perspective changed. My thoughts went from: “My wife is in the ICU. My baby girl is in an incubator. Things aren’t going so well.” To: “My wife is in the ICU. My baby girl is in an incubator. Praise God they are both still alive!” The circumstances didn’t change. I changed, and in that midnight hour my prison doors opened. From that moment on I knew our deliverance would come and that our purpose for being in that hospital was to glorify our Father in Heaven.
For the next two months we became witnessing machines. We witnessed to just about everything that moved. Doctors, nurses, phlebotomists, janitors and even other patients heard about little Soraya and her big God. We testified to many of the hospital staff, and Soraya’s remarkable story made it all the way up to the president of the hospital. Today, Soraya is a healthy and happy six-year old girl.
Don’t Waste your Wilderness
Every trial is an opportunity to advance the kingdom of God. If we’re going to go through trial, we might as well grow through them. God allows dark times to draw us to Him, so that when He brings us through it, we can bring Him fame.
But this story is not just about my family. It’s about you. You are a survivor and a reviver of others. The question is not: “Will you be delivered?” The question is rather: “Will you glorify God through your deliverance?” The fact that you came into this world is miraculous in and of itself. Regardless of how you arrived, you will not leave this world without facing a mountain or a giant that can only be conquered through faith.
How will you respond when life throws you a curveball? Those of faith who have walked before us were far from cowardly. They were men and women of valor and guts, possessing bravery in the midst of brutality, audacity in the midst of uncertainty. Their sacrifices sound a clarion call to our generation.
You and I are now handed the baton to run this race with boldness and courage. May it be said of us that through faith we subdued kingdoms, worked for righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned the flight of armies, and returned to women their dead raised to life. (Hebrews 11:33-35)
Live fearlessly, mighty warrior! The defining characteristics of the end-times will be terror or courage. Which one will define you? In Christ, you have no reason to live afraid.
My Dad smoked cigarettes for 20 years and didn’t quit until the age of 32. If you’re doing the math in your head right now than you’ve realized he started smoking when he was 12 years old. Both of his parents smoked cigarettes but made sure to tell him that he should never do it himself. Obviously his parents “do as I say, not as I do” parenting didn’t carry much authority. It wasn’t until years later when he became a Christian that he realized this addiction had to go.
A very basic leadership principle is the idea of “what they see is what they’ll be.” The 12 disciples were radically different guys after spending 3 ½ years with Jesus. How they saw Jesus live impacted their own lives forever and motivated them to live in a similar way. As followers of Jesus 2000 years after his time on earth, we have the unique opportunity to model what it means to be fully committed disciples. The biggest challenge to this is in setting our priorities.
Jesus really was counter-culture. He didn’t look like the King the Jews were expecting. He didn’t act religious enough for the religious leaders of his day to accept him. He put God’s priorities above everything else in his life and he radically changed the world. An integral part of evaluating our priorities is asking ourselves tough questions.
Do I spend more time watching TV than I do with my kids? Do I spend more time in recreational activities than I do in deepening my faith in Jesus? Do I model something contrary to what I say? Ouch. When I am bold enough to ask myself these types of questions the answers can be pretty humbling.
As parents, your kids are watching you to see if this whole Christian thing is more than a set of rules, rituals, and religious morality. They notice when you’re in the word, when you’re worshiping with all your heart on Sunday morning, and when your faith exists for more than an hour on Sunday morning. In a culture of so many competing voices, what you do, not what you say, will always be the loudest voice your kids hear.
Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.
Since he was a small boy, Mosab Hassan Yousef has had an inside view of the deadly terrorist group Hamas. The oldest son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, a founding member of Hamas and its most popular leader, young Mosab assisted his father for years in his political activities while being groomed to assume his legacy, politics, status . . . and power. But everything changed when Mosab turned away from terror and violence, and embraced instead the teachings of another famous Middle East leader. In Son of Hamas, Mosab Yousef—now called “Joseph”— reveals new information about the world’s most dangerous terrorist organization and unveils the truth about his own role, his agonizing separation from family and homeland, the dangerous decision to make his newfound faith public, and his belief that the Christian mandate to “love your enemies” is the only way to peace in the Middle East.
Last week at the Desiring God conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota, we were able to connect with pastors and leaders from all over the United States and even some church leaders from around the world. The conference was great, but after three 15-hour days I was ready to zone out and rest on the plane ride home. What I didn’t know was that God wanted me to hear a story that was unlike any I had ever heard and one I will definitely never forget.
As the airplane filled up, a young dad with his one-year-old son on his lap sat in between me and another gentleman who was sitting by the window. As the doors to the plane closed I noticed there were two empty seats in the row in front of me, so I moved up to them so the dad wouldn’t have to hold his son on his lap for the whole flight. In my new aisle seat, it was just myself and an older well-dressed gentleman sitting near the window with an empty seat in between us. In hindsight I wish I had initiated a conversation right away, but we only exchanged a ‘hello’ until the last hour of the flight. Our conversation started when I noticed he had a Russian Bible. I smiled at him and pointed to the Bible on my iPad. With a thick Russian accent this man named Yevgeny began to share his life story with a passion and emotion that reflected a deep well of experiences rooted in a death-defying faith. Here is a synopsis of the story he told:
Yevgeny was born in Communist Russia during WWII. Before he was born his father was imprisoned in Siberia for his Christian faith. His mother was about to be executed for her faith when in a moment of desperation she prayed to God and then plead with the solider about to pull the trigger, saying she was pregnant so he would be killing two people. The soldier had a young child at home and couldn’t pull the trigger. Yevgeny’s mother lived and so did he. When WWII ended, Yevgeny met his father for the first time and he still recalls that meeting – embracing a gaunt bearded man who had survived the horrors of prison in Siberia. Years later his father shared with Yevgeny how other Christians who were packed in his jail cell would scrawl pieces of scripture on the concrete wall as they remembered them. Their fragmented Bible was written on stone and served as the only comfort and hope they had in that dark and cold place.
This commitment to the faith displayed by his parents was a springboard for his own faith as he recalled to me the persecution the underground church faced in Russia. He told me how believers would print and bind their own copies of the Bible to distribute to the persecuted church. At one point, as he told me about a group of believers getting caught by the KGB for distributing Bibles, he looked down at his own leather bound Bible and momentarily reflected on the access to Christian literature here in the United States. With tears beginning to well in his eyes, he commented on how easy it is to access Christian literature here compared to what he had experienced.
His parents had experienced intense persecution and he had as well. While serving mandatory time in the Russian military, his quarters were often subject to a search by KGB agents looking for illegal literature – his Bible. With hiding places for his Bible limited, all he could do was pray they wouldn’t find it. And they never did. God then gave Yevgeny an opportunity to pray with one of these same KGB agents to receive Christ. As the agent prayed, Yevgeny pulled his Bible from its hiding place. The new convert stared in amazement that the Bible had never been found even though it was there in the barracks the whole time. Three generations of Yevgeny’s family were persecuted for their faith before eventually immigrating to the United States and as he shared about this transition is was clearly evident how grateful he was.
As we approached the airport in Spokane, I asked why he was coming to Spokane. He told me his five children, parents, and siblings were now spread out around the United States. His mother had passed away the year before at age 99, and he was visiting his 97-year-old father in Spokane, knowing his days are short. I was amazed to hear that not only had they endured persecution they had lived long, full lives. As the airplane taxied to the terminal, I regretted that I hadn’t started this conversation as soon as we had taken off in Minneapolis but felt incredibly blessed at the same time.
You never know the stories of those around you. I had just sat next to a 69-year-old giant of the faith from Russia, whom I will never forget.
If someone advised you to “Take courage!”, how would you respond? “Why?” might be my immediate response.
In Joshua 1:6-9, we see the Lord commanding Joshua to be “strong and courageous three times. But if we take a closer look, we also see the Lord commanding Joshua to obey the Law three times as well. The Lord actually exhorts for bravery only once on account of the battles he would fight (verse 6). After that, all of Joshua’s courage would be needed regarding loving and keeping the Law. Why would he need this? Deuteronomy 31-34 gives us the answer. Once in the Promised Land, the people would all “turn to foreign gods…”(Dt. 31:16, 20). Immediately after this, in verse 23, God exhorts Joshua to courage.
Tackling “giants” is nothing to God. Joshua had seen giants before and had hoped for the chance to overcome them 40 years earlier (Numbers 13-14). However, Joshua had also witnessed unbelief and rebellion and their effect on people. Joshua needed a love for God and His Law even more than strength, courage, and determination. It would take all these things to complete the mission God had given him.
It takes courage to obey God and even more courage to lead unwilling people to do the same. Giants are one thing; tackling the hearts of rebellious people is another.
For those of you in leadership, Joshua’s story also offers another valuable truth: we don’t get our validation from people. Affirmation is wonderful, but man’s approval (or lack thereof) does not determine our identity in Christ. I realize that affirmation is important and valid, but is it vitally important? …Important enough to tempt us to rebellion? In our world today, it takes more courage to be obedient and pursue holiness than it does to simply be “relevant.” Obedience in the life of a disciple is the natural overflow of a life impacted by the Gospel. The validation that counts to those who follow the master comes from the master. Joshua needed to understand this truth and it’s this truth that would ultimately make him a better servant and leader for the people.
As you go out into the next chapter of your life, don’t forget the things God has told you, shown you, and promised you. The giants you may be facing are one thing, and God can take care of those. Sickness, pride, divorce, child trafficking… are all giants God wants to and can slay. It’s the giant of our heart—our devotion to Him—that God won’t force (see Rev. 3:20). Give Him access to this “giant,” and there is nothing God can’t do through any of us.
Open the door to Him daily. Be faithful with His Word—spoken and written. Be strong and courageous!
Here are some questions to consider:
1. Are you trying hard to be relevant, or do you simply need more courage to be obedient?
2. As you look at a situation today, are you more concerned with what people think, or what God thinks?
3. In your leadership (or followership) are you more concerned with failing people, or disobeying God?
4. What safeguards (good habits and relationships) do you have in your life that help you see Jesus clearly in every decision?
Jeremy West has been on staff with Youth With A Mission since 1995. He teaches and runs training programs in the fields of discipleship and leadership development, worldwide.
“Leadership is a responsibility, not an identity; we are all disciples, first.”