Today is the fifth anniversary of my blog site. Over the five years I’ve published 845 posts that have reached thousands of readers across all seven continents. It has been a pleasure to write for and maintain this site, and pray that it has been helpful to you in some degree.

I haven’t always posted with the frequency that I had hoped, but I’m confident that you understand that life “happens,” making it difficult to get around to every task on the agenda. Nonetheless, I enjoy this as both a professional outlet and as a hobby of sorts.

Your feedback, whether through comments you post, personal emails or face to face, has been helpful. You have spread the word by sharing selected posts with others or encouraging them to find the site on the internet. Thank you, one and all, for making this experience worth while.

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What does God promise to honor?
Does He promise to honor our traditions and history?
Does He promise to honor our denominational affiliations and partnerships?
Does He promise to honor our programs and ministries?
No, he promises to honor his word.

“The rain and snow come down from the heavens and stay on the ground to water the earth. They cause the grain to grow, producing seed for the farmer and bread for the hungry. It is the same with my word. I send it out, and it always produces fruit. It will accomplish all I want it to, and it will prosper everywhere I send it” (Isaiah 55:10-11, NLT).

Categories : Isaiah
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Last Sunday we observed Palm Sunday, the celebration of the beginning of Holy Week as Christ entered Jerusalem for the final time of his earthly ministry. The day was fraught with Messianic expectation, as the news spread regarding this upstart prophet from Nazareth who was teaching with authority and performing incredible miracles. As Jesus rode into Jerusalem that day, the people raised their voices with the expectation that an emancipator had come to deliver them. Their hope was that he would restore Israel to its former geo-political greatness. Once again they would be prosperous and powerful, resembling their former days when David sat upon his throne.

But Jesus had made no such promises. His Kingdom was not of this world. His rule was not political. He sought no throne other than upon the throne of the hearts of his people. So they killed him. On Sunday they sang his praises, and by Friday they were screaming for his crucifixion. All because he wasn’t the Messiah they expected.

Isaiah 54 speaks about the expectations we should have of Messiah and the gospel. A bit of review may be helpful. Because of their idolatry and disobedience, Isaiah prophesied that Israel would be deported and exiled. Though they would live as slaves in a foreign land, God would not forget them. God would deliver them and return them to their homeland, graciously restoring them to their homeland.

The first thing Isaiah said they would do is sing with joy.

Break into loud and joyful song, O Jerusalem, you who have never been in labor. For the desolate woman now has more children than the woman who lives with her husband,” says the LORD. (Isaiah 54:1, NLT)

The opposite of joy is not sadness; its hopelessness. Isaiah called the people to sing with joy because their redeemer had not forgotten or abandoned them. They were not without hope, for their redeemer had not forsaken them.

But not only should they sing with joy, they should make preparations in accordance to what God was preparing to do in their midst.

“Enlarge your house; build an addition. Spread out your home, and spare no expense! For you will soon be bursting at the seams. Your descendants will occupy other nations and resettle the ruined cities. Fear not; you will no longer live in shame. Don’t be afraid; there is no more disgrace for you. You will no longer remember the shame of your youth and the sorrows of widowhood. For your Creator will be your husband; the LORD of Heaven’s Armies is his name! He is your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel, the God of all the earth. For the LORD has called you back from your grief— as though you were a young wife abandoned by her husband,” says your God. “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will take you back. In a burst of anger I turned my face away for a little while. But with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,” says the LORD, your Redeemer.” (Isaiah 54:2-8, NLT)

Why was this preparation necessary? It was because the gospel does not operate in isolation. What we experience through Christ is not just for ourselves. It is like anything that is worthwhile; it is to be shared.

Categories : Isaiah
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In his classic prophetic description of the suffering servant, Isaiah twice refers to Jesus as one who was despised and rejected (Isaiah 53:3). We despised and rejected him then, and we still despise and reject him today. How?

Jesus intent was to transform every part of our lives, not just the part that goes to heaven when we die. Every word he spoke was important. Jesus assumed that he had the best information available about life and he shared those words so we might obey him and experience the abundant life he frequently spoke of. The ways of Jesus are counter-intuitive. The ways of the Kingdom are “upside down” when compared to our culture and education. And we despise him for it. How?

We despise his death. Paul called the death of Jesus “offensive” and “scandalous.” His death was offensive and scandalous because it speaks into our lives, revealing who we really are and what we are really like. Because his death is offensive to us, we attempt to soften it. I recently visited the Nelson Atkins Art Museum in Kansas City and saw one display of religious art that was breathtaking. There was one thing missing from these expressions of art: blood. One painting of portrayed Jesus with a crown of thorns, perched atop his brow like a tiara, absent of blood. Next to it was a painting depicting the crucifixion, complete with nails in his hands and feet; spear thrust through his side. Again, no blood. We are no different. Our wooden crosses are sanded smooth and varnished. Our elements of communion are served to congregants in trays of polished brass. His death concerns us, and we soften it because we despise it.

We despise his name. Have you ever noticed how we prefer using God, Lord, and even Christ to the name of Jesus? God and Lord and Christ are appropriately safe. But when you start using the name Jesus in your speech, you show your true colors. If you don’t believe me, try this little experiment. Use the name Jesus, whenever its appropriate, instead of God, Lord, or Christ. See if it feels natural, or if it makes you uncomfortable. When we are uncomfortable using the name Jesus, we’re despising his name.

We despise his works. The Gospels report all kinds of miracle stories where Jesus exercised power over the natural realm. He calmed storms, healed diseases, cured disabilities, performed wonders with food and drink, and even raised the dead. When we look at his works, we might wonder why we haven’t seen these kinds of things happen in our lives. Why hasn’t Jesus come through for us like he did those 2,000 years ago? We wonder about this, often settling on a line of thinking that says, “Well, that was then, this is now. Jesus behaves differently today than he did then.” When we diminish the power of Jesus across some vast historical divide, we are despising his works.

Finally, we despise his words. When Jesus heard the words of his Father, he did them. He assumes his words are important and that when we hear them we will do them NOW.

Do not be angry with your brother.
Forgive your enemies.
Go and be reconciled to your brother.
Turn the other cheek.
Go the second mile.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
Do not judge.

At the core of the Great Commission is the instruction to “teach them to obey every word I have commanded.” That’s not legalism. Legalism has to do with us doing things or not doing things in order to earn the favor of God. Jesus said his words are life, and he assumes our obedience.

We read the words of Jesus’ commands and respond by saying, “Well, you don’t understand…” I may be empathetic to that, but I’m not sure Jesus is. When he tells us to forgive, he assumes we will do it now.

In Matthew 11:25-26, Jesus said that in order for us to enter into true discipleship we would have to be childlike. There are two things about children that help us understand obedience. First, when children hear their parent speak, they assume the time is now. “Would you like to go to Disney World?” “Yes! I’m going to the car!” Children don’t think about someday going to Disney World. If you ask, they assume the time is now and are instantly ready to go.

The second thing children have going for them is that they assume any activity, once begun, has no end. If you’ve played with a child, you know what I mean. “Again! Again! Again!” They don’t think of activity as having an appointed stop time.

We see this modeled by the apostles. Unfortunately, we think Peter, Paul, James and John are a special breed of super disciples. But their childlike faith is really a demonstration of normative Christian behavior. They’re not religious superstars. In the estimation of Christ, they’re normal.

Categories : Isaiah
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I grew up in a faith tradition that had little tolerance for long hymns. If a hymn had three stanzas, we would sing all three. But if there were more than three, we would sing the first, second and last stanzas and forego the others. But if you carefully read the old hymns you’ll quickly see that they tell a story, and to omit one or more stanzas means that you choose to skip part of the story.

Isaiah 53 is written like a hymn. Some 700 years before the time of Christ, Isaiah took up pen and paper and wrote these words, telling the story of the suffering servant. The passage is written in five stanzas of three verses each, unfolding the story of Christ who would serve as our servant emancipator.

Stanza 1
See, my servant will prosper; he will be highly exalted. But many were amazed when they saw him. His face was so disfigured he seemed hardly human, and from his appearance, one would scarcely know he was a man. And he will startlee many nations. Kings will stand speechless in his presence. For they will see what they had not been told; they will understand what they had not heard about. (Isaiah 52:10-13, NLT)

The prophet claimed that the nations would be startled as they see what would become of the suffering servant. From the very beginning we see God’s vindication of his servant.

Stanza 2
Who has believed our message? To whom has the LORD revealed his powerful arm? My servant grew up in the LORD’s presence like a tender green shoot, like a root in dry ground. There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him. He was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.
We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care.
(Isaiah 53:1-3, NLT)

The report is not believed. Not because the report is inaccurate, but it is disbelieved that this suffering is necessary. His suffering was so great it was unwatchable. Not only are we unable to look upon him, we despise and reject him, literally withdrawing from him because of our discomfort with his discomfort.

Stanza 3
Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrowsa that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for his own sins! But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed. All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the LORD laid on him the sins of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6, NLT)

Words like “pierced” and “crushed” speak to the violence of Christ’s suffering. As he suffers alone, those who were contemporary with him would have wondered what he had done to deserve such brutal punishment. But the prophetic answer is that he had done nothing worthy of death. It was not for crimes or sins he had committed, but for ours. He is our substitute, taking our place, dealing with every aspect of our need, fulfilling the plan of God.

Stanza 4
He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth. Unjustly condemned, he was led away. No one cared that he died without descendants, that his life was cut short in midstream. But he was struck down for the rebellion of my people. He had done no wrong and had never deceived anyone. But he was buried like a criminal; he was put in a rich man’s grave. (Isaiah 53:7-9)

As the disturbing imagery continues, it is not lost on the reader that the reason it is so uncomfortable because it exposes our own vulnerability and mortality. If Christ is innocent and we are guilty, we are confronted with our own sinfulness. The death Jesus died should have been yours and mine. We would rather talk about heaven than hell; and would prefer words about grace to words about wrath. Yet what is heaven without hell? What is grace without wrath?

Stanza 5
But it was the LORD’s good plan to crush him and cause him grief. Yet when his life is made an offering for sin, he will have many descendants. He will enjoy a long life, and the LORD’s good plan will prosper in his hands. When he sees all that is accomplished by his anguish, he will be satisfied. And because of his experience, my righteous servant will make it possible for many to be counted righteous, for he will bear all their sins. I will give him the honors of a victorious soldier, because he exposed himself to death.
He was counted among the rebels. He bore the sins of many and interceded for rebels.
(Isaiah 53:10-12, NLT)

Though Christ suffered greatly, God esteemed that it was worth it, for his voluntary sacrifice would provide the opportunity for the world to be saved.

There are always challenges in bridging contexts between the times of the Bible and today. It is hard to see ourselves in these images, and frequently we wonder how these verses begin to apply to us. There is an old hymn that asks the question, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” The short answer is “yes, you were there.” Not as an eyewitness, but among the guilty, condemning him to die, crying out “Crucify him!” We can’t look at Holy Week as some event in history that we get to benefit from. Your sin and mine was also atoned for that day. We were among those who despised and rejected him.
We despised and rejected him then, and in many ways we still despise and reject him today. Curious as to how? Check back in for the follow up post this week.

Categories : Isaiah
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Rainer research is offering more insight on the worship preferences of young adults. To read the research click HERE.

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Apr
07

Book Review: Dakota

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I grew up in small towns. The small town that served as my home during my middle school and high school years is all but gone. Beginning in seventh grade, I was bussed some 20 miles one way for my education, but the small town still provided an elementary school. During those years there were two garages, one of which provided gasoline and a vending machine. There was an agricultural co-op that served farmers’ needs with seed and fertilizer. A small grocery made sure that any one could pick up some items without making the long trip to the county seat for a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread. The heart of this small town revolved around the restaurant that served plate lunches, sandwiches and gallons of thick, dark coffee. As you sat in that restaurant you could watch people walk in and out of the local post office to pick up or send mail. Two churches graced the town’s landscape, one Christian and the other Methodist, neither of which ever had large attendances and were cared for by circuit riders. Each of these establishments is now gone. Many of the buildings have been torn down, leaving empty lots across the community like a checkerboard.

This memory came back as I read Kathleen Norris’ book, Dakota. The book is not necessarily autobiographical, although it does represent a substantial subset of her life. As a writer based out of New York, she and her husband moved to South Dakota to live on an ancestor’s farm. The most interesting part of her presentation is her depiction of life in and around the small towns of the Dakotas and the observations she offers regarding them. Her theory, one that I am inclined to accept, is that many of the things that small towns do to try to hold on to life and vitality are actually the very things that destroy them. I offer below some of her observations in no particular order for your consideration.

1. The departure of the young.
Many of the community’s young people receive their high school diplomas and leave for college never to return, due to the lack of employment opportunities. These young people are rewarded for stepping into their future and simultaneously punished for moving on by being treated as outsiders. Small towns across the nation are losing their best and brightest resources every year at graduation.

2. The mythology of history.
Many small communities possess a selective memory about yesterday. Stories become legend and the legends grow beyond truth to the point that it is often difficult for citizens to come together and work for things that might benefit all. Says Norris, “Local control, a value to be cherished above all things, makes these communities more, not less, vulnerable to manipulation by outside interests.

3. The belief that a return to the past will heal all present ills.
Somehow the residents of these small towns believe that if the clock could be turned back 20 years or more that everything will be ok. Norris observes that “paradise wasn’t self-sufficient after all, and the attitude and the belief that it ever was is part of the reason it’s gone.”

4. Change is an enemy.
Norris observes that resistance to change and the ability to adapt to change is rooted in diminished points of reference. As the community shrinks, so does its willingness to look beyond its own borders into other communities to see what is working. And the lack of point of reference is devastating. “With resistance to change comes resentment toward anyone who demands change, yet this ultimately shortchanges the community.”

5. Finding refuge in conspiracy theories.
Many who cannot or are unwilling to cope with change will find refuge in the arms of conspiracy theories that provide easy targets of blame versus confronting the present realities of their situation. Unfortunately, these conspiracy theories cultivate fears that cannot be overcome by even their close-knit neighborliness.

6. The reluctance to allow outsiders to benefit individuals and the community as a whole.
Ministers, teachers, librarians and physicians are often grouped as “outsiders,” and their expertise is limited because of that label. In some of these small communities, professional standards are questioned and invalidated which fosters mediocrity. Often these outsiders are made to be scapegoats by citizens that cannot resolve their own internal differences. Writes Norris, “Small towns need a degree of insularity in order to preserve themselves. But insularity becomes destructive when ministers, teachers, and librarians grow weary of pretending not to know what they know, and either leave or cease to offer themselves as resources whose knowledge could benefit the community.”

Norris has correctly observed that “it is the town’s cherished ideal of changelessness that has helped bring about the devastation, and it is the town’s true history that is lost…disconnecting from change does not recapture the past. It loses the future.”

And I suspect what she has observed in small towns across the midwest is also, unfortunately, true of small churches as well.

Categories : Books, Church, Church Growth
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Everyone likes good news. We want good news, and when given the option between “good news” and “bad news,” prefer the good first with hope that it will magically diminish the bad. Perhaps my thirst for good news is why I don’t enjoy Country Music. Those songs all seem to be so sad and discouraging. Last week I was driving with a friend in Missouri. He had his iPhone plugged into the car’s stereo system and proudly announced that he had purchased the new Johnny Cash album filled with songs that had not been previously recorded. The first song was about a troubled young man who got a pistol and robbed a store. Now he was on the run from the law. Brand new?

By the way do you know what happens when you play country music backwards? You get your spouse back, your farm back, your dog back, and are sober. Yep. I like good news!

The prophet Isaiah spoke into their life situation for 60 years and spanned the rule of four kings. Toward the end of his marvelous prophecy, Isaiah spoke into the future of Israel. Though they were headed for deportation and exile, he offered some much needed good news.

Wake up, wake up, O Zion! Clothe yourself with strength. Put on your beautiful clothes, O holy city of Jerusalem, for unclean and godless people will enter your gates no longer. Rise from the dust, O Jerusalem. Sit in a place of honor. Remove the chains of slavery from your neck, O captive daughter of Zion. For this is what the LORD says: “When I sold you into exile, I received no payment. Now I can redeem you without having to pay for you.” This is what the Sovereign LORD says: “Long ago my people chose to live in Egypt. Now they are oppressed by Assyria. What is this?” asks the LORD. “Why are my people enslaved again? Those who rule them shout in exultation. My name is blasphemed all day long. But I will reveal my name to my people, and they will come to know its power. Then at last they will recognize that I am the one who speaks to them” (Isaiah 52:1-6, NLT)

Isaiah began his good news with calling Israel to wake up. To see themselves as God saw them: valued, loved, precious, and worth saving. This imagery is set over and against the depiction of slavery. Slavery occurs when someone or something imposes their will on another. In most instances of world history, slaves are legitimately and appropriately viewed as victims. But not in the case of Israel. They were going to be deported and enslaved because of their sin and disobedience to God. The good news of the gospel is that God’s grace closes the gap between what we are and who we’ve been created to be. He extended grace to Israel and continues to extend grace today for the sake of his own name. God cannot tolerate the bondage of his people, even though it comes at a great personal price.

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who brings good news, the good news of peace and salvation, the news that the God of Israelb reigns! The watchmen shout and sing with joy, for before their very eyes they see the LORD returning to Jerusalem. Let the ruins of Jerusalem break into joyful song, for the LORD has comforted his people. He has redeemed Jerusalem. The LORD has demonstrated his holy power
before the eyes of all the nations. All the ends of the earth will see the victory of our God
(Isaiah 52:7-10, NLT).

The second invitation Isaiah offered to Israel was to listen. The good news came to them in the form of a song of joy. “Your God reigns!” We only understand the joy of being found in light of the danger of being lost. Only when we understand our true dilemma can we find true joy.

Get out! Get out and leave your captivity, where everything you touch is unclean.
Get out of there and purify yourselves, you who carry home the sacred objects of the LORD. You will not leave in a hurry, running for your lives. For the LORD will go ahead of you; yes, the God of Israel will protect you from behind
(Isaiah 52:11-12, NLT).

The final word in the great chapter is for Israel to get out. Though their sin would bring about slavery, ultimately they would be redeemed by God and would walk in freedom again. In their new found redemption they could walk confidently because the Lord would be present with them.

There are three important themes here that I would like to touch on briefly.

1. Grace is God’s response to our need. God’s grace comes to us in the midst of our sin. It touches every broken place of our lives.

2. Joy is our response to God’s grace. In the text above, those who heard the song of joy joined in and began to sing the song of joy.

3. Purity is required because we live in close proximity to the holy. We are not just free from the slavery of sin and disobedience. We are free for a relationship with God.

Categories : Isaiah
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The news of Fred Phelps’ death last week caused me to reflect on two experiences I’ve had with Westboro Baptist Church. The first was my last congregation’s random selection for picketing by Westboro following our High School’s presentation of The Laramie Project, a play depicting the life and murder of a high school student named Matthew Shepard. In preparation for that Sunday, our local police department brought the five churches together to debrief us on what to expect and how to prepare.

The research the detectives provided us was fascinating. Westboro Baptist Church is basically composed of two families. While in name they are incorporated as a church, their primary function is to incite a reaction. Most of Phelps’ children are attorneys versed in second amendment rights. When Westboro pickets, they notify the local police the locations they have selected, whether it be a church, a military funeral or some other event. They want the police there to protect them and document physical aggression directed toward picketers as well as document any restrictions that may be placed on their protests. If they are forbidden to protest, or if some well intentioned person physically accosts a member of the group, they file a law suit. And through the years they have be surprisingly successful. Phelps’ children have filed and won many law suits, even arguing cases as high as the United States Supreme Court. To that, I simply say Westboro is not a “church.” Its a bizarre business.

My second experience came as a part of a military funeral I conducted for a Marine who was killed in action in Afghanistan. There were two funerals that day, and Westboro announced they would be at both. However they opted for the other. The stress that the mere threat of Westboro coming to picket this young hero’s funeral was tremendous. Local police, assisted by the Patriot Guard, did everything within their power to protect the dignity of the soldier and his family. But the stress was still heavy.

Fred is dead, but his legacy will continue. Its easier to hate than to love. Its easier to judge than to entrust God with that responsibility. Its easier to focus on contrast than comparison. The small children who picket, carrying signs that display repulsive language and images have been taught to hate and to judge. They walk the picket line dutifully, with empty eyes and a sign secured against their tiny shoulders. They are unresponsive to the jeers and profanity hurled at them by those who pass by. For me, the worst part of Westboro’s charade is the way they use children. Its cruel and sad and wrong. And its part of securing the legacy.

There is a verse in Hebrews 11 about Abel that says, “though he is dead, yet speaks…” Long after we are gone, our lives still speak into future generations whether for good or bad. Fred Phelps is dead, but he still speaks. And Westboro Baptist Church shows no sign of letting up. Check it out HERE.

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Passion is a word with multiple uses. We use it to describe the relationship of those who are romantically involved. There are also instances when passion is used to describe feelings so intense that it is implicated with our behavior, such as a crime of passion. We use passion as a descriptor of Jesus’ suffering and death. But most frequently the word passion is used as an expression of things we embrace with enthusiasm, such as a hobby or a favorite sports team. In this sense, I think of passion as the product of high commitment and high enthusiasm. Put those things together and wah-lah: passion!

Which seems to be the very thing missing from our last church, Laodicea.

Write this letter to the angel of the church in Laodicea. This is the message from the one who is the Amen—the faithful and true witness, the beginninge of God’s new creation: “I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other! But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth! You say, ‘I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked. So I advise you to buy gold from me—gold that has been purified by fire. Then you will be rich. Also buy white garments from me so you will not be shamed by your nakedness, and ointment for your eyes so you will be able to see. I correct and discipline everyone I love. So be diligent and turn from your indifference. Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends. Those who are victorious will sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat with my Father on his throne. Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches” (Revelation 3:14-22, NLT).

Jesus saw two basic problems in this final church. For one, they were luke warm. They had become acclimatized and assumed the temperature of their culture. When I was in high school I spent many a summer day in the hayfields of northeast Missouri. That was not only hard work, it was hot work. Farmer’s wives would provide ice water in rinsed out milk jugs which was good at the beginning of the day. But by mid afternoon the water had warmed in the afternoon sun and tasted like bath water. We like our drinks hot. We like our drinks cold. But room temperature isn’t very satisfying. What a word picture Jesus provided the church about their spiritual status.

But it wasn’t just that. Jesus noted that they were oblivious to their own spiritual state. Their self assessment was no where close to accurate. They thought they had it all together, but in reality were not unlike a public speaker standing before an audience not knowing his fly is unzipped. No matter how eloquent the speech, all the audience sees is the gaffe.

Jesus gave three wise words to help the church find their center and restore their passion.

1. Buy gold. Gold is an investment. Spiritual passion comes from investing in something worthwhile and lasting.

2. Buy clothes. In the New Testament, clothing is a metaphor for character. Spiritual passion is not sustained by activity, but from within. The Laodiceans were not literally naked. But no amount of external activity can compensate for lack of internal character.

3. Apply ointment to your eyes. Why? So you can look past yourself and see the broken world that Jesus sees.

Indifference is a tricky thing because it never happens all at once. Like a boat adrift at sea, it happens gradually. If we’re not careful we too can become like the Laodiceans and find ourselves in the midst of a church experience where Christ is standing at the door of his own congregation knocking and asking to come in. And worse, being so indifferent that we never knew he was missing.

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