Radical Transformation

Here in America, we value transformation, remember that TV show called Extreme Makeover Home Edition? It came on ABC on Sunday nights. They take this deserving family, someone really making a difference in the community, or someone with special needs or a health condition, and they have this really run-down and unhealthy house. Then within one week they rally the whole community and totally transform the property into something very usable. It’s extraordinarily entertaining, and sometimes it’s pretty emotional. These people are so grateful and overwhelmed by the generosity of these sponsoring companies and the community’s volunteerism, encouragement and support. It really makes you feel good about people again.

Perhaps you remember the original Extreme Makeover show, the one where they took average looking girls who get the “ultimate package;” a transformation of clothing, hairstyle, veneer teeth, new makeup and perhaps even a nose job, face lift or “some other sort of lift” or augmentation. Then there are the “before and after” pictures of women who got the makeover. Not to be judgmental, but some of these girls were pretty “homely” until they got a new hair style, makeup and an outfit. Now they look like a supermodel.

These days, in order to keep up with the culture of America, there’s now a show called Extreme Makeover, Weight-Loss Edition. Well, season 2 is here. Recently we saw that Tony wants to lose weight before his wedding, and he’s nearly 400 pounds. We learned about his food addiction and unstable family life since he was a kid. At age 14 he worked at shoveling snow and at a fast food restaurant, where he would overeat because he did not know where his next meal was coming from. At 21, he and his first wife had a severely handicapped child where stress pushed him toward food for comfort. After a 30-year career in food service management, he decided to quit because his weight had gotten out of control. Now we all can pull for this jobless and divorced 49-year-old as he struggles and works to lose weight before his 50th birthday and his upcoming wedding.

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I think Americans like a good transformation story, but when you think about it, these examples of physical transformation are only temporary. These homes can burn down, get destroyed in a storm, or have termites cause tremendous damage. These new bodies that people get, through artificial means or through a year of extremely hard work… they can get ill from diseases or die from anything from cancer or homicide or an accident.

As believers in Christ, we are more interested in spiritual transformation, which is permanent. That’s what I want to talk about today.

Ezekiel the Prophet: Only two verses in the Old Testament identify Ezekiel by name (Ezekiel 1:3; 24:24). The prophet Ezekiel was raised in a priestly family in Jerusalem and educated to become a priest himself, but this was not to be. He was taken into exile with other high-ranking Jews at the first siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar. While there, in his thirtieth year (593 BC), he received a powerful vision from the Lord and his call to be a prophet. Between this first exile and the final fall of Jerusalem (in 586/587 BC) many Israelites hoped to throw off the yoke of Babylon, often looking to Egypt for help (rather than God). Ezekiel’s prophecies against Jerusalem and some other nations take place in this context.

Ezekiel was given tremendous visions of God; and he also was called to act out God’s messages to the Jewish captives. He does some of the weirdest things you’ll read in the Bible!

Chariot-Throne of God: One of the most striking and memorable visions of the book is the throne of God, which is placed above a kind of moving revolving chariot (Ezekiel 1:4-28; 10:3-22). This is where we get that old folk song, Ezekiel Saw the Wheel. How to understand this vision has long been debated, some have even connected it with a UFO!

The Valley of Dry Bones: This odd scene has God asking Ezekiel what he sees, a valley full of very dry bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14). “Can these bones live?” God asks, and he eventually is told to prophesy to these bones. They begin to come together to form skeletons and soon flesh is again on them. We have sung about this too, Dem Bone, Dem Bone, Dem Dry Bones…

Extreme One-Man Dramas: As part of his prophetic vocation, Ezekiel engaged in a large number of extreme activities; he was to dramatize and symbolize his message of doom from the Lord. These activities strike us as odd, eccentric, or even weird. They include:

  1. Building a model of the city of Jerusalem and laying siege to it, part of which meant being tied up with ropes and lying on his left side for 390 days and on his right side for forty days (Ezekiel 4:1-15). He was to live on a daily ration of eight ounces of food and a pint of water. It represented the starvation diet they would experience in captivity.
  2. Shaving his head bald, dividing up his hair and striking part of it with a sword all around the city model (Ezekiel 5:1-4). Each third represented the fate of Jerusalem’s inhabitants when the city fell.
  3. Packing up his belongings every night in a mock exile, busting a hole in the wall rather than going through the door (Ezekiel 12:3-7).
  4. Trembling and shaking when he ate his food and drank water (Ezekiel 12:17-20).

Ezekiel’s wife died suddenly (Ezekiel 24:15-27): The prophet was called to do more than act out the fate of others. He was also called to experience the pain of judgment. Ezekiel was warned that his wife, “the desire of your eyes,” & “your dearest treasure” would die. God told His prophet, “You shall NOT show any sorrow at her death, don’t weep or even shed a tear. Sigh in silence, NO wailing at the grave; don’t uncover your head, or remove sandals from your feet; do NOT perform any mourning rituals, and do NOT accept food from your mourning friends” (Ezekiel 24:16-17).

While seemingly very strange, they may have been very effective, memorable ways, like using an object lesson for children. All this introduction, let’s take a look at Ezekiel 47.

After seeing the kitchens in the temple (Ezekiel 46:19-24) the prophet noticed a trickle of water running out of the holy of holies, past the altar on the south side. Ezekiel’s guide leads him out of the north gate (since the eastern gate was closed) and around the temple to the eastern gate where he saw the water running from under the south side of the gate. The guide measures the depth of the water four times and the river becomes so deep that he couldn’t swim across it.

Ezekiel learns that the river flows to the Dead Sea where it brought life to that forsaken area. The water from the temple would heal the Dead Sea as well as all the rivers. The water creatures would multiply wherever the waters went. Trees on the riverbank would bear fruit every month, and their leaves would be used for healing. What we see here is that life comes from the Temple of God, not from a king’s palace or from the government.

Jerusalem does not have a river in it, like we have the James River. These verses speak of this river as a literal body of water that accomplishes the life-giving work of God. Ezekiel is describing a literal river, yet it also has spiritual significance for us today. Think about the headwaters of the James River, which are not all that impressive, but the river gets much bigger by the time it gets to Hampton Roads. Ezekiel’s river gets water out of the temple into the Kidron Valley and to the Mount of Olives, and represents the transforming power of the gospel; life is growing wherever it goes.

Jesus saw the river as a symbol of the Holy Spirit (John 7:37-39)
On the last day, the climax of the festival, Jesus stood and shouted to the crowds, “Anyone who is thirsty may come to me! Anyone who believes in me may come and drink! For the Scriptures declare, ‘Rivers of living water will flow from his heart.’” (When he said “living water,” he was speaking of the Spirit, who would be given to everyone believing in him. But the Spirit had not yet been given, because Jesus had not yet entered into his glory).

The apostle John saw a similar scene in the heavenly city (Revelation 22:1-2)
Then the angel showed me a river with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. It flowed down the center of the main street. On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month. The leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations.

This river is an important part of the story of God, which begins in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:10-14)
A river flowed from the land of Eden, watering the garden and then dividing into four branches. The first branch, called the Pishon, flowed around the entire land of Havilah, where gold is found. The gold of that land is exceptionally pure; aromatic resin and onyx stone are also found there. The second branch, called the Gihon, flowed around the entire land of Cush. The third branch, called the Tigris, flowed east of the land of Asshur. The fourth branch is called the Euphrates.

It appears that this river starts in the Garden of Eden and flows into the heavenly city of God. Let’s get back to Ezekiel 47. I see a couple of significant truths in this passage:

1. Radical Transformation Advances and Does Not Remain Stationary: The water is measured in four different places, getting deeper in each spot. At the beginning, he is in ankle deep water. I believe this represents a time when someone first comes to Christ. It’s sort of like young children swimming in the kiddie pool. Just as the river moves along and gets deeper as it goes, it makes no sense for an adult believer to swim in the kiddie pool. After several months of being a follower of Jesus, we need to be growing and learning. Hebrews 6:1, tells us to press on toward maturity. This is done in two ways:

  1. Obedience: This is simply doing what Jesus says we are to do. If you love me, you’ll keep my commands (John 14:15). “One step forward in obedience is better than a year of study about it.” -Oswald Chambers
  2. Discipleship: after walking in obedience, we must be intentional in our growth. We need a plan, perhaps even mentoring, in order to become all that God desires for us to become.

I love Ezekiel 47:6, this guide says, “Do you see this?” Can you imagine the scene? THIS water? The Bible says Ezekiel was led through the water, so “Yeah, I’m standing in it; I’m really wet here, Michael Phelps couldn’t swim across this river, so yep, I’ve seen it.” Are you sure? So Ezekiel is led back to the riverbank for a closer look.

Notice the waters run toward the Dead Sea. Did you know that the water in the Dead Sea is 30% salty? The ocean is 3.5% salty. The Great Salt Lake is about 18%. Nothing lives in the Dead Sea. Once any water gets to the Dead Sea, there is nowhere for the dead water to go. But notice the dead waters are made fresh, which really means HEALED. This river brings healing to the people and the nations.

2. Radical Transformation Takes You to Unattractive Places: If we are to grow spiritually, we must go to some pretty unattractive places.

Perhaps it will be on a mission trip to Haiti, working with orphans in a hot, dirty, diseased place, working among people who smell bad, flies are everywhere and you don’t understand the language.

Perhaps you are called to feed homeless people at the Union Mission, or Judeo-Christian Outreach Center, or some other place that is uncomfortable, hot, at times full of rough or intimidating people.

American cities have a low percentage of Christians. Look at NYC. NYC is only 4% Christian. People visit there every day to see Wall Street, Broadway, Museums, Statute of Liberty, Freedom Tower, but how many people head for the Bowery area of NYC. There are believers who go there in spite of the smells, burdens, drug addicts, thieves, the homeless, and the hungry, to pray for and ease suffering of forgotten people. Downtown missions attempt to transform lives.

God values the afflicted. My very first sermon was when I was 19 years old. Since I sensed God calling me into the ministry, my church asked me to go to the Jimmy Hale Mission, in downtown Birmingham. They fed homeless people all week and since they were a captive audience, they had to stay for the preaching if they wanted to eat!

I love the words of Psalm 9:18, But the needy will not be ignored forever; the hopes of the poor will not always be crushed.

Here in Norfolk, how many of us would rather drive through rather than stop at a traffic light? We LOVE worship here, and our gathering HERE, but radical transformation often takes you to unattractive places, dirty places, even dangerous places.

Ezekiel 47:10 tells us about fisherman standing at the Dead Sea. No one would do this; to catch what? But there will be such a variety and amount of fish, from the western side (Engedi) all around to the east. Why? Because this river makes all the salty water fresh. Wherever the river flows, there will be swarms of living creatures in it. Where the river flows, everything will live (Ezekiel 47:9)

Notice the marshes will remain salty, so practically, as a domestic product, people still need salt. But spiritually speaking, some people will refuse to be transformed by this life-giving river. Some people desire to remain stuck in the mire of their own sinfulness and choose NOT to be healed.

The life is transferred from the water to the riverbank; fruit bearing trees will produce every month, on both sides of the river. This life comes from the sanctuary (from Almighty God himself). This is just like John 15:5, to abide in Jesus and allowing his words to abide in you, for apart from ME you can do nothing.

3. Radical Transformation is a Catalyst for Real Change: Everywhere the river went, it made a difference. How about YOU? Like in your neighborhood, is it different in the neighborhood because you live there? What about adopting a missionary and his UPG? A catalyst for change means praying and going. UPGs are in the Dead Sea, spiritually. They need an advocate praying for them, and people going as they are able. Missions is about church planting, starting with Bible storying groups in their homes. Many people around the world are coming to Christ, and they are the FIRST EVER believers in their tribe or region. God is saving people all around the world. He is bring life and light to dark places. How can we be a part of that?

4. Radical Transformation Comes When We Allow God to Transform Us: Place your faith in Christ, NOW. No more waiting. Paul said it like this,

But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. (2 Corinthians 3:14-16)

Removing the veil and understanding happens only when you come to Christ. At the bottom of your outline, look at that statement. What are we to do? Step out of the kiddie pool, be a disciple and disciple others. It is always inappropriate for adults to pretend to be spiritually mature while hanging out in the kiddie pool. The Bible says to “grow up” (Ephesians 4:14-15).

Let me tell you about Rosie Ruez: She appeared to be the female winner of the 84th Boston Marathon on April 21 1980. Her time of 2:31:56 would have been the fastest female time in Boston Marathon history as well as the third-fastest female time ever recorded in any marathon. Only eight days later, the title is taken away. She actually jumped into the race in the last mile to cross the finish line. They went back to look at tapes and found what had happened. This was not even the first time. During a NYC marathon, she took a subway and jumped out toward the end of the race.

On the other hand, Bill Rodgers won his 3rd straight Boston Marathon that day. He paid the price and trained long and hard to achieve his record-setting victories. But all his work and effort was overshadowed by the pretender.

What can this church be like when we impact our community and the world for Christ? Do the hard work, no more posers, pretending to be in the game.

We must be a people who desire Radical Transformation. No business as usual, because we want to make an impact on the world around us.

  1. We will NOT remain stationary, but advance the cause of the kingdom.
  2. We will go to the unattractive places in this city and world for the cause of the kingdom.
  3. We will be the catalyst for real change in our society and circle of influence.

God help us to make a difference.

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What is God’s Glory?

In a recent class on Wednesday nights, I have a friend who asked an interesting question: “What is God’s Glory?” Admit it, that’s not really an easy question to answer. I always sense that it was ascribing to God the honor due him, that he is worthy of our worship, praise and obedience.

If you spend much time in church, you hear God’s glory mentioned all the time. Contemporary songs and classic hymns celebrate God’s glory. Many worship traditions include the Gloria Patri: “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit…” Preachers tell us we should seek to glorify God in all we do. In the Reformed tradition, the catechism reminds us that the chief purpose of our lives is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

But, have you ever wondered what the glory of God really is? When we speak of God’s glory, what are we talking about? How do you answer my friend’s question?

According to theologian Millard Erickson, the Hebrew word for “glory” refers to a perceivable attribute (an individual’s display of splendor, wealth and pomp), but in relation to God, it does not point to a particular attribute, but rather to the greatness of God’s entire nature.

Ezekiel 10:4 helps us to get a glimpse of and understand God’s glory: “Then the LORD’s glory rose from above the winged creatures and moved toward the temple’s threshold. The temple was filled with the cloud, and the courtyard was filled with the brightness of the LORD’s glory.” The word translated here as “glory” is kabod in Hebrew. This word comes from a root with the basic meaning of “heavy.” From this root word came a word meaning “rich.” Ancient Hebrews would refer to a rich person as “heavy in wealth” much as we might say someone is loaded. The literal sense of kabod also included being loaded with power, reputation, or honor. It’s from this use of the word that we get the meaning of glory.

So, God’s glory is God’s weightiness in wonderful qualities such as might, beauty, goodness, justice, worthiness and honor. When it comes to these characteristics and so many others, God has them in superabundance.

When we think of God’s glory, we remember that God has all good things in greater quantity and quality than we can ever imagine. Notice, also, that God’s glory is solid and substantial. It isn’t mere reputation. It isn’t dependent on anyone or anything else. God’s glory reflects his essential nature.

Yet the notion of heaviness does not fully convey the glory of God. In fact, if we equate God’s glory with heaviness, we might miss an essential quality of his glory. Look again at Ezekiel 10:4. God’s glory is not like a giant rock that sits there passively because it is so large it cannot do anything else. Rather, God’s glory shines like the sun.

In fact, if we’re looking for an image to represent the glory of God, the sun is a strong candidate. For one thing, the sun is the heaviest object in our solar system (with a weight estimated at more than a hundred times that of the earth). But, of course, the sun doesn’t just sit there. It is continuously active, burning so fiercely that it lights and warms the earth, which is about 93 million miles away.

The similarity between God’s glory and the sun is found in Scripture. Consider the promise of Isaiah 60:19: “The sun will no longer be your light by day, nor will the moon shine for illumination by night. The LORD will be your everlasting light; your God will be your glory.” This promise comes true in the vision of the heavenly city found in Revelation 21:23: “The city doesn’t need the sun or the moon to shine on it, because God’s glory is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.”

In the New Testament, the Greek word for “glory” is doxa, which conveys the meaning of brightness, splendor, magnificence and fame. Check out how it is used in the New Testament:

  1. Jesus prays that the Father would glorify him as he had glorified the Father (John 17:1-5)
  2. We see his glory at the resurrection (Acts 3:13-15, 1 Peter 1:21)
  3. We see it at the glorious second coming of Jesus (Matthew 24:30)

You and I are called to live our lives in the light of God’s glory. We do so when we acknowledge his glory in worship, and when we live worshipfully each moment, reflecting the glory of God in the world.

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To Be Successful or Faithful?

There has been a debate on whether we are called to be successful in our lives and ministries or simply faithful to what God has called us to do. For pastors, we often view success in terms of numbers; we are successful if the numbers increase.

I read a book by a guy named Kent Hughes called, “Liberating Your Ministry from Success Syndrome.” Imagine a pastor of a small church in a transitional community who faithfully preaches week after week, cares for the congregation, invests in leaders, witnesses regularly, and serves the community; but the numerical growth is just not there. At the Convention he hears stories from other pastors with churches experiencing tremendous growth. The conclusion is often, “I’m not successful in what I am doing. Maybe I should be in a different vocation. God has not blessed with response to he must not be pleased with me.”

So, we beg the question, “Has God called us to be successful or faithful?” Sometimes we see both; but often we have to resign to the fact that even with the hardest work and best laid plans, God is the only one who can bring about growth (1 Corinthians 3:6, 7).

Check out what God says to Ezekiel:

“He said to me: Human one, listen closely, and take to heart every word I say to you. Then go to the exiles, to your people’s children. Whether they listen or not, speak to them and say: The LORD God proclaims!” (Ezekiel 3:10-11)

Getting people to respond to your ministry is hard. If we are doing it in our own strength, it is sure to fail (John 15:5), but even when we rely upon God to make it happen, we must faithfully do our part and leave the results up to him. Let’s look at evangelism as an example.

Most Christians know that they should be sharing their faith with others, that it is part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. But, most Christians feel very uneasy about doing it. Many Christians rarely share their faith with others.

  • Some don’t because they don’t want to look foolish in the eyes of their co-workers.
  • Others hold back because they don’t want to offend someone.
  • Many believers choose not to share their faith because their afraid they won’t do it right.
  • Others fear they’ll mess up the message or be unable to answer unexpected questions, so they don’t talk about it.

If you can relate to these statements or if you’re someone who keeps the lid on our faith because you’re afraid of what might happen if you talked about it, then you’ll be encouraged and challenged by Ezekiel 3:10-11. In this passage, the Lord told Ezekiel to take his word to heart and then to share it with the Jewish exiles in Babylon, where Ezekiel was himself an exile. God told him to speak, “whether they listen or not” (Ezekiel 3:11). In other words, Ezekiel’s calling was to be faithful, not successful.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with success, whether in life or in serving the Lord, but our chief calling as God’s people is to be faithful to him, to serve him with excellence, to obey him wholeheartedly. If God chooses to bless our efforts with success, that’s great, but many times we cannot guarantee success. We should always choose to be faithful and do what God tells us as well as we can.

How do you feel about sharing your faith with others? What about seeing the fruit of your labor (like success)? What do you find uncomfortable about this? What about setting goals and action plans to reach them? What encourages you to continue serving the Lord even when it does not appear to be successful? What would it mean for you to be faithful as a servant or witness for Christ?

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When God Has Other Plans

We spend most of our younger years planning our lives… which college, which degree, job choices, spouse choices, where to live, what to drive, where to vacation, retirement goals. What happens when all of a sudden you realize that all your plans and dreams have fallen short of your expectations? Perhaps you find yourself somewhere totally different than what you had planned? Let’s look at the prophet Ezekiel.

The Introduction: Ezekiel ministered to his generation who were very sinful and totally hopeless. Through his prophetic ministry he attempted to bring the people to immediate repentance and to confidence in the distant future when God would bring the people back to the promised land. He taught that:

  1. God works through human messengers
  2. Even in defeat and despair God’s people need to affirm God’s sovereignty
  3. God’s Word never fails
  4. God is present and can be worshiped anywhere
  5. People must obey God if they expect to receive blessings
  6. God’s Kingdom will come

Take a look at this passage of the Bible:

On July 31 of my thirtieth year, while I was with the Judean exiles beside the Kebar River in Babylon, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God. This happened during the fifth year of King Jehoiachin’s captivity.  (The LORD gave this message to Ezekiel son of Buzi, a priest, beside the Kebar River in the land of the Babylonians, and he felt the hand of the LORD take hold of him.) (Ezekiel 1:1-3)

The first three verses of Ezekiel introduce us to the prophet and his unexpected calling. In Ezekiel 1:1, the prophet explains the context of his encounter with God. He was thirty years old and in Babylon with other Jewish exiles. They had settled along the Kebar River, and there, Ezekiel tells us, “I saw visions of God.”

Ezekiel 1:3 was added by an anonymous editor of Ezekiel’s book, in order to help the reader understand more about the prophet and his peculiar calling (notice the parentheses in the text). We learn interesting information…

  1. We learn that Ezekiel was a priest, the son of Buzi.
  2. We learn that the word of the Lord “came expressively” (NASB) on him and the Lord “took hold of him.”
  3. We learn that it was “in the fifth year after King Jehoiachin’s deportation”
    1. The year would be 593 B.C. (see 2 Kings 24:8-17)
    2. The date would be July 31, The text actually says, “On the fifth day of the fourth month,” but refers to the ancient Hebrew lunar calendar. A number of dates in Ezekiel can be cross-checked with dates in surviving Babylonian records and related accurately to our modern calendar. So the NLT tells us this event occurred on July 31 of that year.

The Irony: It would be easy to miss an ironic and moving element in this parenthetical introduction. Ezekiel 1:1 indicates all this happened in the thirtieth year, which was likely Ezekiel’s age at the time. As a priest (Ezekiel 1:3), he would have had the extreme honor of serving in the temple in Jerusalem (Numbers 4:3, see below). No doubt he spent much of his young life looking forward to this opportunity. He would have been eligible for priestly service when he turned thirty years old, but his hopes were dashed because he was exiled to Babylon during the time when he could have been serving in the temple. It’s not hard to imagine Ezekiel’s disappointment with how his life turned out.

The Interpretation: God had other plans for Ezekiel. When the priest turned thirty, the Lord began to reveal amazing visions to him. God spoke to him and told him to speak his word to God’s people. Ezekiel would have the chance to serve God in a most influential and difficult way, as a prophet of judgment and hope. God took Ezekiel’s plans and reinterpreted how he would be of service to the kingdom.

The Intersection: God has plans for each one of us and at times his plan must intersect with our plans. Sometimes God’s plans line up with our expectations, but often, they surprise us. We have plans for our life, but God may have other plans. His plans are always the best, though they might come in the midst of disappointment, discouragement and difficulty. They might also lead us into greater challenges than we would have chosen for ourselves.

The Inspiration: God wants to use you for his purposes, perhaps as he once used Ezekiel. How will you respond to his call for a new direction or ministry? How will you respond to the call of God on your life, family and work? Are you willing to hear what God wants you to do, even if it’s not what you were expecting?

NOTE on the age of service for a priest: Numbers 4:3 tells us that the priest begins his service age age 30, and must retire at age 50. But also notice that Numbers 8:24, 25 indicates that 25 is the minimum age for service. So, what’s up? It is likely that age 25 began the priest’s five year apprenticeship, before he was fully prepared to be a leader.

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A Valley of Dry Bones

Here is a word for this generation, it is not a message given only to the prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 37:1-10). Listen to the words as the Spirit of God speaks to your heart. Awaken your passion for God and his mission in the world. Become a part of proclaiming God’s message to those who have yet to hear.

These dry bones are your neighbors, classmates, friends, co-workers, golf buddies. The valley is at the grocery store, gas station, the racquet club, the golf course, the oceanfront, among the homeless and at your favorite restaurant.

Live in a way that is worthy of our calling as followers of Christ. How will you live differently today than any other day up until now?