Oct
15

Simply Brilliant!

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I just finished reading Simply Brilliant, by William C. Taylor. He summarizes his material with eight questions that will help organizations do ordinary things in extraordinary ways. Here’s the list.

  1. Can you develop a definition of success that allows you to stand apart from the competition and inspires others to stand with you?
  2. Can you explain, clearly and compellingly, why what you do matters and how you expect to win?
  3. Are you prepared to rethink the conversations of success in your field and the logic of your success as a leader?
  4. Are you as determined to stay interested as to be interesting?
  5. Do you pay as much attention to psychology and emotion as you do to technology and efficiency?
  6. Do the values that define how your organization works reflect the values proposition around which it competes?
  7. Are you as humble as you are hungry?
  8. Are you prepared to share the rewards with success with all those who had a hand in achieving it?

Even though this is a business book, I think there are some important insights for church leaders to think through in our post pandemic world. Churches faced a lot of change during COVID-19, transitioning from relational to technological, and now have to find the happy medium between the two. Taylor’s book is thought provoking and applicable to today’s ministry context. Check it out.

Categories : Books, Pastors
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In the last post, the preacher spoke of the absurdity of one who pursues wealth for no other reason than to possess wealth. Having no beneficiary, he simply works hard in order to have more. The preacher then pushes pause and reflects on the value of meaningful relationships in life. Here’s what he recorded:

Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble. Likewise, two people lying close together can keep each other warm. But how can one be warm alone? A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, NLT)

If you’re familiar with this text it’s probably because someone has referenced it in the context of marriage and family. I don’t think that understanding will get anyone labeled as a modern day heretic, but Qoheleth is not speaking of marriage in this text. He’s simply pointing to the necessity of meaningful relationships and how their value cannot be overlooked. He points to four advantages that come to one who prioritizes people over possessions.

  1. In business pursuits, two can help each other multiply their success because they are able to support and strengthen move toward greater accomplishments than one can achieve alone. When I was in high school, I worked for a farmer who had this kind of relationship with a neighboring farmer. By working together, they eliminated the duplication of equipment and multiplied their labor. It was resourceful behavior, and it helped them each earn more than if they would have worked independently. This principle was true then and continues to be true today. John Maxwell was the first I heard define the word “team” as “Together, Everyone Achieves More.”
  2. In times of trouble, a friend is important to help you get back on your feet. Everyone faces trouble in life. Whether your fall is literal or metaphorical, its important to have someone who can come to your aid and help you get back on your feet. To suffer alone is to suffer twice.
  3. Everyone needs encouragement. In ancient times, travelers who stopped for the night didn’t always have the luxury of pop up tents or fire pits. They would stop and sleep beneath the stars, and the desert nighttime air could become cold. So they would lie next to each other to take advantage of each other’s body heat. Qoheleth is not making a sexual allusion, but is rather reporting on the common practice of the day. Obviously, the presence of another during the night could serve as encouragement through those long, dark hours between sunset and daybreak.
  4. Everyone needs strength, and there is strength in numbers. A second or even a third person serve as deterrents to attacks from dangerous people or dangerous animals. To be alone is to be easily surrounded, but when someone has your back you can withstand and even prevail against attacks.

Qoheleth is not condemning wealth. He certainly had plenty of it and doesn’t appear to be too ready to just give it all away. But he’s pointing to the fact that wealth is not all there is to life. It takes more than money to be content. The challenges we face in life reveal two things. They reveal something about who we are. But they also reveal who is truly with us, through thick and thin, with a loyal love that exceeds toting casseroles. Today, let’s be grateful for the relationships that truly add value to our lives.

Categories : Ecclesiastes
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“People lose their way when they lose their why.”

I don’t know if that statement is original with Michael Hyatt, but he’s the first one I heard say it. That turn of the phrase stuck in my memory and came to mind again this week as I worked on the next section of Ecclesiastes.

Then I observed that most people are motivated to success because they envy their neighbors. But this, too, is meaningless—like chasing the wind. “Fools fold their idle hands,
    leading them to ruin.” And yet,

“Better to have one handful with quietness
    than two handfuls with hard work
    and chasing the wind.”

I observed yet another example of something meaningless under the sun. This is the case of a man who is all alone, without a child or a brother, yet who works hard to gain as much wealth as he can. But then he asks himself, “Who am I working for? Why am I giving up so much pleasure now?” It is all so meaningless and depressing. (Ecclesiastes 4:4-8, NLT)

The text discusses the motivations of several types of people. The first person is described as having a strong competitive drive. Having moved beyond the friendly rivalry, this person is constantly looking for ways to outshine and outclass all others. This form of competitive drive, pointed out by Derek Kidner, can even devolve into “resentments that are nursed and grievances that are enjoyed.” This unhealthy competitive drive is often fueled by the comparisons they make to others. It’s not enough to keep up with the Jones’. They insist on being the Jones’.

On the contrary extreme, Qoheleth describes the drop out. This is the person who carries utter disdain for driven competition, choosing to sit and wait for his ship to come in or for their lucky break. But there’s equal damage to this person as well as his idleness erodes not only what he has but what he is. Not only does this person face shrinking capital, he faces a shrinking capacity to care for himself and others.

The third person appears to be the happy balance between these two, who holds in one hand quietness and the other hand hard work. He has discovered the harmony of modest demands and inner peace.

But envy is not the worst evil, it is habit that turns into fixation, as pictured by the final figure, who purposes to create wealth for no other reason that to create wealth. In other words, pure and simple greed. There is no humanity when it comes to his motivation, for there is no human beneficiary with whom to share his wealth. Like a raging fire, his only motivation is for more, and for no other reason than the sake of more itself. His loneliness is by choice, preferring to be untethered and unhindered in his pursuits.

Qoheleth is not intending to diminish the importance of hard work and the subsequent benefits that hard work will yield. He is, however, challenging his readers to struggle with their motivations behind their hard work. I’ve seen this illustrated in several ways over the course of my life. One person I know viewed his work as an executive for financial planning institution say that he was motivated by his desire that every person have adequate life insurance. Another auto sales person said he was motivated by solving people’s transportation problems. Were they successful? Without question. But neither claimed their motivation was to destroy their competition or to become personally wealthy. As long as we know our “why,” we can be safeguarded against losing our way.

Categories : Ecclesiastes
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I think the first complaint we may have uttered as children is “that’s not fair.” And the last complaint we very well may utter before death is “life’s not fair.” Those phrases are our attempts to articulate the irreconcilable injustices of life, particular to our comparisons with others. The Teacher of Ecclesiastes may have possessed staggering wisdom, but he was still human, and humans will compete, compare, and complain. This week’s text is interesting because it addresses some of those human tendencies.

I also noticed that under the sun there is evil in the courtroom. Yes, even the courts of law are corrupt! I said to myself, “In due season God will judge everyone, both good and bad, for all their deeds.” I also thought about the human condition—how God proves to people that they are like animals. For people and animals share the same fate—both breathe and both must die. So people have no real advantage over the animals. How meaningless! Both go to the same place—they came from dust and they return to dust. For who can prove that the human spirit goes up and the spirit of animals goes down into the earth? So I saw that there is nothing better for people than to be happy in their work. That is our lot in life. And no one can bring us back to see what happens after we die. Again, I observed all the oppression that takes place under the sun. I saw the tears of the oppressed, with no one to comfort them. The oppressors have great power, and their victims are helpless. So I concluded that the dead are better off than the living. But most fortunate of all are those who are not yet born. For they have not seen all the evil that is done under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 3:16-4:3, NLT)

This section of Ecclesiastes is tricky, but important. Here’s what I understand it to mean.

  1. In general, life is filled with injustice. In the preceding text the Teacher has pointed out life’s extremes and all that is between, so verses 16-17 serve as a cap on his prior observations.
  2. It is nearly impossible to find a non partisan source of arbitration that will advocate for those in need of justice. After all, those who have been tasked with providing justice are cut from the same human cloth as we are, and are not above providing favor to the powerful.
  3. Much of the oppression that occurs is at the hands of the powerful who are insensitive to the personal and physical needs of their victims.

Having made those obvious observations about injustice, he came to two conclusions. First, if justice cannot be administered by human hands, it will be found through divine hands, for God will judge all people according to their deeds. This conclusion is consistent with many similar statements in the New Testament by Jesus, the Apostle Paul, and in the Apostle John’s apocalyptic letter of Revelation. This hope tempers our demand for justice and vindication in this present life as we find comfort in the hope that God will ultimate level the playing field. If God doesn’t settle the score in this life, he certainly will in the next.

But the Teacher’s second observation is not as certain. While it sounds hopeful that God will administer justice, he makes the caveat that death is the only thing that really levels the playing field. To that point, humans are no different than animals, and the only one’s who have an advantage are those who haven’t been born.

While on one hand, it appears the the Teacher has become thoroughly cynical about justice and even the value of life itself. But on the other hand, he could be nudging his readers to acknowledge the reality of life’s injustices without becoming consumed with the demand for revenge. Injustice is a horrible thing in any society, whether it be in history or in the present moment. And justice is something worth pursuing, for sure. But at the same time the thirst for justice can become so all encompassing that we can miss the true meaning and value of life. We can become so fixed on what isn’t, that we can miss the what is that is before us each day. As with the extremes mentioned at the beginning of chapter 3, we can easily allow ourselves become defined by what isn’t fair and wear them as labels that limit us. And that may be worse than any injustice we face.

Categories : Ecclesiastes, Justice
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Oct
03

Modern Day Prophets

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I was an early adopter to Twitter and still use it on a daily basis. For the last several weeks, my feed has been occupied by modern day prophets who are elbowing their way into the evangelical conscience, pounding the keyboard about problems in the American church in 140 characters or less.

There are three predominant stories that loom large, first among those being the book Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes DuMez. If you haven’t read it, it’s an important analysis of patriarchy in the evangelical church over the past 70 years. DuMez’ goal is not just to expose the subtleties of patriarchy, she does a thorough job of linking conservative evangelicalism to the right wing of the American political spectrum. For those of us who grew up in predominantly white, middle class evangelicalism, it is a fair reporting of our history, not all of which is kind.

The second predominant voice I’ve come across is Mike Cosper’s Christianity Today podcast titled, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. Over multiple episodes, Cosper conducts interviews with people associated with and impacted by the pastoral leadership of Mark Driscoll. He tells the story of how Driscoll’s leadership created a spiritual movement in Seattle, and how ultimately that same leadership turned abusive and came crashing down, causing the same church to disband.

Third the is conversation surrounding the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee’s refusal to follow the instructions of the messengers to waive attorney client privilege in the face of hundreds of accusations of sexual abuse across the denomination. As of this writing, the Executive Committee continues to deny this request in the name of fiduciary responsibility to the denomination’s coffers.

On one hand, these stories and more like them have been labeled “failure porn,” because nothing garners clicks like good old fashioned dirty laundry aired for all to see. And while its easy enough to sympathize with those in the cross hairs of no holds barred investigative reporting, there’s something else important at work, that being the prophetic voices who are speaking truth to power on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves.

On the surface, we observers of these story lines are acutely tempted to pick sides with one side or the other, like children on the playground, and rally support in favor of one versus the other. Our knee-jerk reactions to these stories further division in the Church when we choose positions or personalities over the actual truth. But the truth, as Jesus said, will set you free. It may ruin your day first, but it will ultimately set you free indeed.

It has been said that we are as sick as our secrets. And if that is true, there is a lot of sickness in American religion. And it’s not just limited to conservative evangelicalism. There is but one remedy for what we see and read in social media and Christian websites. It’s found in James 5:16, which says, “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”

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It’s common to hear a church leader struggle with the challenge of developing and discipling their givers when their church’s giving records are closed. My company, MortarStone Generosity, provides data analytics and intelligence software that measure the recency, frequency, volume and tenure of givers so that church leaders can encourage givers to take steps toward a lifestyle of generosity. But the elephant in the room is that dollars are associated with names, which can create heartburn for church leaders who are unaccustomed to privileged information.

Many, if not most churches have strict rules about who has access to information, citing Matthew 6:1-4 as the reason for strict observance of secrecy. Let’s look at it.

“Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get. But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-4, NLT)

Jesus began this portion of the Sermon on the Mount with a thematic statement that would serve for the three points that follow: giving, fasting, and praying. So right up front, Jesus wants us to know that he assumes that his disciples will give, fast and pray, but these practices should be done in a way that is not self indulgent. The word hypocrite is featured in the text, and is borrowed from the secular world of theater. Actors in Greek theater would wear masks (think “comedy and tragedy”) and assume the role of whichever character they would play. So the word simply means “one who wears a mask,” but came to colloquially refer to a person who pretends to be someone they are not, or a hypocrite. Those who act with hypocrisy receive their apecho. Apecho, translated “reward” is a business term that refers to a receipt that is provided when a transaction has been paid in full. Jesus is literally saying that when we give in a way to be noticed by others, we have our receipt.

Having said that, Jesus instructs his disciples to not let their left hand know what your right hand is doing. Scholars are divided about what this means, but the general idea is to not give with both hands because in so doing, you draw attention to what you’re doing. If you think about how you may have passed notes in Jr. High School during class, you will get the idea of what Jesus is saying.

His admonition directly follows this instruction, where Jesus directs us to do our giving in kruptos (as in cryptic). Every English translation will interpret kruptos as “secret,” except the New Living Translation which translates the word as “private.” The word kruptos is used in the New Testament to mean secret when it is describing concealment. For example, Jesus said what we do in kruptos will be shouted from the housetops. (Luke 12:3) He also describes the person in the parable of the talents who took his one talent and buried (kruptos) it in the ground. (Matthew 25:14-30). But the definition of kruptos is not limited to concealment. It can also mean “to escape notice.” And this is how Jesus is using the word as it relates to our giving.

If you think about it, there are many examples in the Bible that describe the amount of a particular offering. Solomon’s gift offered on the day of the Temple’s dedication is itemized. Then there’s the woman who gave two coins, and in Acts we have Barnabas’ gift given as the result of the sale of real estate. Unfortunately in the next chapter, we know all about the size of the gift presented by Ananias and Sapphira.

The point here is that there is no single passage in the Bible that calls for confidentiality of giving. Giving confidentiality is a fiduciary responsibility of any not for profit organization who closely holds information that has been entrusted to them by contributors. Most not for profit boards routinely talk about both donors and the size of their donations. In fact, Pastors and church governing boards who are ignorant of their members giving are among the exception to this generally accepted practice. But however this is practiced within churches, it should be based on the church’s governance as fiduciaries. Whatever you do, don’t say “this is what the Bible says.” Because it doesn’t.

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Football season is here, which means that many of us will spend our Saturdays and Sundays watching games either in person or on television. Each game begins the same. Two opposing teams take the field with the same score: 0-0. The game kicks off and concludes when time elapses and the scoreboard announces the final outcome. There is one winner and one loser.

Casual fans of the sport are concerned with one thing, that being who won the game. While pundits may give insights as to why one team won and the other team lost, the only thing that is memorable in the years to come is which team won the game. The individual efforts of the players and even the final score itself will fade into the sea of the forgotten.

This is the point of arguably the most famous verses in Ecclesiastes, found in chapter 3:

For everything there is a season,
    a time for every activity under heaven.
A time to be born and a time to die.
    A time to plant and a time to harvest.
A time to kill and a time to heal.
    A time to tear down and a time to build up.
A time to cry and a time to laugh.
    A time to grieve and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones.
    A time to embrace and a time to turn away.
A time to search and a time to quit searching.
    A time to keep and a time to throw away.
A time to tear and a time to mend.
    A time to be quiet and a time to speak.
A time to love and a time to hate.
    A time for war and a time for peace.
(Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, NLT)

Qoheleth captured the essence of life’s extremes. But like yesterday’s football game, he doesn’t address the 60 minutes of struggle between kickoff and the final gun. Yes, there is a time to be born and a time to die, the most obvious of extremes. But he’s using a literary device called a merism that is inclusive of everything that lies between the extremes of birth and death. He assumes that the reader knows to include all that is in the middle.

Even though he cites several couplets in extremist language, it’s not the extremes that he’s necessarily concerned with. His point is that the monotony of the middle space provides no real profit. What is the value of time outs, replays, commercial breaks, and halftime? Life lived between birth and death has a lot of those time outs and commercial breaks, doesn’t it? And the same principle is applied to each successive couplet. Qoheleth provides his own interpretive commentary in the verses that follow.

What do people really get for all their hard work? I have seen the burden God has placed on us all. Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. So I concluded there is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we can. And people should eat and drink and enjoy the fruits of their labor, for these are gifts from God. And I know that whatever God does is final. Nothing can be added to it or taken from it. God’s purpose is that people should fear him. What is happening now has happened before, and what will happen in the future has happened before, because God makes the same things happen over and over again. (Ecclesiastes 3:9-15, NLT)

He cynically saw these events as the busy work that God has prescribed human kind and judged it to be pointless. If God had a purpose behind it all, he doesn’t see it. Our entrapment in time does nothing more than emphasize our mortality. So what does he recommend? First, Qoheleth suggests that we make the most of the time we live between the extremes. The ability to enjoy life and be happy is a gift that comes from God. To focus on the extremes is to waste the majority of the time we are granted on earth.

Second, don’t define your life by its extreme events. We are more than our birth date and our date of death, no matter how difficult they may be. The extremes he described cannot be minimized or avoided and should not become the thermostat of how we live our ordinary days. As the well known poem asks, “What are you doing with your dash?”

Finally, he challenges us to revere God. While we may not understand the absurdity of life’s extremes, God does have a purpose: that we will live in humble reverence of him. When he wrote that these things happen over and over again, I believe he is describing the entire human race. Therefore, we don’t have to take life’s extremes personally, for these are the things that everyone has faced or will face.

Categories : Ecclesiastes
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I came to hate all my hard work here on earth, for I must leave to others everything I have earned. And who can tell whether my successors will be wise or foolish? Yet they will control everything I have gained by my skill and hard work under the sun. How meaningless! So I gave up in despair, questioning the value of all my hard work in this world.

Some people work wisely with knowledge and skill, then must leave the fruit of their efforts to someone who hasn’t worked for it. This, too, is meaningless, a great tragedy. So what do people get in this life for all their hard work and anxiety? Their days of labor are filled with pain and grief; even at night their minds cannot rest. It is all meaningless.

So I decided there is nothing better than to enjoy food and drink and to find satisfaction in work. Then I realized that these pleasures are from the hand of God. For who can eat or enjoy anything apart from him? God gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy to those who please him. But if a sinner becomes wealthy, God takes the wealth away and gives it to those who please him. This, too, is meaningless—like chasing the wind. (Ecclesiastes 2:18-26)

In the previous paragraph, Qoheleth had acknowledged that death is the great equalizer of life and levels the playing field. Death is indiscriminate and does not distinguish between the rich or the poor; the wise or the foolish; the young or the old. Everyone dies, and to add insult to injury, the memory of their lives quickly evaporates.

That being said, he then turned to the futility of the work he enjoys. Although he found work to be fulfilling, he simultaneously found it frustrating, for he realized his achievements and all he has acquired will outlast his physical existence. He has amassed generational wealth. So much wealth that his descendants will never want for anything. This creates worry and anxiety for him.

What happens if they waste it?

What happens if they lose it?

What happens if they don’t appreciate it or take it for granted?

What happens if they don’t learn the value of hard work and develop a strong work ethic?

What happens if they love their gifts more than they love and remember me?

These, and similar questions I’m sure, kept him awake at night. Qoheleth could not reconcile all that he knew about wisdom, wealth and mortality.

These frustrations led him to a decision. He decided to be fully present in each moment and enjoy life at face value. His decision was one that each of us needs to make if we’re going to fully enjoy life. Sometimes decisions are made in a moment of resignation, where we give up and settle. Other times decisions are rooted in a realization; an awakening of sorts.

For Qoheleth, the realization was that God is the giver of life’s gifts and blessings. But he also realized that God was also the one who gives the ability to enjoy those gifts and blessings. In and of themselves, the gifts and blessings are neutral. Any enjoyment we have comes from God and serves as reminders that no gift is greater than the giver of the gift.

I wonder if Jesus had this passage in the back of his mind when he famously asked, “What do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?” (Mark 8:36, NLT) The truth is that anyone who places more value on the gift than the giver is in danger of his warning.

Being fully aware of the present moment is to pay attention, in a particular way, to the present moment without passing judgment. It is in the present moment that we find clarity and become fully alive.

Categories : Ecclesiastes
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A friend sent me an article today from the Mere Orthodoxy website asking my thoughts about the current trend of theological deconstruction that is becoming prevalent in evangelical communities of faith. The author, Skyler Flowers, does an appreciable job of attempting to develop categories that sort the conversation, albeit akin to nailing jello to the wall.

Evangelical deconstructionism is a topic forceful enough today to have become a cottage industry, complete with books, podcasts, and small group gatherings to discuss theological dissonances. It’s not nearly as tidy as the six neatly defined categories outlined in Flowers’ article, but yes, it’s a thing. By definition, to “deconstruct” basically means to question or doubt what you have previously believed. It can be motivated by the awareness that one doesn’t really know why they believe what they believe due to strict indoctrination, or from a negative event associated with a church such as spiritual abuse or moral indiscretion from a church leader.

The motif seems to follow this model: prior order, disorder, then re-order. In other words, a person has their normative belief and practice disrupted by something or someone, then re-ordering takes place as persons attempt to put the pieces back together. But the pieces create a new picture. They re-create the old one into something new. 

Admittedly I know little with regards to the deconstruction movement, but there’s a reason for it. There is no template to follow. Deconstruction tends to be more individualistic by necessity, for each person has their own catalytic moment that produces disorder and their own rhythm and tempo for processing re-order.

When I think about it, King David may have been the first deconstructionist. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann used a similar patter to interpret the Psalms. His structure is orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. If you read the Psalms carefully, you’ll see David wrestle with people and situations that cause in to question what he had always believed that then turned into something stronger. Deconstruction, to that point, doesn’t have to end with atheism or apostasy as some would assume. It just transports you from where you were to where you are, and ultimately to where you’re going.

Categories : Spiritual Formation
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I realize that the primary focus of American churches during the global pandemic has been and continues to be re-opening and re-engaging their congregations, but according to Barna’s most recent report, churches also have a lot of work to do in the area of re-engaging in global missions and evangelism.

According to his report titled, Trends Impacting Global Missions and Evangelism, American Christians have shifted in their understanding as well as their approach to global missions.

What do you think?

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I was unaware that Martin Luther King, Jr., required every volunteer to sign the following commitment card:

I HEREBY PLEDGE MYSELF–MY PERSON AND MY BODY–TO THE NONVIOLENT MOVEMENT. THEREFORE I WILL KEEP THE FOLLOWING TEN COMMANDMENTS.

  1. MEDITATE daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
  2. REMEMBER always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation–not victory.
  3. WALK and TALK in the manner of love, for God is love.
  4. PRAY daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.
  5. SACRIFICE personal wishes in order that all men might be free.
  6. OBSERVE with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
  7. SEEK to perform regular service for others and for the world.
  8. REFRAIN from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
  9. STRIVE to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
  10. FOLLOW the directions of the movement and of the captain on demonstration.

I SIGN THIS PLEDGE, HAVING SERIOUSLY CONSIDERED WHAT I DO AND WITH THE DETERMINATION AND WILL TO PERSEVERE.

How might your life be different if you chose to commit to this level of humility for the next 30 days?

Categories : Uncategorized
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So I decided to compare wisdom with foolishness and madness (for who can do this better than I, the king?). I thought, “Wisdom is better than foolishness, just as light is better than darkness. For the wise can see where they are going, but fools walk in the dark.” Yet I saw that the wise and the foolish share the same fate. Both will die. So I said to myself, “Since I will end up the same as the fool, what’s the value of all my wisdom? This is all so meaningless!” For the wise and the foolish both die. The wise will not be remembered any longer than the fool. In the days to come, both will be forgotten. So I came to hate life because everything done here under the sun is so troubling. Everything is meaningless—like chasing the wind. (Ecclesiastes 2:12-18, NLT)

Having announced his quest for the meaning of his life, Qoheleth conducted multiple experiments from every possible avenue, leaving no stone unturned. Starting with laughter, wine, women, and song; he then moved to architectural and engineering projects in order to have real estate to possess, followed by economic growth, amassing an enviable if not obnoxious wealth portfolio. His assessment of all of it was that it was meaningless, and as if to be clever, states that there is no profit in profit.

Qoheleth then decided to turn to his chief resource, his wisdom, and compared it with foolishness. He grants that in the end its better to live as a wise man versus a foolish man, the difference between being as obvious as night and day.

But just when we thing he’s turning a corner, he restates his chief complaint. At the end of it all is the end of it all. While wisdom may provide some satisfaction during life, the wise one is just as mortal as the fool. Everyone dies, and no one memorializes them. With particular angst in his voice, he states, “I came to hate life.” Judging by the ego-centric tone of the book, we could insert the pronoun “my.”

Wisdom may relieve a person from the evil business of living life, but it doesn’t solve the death problem. It’s as though life has played a trick on him, and even though he clings to wisdom, deep down he feels like a fool.

Lest we pull up a chair at Qoheleth’s table and become co-lamenters, we need to pause and remember the biblical principle of “othering.” It doesn’t take much to become jaded about life when it’s lived in the first person singular. We have been created for community, where we can know and be known. It’s easy to over value ourselves and our importance to the world. But our truest value comes from being made in the image and likeness of God, and that value is only fully understood in the context of relationships. God doesn’t love all of us, He loves each of us, for no other reason than we are his. And his love doesn’t diminish or heighten based on whether we are wise or foolish. The life we live may be forgotten, but that doesn’t mean we have to be forgettable.

Categories : Ecclesiastes
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I also tried to find meaning by building huge homes for myself and by planting beautiful vineyards. I made gardens and parks, filling them with all kinds of fruit trees. I built reservoirs to collect the water to irrigate my many flourishing groves. I bought slaves, both men and women, and others were born into my household. I also owned large herds and flocks, more than any of the kings who had lived in Jerusalem before me. I collected great sums of silver and gold, the treasure of many kings and provinces. I hired wonderful singers, both men and women, and had many beautiful concubines. I had everything a man could desire!

So I became greater than all who had lived in Jerusalem before me, and my wisdom never failed me. Anything I wanted, I would take. I denied myself no pleasure. I even found great pleasure in hard work, a reward for all my labors. But as I looked at everything I had worked so hard to accomplish, it was all so meaningless—like chasing the wind. There was nothing really worthwhile anywhere. (Ecclesiastes 2:4-11, NLT)

Qoheleth did not find meaning through the temporary islands of relief of laughter and wine. Even then, he would have understood the law of diminishing returns–the fact that more and more produces less and less. Since the secret to lasting meaning was not found in earthly joys, he turned his attention to amassing possessions. It was not uncommon for kings of that time period to make testamentary statements that flaunted their accomplishments, so perhaps this passage has a bit of a competitive edge.

In reading these verses, the first person singular pronoun is clearly evident as well as the objectification of each one. Whether it was homes, gardens, water, animals, or people, they all betray Qoheleth’s thirst to acquire, amass, and own. One of the clearest examples is that he didn’t love music, he loved owning singers. Somehow he believed that by amassing things and people he could find significance, which would result in finding the meaning to it all, especially if he had the most and the biggest.

Without restraint or self denial, he had it all. His only limitation was his own imagination.

It is at this point we begin to see the underlying issue become more evident. As with laughter and wine, hard work in and of itself was rewarding. But at the end of it loomed death, which would nullify everything. Qoheleth doesn’t have a life problem. He has a death problem. The fact that his existence would someday terminate was something he could not wrap his mind around. After all, what’s the point of building, acquiring and collecting if he, like everyone else, will die? He’s no better off than the poor man at that point, because both face the same end result.

Our modern concept of eternity and life after death is more clearly fleshed out than it would have been in Old Testament times. In all likelihood, Qoheleth and his contemporaries did not foresee life after death, hence the existential angst he expressed in his writing. His worldview was directly tied to his earthly existence.

Living on this side of the cross provides us with an opportunity to come to terms with things like eternal significance and making eternal differences. But even then, we can become so tied to physical life that we enter the same state of mind. But bigger is not always better, sometimes it’s just more. Perhaps this is why Jesus was so adamant about teaching us to not lay up treasures here on earth in favor of laying up treasures in heaven. Our lives matter now and will matter through all eternity. What are you doing to balance the now and the not yet?

Categories : Ecclesiastes
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Aug
30

There is One Sin

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“There is one sin: to call a green leaf grey, Whereat the sun in heaven shuddereth.” — G.K. Chesterton

This quote was cited by Lynn Anderson in his book Talking Back to God, as he described walking through his cancer diagnosis and the accompanying ‘dark night of the soul.’ When I read it, it leaped off the page and I’ve spent the better part of my weekend turning it over and over in my mind.

Chesterton’s words fell on my heart and mind like this. A leaf, as I understand it, represents something in my life that comes from God. That can be a blessing or a gift that he has bestowed. But it can also be in the form of a challenge or difficulty. Either way, the leaf finds its origin in God, and by nature is green, which is the color of life and growth. Green speaks of the value of the leaf and the benefit that it offers.

But to call that green leaf gray, the color of death, is to diminish the value and benefit of the leaf. In life we all have to play the hands we are dealt. And each hand beckons, “What is the invitation within the hand I have been dealt?” For Anderson, even the hand of cancer contained “an invitation,” and he learned that indeed, the green leaf in not gray.

It is easy to devalue what God has given. We can even do it by taking credit for the blessings we have or by simply being ungrateful.

My prayer for today is that I take the good and perfect gifts from God and remember they are ever green.

Categories : Spiritual Formation
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I said to myself, “Come on, let’s try pleasure. Let’s look for the ‘good things’ in life.” But I found that this, too, was meaningless. So I said, “Laughter is silly. What good does it do to seek pleasure?” After much thought, I decided to cheer myself with wine. And while still seeking wisdom, I clutched at foolishness. In this way, I tried to experience the only happiness most people find during their brief life in this world. (Ecclesiastes 2:1-3, NLT)

Qoheleth spent the entirety of chapter 1 describing the absurdity of life under the sun. Beginning in the second chapter, he outlined a series of experiments to verify his claim that he had left no stone unturned.

He began with his adventures in pleasure. Out of the gate we find two differing interpretations on what is actually taking place. There are some that read these verses and claim that Qoheleth has plunged headlong into a life of hedonistic behavior, while others take a more straightforward view that there was no real loss of self control. If we take the writer at his word, I see no need to enforce more on the text that is stated. He was conducting a series of experiments, beginning with laughter and then wine.

Test number one was simha, literally, “joy, gladness, or gaity.” There is nothing inherently wrong with joy and laughter. In fact, it is recommended throughout the remaining chapters of the book that people should enjoy the days of their lives spent under the sun. He discovered, however, that the pursuit of laughter and joy with the hope of profit is pointless.

As a part of his quest for pleasure he turned to the consumption of wine, which in the Old Testament is usually a symbol of joy. Qoheleth was not looking to numb his frustration with life’s absurdities. He was genuinely seeking joy and gladness. He claimed to process the use of wine while maintaining self control, and concluded that again, there is nothing to be gained from it.

It appears that Qoheleth looked around and wondered why people with less wisdom and fewer possessions were genuinely happy in life. How could they laugh when life is so ridiculous? Was it entertainment? Was it the wine? For those he observed, maybe so. But not for him. Those pathways were unsatisfactory, providing nothing more than small respites of relief.

Why is it that a child in a third world country who has nothing more than rocks and sticks to play with seem happier than a child in America with every toy at his or her disposal? That’s Qoheleth’s question.

Categories : Ecclesiastes
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Lifeway Research has recently contributed to the commentary on stewardship and generosity with a report that cites research conducted by the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. The report echos what others have been stating all summer, chiefly that the pool of givers to religious organizations is dwindling.

How is it, then, that in the face of this research, churches claim that their giving remained static or even strong during the COVID-19 pandemic? From the churches I’ve reviewed in the last several months, the answer is simple. Those who were top givers in the church (at least $10,000 per year) increased their giving, while those who gave minimally (no more than $1,000 per year) decreased their support. In other words, the stockholders and key investors in the ministry carried the load.

The concern, for me anyway, is that top givers will experience giving fatigue in the coming year. Churches that are investing all of their energy in recovering attendees to in person worship need to focus on discipling and developing their givers as well. We may not see the full financial impact of COVID on churches for several more months. Therefore, church leaders cannot make the assumption that their congregation’s giving is certain.

Categories : Generosity, Stewardship
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Aug
15

Praying for Our Schools

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Tonight I will participate in a nondenominational prayer gathering led by my wife at her elementary school. It is organized by Inspire Our Schools.org. I am grateful that our central Iowa school districts are willing to allow volunteers come to school campuses to surround the buildings with prayer for the new school year. I have inserted the examples of prayers that will be offered, and wanted to share them so you can join parents, faculty and students in prayer. While you may not want to pray these exact prayers, the outline will certainly help you to make sure that you are as inclusive as possible in covering the needs. For more information about this annual gathering, find www.inspireourschools.org.

GENERAL PRAYER AT BEGINNING

Lord, we commit this building to you. Father, may those who enter this building experience your love in profound and authentic ways. (John 13:35)

Lord, we ask for your blessing over this building. We pray it would be a place of great discovery, adventure and creativity. May it be a place where we love to learn and where we learn to love. A place where everyone is respected and all are deeply valued.

STUDENTS

Lord, we commit to you the lives and welfare of all our students. We pray they would show proper respect for the authorities you have placed over them and recognize all authority comes from you. Help them to speak and act in a way that is respectful of all teachers, administrators, and other school staff.  (Romans 13:1-5)

Teach them, Lord, to be kind and unselfish and to love those who are different from themselves. May the children consider their school work an act of worship in that “whatever they do in word or deed, it all be done in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to the Father through Him.” (Col 3:17)

Grant the Christian students wisdom and boldness in living out their faith. Help them share effectively with their classmates the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ, first by living and loving as Jesus did, and secondly with their words. (1 Timothy 4:12)

Lord, release truth in this school. Help students to rightly discern truth and not believe any false teachings. (Proverbs 23:23)

Lord, fill the students’ lives with trusted teachers and advisers who can lead them toward you and your promises. Help them turn to you as they learn and grow so they can lead fruitful and prosperous lives. May your grace be sufficient for every challenge they face.

Amen.

PARENTS

We ask for your favor on all parents as they work to keep you and your commands at the forefront of their family despite all the pressures of this world. We pray they will take an active role in their children’s Spiritual lives, protecting time for weekly worship and putting you at the center or their homes. We pray for parents to be encouragers of their children by word and example.

We ask that you would grant good working relationships between the parents and teachers, showing mutual respect and support for one another. (Ephesians 6:4)

We lift all parents up to you now and remind them that you are parenting alongside them—teaching, training and equipping them to handle every situation so long as they keep you at the center of their lives. They are never alone – they need only to speak your name and you will provide for them. We ask all this in your Holy and precious name.

Amen.

TEACHERS

Almighty God, we come to you today and give thanks for all of our teachers. Thank you for the way in which they give of themselves each day in the classroom, serving and instructing the next generation.

Father, please fill their hearts with courage by your mighty Spirit. Fill them with your strength, so they may rise to every challenge and not grow weary. Fill them with your wisdom, so they may be able to make good judgement when guiding and helping others. Fill them with your peace, so that when stress and anxiety come, they would not be overwhelmed. Fill them with your joy, so that the passion they have for their subject may become an infectious passion that spreads.

Father, please give the teachers your divine wisdom. Show them when they must discipline and when they can show mercy. Remind them that grace is typically most needed when it is least deserved. And above all, may they love and care for each student they teach. Show them how to serve as Christ serves, give as Christ gives, love as Christ loves.

We ask all this in the wonderful name of Jesus.  Amen.

PRINCIPAL, FACULTY & STAFF

Father, we thank you for the staff members of our schools who show our students what it means to lead with a servant’s heart. We pray for your protection and blessing over them. We ask that you would show them daily what an important role they play in our schools, often times working behind the scenes to create an environment where our children’s minds and hearts are open to learning and growing.

We specifically pray for anyone who is transporting our students, providing nourishment to our students, providing clean facilities, or caring for our students in a variety of other ways. We ask that you would pour your blessings over them as they create an environment where learning is possible and comfortable.

We also pray that the Principal & leaders will recognize the God-given responsibility they have in overseeing the best interests of our students, teachers and staff. May they walk in wisdom, integrity, grace, and truth. May they lean on you for wisdom and discernment in every decision they make, knowing that you and your ways are always good and you always work for the good of all your people. We pray for your protection over them and that you would be the governor of all the choices they make in school and outside of school. We pray for protection and favor over their families, and that their service would be appreciated and respected throughout the community. (Proverbs 2:1-11)

We ask all of this in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

ADMINISTRATION / SCHOOL BOARD

Father, we lift up those who serve as part of our district administration and impact the operations of our entire school district. We pray for your guidance and direction to fill their days. We ask that they would not be overwhelmed with the tasks before them, but that they would be energized and impassioned by the lives they are impacting each and every day. We pray they would feel encouraged and supported by us, and that they would commit all they do to the Lord so their plans will succeed. (Proverbs 16:3)

We pray blessings on each school board member. Father, may your will be done at board meetings. May they work together for the good of their schools and community, and may they be filled with your wisdom, discernment, grace and guidance. May they have open minds and hearts to listen to one another and the needs of this school system, and may they lean on you for every decision they make. (Romans 13:1)

In your Holy name we pray.  Amen.

BLESSING OF EXTERIOR DOORS

Lord, we commit this school to you. Cover this school with the protection only you can give and keep harm far away. We ask that you post one of your angels at this door so evil cannot enter, and all who pass through this door will encounter your Holy Spirit. Amen.

PRAYER OVER OUR COMMUNITY

Father we seek your favor on our community. Thank you, Father, that you will bring abundant peace, security and healing to our community. We ask you to shine your light into homes and restore families to wholeness. Lord, place a hedge of protection around the children and their families. Protect them from evil and command your angels to guard them in all their ways. Reign over our community with your righteousness and your goodness. May you be glorified this school year as never before. Amen.

Categories : Prayer, Public Prayer
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I have always identified with Paul’s honest self evaluation recorded at the end of Romans 7 (7:21-25). Like Qoheleth, Paul wrote in first person about his experience and struggle as he attempted to reconcile his inner world and outer world. There, he spoke of his search for meaning and his struggle with moral victory. As a well trained Rabbi, Paul would have been familiar with the words of Ecclesiastes, and I believe his confession is informed by the ancient text.

Ecclesiastes 1:12-18, serves as a second introduction to the book, as Qoheleth confirms his authority for the claims he will assert throughout the book. In verses 1:12 and 1:16, he uses the Solomonic persona to emphasize the depth and breadth of his pursuit of meaning in life (for more on the book’s authorship, read the Introduction).

I devoted myself to search for understanding and to explore by wisdom everything being done under heaven. I soon discovered that God has dealt a tragic existence to the human race. I observed everything going on under the sun, and really, it is all meaningless—like chasing the wind. What is wrong cannot be made right. What is missing cannot be recovered. (1:13-15, NLT)

He began by saying he devoted himself to his search, connoting a sincere, heartfelt commitment to investigate everything under the sun, leaving no stone unturned. These words make me think of looking for a lost article that is valuable, like car keys or your wallet. When you recognize something of value is missing, you stop all other activity and search until you find them. There is a sense of panic mixed with frustration that is heightened each time you come up empty. When we find them, we are happy, and naturally want to share the story of how we lost the item and where we found it. Beginning in chapter two, Qoheleth will tell the reader where he looked for meaning. But before doing so, he reports that he never found it. His preoccupation with searching is, in his words, “a tragic existence,” for he feels as though every time he comes close to the discovery, God moves it. This heavy burden is not his alone. It is the burden felt by every human being.

So I set out to learn everything from wisdom to madness and folly. But I learned firsthand that pursuing all this is like chasing the wind. The greater my wisdom, the greater my grief. To increase knowledge only increases sorrow. (1:17-18, NLT)

Qoheleth searched everywhere, from the heights of wisdom to the depths of depravity. He would begin with what he knew from where he was, and continued his search, stooping lower and lower to levels beneath his dignity. This exhaustive search amplified his frustration, to lead him to the assessment that “the more you know, the worse off you are.”

When one of my kids would come to me and ask for help to searching for something they had lost, I often would tell them, “It’s not lost, because everything is somewhere.” Qoheleth would argue, “It never existed to begin with.”

Categories : Ecclesiastes
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Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998, featuring Tom Hanks as Captain Miller. In the movie, Captain Miller is charged with the responsibility of finding paratrooper Private James Ryan and returning him to his family who had already lost three sons during World War 2. The movie, which won seven Academy Awards, invests several minutes depicting the landing on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, as a part of the Normandy Invasion. The cinematography is graphic and uncomfortable. It is my understanding that its portrayal is authentic. But what if the movie stopped there, with no certain outcome?

That is the challenge that comes with preaching from the Book of Ecclesiastes. By nature, both preacher and congregations look for sermons that conclude with the certain outcome of hope. We can endure the challenges of unfortunate reality so long as we know that within twenty minutes we get to the “happily ever after.” But Ecclesiastes isn’t written in a series of undulations that ebb and flow. With the exception of two verses in chapter 12, the picture that Qoheleth paints is bleak and depressing. Perhaps the ultimate “vanity of vanities” is one’s attempt to preach a verse by verse exposition from Ecclesiastes.

How, then, does one responsibly and faithfully preach from Ecclesiastes? Having preached verse by verse through the book in four of the congregations I’ve served, I offer the following suggestions.

  1. Remember that Ecclesiastes is geared to mature audiences who have lived long enough to be on a first name basis with disappointment and adversity. While college students may enjoy the philosophical discussion of the book in small group studies, those who best relate to the book are those who have been kicked in the teeth a few times. If the dating of Ecclesiastes is post-exilic, the original audience would have be those who have returned from captivity and trying to make sense of it.
  2. Remember that Ecclesiastes is one unit of thought. To extract popular passages such as 3:1-12 or 12:1-7 as stand alone texts misses the deeper intent of the author. The context of each section and its relationship to the rest of the sections matters.
  3. Remember that Ecclesiastes is wisdom literature, so like the Book of Job, the preacher needs to be especially aware of literary devices such as hyperbole and cynicism. Much of Ecclesiastes is descriptive, not prescriptive.
  4. Remember to do your homework. The good news is that there are good resources available to help you in your sermon preparation. The bad news is that there aren’t a ton of them. Trempor Longman III, Pete Enns, Derek Kidner, Duane Garrett, and Iain Provan have each produced balanced works on Ecclesiastes that should grace your library, along with several reliable English translations. Faithful study will help you develop a balanced interpretation and add clarity to your communication as you preach.
  5. Remember to use the “whole counsel of God.” Ecclesiastes is in the Bible, but so are 65 other books. At the end of the day we have access to each of those as we help our listeners navigate life’s absurdities. I do think there is value, however, in letting the listeners have time to really grapple with the thoughts and emotions contained in the book. We are far more comfortable looking at the dangerous reptile behind glass than we are in the wild. But when in the wild, we are more alert and not as nonchalant. When we struggle with our uncertainties we become more open to being humble enough to actually have hope.

Thanks for your time and for following my blogsite. If you find it helpful in any degree, feel free to share it with a friend.

Categories : Ecclesiastes, Preaching
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Over 60 million Americans own a treadmill, making it the single most popular piece of home exercise equipment. People continue to purchase treadmills because of their flexibility (you can change speed or incline) and convenience. My wife and I own one, and she actually uses it to walk and run. I’ve often reflected on the irony of the treadmill, as it reports the number of miles I’ve tread. It tells me I’ve gone two miles, when I know good and well I’ve never left my basement.

Qoheleth evaluated life under the sun and came to a similar conclusion in the Old Testament book we call Ecclesiastes. The first eleven verses serve as the prologue for the book, where the preacher summarizes his observations and sets the stage for the twelve short chapters that follow.

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? (1:1-4)

The word translated “meaningless” comes from the Hebrew word hebel, which literally means a vapor, puff of wind, or breath. It is used in Psalms and Job to describe the brevity of human existence. (cf. Psalm 39:5, Psalm 144:4, e.g.) It speaks of the transient nature of our human existence. In the context of Ecclesiastes, it is translated with the connotation of meaninglessness, but a stronger understanding of hebel would be absurdity or unreasonable.

Why are all things absurd or unreasonable? It is absurd because from everything that Qoheleth has observed “under the sun,” there is no profit or payoff from the things we occupy and engage ourselves in during our brief time on earth. In other words, what’s the point? Having made his point, he then moves to four analogies from life.

 Generations come and generations go,
    but the earth remains forever.
 The sun rises and the sun sets,
    and hurries (pants) back to where it rises.
 The wind blows to the south
    and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
    ever returning on its course.
 All streams flow into the sea,
    yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
    there they return again.
(1:5-7)

  1. The passing generations and the certain reality of death renders all of life pointless.
  2. The circular course of the sun is without end as it hurries its journey, out of breath.
  3. The wind, also circular in its nature, finds no definite beginning or end.
  4. The rivers strive to fill the seas but they are never full.

But this circle of life is not limited to the never ending circular futility of these analogies. Qoheleth continues with three human behaviors that are also equally pointless: our spoken words, our eyesight, and our listening.
 All things are wearisome,
    more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
    nor the ear its fill of hearing.
 What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun.
 Is there anything of which one can say,
    “Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.
(1:8-10)

To summarize his complaint, Qoheleth concludes his prologue with this stinging reminder:

No one remembers the former generations,
    and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
    by those who follow them.
(1:11)

In other words, life is absurd and unreasonable. The ultimate proof of which is that we don’t remember our predecessors, and in turn, we too will be forgotten. I like Peter Enns paraphrase of the passage. He writes, “This is what Qoheleth is saying: At the end of the day, life is frustratingly absurd. The cycles of nature are screaming that message to you. You live. You exert a lot of energy, but nothing new happens. Just like the sun, wind, and rivers. Then you die. And one other thing — after you die, you will be quickly forgotten.” (Enns, Ecclesiastes, 2011)

The temptation of Bible students, pastors and teachers is to attempt a fix by making a bee-line to the Gospel of Jesus, who provides meaning and hope “above the sun.” But that would be premature. Qoheleth wants his audience to use the text to identify their own struggles with meaning and to sit with them. Quick answers are usually incomplete at best, and trying to anticipate a forced, positive outcome can be dangerous. Let the Scripture say what it says before turning the page, as depressing as it may be.

Categories : Ecclesiastes
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For the first 18 centuries, Old Testament scholars have attributed the authorship of Ecclesiastes to Solomon. This was based on the allusions of verses 1:1 and 1:16, where the writer claims he is “King David’s son, who ruled in Jerusalem,” and that he was “wiser than any of the kings in Jerusalem before” him. Since the 19th century, however, several things have created questions as to whether Solomon was indeed the author.

The first concern is the question surrounding the pseudonym Qoheleth, a word unique to this book. According to Kidner, Qoheleth (pronounced Ko-HELL-eth or Ko-HELL-et) means something like one who “assembles a group of people,” hence the English translation of preacher or teacher. Proverbs and Song of Songs both make direct claims to Solomonic authorship, yet Ecclesiastes is somewhat distanced by using a title or a role. Which begs the question, why would Solomon himself do this?

The second concern is regarding the literary criticism of the Hebrew used in Ecclesiastes. Peter Enns cites that the linguistic evidence of the book suggests that the dating of Ecclesiastes is more consistent with the Hebrew used in the post exilic era. Instead of dating Ecclesiastes in the tenth century BC which would be more attune with Solomon’s rule, the linguistics and the evident Aramaic influences would betray something more aligned with the fourth century. Those who would argue for Solomonic authorship would simply claim that the original writings were updated as the language evolved. To each their own.

The third issue is the question of a second author. Some scholars have noted that the tone of the content makes a sudden shift in chapter 12. From 1:12 to 12:7, Qoheleth writes in first person singular. But in 12:8-14, there is a shift from first person to third person, as if a wise person has been quoting the words of Qoheleth to his son. Therefore, Ecclesiastes contains the words of a wise father to his son, who he has introduced to the thought of a person who is called Qoheleth, who is nothing more than a literary construct. This idea expressed by Tremper Longman, would satisfy to some degree the many questions that have been raised.

Jewish and Christian scholars have traditionally attributed Ecclesiastes to Solomon, but ultimately, the identity of Qoheleth is unknown. No one who chooses to believe that Solomon is the author of Ecclesiastes will find themselves alone on an island without cellular reception. Wise and faithful scholarship, however, must look at all evidence, not just the low hanging fruit. Which brings me to the message of the book.

It is totally possible to benefit from the reading and study of Ecclesiastes without having hard evidence regarding authorship and dating. The book itself is both timely and timeless, in that it meant something then and continues to speak with incredible relevance to today. In the coming weeks I’m going to dive into the text and provide commentary on each section of the book. But for now, consider three broad themes identified by Derek Kidner that will be revisited again and again.

The first theme is that God is the creator who has set the scene of the world and placed us in it. This setting that we find ourselves in is unforgiving and unyielding, regardless of our efforts to reshape and remold it. Nothing is new, and nothing can be added or subtracted.

Theme number two is that God is sovereign and has set the scene in motion. Living in the perpetual motion of the world may feel like life on a treadmill or life in the same lane, resulting in our feelings of futility. Nothing is within our command, and nothing is within our control.

The third theme is that God is the God of unsearchable wisdom, reducing our best ideas and brilliant thoughts to little more than speculation. The pursuit of God’s unrevealed wisdom can be frustrating and brings us to the ultimate point of Qoheleth. With much beyond our control, we should seize each and every day, follow Jesus, and live life to the fullest.

Ecclesiastes is dark and depressing, painting a bleak picture of existence for those who are old enough to have been disappointed by life and are exasperated by their inability to alter its course. But tough books like Ecclesiastes are included in the Bible because God isn’t threatened by our questions or frustrations. Qoheleth may be a fictional character, but that doesn’t mean that his message is any less real. Ecclesiastes is best understood when we lean into it, not away from it. In many ways the reader will find more similarities than dissimilarities.

As we read and study Ecclesiastes together, look for these themes and how they connect with each other.  Next week I’ll begin with the first unit of thought, found in chapter 1:1-11.

Categories : Ecclesiastes
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Americans are incredibly blessed. Those in our nation who are age 60 and above average $800,000 in personal assets. In the coming years our nation will see the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of the world as over $33 trillion will pass from one generation to their designated beneficiaries.

The 2020 Giving USA Report revealed some interesting data. Last year, Americans gave $471.44 billion to charitable causes. Religious institutions were recipient of 28% ($131.08B) of those dollars. Individuals made 69% of those gifts, followed by Foundations (19%) and Bequests (9%). While the total dollars directed toward religious institutions increased, the overall percentage of those distributions decreased as people directed more dollars to Education and Human Services.

While the sheer volume of giving is quite impressive, there are some concerns that church leaders need to be made aware. The most staggering of which is the data that shows Americans who give to charitable institutions only give 2.2% of their annual income. This is less that the percentage donated during the Great Depression, when Americans gave 3.3% to charity. In other words, we are not as generous as those who gave during the Great Depression.

Today, only 35% of people have an estate plan in place, and of those who do, only 10% have included a charitable component. Given the imminent wealth transfer that we face, churches need to develop an overall stewardship strategy to disciple their givers.

There are two types of givers. The first is the Income Giver, where the giver contributes either a dollar amount or a percentage of their annual income to their church and charities of choice. This is usually the main focus of church leadership who design annual campaigns to make the case for their ministries to be included each year.

But the second type of giver is the Balance Sheet Giver, who gives out of their net worth. These are the givers who have done estate planning and have taken advantage of tax laws to protect their estates from taxes by directing dollars and non cash assets to churches and eligible not for profit organizations. Church leaders and givers alike are often unaware of the possibilities and potential that is available.

Focusing on Income Giving is needful and necessary, but incomplete. Churches must develop generosity ministries to fully disciple and develop their givers. If you’d like more information on how your church can develop a Generosity Ministry that addresses current and future financial needs, let me know. I’d love to have a conversation on how your Church can get started!

Categories : Generosity, Stewardship
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Jul
25

Life in the Same Lane

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Years ago the Eagles made popular a song titled, “Life in the Fast Line,” depicting the toil and pain that comes with living life filled with hard partying. If you change the song title and chorus to “Life in the Same Lane,” you’ll find a fair description of Ecclesiastes.

Beginning next week I’m going to start a series of posts on my reflections from this Book of Wisdom, which never seems to lose its relevance to contemporary readers.

This will be the second series of serious studies I’ve done in over a year, and I’m excited to dust off my exegetical and hermeneutical skills and share my insights with a public audience. When I left the pastorate a year ago I discarded every sermon I had written, so it feels good to get out some blank paper and study this book with a fresh perspective.

I hope you’ll find it helpful!

Categories : Ecclesiastes
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Jul
25

Why People Resist Change

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I’m currently reading Tempered Resilience, by Tod Bolsinger, which includes this fabulous quote from the work of Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky:

“People do not resist change, per se. People resist loss. You appear dangerous to people when you question their values, beliefs, or habits of a lifetime. You place yourself on the line when you tell people what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear. Although you may see with clarity and passion a promising future of progress and gain, people will see with equal passion the losses you are asking them to sustain.”

Therefore, when a leader proposes change in an organization, it should come as no surprise that the organization’s stakeholders will resist the change, not because it’s new or different, but because it threatens loss. People who are deeply invested in a church will often become enmeshed to the degree that it becomes their identity. Thus, change creates a loss of identity and even threatens their sense of personal power within the church. It’s not the additions that come with change. It’s the subtractions that come with change. Perhaps this is why churches can create new programs easier than discontinue old, ineffective programs.

Unfortunately, when people feel threatened due to the losses created by change they engage in sabotage. Tod Bolsinger writes, “Acts of sabotage are not the bad things that evil people do to stop good being done in the world. Acts of sabotage are the human things that anxious people do because they fear they are losing what little good is left in the world.”

He continues, “At times of crisis or crossroads of change, anxious relationship systems default back to what is known, believing that it is the only path to self-preservation and survival, even if it means returning to slavery (Exodus 16:3).”

If you’ve served in any kind of organization with any level of longevity, these words will ring true. So what should leaders who aspire to lead change do?

  1. Don’t take resistance personally. Resistance isn’t about you, or even the proposed change. It simply reveals something in nature of those who are resisting. It’s not easy to confess that change makes you feel insecure or threatens your sense of significance. It’s easier to sabotage the change or become adversarial to the leader(s). It’s only personal if you make it personal.
  2. Lead collaboratively. Leaders who want to take personal credit for the new idea will ensure they are the targets for personal attacks. The wise leader will lead collaboratively when introducing change, using whatever governance devices are available to depersonalize the initiative. Even if it’s the leader’s idea, some sabotage can be diffused by introducing the initiative through boards, committees or teams.
  3. Be patient. Leaders can legitimately see change as true no-brainers. But not everyone responds to charts and graphs, not matter how colorful they may be. People need stories that are rooted in the church’s history where they are reminded that change is part of their rich history and such changes have led them to that point. Be willing to communicate and present the idea until people are actually tired of hearing about it. Few things in life are communicated in one message.
  4. Be courageous. The white’s of their eyes matter, so go the second mile by sitting down knee to knee with those who are resisting the change. Give them the time of day. They matter to God, so they should matter to you. You may not win them to your cause, but you can care about them and empathize with the loss you are asking them to accept. And that’s not nothing.

Bolsinger’s book serves as a companion to the book, Failure of Nerve, by Edwin Friedman. If you find yourself in the crucible of leading change, I’d recommend you purchase both. They’re timely and timeless additions to your leadership library.

Categories : Books, Change, Leadership
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Jul
25

Canoeing the Mountains

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The year following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Captain Meriwether Lewis to find the most direct and practical water route across the continent from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean for the purposes of commerce. For over 300 years explorers from at least four sovereign nations had been looking for a pathway that would lead from the Mississippi River all the way through the North America to the Pacific. Lewis was joined by Second Lieutenant William Clark and together formed the Corps of Discovery to under take the challenge from President Jefferson.

The Corps of Discovery began with a faulty assumption. Everyone was certain that the water route to the Pacific was there. All they needed to do was discover it. But they were wrong. There was no passage. When Lewis and Clark came to the end of the river they realized that nothing before them was like anything they had experienced that was behind them. There were no manuals, maps or journals that could help them. They literally marched off the map into the unknown.

What the Corps of Discovery learned over 200 years ago is what we are learning today in the life of our church. The world of ministry is not like anything we have experienced in the past. The cultural landscape has changed to the degree that our assumptions about reaching and serving are experiencing diminishing returns.

Today we are recognizing that many of the ministries we found to be effective in the past are no longer having the same impact today. Like Lewis and Clark, we must realize that we are marching into an age where our canoes may no longer help us reach our destiny. Like the Corps of Discovery, we are finding the need to trade our canoes for horses so that we can stay focused on the mission. Those who choose to love their canoes more than the mission will risk becoming stuck at the headwaters of the river and fail to reach the ultimate goal.

Tod Bolsinger shared this anecdotal story to form the motif of his book, Canoeing the Mountains. He uses this historical event to describe the type of adaptive leadership that is needed in the 21st century. It was written prior to the global pandemic, and coming out of the pandemic is more timely than ever.

Bolsinger suggests five characteristics every leader must possess in order to lead a congregation or organization in unchartered territory:

  1. Recognize you are in uncharted territory, and that the world in front of you is nothing like the world before you.
  2. No one will follow you off the map unless they trust you on the map. Competence and credibility on the map is required to develop the necessary trust to advance into the unknown.
  3. Adaptation is the key to leading in uncharted territory. Adaptation is the process of learning and loss. Once we realize the losses won’t kill us, we can embrace a growth mindset and learn.
  4. Adaptive leadership requires both collaborative relationships and navigating resistance. Today’s leader can no longer go it alone. Successful change is not achieved until the leader has survived the inevitable sabotage.
  5. Finally, everyone will be changed, especially the leader. Survival comes when the leader is willing to allow people to speak into his or her life that previously have gone unheard.

If Bolsinger’s book was important in 2015, it is invaluable in 2021. If you’re an organizational leader who is looking to lead into the dynamic future instead of being content with the static present, this book is a must read.

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Jul
18

Don’t Look Back

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Many years ago I engaged a church member in a conversation about an obscure verse found in Luke 17:32. The verse simply read, “Remember Lot’s wife.” These words were spoken by Jesus in the context of a teaching he was giving about his return. The original hearer would have heard the phrase and recalled the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (cf. Genesis 19) where the cities were destroyed following Lot and his family’s escape. According to the story, Lot and his family were to leave the city without looking back, lest they be turned into pillars of salt. Well, Lot’s wife didn’t listen to the warning and subsequently was turned into a pillar of salt. So in our conversation we talked about what it meant to stand at the crossroads of a difficult decision and following the Lord’s will to the best of our knowledge, without reservation or regret. In other words, those kinds of decisions have to be made whole heartedly with singular focus on what lies ahead. And as illustrated by Lot’s wife, that can be a hard thing to do.

Old guys like me have practices and rituals that, in my case anyway, serve well and merit repetition. One of those rituals has been to find a verse in the Bible that speaks to my current situation in life and then use it as a sort of guidepost for the year. In 2021, my verse has been Proverbs 15:24, which says, “The path of life leads upward for the wise, they leave the grave behind” (NLT). This verse has become a daily mantra and a source of reflection.

I love the book of Proverbs and read it daily, and I love the contrasting nature of this particular verse. Here, the writer contrasts movement and stagnation; life and death; up and down; wisdom and foolishness; and forward and backwards. And the principle that I’m learning this year, based on this verse, is that break throughs are always break withs. In order to move forward, some things by necessity have to be left behind. In many of those cases the things that need to be left behind are not life giving. They belong in the grave with resounding finality.

One thing we all share in common is the need to be wise and walk away from those graves toward things that are life giving. Maybe it’s an unhealthy work environment or a toxic relationship. Maybe it’s a proud attitude or habitual behavior. Maybe it is the inability to uncouple from past successes that serve as present day limitations, keeping you affixed to the “good old days” instead of living in the fulness of the present moment. In the words of one athlete last week, “When you focus on the past, that’s just ego.” These examples are just a small sampling.

I don’t think it’s healthy or even possible to simply “move on” from past difficulties. To me, that implies one is going to continue to carry the emotional baggage of the past. I do think it is possible to “move forward.” Moving forward suggests that the past has been dealt with and that the time has come to embark on a new journey, assuming one is willing to walk away and walk toward.

It’s been an interesting 12 months in the Deatrick house. But God, my family, and a team of friends have consistently and patiently walked with me. As a result, I’m not just standing, I’m moving forward with passion and energy toward things that are life giving. I am forever grateful for your listening ears and words of insight. I can fully embrace the future, because the past doesn’t need me anymore.

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Here’s some research from Christianity Today on the Decline of Mainline Denominations and the Impact on Evangelicals.

The main takeaway for me is that while mainline defectors first preference for relocation is in an evangelical church, evangelical defectors number one relocation spot is to become part of the rising “nones.” Surprising to no one should be the statistic that the number cause for the decline of both mainlines and evangelicals is the attrition due to aging.

Categories : Church, Church Growth
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Jul
17

Perspective Matters

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Once there was a man who walked alone down a dark street late at night. Out of nowhere appeared a man who was wearing a mask and carrying a knife. The masked man cut the man and took all of his money.

A passerby found the man lying on the sidewalk and called an ambulance. The ambulance quickly arrived and paramedics placed him on a stretcher and drove him to the hospital. When the man arrived at the hospital he was rushed into surgery, where out of nowhere appeared a man who was wearing a mask and carrying a knife. The masked man cut the man and took all of his money.

Motivation matters.

Context matters.

Perspective matters.

Categories : Spiritual Formation
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Jul
11

Getting Right Sized

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Last week I was standing on the sand of the Pacific Ocean. While children played in the sand and surfers tried to catch a wave I watched as the sun began to set in the western horizon. The noise of the ocean was deafening, repeating the same cadence over and over. As I stood on the beach of this vast body of water with my family I couldn’t help but feel small.

I can’t remember who said it, so forgive me for my lack of precise citation. But the words of someone more wise than I once said that the purpose of art and beauty is to make us feel small in all the appropriate ways. That quote came to mind in that moment. I wish it was original, but its not.

Along side that quote came another quote, the citation of which I do recall.

The heavens proclaim the glory of God.
    The skies display his craftsmanship.
Day after day they continue to speak;
    night after night they make him known.
They speak without a sound or word;
    their voice is never heard.
Yet their message has gone throughout the earth,
    and their words to all the world.

God has made a home in the heavens for the sun.
It bursts forth like a radiant bridegroom after his wedding.
    It rejoices like a great athlete eager to run the race.
The sun rises at one end of the heavens
    and follows its course to the other end.
    Nothing can hide from its heat.
(Psalm 19:1-6, NLT)

This Psalm is attributed to David, who would have been quite familiar with the grandeur of creation. In his observations of the beauty of the earth he saw the greatness of God and the smallness of self. Creation, beauty, and art all have the ability to keep us right sized. For some it’s a piece of music or poetry. Others see it in a painting or a photo. Like my experience, many find it beside the ocean, atop a mountain range, or within a well manicured vineyard, or the face of a child. This greatness keeps us right sized, but not in the sense that we are worthless and of no value. These images and experiences remind us that we are something in God’s eyes, but that we’re not the only thing God cherishes. Each of us is part of something bigger than ourselves. I, for one, need that reminder.

When all we look at is our neighborhoods and possessions we eventually look only at ourselves. That which is close and common become our points of comparison and the basis of how we determine whether we’re winning at life. If my income is a bit bigger, my car a bit newer, my house a bit larger, and my kids GPA a bit higher then I become self congratulatory in the “bigger barns” I have built. Our lives become wealthier, but our hearts become smaller, and we become smaller in all of the inappropriate ways.

The solution? Get right sized. Intentionally put yourself in places with perspectives that remind you of who you really are in the context of God’s universe. Let me quote King David once more.

O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth!
    Your glory is higher than the heavens.
You have taught children and infants
    to tell of your strength,
silencing your enemies
    and all who oppose you.

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—
    the moon and the stars you set in place—
what are mere mortals that you should think about them,
    human beings that you should care for them?
Yet you made them only a little lower than God
    and crowned them with glory and honor.

You gave them charge of everything you made,
    putting all things under their authority—the flocks and the herds
    and all the wild animals,
the birds in the sky, the fish in the sea,
    and everything that swims the ocean currents.

O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth! (Psalm 8:1-8, NLT)

Categories : Spiritual Formation
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Jul
11

How I Read the Bible

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During my years of pastoral ministry I committed to read the Bible through, cover to cover, every single year. And I did, without fail. I had always believed that any pastor worth their salt should do at least that much, given the responsibility of teaching and preaching the text each week. In many ways it was a self imposed legalism that I couldn’t break free from no matter how hard I tried.

Now that I’m no longer in the pastorate my thinking has shifted. I still read the Bible on a daily basis, but I read it more deliberately that before. Here’s the daily routine that I’ve settled in to over the last year.

First, I read for Worship. I begin my daily reading with one chapter from the Book of Psalms. I enjoy the language of Psalms and it helps me focus on God and align my heart with his. In this manner I read the Book of Psalms two times each year.

Second, I read for Wisdom, meaning I read one chapter of Proverbs each morning that corresponds with the calendar date. One the first day of the month, I read Proverbs one, and on the second day I read Proverbs two, and so on. I feel that the practical wisdom from Proverbs is helpful, and this practice enables me to read the Book of Proverbs 12 times each year. If I feel the need to switch it up, I’ll exchange Proverbs with Ecclesiastes, which is my favorite book of the Old Testament.

Third, I read for Witness. By that I mean that I read one or two chapters from the Old or New Testament that helps me see how the biblical cast of characters interact with God and one another. This year I’m focused on the New Testament, taking a deliberate walk through the narratives in such a way that focuses on the context of that day. The stories aren’t just stories. By and large they are about people(s) who are trying to apprehend God and apply their understanding of God to their everyday experiences. This deliberate approach permits me to focus on what people of the Bible did what they did and why they did it, it also helps me see myself in them and ask myself what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. This past year has yielded a new appreciation for Jesus and his interactions with the people of the secular world of the first century.

I’ll probably never read the Bible through cover to cover in a given year again. But hopefully I’ll read it faithfully in a more meaningful way than before. My questions today are different than they were a year ago. And I’m enjoying connecting with God as never before. There’s a wonderful freedom that comes in faith when you’re doing something for no other reason than because you simply want to.

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Over the course of 36 years of ministry I’ve performed a lot of wedding ceremonies. Scores of them. The first one I did was for a high school friend at the mature age of 21. Since then I’ve seen a lot, from traditional ceremonies in churches with white dresses and black tuxedos to cowboy themed betrothals and even a Scarborough Fair themed event in a city park where the groom led the bride in on horseback.

My favorite wedding, however, was the one I just performed last weekend for my son and daughter in law. It was a destination wedding held at Lake San Marcos, California, and in my highly biased opinion was absolutely perfect. When my son announced the wedding date and location it was assumed that I would be present, but I didn’t assume I would be asked to serve as the officiant. When my son asked if I wanted to perform the wedding, I told him I would be honored to do it, but equally honored to be the father of the groom seated beside my wife. Which brings me to the first tip I would offer anyone in ministry whose child is getting married: Be a servant to your child first and foremost. There are two kinds of ministers at this point. One is the minister who is the parent of a child getting married. The other is the parent of a child getting married who happens to also be a minister. I chose the second scenario. I approached the wedding as a parent first, not a professional. This approach, by the way, creates a different set of values and expectations which more more aligned with serving my son and daughter in law, versus a set of values and expectations that expected them to align their vision for their special day with my vision and expectations.

The second tip I offer is to be flexible. Weddings should be about serving the bride and groom and the wedding party. My responsibility was not to be in charge, but to help them achieve what they wanted the way they wanted it. For example, if they want brevity, give them brevity.

Number three is to be inclusive. Before I had the chance to meet my daughter in law’s parents in person, I Face Timed them and asked for input. I had the opportunity to have the microphone, whereas they did not. I interviewed them, asking them what they would wish to say if given the opportunity. I heard anecdotal stories at the rehearsal from members of the wedding party. I tried to incorporate their insights into the ceremony so that the ceremony felt whole room and not center stage.

Fourth, make it personal. This is the only wedding ceremony I’ve written from scratch, start to finish. I felt my kid deserved more than the traditional, canned ceremonies that are generally heard on such occasions. I spoke from the heart, with the heart and to the heart. Making the wedding personalized allowed me to connect with the happy couple in a way that engaged them instead of them spacing off the tired, hum drum routine.

Finally, and most importantly, relax. It’s not about you. There is no need to upstage the couple, as if that is even possible. As tempting as it may be to draw attention to yourself, don’t. Just because you’re the parent doesn’t mean you shouldn’t act professionally. But you and your child get one chance to do this together. Make it count.

Categories : Uncategorized
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Jun
28

When Life Feels Random

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There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:   
 

a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
    a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
    a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,

a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
    a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,
   a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak,
    a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.
(Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, NIV)

While poetic, reading these verses without their context can leave the reader somewhat frustrated. They seem to reduce one’s existence to random, chaotic and arbitrary experiences. Life is unjust, unfair and unjust. I think the writer’s point is clear: this is the stuff that happens in life, and if you live long enough, you’ll experience every event in these couplets. But the good news is that we don’t have to stop with verse 8. The following verses offer some insights as to how to navigate the undulations.

What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him. (Ecclesiastes 3:9-12, NIV)

Here are six observations from these verses.

  1. Embrace the Mystery. Life can be unsettling and leave us filled with questions. We want answers and believe we deserve them, but maybe the goal is not the answers. Maybe the goal is the next best question. Instead of demanding answers, form better questions.
  2. Enjoy the Beauty. It has been said that the purpose of art is to make us feel small in appropriate ways. I think that’s true of music and creation as well. The counsel to enjoy life’s beauty challenges us to life our eyes from life’s small irregularities and focus on things that are glorious.
  3. Engage the Eternal. We have been created as spiritual beings, able to live beyond our own horizon. The ability to possess eternal insight helps us see what ultimately matters now. Eternal perspective yields clarity on the present moments we experience.
  4. Find Joy in Sorrow. The spiritual fruit of joy is available to us, even in the midst of toil and trouble. That’s why we are able to laugh and cry, sometimes simultaneously.
  5. Do Good for Others. The text calls us to serve, regardless of present circumstance. Lest we forget, the greatest way to serve God is to serve our fellow humankind.
  6. Finally, Be Content. Satisfaction is something everyone should aspire to have. More often than not, contentment is achieved in the small and simple more than the grand accomplishment. Think about Jesus. His ministry was surrounded by loaves, fishes, children, donkeys, mangers and mites. He wasn’t a reductionist. He just saw value in the people and things we often overlook.

The counsel of Ecclesiastes is helpful to me, and I hope you’ll consider these suggestions from chapter three. I hope you will find them beneficial as well.

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Jun
28

Let Go And Let God

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“Let go and let God” is bad theology, right beside other ‘fridge magnets like “God helps those who help themselves” and “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle on your own.”

When people say “let go and let God,” I think they mean that they are facing a situation that is beyond their control and therefore they are going to totally turn the situation over to God. But most often I hear the phrase spoken with the tone of resignation or giving up. My challenge with the phrase, since you asked, has to do with neglecting one’s own responsibility for whatever they are facing. While we should always acknowledge the sovereignty of God and our need for him in every waking moment, that acknowledgement does not mean that we extract ourselves from participating in the solution that God desires. For example, I believe God heals.

Two years ago I had a bicycle accident that resulted in two complete tears in the rotator cuff in my shoulder. I believe God heals, but I didn’t let go and let God. I went to the Emergency Room, scheduled an MRI, had surgery, and did 30 days of immobilization followed by another 30 days of physical therapy. Did God heal my shoulder? Yes. Even my surgeon acknowledged as much. But I needed to participate in God’s plan and provision.

God knows the truth of every situation we face and has sent his Holy Spirit to “guide us into all truth” (John 16:13). Truth is our friend. Sometimes truth reveals to us the deep hurt buried within. Sometimes truth shows us what changes we need to make. It may expose our weaknesses and limitations, or a character flaw we have. Truth may help us to see the cracks in a relationship that we can not objectively see ourselves. The Spirit may clearly point out our part of a conflict, even though we are naturally prone to accept the role of victim. This is merely a sampling to point out that when we are faced with a difficulty we cannot simply lay it down and walk away with the expectation that God will clean up the mess. Yes, God will come alongside us in our struggles and he will walk with us through the valleys. With us. Not for us.

So instead of letting go and letting God, maybe it is better to say that we’ll trust God to work in us and through us as we depend on his wisdom, provision and strength in spite of our own human limitations.

Categories : Spiritual Formation
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When I served in the local church I was always preaching a series of sermons, which meant that I was always brainstorming ideas for upcoming series of sermons. Sometimes they were expositions of entire books in the Bible or lengthy passages such as the Sermon of the Mount. Other times I enjoyed preaching a series on a biblical character such as Joseph, Moses or David. At other times I would do a thematic series on a topic such as prayer, fear, or suffering. I am a planner and like to have a general idea of where I was going over the course of the coming year. And I was always open to a series idea even though I may not get to it for a year.

Here are three series I really enjoyed preaching that I want to suggest. I think they were beneficial and well received, especially by our younger families.

The first suggestion is on the subject of contentment. I wasn’t a stewardship series, per se, but I did deal with what it meant to be content. I tried to answer the question, “How much is enough?” There are great texts available for this type of series filled with rich word images from the original languages.

The second is on simplicity. This could be timely, given the fact that we are coming off a world wide pandemic that basically forced us to simplify our lives. Many people, especially young families, discovered that they could have margin in their lives both in terms of time and money, and may be reluctant to give up the ground they gained.

The final suggestion is akin to the series on simplicity. It is on sabbath, and how to discover rest in a world of unrest. This topic is found throughout the Bible, and books such as Living the Sabbath by Norman Wirzba provide a lot of insight as to why Sabbath was important in history and remains important today.

There are many resources available on these topics. If you are intrigued by any of these ideas, I’d be glad to visit with you further. You can find examples of these sermons by using the search bar or the tag cloud on this site.

Categories : Pastors, Preaching, Sermons
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We all know someone, probably more than one, who used to be an active part in a local church, but no longer attend due to a “bad experience.” Anywhere. At all. Maybe they felt judged because of a decision they made or by their lifestyle. Maybe they felt shamed when they blew it, or invalidated when they struggled. Perhaps they felt forgotten, neglected or left out after they were no longer new and shiny. Maybe they didn’t agree with all of the church’s teachings. Or maybe they just asked too many questions. I know this list is incomplete. And I know that everyone who has been a part of a church has felt some level of relational friction or personal injury. Some drop out never to return, while many remain, determined to push through.

I’ve been reading Life Together, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It’s a brief book describing the unique Christian fellowship he experienced in an underground seminary during Hitler’s rule in Germany. As I read his book I think about the scores of people I’ve talked to who walked away from church.

I think there’s a lot of uniqueness to each person’s story, but two general themes rise to the top. First, is unrealistic expectations about what church should be. Yes, the community of Christ should be characterized by unconditional love and grace. At the same time, the characters in that same community are flawed and broken human beings. I’m not suggesting that the bar should be lowered. I am suggesting that the fact that people in the church should be acknowledged for who and what they are. Imperfect human beings attempting to live divine lives. Always remember that expectations are disappointments under construction.

A second reason is that the local church often possesses an uneven playing field. True enough, there are hierarchical structures embedded with a church’s governance. But if we’re being honest, we recognize there are unofficial hierarchies that are based on standards such as longevity of membership and dollars donated. There are cliques at work, especially in siloed ministries, that create territorial and turf wars over calendar availability, budget allocations, and the attention of talented volunteers. For some, these experiences can feel like the drama of high school, where bullies run the show and determine seating arrangements in the cafeteria.

When Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together, he was fully aware that the community Christ envisioned and the reality of the same were not the same. His words, which I cite in length, represent one of the most profound texts on the subject I have read.

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and if we are fortunate, with ourselves.”

By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community, the better for both. A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse. Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of Christian community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”

There are those who love the idea of community and seek to foster the conditions of perfect fellowship where everyone looks, acts and thinks the same, eliminating any possible diversity which would threaten it. Then there are those who unconditionally love their Christian brothers and sisters. The churches that seek the latter and not the former are the churches that will remain.

Categories : Church, Community
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Jun
13

Casting Shadows

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This week I spent some time preparing a meditation on the Old Testament story of Ruth. Nestled in the first half of the OT, Ruth is generally interpreted as a sweet love story. The reader is introduced to the main character who is grief stricken over the passing of her husband. She and her sister in law are there with their mother in law, Naomi, wondering about their future. Famine has plagued the land, and the three women are jointly experiencing multiple layers of loss.

Because of the severity of the famine, Naomi decided she would return to her homeland, Israel. She then looked at her two young daughters in law and implored them to go find new husbands and remarry so they can move forward with the remainder of their lives. One accepts the challenge, but Ruth is deeply committed to Naomi and will have no part of it. It is in this critical moment that Ruth speaks these famous words: “Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD punish me severely if I allow anything but death separate us!” (Ruth 1:16-17, NLT)

As the story progresses we find Ruth is a remarkable person, although she didn’t do anything remarkable. She didn’t earn a graduate degree. She didn’t get a job in the corporate world, nor did she write a book or have a website. She never started a business or sold real estate. But time and time again the narrative affirmed her as a woman of character, integrity and depth. She would eventually marry a man named Boaz, and have a family.

The story could end there and the reader would be satisfied with the happily ever after that Ruth experienced. But the story concludes in an unexpected way. Here are the last three sentences of her story. “Boaz was the father of Obed. Obed was the father of Jesse. Jesse was the father of David” (Ruth 4:21-22, NLT).

To simplify, Ruth and her husband had a son, who had a son, who had seven sons, the youngest of which is David, arguably the most famous character in the Old Testament. Ruth is David’s great grandmother, and is specifically mentioned in Matthew’s ancestry record of Jesus (Matthew 1:5).

Ruth reminds me that we are human beings, not human doings. Ruth is not mentioned alongside the giant slaying heroes of faith in Hebrews 11. But her righteous character and integrity cast a long shadow that would extend all the way to Christ. As time passes, the shadows of our lives lengthen. Yet often we are led to believe that the only measurements that count are the things that can be counted such as our accomplishments and acquisitions. But not everything that can be counted counts. The stuff that cast shadows that are impactful is the stuff of who we are.

Ruth can be read as a sweet love story and left at that. But there’s so much more to her when her biography is read to the end. Or in her case, read through the end.

I grew up in Southern Baptist life. My father was a Southern Baptist pastor. I was ordained in a Southern Baptist church, and educated in Southern Baptist institutions. I served SBC churches in Missouri, Texas, and Arkansas. My personal departure from SBC life came due to my inability to reconcile the denomination’s position on women and women in ministry. There was a disconnect between a hermeneutic that, on one hand, was woodenly literal, while on the other hand adapted perspectives based on cultural shifts.

Today and tomorrow nearly 20,000 delegates of the SBC’s churches will descend upon Nashville, Tennessee to conduct denominational business for the first time since the pandemic. While positive reports will be celebrated of the number of new churches that are planted and new missionaries that are commissioned for service, a cloud looms large overhead. The SBC, like other denominations, is challenged by the #metoo movement, which trends heavily in Twitter as #SBCtoo. It appears that the SBC is facing pressure to act on these local church issues, which is sticky given the denomination’s strong stance on church autonomy. The question to be considered surrounds whether or not this is a denominational issue and whether or not the SBC actually has any power over a church other than to withdraw fellowship. Is the denomination culpable for the behavior of ordained ministers that, in fact, they didn’t ordain?

Ordination in the SBC has been left to the local churches to determine and administer. There is no hierarchical process for qualifying candidates, credentialing candidates, or monitoring candidates. No educational requirements are in place. Generally speaking, the only limitations are that a candidate be male, and preferably not divorced.

Most mainline denominations have more stringent guidelines. When I became a part of the ABC-USA denomination in 2012, I found that ordination and credentialing came from the denomination, not the local church. A Master of Divinity was the baseline requirement. I was also required to sign that I would be compliant with a standardized code of conduct. Since my ordination was through the denomination, I was entered into the denomination’s national data base, which serves as the clearing house for ministers. I would be expected to keep my profile updated. They verified my education and employment history. If I was open to a relocation, I would notify the national data base who would make it known that I was open for a transition. If a church’s pulpit was vacant, they would notify the denomination who, in turn, would connect available candidates with the open church. If a candidate had a professional misconduct issue, their profile was flagged. The denomination’s system probably wasn’t perfect, and they certainly didn’t enforce candidates on churches who still were responsible for their selection process. But it did provide reduced risk for churches that sometimes don’t ask all the right questions, dive deeply enough into candidates backgrounds, or who found themselves at the mercy of the candidate’s personal references.

I don’t anticipate that the SBC will institute a process such as I have outlined. But until a system for transparency and communication is attempted, #SBCtoo is going to be an ongoing problem. Membership in any organization is not a right, it’s a privilege. And with privilege comes responsibility for transparency and communication that is mutually shared by clergy, congregations, and the denomination as a whole.

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“Look at my Servant, whom I have chosen. He is my Beloved, who pleases me. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations. He will not fight or shout or raise his voice in public. He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle. Finally he will cause justice to be victorious. And his name will be the hope of all the world” (Matthew 12:18-21, NLT).

Isaiah’s prophecy of Jesus spoke of the kind of servant leader he would be. He would be Spirit filled and directed, pursuing justice in the world. He would be characterized by deep humility as well. I love the imagery of how Jesus would relate to humanity.

The weakest reed, having reached its breaking point, would not be snapped off, and the flickering candle, barely holding on to life, would not be snuffed out. These word pictures describe those who are at the end of their rope, barely clinging to hope. I don’t know if you can relate to either of those images, but I can. The preacher in Ecclesiastes warned that those who move boulders are in danger of being crushed by them (10:10). And those of us who pursue life to its fullest are in danger of being damaged by the same.

We have two basic options. One, we can live in fear, hoping that no one or no thing will pass by and cause further damage to our bruised reed or smoldering wick. To live in fear is to live with harsh limitations, for fear establishes the limits of our lives. If I’m afraid of heights, I stay low. If I’m afraid of water, I stay dry. If I’m afraid of change, I stay the same.

Option two is to live in faith. C. S. Lewis describes faith as “the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.” Fear brings into question the security we once held because it has been disrupted by circumstances often beyond our control. Faith, on the other hand, reminds us that even though we are broken, God has not changed.

Even though the reed is bruised and bent, it is not broken. And even though the flickering candle is close to being extinguished, it still holds life. Fear interprets those images as near the end. Faith sees them as opportunities to stand again and be reignited. Our comebacks can be greater than our setbacks. Therein lies our hope.

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Peter Oakes is the Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis at the University of Manchester. His recent monograph, titled, Empire, Economics, and the New Testament*, provides a couple of resources for generosity that I wanted to share. I hope that you will find them beneficial.

ECONOMIC STRATIFICATION / CLASSES IN THE FIRST CENTURY

0.04% of the citizenry would consist of the “Imperial Elites.” This would consist of the local royalty and those on retainers, such as their family members and dependents. If you think about the Netflix series The Crown, Princess Margaret would be an example of one on retainer.

1% would be the “Regional or “Provincial Elites” who governed agrarian areas beyond the city limits.

1.76% of the people would have been the “Municipal Elites,” including some merchants who were highly successful.

7% were those with “Moderate Surplus Resources.” This group includes some merchants, some traders, some freed persons, some artisans/craftsmen (successful enough to have employees), and military veterans on pension.

Then comes the break between the haves and have nots.

22% in this group were “Stable Near Subsistence,” possessing a reasonable hope of remaining above the minimum amount of income to survive. Examples include merchants, traders, regular wage earners, artisans, owners of large shops, and some farm families.

40% lived “At Subsistence Level,” often below the minimum amount to sustain life. This class was composed of small farmers, laborers, those employed by artisans, wage earners, most merchants and traders, and some small shop owners.

28% lived “Below Subsistence Level.” This would be the unattached widows, orphans, beggars, the disabled, unskilled day laborers, some small farmers, and prisoners.

If I read Oakes’ data correctly, 68%+ of the Roman empire was either unemployed, underemployed, or unemployable. Their version of the upper class would have consisted of roughly 10%, leaving 22% to comprise the middle class.

The reason this data is important is that this is the context to which the Apostle Paul writes his letters and is the audience he is addressing when he writes about generosity. The data reveals that those who are being challenged to be generous had the least capacity to be generous, yet most responsive to his appeals. The sheer stratification does not take into account soft data such as the persecution and isolation of Christians in the Roman Empire under Nero. Yet Paul makes the case for generosity unashamedly.

PATRONAGE IN THE FIRST CENTURY

Paul’s argument for a culture of generosity was not uninformed. First century Roman citizens would have been familiar with the cultural practice of patronage (patrocinium), which was a social construct known throughout the preindustrial world. Oakes defines patronage as, “a nonmarket relationship between socially unequal people in which dissimilar benefits are exchanged” (Oakes, 109). Patronage was the way the economic elite disseminated their wealth to those less advantaged in urban areas. These benefactors may give by constructing public buildings as well as providing public entertainment, such as festivals. This culture mimicked generosity cultures in that everyone, regardless of their financial status, had the felt need of giving to those who had less. Certainly the elites made the biggest impact, but those who lived at or below the poverty line also desired to contribute to those in need.

So it would not have been uncharacteristic for the Apostle Paul to (1) solicit funds from those at or below the poverty line, (2) ask for funds on behalf of those who were suffering (e.g. the collection for the famine in Jerusalem, and (3) encourage them to make sacrificial gifts with joy. If Oakes is correct, perhaps Paul baptized the Roman culture of patronage and used it for Kingdom purposes in what we now call generosity. 


*Empire, Economics, and the New Testament, by Peter Oakes, Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2020.

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“More than a year after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Church is beginning to reopen in the United States. This process has been uneven, with many cities still under significant restrictions while others are able to operate with relatively minor accommodations. At the center of this season of reopening is the pressing need for churches to gain clarity on the state of their membership. While online services and ministries have offered a necessary lifeline of connection, the rapid change and inherent disconnectedness of the pandemic has produced a season of uncertainty. How are churches in the United States fairing in terms of attendance, giving, and staffing? How are pastors navigating the new pressures of reopening after over a year of unprecedented challenges? The National COVID-19 Church Attendance Project (NCCAP) represents an effort to answer these questions by tracking church reopening. The report processed responses from over 600 churches representing over 400,000 weekly worshippers from 47 states and the District of Colombia.” — cited from the Overview of the full results of the Project Report.

You can view the full report at https://churchattendanceproject.org/full-results/. To read commentary on the Church Attendance Project Report, go to https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2021/may/church-decline-and-recovery-during-covid-19.html?&display=checkout and https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2021/may/church-decline-and-recovery-during-covid-19-part-2.html.

What do you think of the research? Does it reflect your particular congregation?

Categories : Church, Church Growth
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May
30

Finding Shade

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We have a German Shepherd. Without a doubt, she is the smartest dog we’ve had, possessing an extensive vocabulary of English words (yes, that’s a thing). She’s active and athletic, and provides a lot of joy for our family. One of the things I’ve noticed about her is that she doesn’t care to be outside in the heat of day. Summers in Iowa are not renown for intense heat and humidity, but we have had several days of 100 degree heat indexes. On those days she immediately seeks shade when outdoors.

Shade is something that makes summer what it is. It is a place where we find rest from the heat of the noonday sun. There are times when we have to be in the sun, but its nice to have some shade available.

There isn’t really much about shade in the Bible, but recently I’ve been thinking of the story of the Exodus. When God led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, he provided his presence and guidance through the form of a cloud. The fleeing children simply had to keep an eye on the cloud to know the path to the land of promise. Interestingly enough, the same thing that provide them with guidance also provided them comfort, for those who followed the cloud walked in its shade.

The same thing is true today. Following God provides some marvelous benefits, including his comfort. The more closely we walk with God, the more we sense his comfort. The Psalmist understood this principle far before I did. Psalm 121:5-8 says, “The Lord watches over you–the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm–he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forever more.”

So next time you see a park bench under a shade tree, remember that the Lord is your spiritual shade, provide rest and refreshment from the noonday sun.

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One of the most subjective things we can evaluate is our own spiritual authenticity. Am I becoming more mature in my faith? Am I growing in my discipleship? Is there progress in my walk with Christ? Questions like these can create a struggle, leaving us to either listening to our “gut,” or, finding some prior point of reference to do an informal comparison study.

Matthew 23 records Jesus’ evaluation and condemnation of the hypocrisy of “the teachers of the religious law and the Pharisees (who were) the official interpreters of the law of Moses.” (23:1) From this chapter we can glean six questions that can help us determine our own progress and growth. I won’t cite the entire passage, but if you’re interested you’ll find it helpful to read the chapter in its entirety in light of the exploratory questions.

  1. Is spiritual growth a burden? (Matthew 23:1-4) “They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden” (23:4)
  2. Am I judgmental, exclusive or proud? (Matthew 23:5-6) “Everything they do is for show…they love to sit at the head table…” (23:5-6)
  3. Am I becoming more approachable, or less? (Matthew 23:7-12) “They love to receive respectful greetings…” (23:7)
  4. Are my priorities self centered? (Matthew 23:13-22) “For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are! (23:15)
  5. Am I measuring spirituality in a superficial way? (Matthew 23:23-24) “You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel! (23:24)
  6. Are there evidences of spiritual integrity? (Matthew 23:25-28) “For you are like whitewashed tombs–beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity.” (23:27)

Again, reviewing these questions in the full context of the chapter will prove to be beneficial. My hope is that we will frequently use the words of Jesus as we evaluate our progress, leaving nothing to chance.

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May
23

My New (Ad)Venture

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As I’ve previously stated here on my blog site, I stepped out of pastoral ministry last August, concluding 36 years of work in the local church. Today I’m pleased to share with you that I have accepted a new position with Mortar Stone where I will serve as Generosity Ministry Partner with churches across America. This opportunity will allow me to office at home and will not require me to relocate.

Mortar Stone provides generosity intelligence software that manages church giving metrics. In addition to serving in that capacity, I will be coaching congregations regarding their generosity ministries. Mortar Stone was founded about ten years ago with a passion to help churches develop and grow their givers through discipleship. Presently we help over 2,000 churches with our processes.

I’m excited for this opportunity and look forward to using my past experiences to help congregations grow in generosity. I’m also excited to meet new people, hear their stories, and serve them as they seek to fund their ministries and fuel their mission and vision. Thank you in advance for your prayers as I embark on this exciting new chapter of my ministry. For more information about Mortar Stone, visit http://www.mortarstone.com.

Categories : Uncategorized
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Here’s a new study from Barna research on how American’s view the Bible. Check it out here: https://www.barna.com/research/sotb-2021/. Are you surprised by anything in the report?

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In the twelfth century, a Jewish scholar and Torah expert named Moses ben Maimon developed a philosophy of giving ranking the lowest form of giving to the highest form. Like rungs on a ladder, Maimonides, describes eight levels of charity as progressions that are accomplished through spiritual maturity. Jewish thinking viewed charitable giving as an act of righteousness, especially in caring for those who were poor.

The first level, or the lowest one, is where the giver gives reluctantly or begrudgingly. This may include embarrassing or shaming the recipient.

Level two is giving cheerfully, but not to the degree that is needed. Here, giving is measured and insufficient.

At level three, the person gives cheerfully and adequately, but only when he or she is asked. In level four, the person gives without being asked or before being solicited.

Level five occurs when the recipient knows the donor, but the donor does not know the recipient. Here we are beginning to see anonymity come into play. The next level, six, flips the paradigm. The donor knows the recipient but the recipient doesn’t know the donor.

The seventh level occurs when neither the giver and the recipient know of each other’s identity. Number 8 then, is the highest level, which is the donor empowers the recipient to become self sufficient. This could be done through a major gift, an interest free loan, time offered in mentoring, or any number of ways that enable the recipient to become self reliant and in turn, become of service to someone else.

Let me make a few observations about Maimonides’ list. First, since making a gift is a part of each level of charity, he’s really describing the way a person makes a gift. It’s true that the gift may indeed increase in size over the progression, but the main growth comes in the form of humility and anonymity. Second, while the gifts offered are helpful to the recipient, the ultimate goal is for the person to become self sustaining. The easiest thing one can do is write a check, and the most difficult thing one can do is give their time. Finally, the eight steps provide a tangible way to measure our own giving attitudes. Aspiring to become a better giver is not just having the desire to give more, not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s aspiring to reproduce yourself as a person of generosity. For when the recipient is self reliant, they too will become persons who give.

Categories : Generosity, Giving
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Congratulations, Class of 2021! You did it with grace and elegance during a world wide pandemic! In the midst of shutdowns, limitations, cancellations, masks and social distancing you overcame adversity to accomplish one of the greatest milestones of your life to date. Celebrations are best served mixed with moments of reflection as we realized the conferring of degrees was a milestone achieved over a life of learning. And with that the hope and confidence that the best is yet to come.

I mused at what it might have been like if Jesus graduated in 2021. Would he have been the valedictorian? Would he have won all of the academic and athletic honors? Would he have been presented with multiple full ride scholarships to all of the best institutions of higher learning due to his perfect ACT and SAT scores? It kind of makes you wonder.

One of my favorite passages about Jesus’ life is found in Luke 2:41-52. The story is familiar enough. Jesus and his family went to the Temple when he was 12 years old. This would have been an important visit for Jesus, because at age 13 he would become a full member of the Jewish synagogue and assume all of the rights and responsibilities of circumcision. In other words, he would become a man.

While the text is about Jesus, the story includes Joseph and Mary and their interplay through the narrative. The text reveals that Jesus, like any child, required some work. (Not that it was necessarily bad work). Verse 52 said that Jesus “grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man.” In short, he grew intellectually, physically, spiritually and socially. Joseph and Mary were there to superintend that growth and were diligent to ensure that Jesus was nurtured in the most loving way. The preceding verse says that Jesus was “obedient to them,” inferring that the parents were going to continue to provide direction and guidance for his developmental years.

But Jesus also created some worry. You remember, don’t you? They went to the Temple as a family, and after spending some time on the return trip to Nazareth they discovered Jesus wasn’t among the caravan of worshipers.

“Joseph, have you seen Jesus?” “No, I thought he was with you.” “I thought he was with you.”

After a three day search they found him in the Temple, presumably right where they left him. And in typical parental fashion, Mary chides, “How could you do this to us! We’ve been worried sick!” His simple response was that he must be “in his Father’s house.”

Which brings me to the third thing. Jesus created wonder. Imagine Mary and Joseph’s reaction when Jesus said he must be in his Father’s house! Hence the wonder. There’s no recorded response to Jesus’ statement. The only insight we have is that Mary treasured all of it in her heart. That’s not the first time Mary has treasured the mysterious sense of wonder surrounding Jesus in her heart. And it certainly wouldn’t be the last.

My most sincere congratulations again to the Class of 2021. May the Lord continue to walk with you as you begin the next exciting chapter of your lives!

Categories : Graduation, Parenting
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With the exception of one Elder led congregation, I have always been a part of a congregational church. A congregational form of church government means that the membership sits atop the organizational chart, providing the final thumbs up or thumbs down to initiatives from subsets of the church. A congregational church may delegate some of the day to day decisions to the church staff or to a board, but reserve the “big” decisions for church wide business sessions.

A couple of things about that fact strike me as strange. For example, voting on issues always creates winners and losers. All in favor say “aye,” and all opposed say “nay.” Let’s count the votes and see which side has won and which side has lost. American politics reminds us that we have winners and losers every two years.

A second thing that is striking is that all votes are equal and count the same. The wealthiest member of the congregation gets one vote. The oldest member gets one, as do the youngest and newest members. Every member gets one vote. Just one. They’re not weighted, which is appropriate. Every time I step into a voting booth I am reminded of the fact that any other number of registered voters can cancel my vote. While this is striking, it works for America and it works for congregational forms of church government.

There is one more thing about congregation wide voting that I find interesting. Voting is based on a model of approval and disapproval. If I approve of an initiative or a candidate, I can vote “yes.” If is disapprove, I can vote “no.”

So what happens if I “lose” the vote? What do I do if I find myself in the minority of the will of the people?

Whenever I am in the minority, I move from approval to acceptance. I don’t have to approve of the action of the majority to find a position of acceptance as a minority voice. You see, I am troubled when I see a celebrity look into a television camera and say, “If so and so is elected then I’m moving to (fill in the blank some other nation).” There have been plenty of elections when I didn’t “approve” of the majority opinion and my horse didn’t win, but I didn’t move to another nation. I remained a good citizen of my community, state, and nation. I paid my bills and my taxes. I exercised my right to vote in the next election. I didn’t approve, but I accepted the outcome.

One of the things those of us in congregational churches need to remember is that sometimes things are going to happen when we don’t “approve.” But for the sake of the whole, we can come to a point of acceptance. We can continue to faithfully serve, continue to give as instructed by Scripture, and continue to work to advance the cause of Christ by serving our community and living as a faithful witness. We don’t have to always “approve.” But we can learn to “accept,” for the sake of something bigger than our one vote.

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Over the past several weeks I’ve been posting reflections from a sermon series I did titled, “The Seven NEXT Words of Christ.” Each sermon dealt with the first post resurrection statements made by the risen Lord. This week I’ll cover the final post resurrection saying, found in Luke 24:49.

“I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49, NIV).

Jesus seventh statement concerns the important role the Holy Spirit would play in the ongoing mission of the Christian movement. My Baptist tradition in general has been a little nervous around talk concerning the Holy Spirit. That kind of theology was central to the church down the street! But the Holy Spirit is central to the ongoing story of God’s redemptive plan. The Holy Spirit wasn’t invented at Pentecost. If you read the creation account of Genesis you’ll see the active work of the Spirit in the formation of the world. The Spirit is lurking in the shadows of the Old Testament narrative, appearing here and there supporting and undergirding the story of Israel.

A more prominent role is undertaken at the incarnation of Christ and continues as such in the Gospels. But its the book of Acts and the formation of the new community of the redeemed where the Holy Spirit takes a more visible posture. The giving of the Spirit at Pentecost comes simultaneously with the sending of the church into the world. The Acts of the Apostles are really the Acts of the Holy Spirit through the Apostles. As a result a movement was born and the world was transformed through the message of the Kingdom of God.

Sometimes I get the feeling that our heads spin a little bit whenever the Holy Spirit is introduced into a conversation. The New International Version presents a clothing metaphor to aid our understanding of how the Holy Spirit relates and interacts with believers. While we may struggle a bit with the Holy Spirit, we can at least wrap our minds around clothing and what clothing is all about.

Clothing is what covers you. It provides a sense of protection from the rays of direct sunlight and warmth in the chill of winter’s snow. Clothes cover our bodies and help us from being exposed to rough surfaces that may be uncomfortable to the skin, as well as protect us during dangerous activities such as football or cycling. There is an element of comfort that is also associated with what we wear, like that old hoodie or faded pair of jeans.

What we wear is also what others see. We are able to make impressions upon others, depending on what we choose to wear. We dress for certain occasions and perhaps even have our own style that matches our personalities. In a sense, our clothes are identification markers, helping us locate one another in a crowd. Some will even go so far as to assert that “clothes make the man or woman,” suggesting that our behaviors and attitudes are closely associated with what we choose to wear.

Thinking of the clothing metaphor leads me to the conclusion that one of God’s goals for our lives is for others to see us in our redeemed version, kind of a YOU 2.0, if you will. With certainty, the Spirit continues to work on us everyday. But the outcome of that ongoing transformation is to work in us so the Spirit can work through us to make God impressions on those around us.

So maybe the question is not so much what will you wear as it is who will you wear. Each day we make the choice to put on ourselves or to be clothed with the Holy Spirit.

Here’s a helpful article that is worthy of pastors’ attention about the struggles of motherhood and the challenge that churches face in meeting their needs. It’s by Dr. Heather Thompson Day, associate professor at Colorado Christian University. You can read the article at the following link: https://www.barna.com/guest-column-mothers/.

I appreciate Day’s research about the stress levels of mothers, single mothers, and working mothers. The pressures and demands of being a mother become more complex with each generation of children. While Day appeals to churches to provide support to mothers, she stops short of offering some practical suggestions. Here’s what I would offer that is practical and tangible, based on my experiences as a pastor.

  1. Lay Off the Obligation to Volunteer in Children’s Ministry. Our mother’s and grandmother’s all took their turns working in the church nursery, teaching Sunday School, and volunteering for VBS. They did their duty and did their time, and now expect the 21st century mothers to do the same. But the world has changed. Many of those same mothers and grandmothers didn’t work outside the home nor face the pressures of modern day parenting schedules. I remember one parent who told me, in so many words, if they had to watch their own kids when they came to church they “just as well stay at home.”
  2. Lay Off the Proverbs 31 Ideal. Many mothers place enough expectations upon themselves with out a pastor (usually male) pointing out Proverbs 31 as the model of perfect motherhood. Yes, the Proverbs 31 woman could do it all, and by my observation, many of today’s moms are already trying to do it all, including meeting the additional expectations they feel from other moms in the PTA or the weekly play group.
  3. Lay Off the Lip Service to Reaching Young Families. If you want to young families, make a commitment to reaching them. Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk. Create environments and contexts where young parents can be with each other, sans kids. Provide occasional date night opportunities for parents by offering child care so they can catch their breath. You can do the same in early December so parents can Christmas shop together for their kids.
  4. Lay Off the Sports Guilt. I’m old enough to remember “blue laws,” which virtually shut communities down on Sundays. Stores, gas stations, and even restaurants were closed on Sunday so that local churches had the market cornered one full day each week. That ship has sailed. Even Wednesday nights, a night once respected by local school districts is off the table. Whether we agree with it or not, parents are going to provide their children every opportunity to learn and grow possible, including sports and the fine arts. Whether we agree with it or not, sports and fine arts are going to schedule practices, games and performances on Wednesdays and Sundays. Whether we agree with it or not, parents are going to choose those practices, games and performances over church activities. I learned a long time ago that I’m not going to win that battle. I also learned I wasn’t going to judge or criticize parents who made the choices they made. Nothing is to be gained by invalidating a young family’s Christian commitment just because their kids play soccer on Sunday morning. So instead of judging them, celebrate them. Encourage older congregants to attend kids sporting and fine arts events. Make your presence known to them where they are, not just when they are on the church’s campus.
  5. Lay Off the Guessing Game. One of my pet peeves of church leadership is the insistence that they can sit in a room and discern how to meet the needs of mothers, fathers and young families. But if truth be told, they’re just guessing at it. Or worse, they plan as if they’ve read the latest and greatest book released on the subject by the guru of the day who lives in a different geography. There is not magic formula for reaching young families. So maybe church staffs need to quit guessing and actually talk to the mothers and fathers. No, I’m serious. Ask them. And then listen. What they have to say may not be in your church’s program or schedule, but that’s ok. You really don’t have to guess any more. And if you can discern what the needs actually are, who knows? They might be more prone to invite and bring their friends along. The gymnasium you’re thinking will help you actually may be for naught. What moms or dads may prefer is a mentoring relationship with an empty nester who has already walked where they’re walking.
May
09

Happy Mother’s Day!

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Today is Mother’s Day, and for the first time I am not able to call, visit, or even send flowers to my mom. She died in January following a two week battle with COVID-19. I am sad that she suffered, and sad that her family could not be at her bedside to provide comfort and care. But I am thankful that she is not lost, for I know exactly where she is. She is in heaven, reunited with her parents, her brothers, and her husband. Most of all, she is in the presence of her Lord, who she faithfully served her entire life.

Today I reflect on her life and influence. Many of these remembrances bring a smile to my face. I remember the pace and tempo of her life…church attendance on Sunday…laundry on Monday…ironing on Tuesday…church again on Wednesday…beauty shop on Friday…grocery store and lunch at her parents on Saturday…EVERY. SINGLE. WEEK. Each day was organized around an inflexible meal schedule. Breakfast, dinner and supper times were established in stone and never varied, eliminating the question, “When do we eat?” The food was always good, thanks in part to the folgers can of bacon grease on the stove. She made all of her desserts from scratch. Annual seasons were defined by planting, harvesting and canning fresh vegetables from the garden, all according to The Farmer’s Almanac. During the winter months she made hand made quilts, twelve stitches per inch. Life was simple and structured.

My fondest memory today is the memory of my mother’s encouragement for me to read. Her education never surpassed her high school diploma, but she was an avid reader. We didn’t have money for “extras,” but some how she found the money to buy books for me to read. She taught me to read books, love books, and care for books. Because of her (and Amazon) I continue to be a buyer and reader of books. Lots and lots of them! No e-reader for me!

But the best book she ever purchased for me was a Bible, given to me for Christmas in 1982. I still have it, and from time to time read the fly leaf which bore the admonition, “always keep Jesus in your life.” This particular Bible was instrumental in my call to vocational ministry. It was the first Bible that I read seriously as I went to Bible college. It was the Bible I preached my first sermon from, titled, “The Master Prayer of the Christian,” based on Matthew 6:10. Appropriately, it is the Bible I used to deliver her funeral sermon. It’s hard to believe I’ve had that Bible for nearly 40 years. One might assume that I associate my love for the Bible with my father, who served as a pastor for 60 plus years. But I don’t. When I think of the Bible and its influence, I readily attribute it to her.

My mom wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. But what she did, she did well and to the best of her ability. Most importantly, she taught me to be Jesus centric. And that’s not nothing.

Categories : Mother's Day
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Graduation season has reminded me of how much fun I had during my senior year of high school. I had more than enough credits to graduate and had one block to fill. A friend of mine and I decided we should volunteer the last hour of the school day as office aides. (It wasn’t like they would let us sign out early to go home.)

Working as a seventh period office aide was a lot of fun, but it carried a little more responsibility than I imagined. Todd and I began our work each day by walking to all of the classrooms and collecting the attendance slips affixed to the door of the room. We were sent to the bank to make the daily lunch money deposit. We were sent to the post office to deliver the school’s outgoing mail. If phone messages came in for students from their parents, we delivered those as well.

Todd and I did all of these activities on a routine basis and were never questioned as to why we were freely roaming the halls or driving off and on to the campus. The reason we were never questioned was because we were sent by a higher authority, namely our school principal. I learned that year that when you are sent by a higher authority you don’t have to look over your shoulder to see if anyone is judging you or evaluating you. I learned that as long as I was pleasing my higher authority I didn’t need to dwell on the opinions of lesser ones.

This simple story is a good illustration of how we should perceive our sentness into the world. In John 20:21, Jesus said to his disciples, “As the Father has sent me, so send I you.” I want to point our some aspects of how Jesus was sent by the Father into the world and how His sentness informs our mission on earth today.

Back in my Arkansas days I had a church member who was a police officer. We spent a fair amount of time together working on a community project for at risk kids. One day following a planning luncheon I was taking him back to work, when suddenly we were passed by a car driving at a high rate of speed. The car was easily going 20 MPH over the speed limit, swerving back and forth while changing lanes.

The officer looked at me and said, “Catch that car.”

The adrenaline surged and I bagan to follow the instructions of the officer. I broke the speed limit, changed lanes erratically, and did my best to catch up with the speeder while trying to preserve my own life. The only thing that saved us was the red light at the intersection.

The officer looked at me and said, “Pull up beside that car.”

I pulled beside the car and rolled my window down and yelled at the driver to get his attention. The young man looked over and saw me and gestured aggressively. He did not see the officer. About that time, the officer leaned up and displayed his badge to the driver and his passenger, and strongly urged them to exercise prudence and caution while driving. Or something like that.

I was amazed at the 180 degree change of demeanor when they realized that the middle aged man in the Chevy Silverado was accompanied by a law enforcement officer. It was like someone flipped a switch.

The moral to this story is a simple one. Jesus came into the world under the divine directive of the heavenly Father. And in the same manner that He was sent, we are sent into the world to be the presence of Christ. We don’t go on our our initiative. We don’t go by our own design. We are sent by God to fulfill His mission on earth.

Jesus not only came into the world with divine authority, He also came to the world as a model for what the missional life looks like. Think about the incarnation itself. The eternal, pre-existent Christ stepped out of the splendor of heaven, limited His glory, and became like us. During His brief time on earth, Jesus revealed God to us. His claim was, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father” (John 14:7-11). He was the “icon” of God, revealing God to each of us. He helped us know who God is and what He is like.

Not only did Jesus reveal God, He also communicated God to us. John’s gospel account begins with this affirmation, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God” (John 1:1). What is a “word,” other than a means of communication. Jesus was God’s megaphone to the world that He had and continues to have something to say to creation.

Finally, Jesus came expressing the nearness of God’s presence. One of the names of Jesus ascribed through his advent was Emmanuel, meaning “God is with us” (Matthew 1:23). He tangibly represented the presence of God in the world, and did so through his words and deeds.

So how does this inform our function as missional Christians? Quite simply, as we live our lives we reveal what God is like, communicate his word and his words, and serve as tangible reminders that God is near.

The most recent issue of Christianity Today had a column by Rev. Dennis R. Edwards, PhD, titled, “Leaving Can Be Life Giving.” I thought it was a powerful account of a pastor who left his position due to systemic racism and institutional toxicity. The key quote from the article is, “Pay attention to the wounded faithful who exit. Their words may be the word of the Lord.” You can read the article at the following link: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2021/may-june/racism-leaving-prophetic-institutions-dust-off-your-feet.html?share=BVWUKAktFXWrI2NPviYnK5OFgn0HFGos&utm_medium=widgetsocial.

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“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from truth and we will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do condemn us, we have boldness before God, and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.” (1 John 3:18-22)

What does John mean when he writes that our hearts can condemn us? In short, it is the internal feeling that I am not right; that something is askew. Our hearts can tell us that we are wrong, leading to shame, and that we have done wrong things, leading to guilt. So how does this work?

First, our hearts can condemn us for who we are. We can feel condemned because of our race or our gender. We can feel it in our unhealthy body image issues or an unrealistic view of our physical appearance. We sense it in our lack of income. We don’t have the right clothes or the right cars. Or we didn’t get the right degree because we weren’t smart enough. It is the essence of dissatisfaction and being somehow incomplete. Or, “I am not good enough, therefore, I am not good at all.”

Another way that our hearts can condemn us is for where we are. We live in the wrong suburb, neighborhood, or kind of house. We have the wrong job or career. We went to the wrong schools. It can even be that we were born into the wrong family or married the wrong person.

A third way that our hearts condemn us is because of what we do. This includes our sins, but extends to our mistakes and failures. It can even involve the opportunities that we’ve missed or didn’t take complete advantage of. It comes when we make the wrong decision or waited too long to make the right one. We made a purchase creating debt when we should have been patient and paid cash. Our actions condemn us actively and passively.

Isn’t it fascinating that John’s first century audience struggled with the same kind of contemporary issues that we wrestle with today? His encouraging word that lifts us from guilt and shame and sets our feet on hope is that “God is greater than our hearts.” Those committees that live in our heads that condemn us do not hold the majority opinion of who we are, where we are, or what we’ve done. God has the last word on that. It is important for us to remember that he loves us, accepts us, and cares for us in spite of everything. We are valuable because God says we are valuable. Nothing we can do can compete with that!

Categories : Spiritual Formation
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May
01

NEXT: Peace Be With You

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Peace is a scarce commodity in modern culture. More and more we tend to live in crisis mode, struggling to keep our heads above water as wave after wave of adversity pounds against our lives and homes. Living in survival mode will push hopes for peace to the margins of our prayers. Frankly, most of us don’t even aspire to high ideals such as “peace that passes all understanding.” For many, the only peace we can imagine is the peace that comes from the absence of adversity.

But the peace that Christ speaks of is a peace that comes to our lives even in the midst of adversity. Which brings me to the fourth post resurrection statement of Christ, found in Luke 24:35-40.

“Then the two from Emmaus told their story of how Jesus had appeared to them as they were walking along the road, and how they had recognized him as he was breaking the bread. And just as they were telling about it, Jesus himself was suddenly standing there among them. “Peace be with you,” he said. But the whole group was startled and frightened, thinking they were seeing a ghost! “Why are you frightened?” he asked. “Why are your hearts filled with doubt? Look at my hands. Look at my feet. You can see that it’s really me. Touch me and make sure that I am not a ghost, because ghosts don’t have bodies, as you see that I do.” As he spoke, he showed them his hands and his feet” (NLT).

In the Luke account, Jesus offered his scars as a means of comfort and peace. So how does that work? Think about scars for a moment. What do we know about scars?

First, scars are a sign of a previous wound; evidences of an injury that has occurred in the past. Some of our scars are visible. I have a scar, for example, on the palm of my hand that I received from a bike accident as a kid. I have a couple of other scars like that, but over all have been pretty fortunate. While some of our scars are visible, many are not. Some of the worst scars we carry are scars that cover our hearts. Some times the invisible scars represent more pain than the outer scars etched upon our bodies.

Second, scars are evidence that our wounds can be and have been healed. After all, if its not a scar, its still a wound that remains unhealed. When you see a scar there should at least be a flicker of hope for healing has occurred.

Third, some scars exist because we did exactly what we were supposed to do. I can remember as a child staring wild eyed at a young man just home from Viet Nam. He attended the church where I grew up and had been facially disfigured because he did what his nation called him to do. Jesus, of course is another example of one who bore deep and ugly scars through no fault of his own. He simply did what he was supposed to do. Maybe you have scars as the direct result of doing the right thing.

Fourth, scars are an important part of our maturity. Romans 5:3-5 speaks of God’s purposes in our adversity. Paul states that the trials of life work endurance in our lives which develops godly character, resulting in love. In short, adversity works endurance, and endurance develops character, which helps us to mature into persons who are more loving than before the adversity we experienced.

Finally, scars are a part of our authentication as human beings. They are what make us real. Behind every scar is a story, and those stories help our lives intersect with the lives around us. Scars have a way of reminding us that we are both human and mortal. Those aren’t necessarily bad things. We’re all human and mortal. Sometimes a scar will remind us of that and keep our feet firmly planted in humility and reality.

Now think about Jesus in that quiet room with the disciples. Jesus looked into the eyes of the disciples and saw the turmoil. He showed them his scars and invited them to touch them. In doing so, he invited them to come close, to take a step toward a deeper level of intimacy. Jesus could indentify with their lives, and he can identify with your life. Regardless of what you’ve experienced, Jesus can identify with your scars. To find peace in the midst of your struggle means that you’re going to have to take a step toward, not away from Jesus.

700 years before he was born, the prophet Isaiah said that Jesus would be called the “Prince of Peace.” He’s the ruler of peace and he makes it available to you. He gets the fact that you’ve been hurt or are still hurting, and he invites you to come closer.

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Apr
25

What Is Your Priority?

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From Essentialism, by Greg McKeown: The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed this way for the next 500 years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities. Illogically, we reasoned that by changing the word we could bend reality. Somehow we would now be able to do multiple first things. People and companies routinely try to do just that. This gave the impression of many things being the priority, but actually meant nothing was.

McKeown’s words created a pause when I first read them. Like many, I was conditioned to think of having many priorities, and I categorized them according to my spirituality, my family, my relationships, my physical health, my personal finances, my work, and my intellectual and emotional well being. Each of these categories had sub categories, with goals and action plans. All were, in my own thinking, my priorities, but upon reflection, was my feeble attempt to “have it all.” The pursuit of all of those priorities was demanding, leaving me overwhelmed and governed the tyranny of the urgent. Having multiple priorities complicated things and resulted in chaos. Establishing one priority creates simplicity and order.

His words reminds me of what the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Philippi. “I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us” (Philippians 3:13-14, NLT). Faith was not an important part of Paul’s life. It was his life. His faith served as the litmus test which ordered everything else. It doesn’t mean that Paul didn’t do other things or have meaningful relationships. For a while he held down a job as a tentmaker. He had numerous relationships with people he called friends. He developed a strategy for planting faith communities in towns that didn’t have a Christian presence. Paul developed people and leaders of people. He also had an extensive writing career. But each of those served the greater good of one priority. Having one priority doesn’t mean you only do one thing. However, having one priority governs every thing else you do, if you even do it at all.

Maybe instead of getting our priorities in order, its better to discover the “one thing” and focus there. No, we can’t have it all or do it all. But we can identify and pursue what is best and finally discover the freedom and power that comes by being able to say “no.”

Categories : Spiritual Formation
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This data was compiled during the COVID-19 closures in 2020. However, it is interesting to see how generations differ in what they missed and what they value in the corporate worship experience. What did you (or do you) miss most by not gathering in person for worship?

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Jesus’ third post resurrection statement was made during his interaction with two pilgrims on the road to Emmaus. You can find the story in Luke 24:13-35. The narrative describes two disciples who had observed all of the events in Jerusalem during the first passion week. While on the journey home, they were joined by a traveller who asked them, “What are you so concerned about?” They didn’t recognize their new traveling companion and began to describe all of the events that had occurred in Jerusalem that weekend. A careful reading of the story will reveal the ambiguity they felt. You could sum up the conversation like this:

Who was Jesus?
Well, he was a prophet.
Why did he come?
We hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel from Roman rule.
What did he accomplish?
We don’t really know. We heard his body was gone, and we heard he had risen.

How did Jesus help Cleopas and his wife transition from ambiguity to faith? How does Jesus help us move from ambiguity and uncertainty to faith?

Jesus first began with what faith they already possessed. Luke 24:25-27 reads as follows, “You foolish people! You find it so hard to believe all that the prophets wrote in the Scriptures. Wasn’t it clearly predicted that the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his glory? Then Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”

It sounds counter-intuitive, but the road to faith actually begins with faith. Three times during the last six months of his public ministry Jesus foretold his passion. The point is that faith is a building that is constructed on what God has said in Scripture. The Scriptures serve as a foundation and we build on that foundation one story at a time. The two on the road to Emmaus weren’t challenged at the point of the circumstances of their immediate weekend. They were challenged at the point of the writings of the prophets over the course of several hundred years.

When we take the first step of faith, faith will next open the door to reveal more light. Think about driving your car at night. Your car has headlights that reveal what is before you. Your vision is not unlimited, for the headlights reveal what lies before you for only a few yards. But as your car travels the light continues to illuminate your path. Even with limited vision, you as a driver are more than willing to drive 60 or even 70 MPH.

As the travel companions neared Emmaus, Jesus was invited to dine and stay with them. His words had taken root in their hearts and their faith was emerging. It was during dinner that the couple recognized Jesus through the breaking of bread. Then He was gone.

Rather than bask in the afterglow of the experience, the couple set out for the return trip to Jerusalem to share their discovery with the disciples. Jesus’ self disclosure made their faith personal. At the beginning of the story, the two pilgrims were wrestling with what others had said. But now their faith was personal because they had seen Christ for themselves. No longer did they need to live on borrowed faith. They learned that they could have their own faith and be free from ambiguity. So can we if we begin with the light we already possess.

Barna Research released a study this week which assessed how church goers feel after attending worship. These emotions range from feeling encouraged, disappointed, connected and more. To read the research you can use the following link: https://www.barna.com/research/churchgoers-feel/.

The surprising statistic from this research is the level of disappointment people feel following worship attendance. A full 50% of churched adults feel some measure of disappointment, and nearly 40% of practicing Christians feel the same. I am reminded that disappointment is the result of failed expectations. In other words, there is a significant disconnect between what pastors and worship leaders are providing in a worship experience and what attendees are actually looking for or need. This is critical, because disappointments are also resentments under construction. People may feel a wide range of emotions on any given Sunday, but repeated disappointment is a foundational crack that needs to be addressed.

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“The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty.” — Paul Tillich

For many years I equated faith with certainty, a kind of “know so” posture that could rest in having all the answers. I began with certainties about who God is and my eternal destination in heaven. From those two foundational blocks I attempted to back into the grind of everyday living, believing that I could have the same level of certainty about life and its perplexities. But it didn’t always work out that way. The everlasting problem of evil, for example, left me confounded. Every time I watched the news or witnessed the personal struggles of humankind, I found myself frustrated that I didn’t have the certainty that I felt I was entitled to have.

Daily faith is more related to clarity than certainty. Faith is not an answer to every question. Faith certainly includes questions, but the goal of faith is the process of learning. The outcome of faith, in my personal experience, is not an answer, or even the answer. The outcome of faith is the next better question. Faith is humble. Certainty is arrogant. Faith is directional. Certainty is explicit. Faith focuses us on the future and hope. Certainty is formed by and bound to the past.

Abram left the land of Ur with clarity, but not certainty. He was directed to go to a land he would be shown upon arrival where he would father a child in his impossible old age. He was promised to become the father of a great nation as numerous as the stars in the heaven, yet he only had one son. Abram knew the general direction of what, but wasn’t given the certainty of how or when. My American faith struggles to separate those nuances.

Here’s what has been helpful as I distinguish the two. Clarity is expressed in stories. Certainty is expressed in rules. Clarity possesses curiosity about other points of view. Certainty has little if any curiosity. Clarity embraces knowing what you don’t know. Certainty doesn’t know what it doesn’t know and doesn’t care to learn. Clarity emerges in the space between insight and action, comfortable with the direction its heading but flexible about the detail of how you’re going to get there. Certainty demands rigid formulas and processes with little room for variance. Clarity fosters trust and confidence. Certainty demands detailed explanation and guarantees.

Don’t get me wrong, I would love to live life filled with guarantees. But it’s not real. Each of us is only one test result or phone call away from being turned inside out and having our certainty shattered. Clarity empowers us to ride the waves of life’s undulations and ride the storm out until the clouds clear and the sun emerges. If I walk in clarity rather than certainty I can manage life free from resentment of the storms and see that I have grown from the experience.

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Apr
18

NEXT: Don’t Be Afraid

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The second post resurrection saying of Jesus cuts straight to the heart of where many of us live regularly. Check this out:

Early on Sunday morning, as the new day was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went out to visit the tomb. Suddenly there was a great earthquake! For an angel of the Lord came down from heaven, rolled aside the stone, and sat on it. His face shone like lightning, and his clothing was as white as snow. The guards shook with fear when they saw him, and they fell into a dead faint. Then the angel spoke to the women. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead, just as he said would happen. Come, see where his body was lying. And now, go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and he is going ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there. Remember what I have told you.” The women ran quickly from the tomb. They were very frightened but also filled with great joy, and they rushed to give the disciples the angel’s message. And as they went, Jesus met them and greeted them. And they ran to him, grasped his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t be afraid! Go tell my brothers to leave for Galilee, and they will see me there” (Matthew 28:1-10, NLT)

Jesus second saying? “Don’t be afraid!” It’s interesting how somethings never change. What are you afraid of? Some of our fears are common place, such as snakes, spiders and mice. But many of us are gripped by fears that lie beneath the surface of our skin. What do we know about these phobias? For one, most of our fears are false. In the late 1980’s I attended a conference and heard motivational speaker Zig Ziglar say that fear was an acronym for False Evidence Appearing Real. Not only are our fears usually false, our fears are usually negative. No one says, “I’m afraid I’m going to earn too much money” or “I’m afraid all my dreams will come true.” Fear establishes the limits in our lives. If I’m afraid of water, I stay dry. If I’m afraid of heights, I stay low. If I’m afraid of change, I stay the same.

How does the risen Lord help us deal with fear? There are three things from the text that are helpful to us. The first is worship. Worship is beneficial in that it increases and magnifies the greatness of God. One lesson we learn from the story of David and Goliath is that the size of your giant in life depends upon the size of your God. When we regularly engage in the spiritual discipline of worship, God becomes literally larger than life and all that life throws at us.

Not only does the practice of worship help us deal with fear, faith helps us as well. Did you notice the simple phrase, “just as He said” in the passage quoted above? Three times in the last six months of his ministry Jesus predicted that he would be killed and rise from the dead on the third day. Unfortunately the disciples forgot what Jesus had said as his claims became swallowed up in the sea of circumstances that surrounded the first Easter weekend. Until God’s voice becomes the prevailing voice in your life you will face fear after fear. In reality, we don’t overcome our fears. We replace our fears with faith in what God has said.

The final piece of the story is obedience. Jesus summonsed his followers to meet in Galilee. Why Galilee? If the disciples wouldn’t go to Galilee to see the risen Lord, they wouldn’t go to the ends of the earth on behalf of the risen Lord.

Worship, faith, and obedience. That’s how Jesus’ followers overcame their fear. After the giving of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, fear evaporated. While the gospels record numerous times the disciples huddled in fear, fear is virtually absent from the Acts of the Apostles. Have you ever noticed that? Do you wonder why? I think its because Jesus’ followers had such a high view of the risen Lord that no other voice mattered. Proverbs 1:7 states that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. When the fear of the Lord is absent from our lives we become enslaved to lesser fears. If you’re struggling with fear, don’t focus on the fear. Focus on the God who created and sustains the universe. He’s the same God that knows you by name.

Apr
11

The Out of Ur Podcast

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This week’s progress on the forthcoming Out of Ur Podcast included the completion of the artwork, thanks to the gifting and talent of my daughter Shannon. My original goal was to be ready to upload episodes by March, but I didn’t realize all of the work that was involved in setting up the infrastructure. So the back room is almost ready.

After 36 plus years of serving local churches as a pastor, I concluded that chapter officially on August 24, 2020. My initial series of talks will focus on my personal journey from sacred to secular; from the comfort and security of “Ur” to the wide open horizons of the “Promised Land.” It will be an honest, transparent and vulnerable account of what I’ve learned, what I’m learning, and what I still have to learn. Until then, keep your eyes peeled for the first release. Updates will be available on this website under the OUT OF UR tab on the menu bar or on any of the Tim Deatrick or Out of Ur social media platforms. You can follow me personally on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram @timdeatrick. You can find the links to the Out of Ur social media platforms at the bottom of today’s email by clicking any or all of the icons. If you haven’s subscribed to the Out of Ur weekly email, you can do so by emailing outofur@timdeatrick.com.

Thanks for your support of www.timdeatrick.com and Out of Ur!

Categories : Out of Ur
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Last week we celebrated Easter, and I wanted to follow its observance with a series of posts titled, The 7 NEXT Sayings of Jesus. Many are familiar with the seven last sayings of Jesus uttered on the cross. But I wanted to focus on the first post resurrection comments from Christ because I felt they were timely and appropriate for where we are in culture today.

While I take credit for the content of these posts, I cannot take credit for the concept. I came across a book by the same title several years ago written by a pastor named Shane Stanford. I liked his approach and immediately thought it had the potential to be an important post Easter series that would help people make the bridge from Easter up to the upcoming summer months.

It’s hard to get a clear read on the disciple’s reaction to the crucifixion. Three times during the last six months of his ministry, Jesus plainly said that he would be delivered up by wicked men who would crucify him, but that on the third day he would rise again. He didn’t make this prediction is veiled terms. He said it plain and simple.

The image that the gospel record seems to convey, however, is that the disciples and those closest to Christ were either hiding in fear or waiting for the Sabbath to pass so they could resume their ordinary existences. John chapter 20 is no exception. The chapter begins with the exciting account of the resurrection, then sharpens the focus on Mary Magdalene who had gone to the garden to finish the burial preparations for the body of Jesus.

Mary is an important character whose story is interwoven through the story of Christ. Some scholars believe that she is the woman famously “caught in adultery” in John 7:53-8:11 (look it up!). Luke reports that Jesus had at one time cast seven demons from her. She had a sketchy past, and her life of loyal devotion is evidence that she had experienced an uncommon transformation. She certainly knew Christ and was as familiar with him as anyone could have been.

The reader is surprised by her surprise that the stone has been rolled away and that the body is missing. She is confronted by a man she assumes is a gardener and inquires where the body of Jesus had been taken. It wasn’t until Jesus spoke her name that she recognized the risen Lord. Sometimes the tears in our eyes can distort the images of reality right in front of us. That is the setting of he first post resurrection saying of Jesus, found in John 20:15, which reads, “‘Dear woman, why are you crying?’, Jesus asked. ‘Who are you looking for?'”

The relevance of the questions are obvious. Like Mary, many of us have spent time, money and energy looking for something or someone who can fill the empty void of life. We find ourselves desperate, having climbed the ladder of life’s meaning only to discover we’ve put the ladder against the wrong wall. In my opinion, Mary’s tears are not just tears of grief. They are also tears of frustration, maybe even tears of anger and disappointment. Disappointments, I’m reminded often, are nothing more than failed expectations.

But with one word Mary experienced a complete reversal. Who are you looking for? The good news of Easter is that Jesus remains beside the tomb, challenging us to look inside and discover the power of a new beginning. And when we think we’ve lost hope we discover that the same hope exists in a way that we could have never imagined.

Over the past several months I’ve enjoyed many conversations with irreligious people about faith. In my encounters I’ve heard one recurring theme over and over–“I’m spiritual, but not religious.” One person, when I pressed for further understanding, quipped, “Religion is sitting in church thinking about fishing. Spirituality is going fishing and thinking about God.” Without question, people are very open to spiritual things, but simultaneously bypassing organized religion to find and fuel their spirituality. Religious institutions are becoming less and less where people turn to in order to find meaning and make sense out of life. So where do they turn?

Harvard Divinity School published a study titled, How We Gather, that centered around the question, “How can we retrieve the ancient wisdom, without the constraints?” The research team discovered that people who seek spirituality do so by accessing several practices outside the confines of formal religion.

  1. Finding community by valuing and fostering deep relationships that center on serving others. Creating new communities is often more powerful than joining existing ones.
  2. Striving for personal transformation by making a conscious and dedicated effort to develop one’s own body, mind, and spirit.
  3. Seeking social transformation by pursuing justice and beauty in the world through the creation of networks for good with the goal of closing the asset gaps. This effort extends beyond geographical and political boundaries. It is global in its focus.
  4. Finding purpose and hope by clarifying, articulating and acting on one’s own personal life mission. (Yes, the secular world is challenging their employees to write their own personal life mission statements.)
  5. Fostering creativity by allowing time and space to activate the imagination and engage in play, especially as digital interfaces become more common.
  6. Valuing accountability by holding oneself and others responsible for working toward decided goals, often without a centralized authority.

Yes, I realize that these are all core values of religions groups and local churches. The key distinction is the structure and constraints of religion and local churches. The listing above is expressed in the ministry of Jesus and the apostolic work reported in the Book of Acts. Perhaps the key is for churches to reevaluate their “constraints.” Churches have a lot of rules, some of them written, many of them unwritten. Unfortunately, many of these rules are reinforced from obscure verses from the Bible and the particular interpretive biases of church and denominational leadership. What isn’t cited from Scripture is purely the culture of the congregation. The result is that many feel invalidated as persons. Much of local church life is on the top shelf and inaccessible.

No, I don’t advocate tossing the Bible aside and giving in to every whim of popular culture. But I do think churches need to reassess what is most important and direct their resources and energy in that direction. The mandate of Jesus was and is, “follow me in a life of discipleship.” Not, join a church and become like them. The standard must be higher, not harder.

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In a recent poll released by Gallup, American church membership has declined to below 50% of the population. The study cites that in 2020, only 47% of U.S. adults belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque. That’s a 20 point reduction since the turn of the century (1999). The survey states the following reasons for this steady decrease.

  1. There is a decline in religious affiliation, due in part to the increased number of churches that have eliminated formal church membership.
  2. Values have shifted through generations. With each generational stage comes a decline, which should come as no surprise.
  3. No demographic sub group is unscathed. The decline in membership is non discriminate toward race, gender, socio-economic status, political affiliation, etc.
  4. While the pandemic certainly didn’t help the numbers, it didn’t cause the numbers. The pandemic revealed the trend that was already underway.
  5. While estimates remain unclear, it is certain that many churches will be forced to either close or form mergers in the coming years in order to remain sustainable.

What are the options, then, in the face of this trend?

First, churches need to re-evaluate their values toward formal church membership in favor of committed participation. Regular attenders may never formally join a church. At the same time, these same attenders may provide stability through volunteerism, leadership, and financial donations. If a church is narrow at this point, it may miss opportunities to disciple people and fellowship with them.

Second, churches need to immerse themselves in their communities to find the needs that are present instead of “just guessing at it.” For example, the Gallup Poll cites a 2017 poll among church goers which details the major reasons people attend a particular church. The results are interesting.

Reasons for Attending Church or Other Place of WorshipMajor factorMinor factorNot a factor
%%%
Sermons or talks that teach you more about scripture76168
Sermons or lectures that help you connect religion to your own life75168
Spiritual programs geared toward children and teenagers642115
Lots of community outreach and volunteer opportunities592713
Dynamic religious leaders who are interesting and inspiring542817
Social activities that allow you to get to know people in your community493614
A good choir, praise band, cantors or other spiritual music383625

Three things immediately stand out. First, participation in a particular church or denominational brand is not listed. Brand loyalty is a diminishing value that may not be persuasive. The second is the placement of worship style as number seven out of seven. So guitars and drums do not guarantee growth. Again, becoming immersed in your community will enable churches to discover the needs of people and design strategies accordingly. No, you don’t have to “guess at it.” The third and final observation is that people have a desire to be involved, but not necessarily in the way churches are designed. Take, as an example, a congregation with a heavy committee structure. It is not uncommon for a church to have 6-8 standing committees, in addition to a governing board, elder board, or deacon board. These committees may have 6-9 members each. At that point it’s a math problem. Six committees with six members each equals 36, not counting other leaders, officers, or staff. For most churches in America, that’s a substantial percentage of their adults. And because churches value membership, you can’t serve on a committee even if you were willing. Younger generations may not have their grandparents values, where membership included service to a committee. Service? Yes. Committees? Pass.

These statistics can lead us to do one of two things. One is to throw our hands up, give up, and close up. The other is to allow God’s Spirit to lead us to think about church in ways we haven’t thought before. We don’t have to give up. But we may have to let go of some things that we have gripped with white knuckles. As Corrie Ten Boom once wrote, “I’ve learned to hold on to things loosely, because it hurts too bad when God has to pry them from my hands.”

You can find both surveys at the following link: https://news.gallup.com/poll/341963/church-membership-falls-below-majority-first-time.aspx

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“Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.” (Ephesians 4:29, NLT)

Are you a critical person? I’m not talking about critical in the sense of vital importance, as in you play a critical role in an organization. Neither do I intend it in the sense of someone who appraises art or writes food or movie reviews. I’m talking about the kind of critic that negatively criticizes someone else or someone else’s work, usually excusing it with the postscript “I’m my own worst critic,” which may or may not be true. Some Bible translations treat the words “critical” and “judgmental” interchangeably. Being judgmental is the every day person’s description of being critical.

Being critical (or judgmental if you prefer) produces several negative implications in one’s life, even if much of it is unspoken. Let me give you six and please feel free to add to it if you wish.

  1. Being critical keeps us focused on ourselves and our own elevated opinions, resulting in unhappiness. It causes us to lose objectivity, perspective, and even our sense of humor.
  2. Being critical blocks us from positivity and creativity, rendering us ineffective in solving even the simplest of life’s problems.
  3. Being critical prevents us from having and maintaining authentic, meaningful relationships, and will often result in retaliation and resentment.
  4. Being critical makes it impossible to live in the flow of the Holy Spirit’s love, grace and mercy. (see Ephesians 4:30-32)
  5. Being critical usurps the work of God’s Spirit in the life of another being. If we honestly do see a character flaw in someone else we need to remember that God has not delegated that particular work to us. God has no deputy judges.
  6. Left unchecked, being critical will sow a field of pride that will produce a harvest of hubris, self-righteousness, and fear. Yes, fear.

The number one sin Jesus spoke against was against the sin of being judgmental. In the Sermon on the Mount he even went so far as to say that the standard that we use to judge others will be the same standard God will use to judge us. (Matthew 7:1-2) I can only speak for myself, but I would rather be judged according to God’s grace and mercy, and not my own standard of excellence.

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Apr
04

Is The Window Closing?

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When John F. Kennedy ran for President, he often stated in campaign speeches that the Chinese word “crisis” was a combination of characters that combined the words danger and opportunity, yielding the meaning of “dangerous opportunity.” Since then, many leaders of business, education and popular culture have quoted this sentiment. But in actuality, the Chinese word weiji is composed of two words: dangerous and change point. Though typically misinterpreted, the principle remains the same. Crisis points yield moments of decision. What we do at that change point is risky. To choose wisely can create opportunities. To choose incorrectly can bring disaster. But worse, indecision can be fatal.

The COVID-19 pandemic placed every church at the cross roads of weiji, a dangerous point of change. Unfortunately, many church leaders (pastoral and lay) have yet to seize the opportunity placed before them. Things are starting to loosen and open up, which is good. But there’s a red flag waving furiously every time I hear the phrase, “I can’t wait until things get back to normal, and we can go back to the way things were in February, 2020.” Many churches went into “sleep mode” in March, 2020, holding on for the magical day when they could go back to the way things were. The problem with that is that the world has changed and adapted, which has produced a new normal. Business has changed, education has changed, and most of all, people have changed. Business and education have changed and adapted to new futures. The pandemic has provided all of the above time to recalibrate their values and in some instances find contentment in simplicity. People who began working at home out of necessity may never go back to brick and mortar office buildings. Children who have learned virtually may never go back to the classroom. People and families alike have become more deeply connected with one another as they profited from discretionary time they never knew existed.

COVID-19 was and still is an opportunity for the church to change and adapt as well. The pandemic was a catalyst for change and adaptation for those who chose to view it through the lens of blessing and not burden. The past year could and should have been invested in observing culture and in honest self assessment. Was there something new to start? Maybe something that needed to stop? Were there new practices to learn? Or was there something in place to master?

For example, about a year ago I presented a list of opportunities to the last Church I served.* We had the capacity to live stream worship services on our website already in place so we did not need to struggle there. But there were opportunities to consider a host of things like reorganizing the staff to manage and keep pace with technology and digital communication, to enhance and promote access to online giving, the possibility to return to live worship with an additional worship service that featured contemporary music, to re-engage our growth consultant for guidance in updating our mission, values and strategy in anticipation of change to name a few. These suggestions were casually met with “when we get a vaccine, we’ll get back to normal.” Thomas Watson once wrote, “Storms will drive ships into the harbor.” And many churches responded to COVID just like that, waiting for the skies to clear and the waves to calm so they could safely return to sea.

Its late, but not too late for churches to seize the opportunity embedded within the pandemic. The future is wide open, and to paraphrase Thomas Freidman, “belongs not to those who can think outside the box. The future belongs to those who can think without a box.”

*I stepped out of the pastoral ministry on August 24, 2020. The transparent details of my personal journey from sacred to secular are forthcoming in my first series of podcasts at Out of Ur.

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Mar
28

Keep Your Chin Up!

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“But you, O Lord, are a shield around me; you are my glory, the one who holds my head high.” (Psalm 3:3, NLT)

Any time I would get down or discouraged when I was a kid my dad used to tell me to keep my chin up. I understood the metaphor and interpreted it as “don’t be discouraged,” “don’t get down on yourself,” and “don’t give up.” He was always positive and surrounded himself with like minded people. But sometimes that’s easier said than done. The world can be a dark place, filled with negative people, so much so that when someone is eternally optimistic they are judged as outliers who are unrealistic. Life is hard, filled with hard events that harden people. It’s easy to drop your chin and keep it there.

The problem with having your chin down is that it changes your focus. When your chin is down, the majority of what you see is yourself. Try it and see. If you drop your chin to your chest you become the center of your own attention. But when your chin is up you don’t see any of yourself. Again, try it and see. Your focus shifts from self to the world around you which changes your attention and ultimately your direction.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is good news. Inherent in that fact is that the gospel is positive news. God’s intent is for us to keep our chin up so that we can see the people and problems we can serve in his name. And when we can’t seem to find it in ourselves to keep our chins up, he intervenes to be the lifter of our heads and hold them high.

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Mar
24

My (un)Biased Thinking

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My friend Matt recently shared a podcast series titled Learning to See, produced by the Center for Action and Contemplation and hosted by Brian McLaren, Richard Rohr, and Jacqui Lewis. This series suggests 13 different biases that we can have, each serving as a lens through which we view the Bible, culture and current events. Here is the list, complete with a brief description of each. For the purpose of the podcast’s discussion, bias is defined as our “precritical (or prejudiced) inclination toward what we see or think.”

  1. CONFIRMATION BIAS. The human brain welcomes information that confirms what it already thinks and resists information that disturbs or contradicts what it already thinks.
  2. COMPLEXITY BIAS. The brain prefers a simple lie over a complex truth.
  3. COMMUNITY BIAS. It is very hard to see something that your “group” does not want you to see.
  4. COMPLIMENTARITY BIAS. If people are nice to you, you will be open to what they see and think. If they are not nice, you won’t.
  5. CONTACT BIAS. If you lack personal contact with someone, you won’t see what they see. In other words, put on the other person’s shoes and try to see from their perspective.
  6. CONSERVATIVE / LIBERAL BIAS. Our brains like to see what our political party sees and aligns itself accordingly.
  7. CONSCIOUSNESS BIAS. A person’s level of consciousness makes seeing some things possible and some as impossible. Our brains see from a location.
  8. COMPETENCY BIAS. We are incompetent in knowing how competent or incompetent we really are, se we may see less or more than we do. Our brains prefer to think of ourselves as above average.
  9. CONFIDENCE BIAS. Our brains prefer a confident lie to a hesitant truth.
  10. CONSPIRACY BIAS. Our brains like stories and narratives that cast us as either the hero or the victim. Never the villain.
  11. COMFORT BIAS. Our brains welcome data that allows us to be happy and relaxed and rejects data that creates discomfort.
  12. CATASTROPHE BIAS. Our brains recognize sudden changes for the worse, but miss the subtle changes taking place over time. The brain is wired for normalcy.
  13. CASH BIAS. It is hard to see anything that interferes with our way of making a living. We see and think in accordance to our personal economies.

Granted, that’s quite a list, and its hard to admit that I would be guilty of possessing any of them, even periodically. I can concede that some of these are easier to recognize in my thinking than others. But recognizing that these are possible is the first step in overcoming them. Having been exposed to that possibility creates a responsibility to monitor myself and self correct when I sense they are present. Finally, I have the opportunity to then enter into constructive conversations where humility trumps hubris and certainty. Old dogs can learn new tricks, but only if they’re willing and open to learn. Stripping away biases one by one has the potential to elevate our thinking from secondary sources that are satisfied to overhear toward having convictions that are rooted in principles and values. For more information on The Center for Action and Contemplation, check out www.cac.org. The Learning to See podcast is available at your preferred podcast app.

Categories : Spiritual Formation
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Mar
21

More Like King Saul?

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There would be little dispute that the most familiar Old Testament Bible story is the epic battle between David and Goliath. Sunday School teachers, Sunday morning preachers, high school coaches, and a host of others have leaned into this passage to describe how strength is overcome by weakness, evil surrenders to good, and big is no match for small, provided God is in the mix. I’ve heard a lot of sermons on the text and have preached a few myself. The major themes never grow old.

My friend Greg sent me an email the other day about this passage that has occupied my recent thoughts. What if I identify with Saul’s character instead of David’s? What if I don’t identify with David and his glorious victory? What if David is the Christ figure in the story, and I’m the desperate one unable to bring his own victory? Think about it for a moment.

First, Christ offers to fight the giants that we don’t have the strength to fight or the ability to defeat on our own (1 Samuel 17:32). I know, preachers like me love to beat on King Saul for being weak and unable to face the giants of life, let alone defeat them. But as I think about my personal giants, I actually am like Saul, bunkered down on the hillside paralyzed at the thought of my next possible move. David recognized Saul’s weakness, just as Jesus recognizes mine and offers to take my place.

Second, pride and absence of faith creates a reluctance to concede defeat and ask for divine intervention (1 Samuel 17:33). It’s kind of ironic that we can recognize our own need yet simultaneously reject God’s help. Why do we do that? Pride will bind us and blind us to the possibilities that can happen if we’ll only quit gripping to our egos. Pride and faith cannot peaceably coexist.

Next, fear can cause us to focus so much on the present danger that we forget the past faithfulness of God (1 Samuel 17:34-36). Saul needed to understand that David had faced overwhelming odds before and emerged victorious. The daily practice of gratitude will allow us to see God’s prior faithfulness and find security in his present ability.

Finally, the key to victory is ultimately surrender. When we fully surrender, the giants that make us feel diminished and block us from God are defeated and removed (1 Samuel 17:45-50). It is in the moment of surrender that we discover that God is able and willing to do for us what we could never do for ourselves. Ultimate surrender comes at the realization that we’re defeated before the battle has even begun.

Categories : Spiritual Formation
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McKnight and Barringer spend one half of their book discussing what Tov is not. Part 2 of A Church Called Tov outlines seven habits of goodness that shift and shape a healthy culture of goodness in a church.

  1. Tov Churches Nurture Empathy. Citing the authors, “Empathy is the ability to feel what someone else feels, to exit our own feelings and enter the experience of others. Thus, empathy is the ability to see the world through others’ pain.” Churches therefore must keep an eye on the marginalized and disenfranchised in society. (Luke 4:18-19)
  2. Tov Churches Nurture Grace. Grace is the antidote to power through fear because it is focused on mutuality, reciprocity, and giving. It is not primarily concerned with getting and maintaining.
  3. Tov Churches Nurture a People-First Culture. By valuing people as ones created in the image of God, the emphasis on people first takes precedence over the institution. People participate in transforming into Christlikeness versus conforming to the social expectations of the church. In other words, the church invites people to “come be like Jesus,” not “come be like us.”
  4. Tov Churches Nurture Truth. Again, the reader needs to hear the word “truth” through the lens of honesty and authenticity, not doctrinal purity. Disciples of Jesus Christ are called to know the truth, do the truth, and speak truth in love. A commitment to truth on all levels will provide resistance to image maintenance, information management, and spin doctoring.
  5. Tov Churches Nurture Justice. Toxic churches promote loyalty to leadership, whether they be professionals or members of the laity. This means churches must do the right thing at the right time regardless of personal loyalties in order to maintain their position and privilege.
  6. Tov Churches Nurture Service. Recognizing Jesus’ example of one who came to serve and not be served, goodness cultures focus on serving others instead of serving self. Celebrity cultures in toxic churches promote personal perks and privileges for pastors and key leaders alike. When churches are labeled “most important” in a community or denomination, it should be seen as a warning sign. Similarly, red flags should appear when pastors are labeled “visionaries” or “entrepreneurs.” No one is indispensable.
  7. Tov Churches Nurture Christlikeness. The success of any church should be measured on the growth of members in Christlikeness. Pastors have the primary responsibility of developing personal Christlikeness and to lead others to do likewise. When churches make their primary goal numeric growth, they are sacrificing their primary work for a secondary result. Remember, Jesus concluded his earthly ministry with a handful of followers. But those who became like him changed the world.

I think A Church Called Tov is a worthwhile read for any pastor, church leader, or church member. It is a prophetic call to the 21st century American church to rethink and redirect their emphasis in ministry and relationships. The goal, after all, is to please Christ, and to receive his ultimate commendation, “Tov.”

Mar
14

Impressing Solomon

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About a year ago I came across a portion of Ecclesiastes that I found to be striking. I hadn’t noticed it before, but it was a game changer. If you take Solomon as the writer of Ecclesiastes, you’ll recognize him as renown for his exceptional wisdom. He was so wise, kings from around the region would come to learn from him. He was a writer, a composer, a scientist, a philosopher, an architect, a rancher, an economist, and, well, a husband. This unique combination of wisdom, skill and experience would have made him rather difficult to impress. With at least this one exception.

“Here is another bit of wisdom that has impressed me as I have watched the way our world works. There was a small town with only a few people, and a great king came with his army and besieged it. A poor, wise man knew how to save the town so it was rescued. But afterward no one thought to thank him. So even though wisdom is better than strength, those who are wise will be despised if they are poor. What they say will not be appreciated for long.” (Ecclesiastes 9:12-16, NLT)

In short, the story Solomon recounts talks about a nameless, poor man who was esteemed to be a small part of a small place. When overwhelmed with the possibility of defeat, he stepped forward with a plan. Notice he didn’t save the town, he knew how to save the town. As an act of desperation, the city fathers implemented his plan and so the day was saved. The kicker is that the “savior” didn’t get a parade or a plaque. He didn’t even get a gift card to Applebee’s with a thank you note. Nothing.

From this curious vignette in Ecclesiastes, I want to offer three observations.

  1. You are not limited by who you are not. You don’t need a position or a title to accomplish whatever is before you. We don’t know anything about the nameless man. Yet none of those issues formed a low ceiling for him.
  2. You are not limited by what you don’t have. It’s interesting that Solomon points out the fact that the man in his story was poor. He writes as though he was surprised, as though money and wisdom are one and the same. But this man was poor, and evidently despised because of it. But he didn’t let that limit himself.
  3. You are not limited by what people don’t know about you. Remember the passage when Jesus walked into Nazareth, teaching with authority and healing afflictions? The people said, “Who does he think he is? Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” The Nazarenes knew what they knew about Jesus, but they didn’t know what they didn’t know, which was that Jesus was the Messiah. You don’t have to opt into the cultural phenomena of shameless, self promotion to get the job done. It’s ok if people don’t know everything about you, including what you had for dinner last night. The goal is not to be a well known person. The goal is to be a person worth knowing.

I hope you’re having a great week. If you’re enjoying these posts from Out of Ur, feel free to forward them to a friend!

Categories : Ecclesiastes, Wisdom
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(If you’re not a Pastor, the majority of this article can still be beneficial to you! Just skip the first and last paragraphs, and you’ll get to the core importance, which is your need to pre-plan your funeral!)

As Pastors, we often try to stay out of the personal affairs of our congregants, especially when it comes to legal and financial issues. Someone has drawn an imaginary line that seems to keep pastors “in their lane,” unless approached by a person for spiritual direction.

My mother died in January after complications from COVID-19. She battled hard for two weeks before she lost to the virus. One of the best gifts she gave to her children at the time of her death was a pre-planned funeral. Several years ago, we sat down with a funeral director to pre-plan both of my parents’ funerals. We made all the needed selections and decisions as well as making financial arrangements for payment. So when my mother passed, it was a simple call to the funeral director, followed by a 30 minute meeting to go over some final details regarding services. Yes, 30 minutes.

Traditionally, when a person dies the family has 72 hours to complete the following tasks:

  • Say goodbye to their loved one
  • Select a funeral home
  • Inform the hospital, hospice center, or medical examiner of the funeral home
  • Call for an appointment with the funeral director
  • Locate appropriate documents such as driver’s license, social security card, and veteran’s discharge documents if the loved one has served in the US Armed Forces
  • Make sure that you have all of the information required to file for a death certificate such as places of birth and maiden names of the decedent’s parents
  • Locate insurance documents
  • Determine final disposition, whether it be burial or cremation
  • Select a date, time, and location for a celebration of life service
  • Select merchandise options such as casket, urn, guest book, programs, prayer cards, thank you notes, et al
  • If the loved one is to be buried, select and deliver clothes to the funeral home
  • Select cemetery and purchase burial plot(s) if haven’t already.
  • Select a vault (some states require urns to be in a vault) and head stone
  • Select flowers
  • Write an obituary and determine which newspapers to publish it
  • Collect pictures for a DVD slide show and deliver to the funeral home
  • Meet with clergy to plan the celebration of life, selecting songs, pall bearers, musicians, and plan a funeral luncheon if appropriate
  • Call pall bearers to solicit their availability
  • Notify family and friends of the loved one’s passing
  • Assist with travel arrangements and lodging for out of town families

That is a complicated, time consuming list. I’ve probably forgotten some things. Unless you’ve been through the process, it is overwhelming. In many instances, people who have been through it have forgotten many of the details. So I think it is incumbent upon pastors to strongly encourage their church members to pre-plan their funerals for the following reasons.

First, funeral planning is more than picking songs and pall bearers. Even if you’ve done it before, your experience does not save you very much time. Pre-planning a funeral does not eliminate all of the work, but most of the bullet list can be done in advance.

Second, funeral planning at the moment of need delays the important task at hand–grieving with family and friends. The days between death and burial should be moments of reflection, laughter, tears, and stories. One who waits to grieve until after the funeral service often grieves alone. Time is precious, and the urgent should not outweigh the important.

Third, pre-planning allows your loved one to have tangible input on their final wishes. Otherwise, the family is reliant upon memory and best guesses.

Finally, pre-planning locks in the cost of funerals, guaranteeing and fixing the price. In addition, it also gives the family the flexibility on paying for the funeral in one lump sum or paying over time through the purchase of an insurance policy. It is important to note that funeral homes are not banks. They do not finance funerals at the time of death with payment plans. So it is important for families to know in advance how payment for services will happen.

I hope that you as a pastor will encourage your church members to pre-plan their services. While you’re at it, suggest that they couple the process with other important actions such has having a will, a durable power of attorney, and a DNR if appropriate. Some may exclaim that they’re not ready for these realities, but in the end, they’re not doing it for themselves. They’re doing it for those they love that are left behind.

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Narcissism and power through fear are the entry points for toxic and dysfunctional church culture. When these are active in a church, the soil becomes fertile for increasing levels and variants of dysfunction. Let’s unpack those observations from McKnight and Barringer.

The first step toward dysfunction is narcissism, a personality disorder that couples self love with lack of empathy toward others. This is often manifested in the need for control of the organization and its direction.

Second is power that is maintained by fear of losing one’s status or position in the cultural hierarchy. Fear, in this instance, is passive, where violators are excluded or disenfranchised versus actively oppressed. It’s often said that cultures are developed by the behaviors they reward and the behaviors they punish. In church cultures, punishment is withdrawal and withholding, while reward is promotion and inclusion.

Next is institutional creep, which is the belief that the organization itself is first and foremost over and against the individuals that comprise the organization. Maintaining the brand and brand loyalty would be secular comparisons to this concept.

Fourth is the absence of honesty. McKnight uses the word truth here, but I prefer to think of it in terms of honesty so that no one assumes he means doctrinal purity. Since goodness and truth can not be divorced from each other, it is essential that churches that aspire to goodness make honestly the gold standard. The issue arises when authenticity is enforced on a person or persons without mutuality. And when honesty is demonstrated, it is often punished and shamed. This leads to the development of false narratives, image management, damage control and spin doctoring. The goal is not to be transparent, but to present a version of truth that is palpable to the listener and protects the institution from any appearance other than playing the victim card.

The last three threats McKnight and Barringer point out are directed toward church leadership. They a culture of blind loyalty and allegiance, the elevation of pastor as “celebrity,” and the emphasis on leadership to the exclusion of Christ, who is the true head of the church.

When one or more of these are present, Tov (or goodness) is not embodied. While it looks bleak, there is good news. Next week I’ll delve into the antidotes for each of these dysfunctional traits.

Mar
07

A Church Called Tov

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Those of you who know me will be aware of my appreciation for Scot McKnight as a New Testament scholar and author. His commentaries and monographs are prominently displayed on my library shelves with respect and admiration. His latest work, co authored with his daughter Laura Barringer, is his most prophetic work to date. A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture that Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing undertakes the task of understanding how churches that are tasked with promoting the good news of the Gospel become more renown for bad news and bad behavior by sheep as well as shepherd.

Those who follow McKnight are aware that for some time he has served as a prophet who speaks truth to power especially with regards to the dismissal of Bill Hybels, pastor of the Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. He and his daughter both had been a part of the congregation, lending a great deal of credibility to their words. They do not write as ones who are launching artillery safely behind the front lines. The reader can feel the depth of personal pain as they deliver this labor of compassion.

McKnight begins with pointing out that every church has its own unique culture that has the power to transform those within its boundaries. He quotes David Brooks, who in The Sacred Mountain writes these words:

Never underestimate the power of the environment you work in to gradually transform who you are. When you choose to work at a certain company, you are turning yourself into the type of person who works in that company. Moreover, living life in a pragmatic, utilitarian manner turns you into a utilitarian pragmatist. The ‘How do I succeed?’ questions quickly eclipse the ‘Why am I doing this?’ questions.

Most of the people I know have experienced some form of injury at the hands of the church they attend or used to, at least. These injuries can range anywhere from a variety of abuses to emotional manipulation, exclusion, and shaming. Interestingly enough, most of the pastors I know have also experienced similar things from the churches they have served. McKnight’s point is not to pit the pastor against the people or vice versa. His point is that many churches have lost their way, and it is not that hard to do. Toxicity and dysfunction is not the result of theological aberration or denominational disloyalty. Neither is it rooted in organ music versus guitars and drums. It comes from an insatiable thirst for control and the love of oneself. Modern day Diotrephes’ if you will. (3 John 9)

The remainder of part one of the book deals with how churches become toxic and dysfunctional, primarily through narcissism and power through fear. That will provide my outline for next week’s post.

Mar
07

A Checklist for Humility

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As you can note from my reading list, I have included a book that is a compilation of men and women from antiquity who have written on the subject of spiritual formation. We have Richard Foster and James Bryan Smith to thank for sifting through thousands of pages to produce a work that I use in my daily readings.

I’m not one to simply recount the work of others, but when I came across the work of Jeremy Taylor (1613-1677) on the subject of humility, I found it too good to keep to myself. Taylor, in his book titled, The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living, shares twenty (20) points on humility.

  1. Do not think better of yourself because of any outward circumstance that happens to you.
  2. Humility does not consist in criticizing yourself, or wearing ragged clothes, or walking around submissively wherever you go. Humility consists of a realistic opinion of yourself.
  3. When you hold this opinion of yourself, be content that others think the same of you.
  4. Nurture a love to do good things in secret, concealed from the eyes of others, and therefore not highly esteemed because of them.
  5. Never be ashamed of your birth, of your parents, or your present employment, or the lowly status of any of them.
  6. Never say anything, directly or indirectly, that will provoke praise or elicit compliments from others.
  7. When you do receive praise for something you have done, take it indifferently and return it to God (or reflect it back to God).
  8. Make a good name for yourself by being a person of virtue and humility.
  9. Do not take pride in any praise given to you.
  10. Do not ask others about your faults with the intent or purpose to have others tell you of your good qualities.
  11. When you are slighted by someone, or feel undervalued, do not harbor any secret anger, supposing that you actually deserved praise or they neglected to praise you because of their own envy.
  12. Do not entertain any of the devil’s whispers of pride, which will only expose the heart’s true wishes.
  13. Take an active part in the praising of others, celebrating their good with delight.
  14. Be content when you see or hear that others are doing well in their jobs and with their income, even when you are not.
  15. Never compare yourself with others unless it be to advance your impression of them and lower your impression of yourself.
  16. The truly humble person will not only look admirably at the strengths of others, but will also look with great forgiveness upon the weaknesses of others.
  17. Do not constantly try to excuse all of your mistakes.
  18. Give God thanks for every weakness, fault, and imperfection you have.
  19. Do not expose others’ weaknesses in order to make them feel less able than you.
  20. Remember that what is most important to God is that we submit ourselves and all that we have to him.

Taylor concludes with this insight: “Humility begins as a gift from God, but it is increased as a habit we develop. That is, humility is increased by exercising it.”

Like me, you’ve probably thought of most of these at one time or another. I’m thankful Jeremy Taylor had the discipline to put all of them in a listing that can be used as a checklist for my personal progress.

“Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up on honor.” (James 4:10 NLT)

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Any parent that has taken their family on a trip of any substantial distance is acquainted with the question, “Are we there yet?” or “How much longer until we get there?” In my case, it was my punishment for asking the question repeatedly as a child of my parents. As it has been said, you pay for your raisin’.

Abram’s journey led him to a geographical destination. He left Ur and travelled to Canaan. But I think we miss something if we limit his journey to one of physical travel. For in the midst of the geographical transition came a spiritual transformation. Not only did he have a change of address, he himself became changed.

The reader will note that his original name was Abram, which means “father is exalted.” And Abram lived up to that name, following Terah from Ur to Haran, where he remained until his father’s death. When Abram arrived in Canaan he eventually received a new name, Abraham, which means “father of multitudes.” This simple change of names reveals the transformation I’m talking about. As Abram, he was focused on his father. As Abraham, he received a new purpose, which was to become the father. And not just a father, the father of many people and many nations.

My point here is that while the story features a change of location, the real destination centered on the kind of person Abram was to become. And that principle is true of you and me. Not every destination God leads us toward requires relocation. Sometimes the destination God leads us toward is an internal redistribution of our values and the development of our character.

Like the proverbial family vacation, spiritual formation takes time. A long time. It may feel like we’re never going to arrive. But if we’ll relax and trust God to lead us through the journey we’ll be there before we know it and we’ll be better for it. What’s more, we’ll be glad we took the trip.

Categories : Out of Ur
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Feb
21

Relevant Sermons

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Years ago I came across a book by Os Guinness titled Prophetic Untimeliness. In it Guinness asserts, “Never have Christians pursued relevance more strenuously; never have Christians been more irrelevant.” The challenge for the church is to be timely, not trendy. This comes not by being in step with the times, but having the courage to be out of step with the conventional wisdom of our present culture. The popular need for cultural relevance comes because of our fixation with time. But in reality, only that which is eternal is truly relevant. Guinness writes, “It takes the eternal to guarantee the relevant; only the repeated touch of the timeless will keep us truly timely.”

Those words bring to mind the words of the late Dr. Calvin Miller. In his book Preaching, Miller wrote that the greatest challenge preachers face each week is the decision between saying important things or saying interesting things. Or put another way, “Shall I say something important this week? Or shall I settle for merely being interesting?” Well put.

Preaching that truly makes a relevant impact is preaching that works toward helping people become more Christlike. Unfortunately, many sermons are aimed at helping people have better lives, better bodies, better financial security, better relationships, and better marriages (including better sex). If you study the teachings of Jesus, he pointed his listeners to living lives that love God and love others. And he did so without wearing a Rolex or a pair of $500 sneakers. Just sayin’.

Categories : Preaching
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Much of Abram’s life had been spent in between his point of departure and his arrival in Canaan. While the biblical narrative doesn’t give us many details about Abram’s in between, we do learn some valuable lessons that can be of practical help to us today.

First, Abram was willing to pull up the anchor from his hometown of Ur and begin a journey into the future. God had spoken to him ever so clearly and he listened to the divine voice.

Second, along the way Abram faced a distraction that led him on a detour. Like Abram, if we are serious in undertaking the journey of obedience to God we will find the path is littered with distractions that can become detours. The danger of those detours is that we can “stop and settle.” Once we stop and settle, it can be just as difficult to pull up the anchor as it was when we first set out.

Third, just because we stop and settle doesn’t mean we have to remain stuck. It just means it is more difficult to reset the course and restart the trip toward our destination. Distractions can lead to detours, but they don’t have to remain our final destination. We can choose to follow the path to the land of promise or settle in the land of immediate gratification, filled with its counterfeits and substitutions.

If you continue to read the story, you’ll find there’s no magical pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Abram’s tangible sense of having arrived is still a long way off into the future. But some how, in the midst of his journey, he must have had the growing sense that his new destination was his true home. And when we follow God’s direction to our divinely appointed destination, we too may find the serenity that comes with being home in a way that overshadows all other stops along the way.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief series of posts on Out of Ur. If you’ve missed any of the previous posts, feel free to check out www.timdeatrick.com where you’ll find the archives to this newsletter and more. If you are enjoying the Out of Ur weekly email newsletter, forward it to a friend and encourage them to subscribe! Have a great week!

Categories : Out of Ur
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Most preachers have a routine of sermon preparation and delivery that has become natural and even reflexive. Some preachers prefer the study and writing, while others prefer the act of delivering the sermon. In order to be effective, preachers have to find a level of proficiency in both, otherwise the sermon will either be all heat and no light, or vice versa.

For me, the hardest part of sermon preparation has been the decisions surrounding what not to say. Allow me to explain.

I believe that the Bible contains the inexhaustible truths of God. So to select a text and then attempt to plumb the depths of every insight is impossible. When a pastor prepares a sermon, he or she brings all of their prior knowledge to the table, then adds the collective wisdom of reference works, commentaries, historical contexts, original languages and multiple English translations. This collection of scholarship, added to the revelation of God’s Spirit and personal experience, can yield an overwhelming amount of information. The temptation preachers have is to try to bring the entirety of their preparation into the pulpit. Thus, the sermon sounds like a book report rather than a message from God.

Years ago I had the honor of interviewing preaching and New Testament author and professor Fred Craddock for a paper I was writing for my doctoral program. When I asked him the question, “What is the hardest part of preaching?”, he quickly replied, “determining what not to say.” That insight has perhaps helped me in my personal preaching more than any other I have learned.

If preachers are disciplined about developing a “main idea” (Haddon Robinson), everything that is prepared for delivery must pass across that bar of judgment. The main idea serves as the litmus test for what is to be included and what is to be saved for another sermon on another date. If the information does not serve the main idea, then edit it, and focus more on illustration and application. One idea presented with clarity will have more impact than ten points that are unclear and overwhelming.

Remember, the goal of preaching is transformation of lives, not transmission of information.

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Feb
07

Out of Ur: The Decision

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Terah’s good intention to leave Ur and travel to the land of Canaan was disrupted at the half way point with a distraction. This distraction led him on an 80 mile detour to the city of Haran, where he stopped and settled. He put down roots in Haran and stayed there until he died. Distractions and detours can do that to us. The siren song of the shiny has an allure, that often over promises and under delivers. If you’ve read the story closely, you’ll see that Terah had named one of his son’s Haran. The name isn’t exactly the same as the city in the Hebrew language, even though it is spelled the same in English. The son’s name means “mountain.” You’ll recall that the city’s name means “crossroads.” The point is that many times what we perceive to be the pinnacle of success and achievement is merely nothing more than a crossroads where we have to choose between what is good and what is best. Terah was satisfied that he would be content with good enough, and he died without ever leaving his presumed mountain of accomplishment. In his own mind, he had arrived “on top.”

But Abram still had something stirring in his heart. His vision of Canaan had not evaporated. The death of his father served as a signal to pick up the original call to the land of promise. He made the decision to leave Haran and finish the journey. This would not have been an easy decision if you think about it in terms of ancient culture, for Abram would not just leave a place. He would leave all sorts of things behind.

At the age of 75, Abram left his homeland, his family, his potential inheritance, his position in the family, the family idols, his financial security, the familiarity of culture and community, and the faith of his childhood. But somehow his God given vision surpassed all of that. I’m sure he counted the cost, but the cost of leaving paled in comparison to the future reward of obedience.

One way to think about this is to consider the fact that Abram, by faith, left his certainty and journeyed toward uncertainty. His walk of faith was not void of doubt, for if you look at his life you’ll discover that Abram is often slow to believe. But in the midst of this uncertainty, he walked by faith and obedience. My friend Matt Manos once said, “The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty.” As long as we demand a faith that is certain, we’ll remain in our Haran, and find that we’ve not just settled, we’ve become stuck.

Categories : Out of Ur
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Feb
07

Why Sermons Are Boring

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An old time evangelist named Vance Havner once quipped that “most churches start at 11:00 sharp and end at 12:00 dull.” This elicits a chuckle from many pew occupants simply because it is often true. One of the arguments against church attendance has been the criticism that sermons are boring. Is it still possible in today’s information age? I have probably delivered more than my share of boring sermons, and I have a theory as to why I and many others are also guilty.

I believe the reason that sermons are boring, or at least perceived to be as such, is that they are written for the eye and not the ear. In other words, they are prepared much like one would write an essay and not a speech. Essays can be very compelling to read, but you may not wish to have one read to you.

So what is the difference between writing for the eye and writing for the ear? Let me offer some observations about the distinctions.

First, writing for the eye includes longer sentences that can be more detailed and complex than typical speech. Speech can be be delivered in smaller bites and utilize repetition for emphasis that writing would not include.

Second, writing for the eye is more formal whereas writing for the ear is more informal and conversational. This is the difference between a saying a length of distance is 300 yards versus saying the same length equals three football fields.

The third difference is that writing for the eye is timeless and can be reviews over and over. Writing for the ear is timely, making its impact in an exact moment of time.

Next, writing for the eye is a one way conversation while writing for the ear is a two way conversation. Writers who publish papers and books do not have the benefit of immediate feedback that speakers do, allowing them to make on the fly edits based on the audience’s responses.

Finally, writers for the eye depend on punctuation to deliver emphasis compared to the speakers use of gestures and volume to deliver emphasis. An unspoken gesture, facial expression, or a pregnant pause are all tools that a speaker possesses that cannot easily be replicated on the printed page.

Sermon and speech writing is unlike any other form of writing, in that it is intended to be heard. Wise pastors and speakers will identify the difference between writing for the eye and for the ear, and will use that to enhance their preaching.

Categories : Preaching, Sermons
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“This is the account of Terah’s family. Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran was the father of Lot. But Haran died in Ur of the Chaldeans, the land of his brith, while his father, Terah, was still living. Meanwhile, Abram and Nahor both married.. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah…But Sarai was unable to become pregnant and had no children. One day Terah took his son Abram, his daughter in law Sarai, and his grandson Lot, and moved away from Ur of the Chaldeans. He was headed for the land of Canaan, but they stopped at Haran and settled there. Terah lived for 205 years and died while still in Haran” (Genesis 11:27-31, NLT).

Terah and his family, including Abram, departed Ur to begin the long traverse to Canaan. The most direct route would have been due west, but given the fact that Ur and Canaan were separated by hundreds of miles of the Arabian desert, they took the circuitous route around the desert. Traveling to the northwest they followed the Euphrates River toward the northern most part of the desert. There, they would travel southwest toward the promised land.

The northwesterly part of the journey would have spanned some 700 miles. It is estimated that caravans could travel up to 20 miles per day, so we’re talking at least 35 days, probably more. Everything seemed to be going well as far as we’re told. And then it happened. A distraction came along that led Terah and the family off the route. We’re not talking about stopping at a rest area or a Bass Pro Shop. Haran was some 80 miles due north of the apex of their travel plan.

It’s one thing for a person to be leisurely traveling and to have their eye caught by a persuasive billboard to visit this site or that. So what if you pull a few miles off the route to check out a famous person’s birthplace or visit scenic view? We can become temporarily distracted and in most cases it doesn’t create much of a ripple.

But this was more than a distraction, for Terah not only stopped, he settled. We’re not sure why he stopped and settled. The Bible doesn’t give us that detail. The real question is whether you and I have stopped and settled on life’s journey, and if so, why?

We can become distracted by many things. Sometimes we become distracted out of boredom. Other times it’s something shiny that catches our eye. Some times we are distracted by visions of greatness or some misguided expectation that over promises and under delivers. Maybe we’re homesick, and the distraction provides us with something comfortable and familiar. Or perhaps we’re just plain tired of the trip we’ve taken and the distraction becomes a substitute that I like to call, “good enough.” There are as many reasons for us to be distracted from life’s purpose as there are excuses for not fulfilling life’s purpose. The apostle John generalized the distractions of life, calling them, “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16).

The city of Haran was a significant place. It was important to the economy, and was the center of worship for the moon god Zin. Located in what is modern day Turkey, it served as the convergence of several trade highways and waterways. The name Haran means “cross roads,” appropriately so, for it was the cross roads of trade and commerce.

For Terah and those like me who are prone to the distractions that lead to detours, the cross roads is significant. Cross roads cause us to contemplate the decision as to whether we will settle for what is or forge ahead to our God given destiny. Like Terah we can stop, settle, and eventually die having fallen short of our destination. Or, we can make the decision to push ahead and leave all that is good behind.

We can’t control the things that come before us that are distractions, tempting us to stop and settle. But we can control our response in the cross roads, pursuing the unseen in the face of that which is visible and convenient (cf. Hebrews 11:24-29).

Check back next Monday for part three of this series on Out of Ur, The Decision. If you enjoyed today’s post or found it helpful, feel free to share it with a friend!

Categories : Abraham, Out of Ur
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Jan
31

Preaching Without Notes

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Several years ago I made the commitment to preach my sermons without the aid of notes. Seminary is very permission giving about what any preacher chooses to take into the pulpit. In other words, there is no right way to do it. Some will take a full manuscript, some will use a skeleton outline with bullet points, and then there are those like me who commit the sermon to memory.

Speaking from memory has elicited some interesting comments over the years. Some have suggested that I extemporize (wing it) my sermons. Others have inquired as to whether or not I have a photographic memory or possess some kind of special gift. I am not an extemporaneous speaker nor would I consider myself particularly or uniquely gifted. But there is a simple trick that I learned from one of my ministry mentors who always preached without notes.

Are you ready?

They secret sauce, for me at least, is to write the sermon using pen and paper. Once the manuscript is complete, I copy it by hand at least twice. Writing the sermon in longhand helps me connect with it in a way that I have not be able to accomplish with a keyboard. Once this part of the process is complete, I rehearse it aloud and spot check the clarity of my communication as well as my memorization. At this point, I am reinforcing my memorization by speaking it aloud and hearing it aloud. That’s it.

You don’t have to be particularly gifted to preach without notes. It just takes time and commitment. The benefits of doing this work are, in my opinion, worth the effort. Here are some of the benefits I have found preaching without notes.

First, I feel a great sense of ownership in the sermon. The entire process of prayer, preparation and delivery requires me to internalize the material in a deeper way than if I just clicked print and walked away from my desktop. The sermon becomes so internalized that I have found that I am free from distractions such as crying babies or people excusing themselves to use the rest room. My sermons may not always be preached verbatim, but I have never “forgotten” my sermon.

Second, preaching without notes gives me the opportunity to meditate on my content wherever I want, whether it be while driving or waiting in line at the grocery store.

Third, it provides a sense of freedom in my delivery. When I am tied to my notes I am, by default, tied to something physical, like a pulpit for example. Anything that limits me physically on the platform is a limitation to my communication. Limitations include confidence monitors and video technology, for that matter, which is not fail safe.

Next, memorization infers that I care deeply about my topic and that I care about my audience enough to make the effort. Someone may disagree from time to time with what I say, but no one has ever accused me of inadequate preparation! Preaching without notes adds credibility to me as a communicator and builds trust with the listeners.

Finally, preaching without notes helps create a two way conversation with the listeners. Because I am free from notes, I am free to focus on eye contact and making purposeful gestures that are natural. If I can focus on the congregant’s non verbal responses, I can determine whether or not I’ve connected with them in a meaningful way. If I read a manuscript or am heavily tied to notes then at best my eye contact is 50%. The more tied to notes I am, the more the sermon becomes a one way conversation where I talk “at” the audience instead of “with” them.

I do not intend for this post to sound like I have the only way or that anything shy of preaching without notes is wrong. But I do think it’s the best way. And I think you can do it, too!

Categories : Preaching
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Jan
24

Out of Ur: The Departure

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It takes a lot of work to find a name for a podcast because many have already been claimed by other presenters. When I began the pursuit of a catchy, no more than three word brand I went through several iterations before finally settling on “Out of Ur.” Mind you, every idea I had centered around the same theme…the struggle of faith and the challenges of selfless obedience to God. I then came across the following passage in Genesis 11, which follows the story of Babel and a lengthy account of begats.

“This is the account of Terah’s family. Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran was the father of Lot. But Haran died in Ur of the Chaldeans, the land of his brith, while his father, Terah, was still living. Meanwhile, Abram and Nahor both married.. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah…But Sarai was unable to become pregnant and had no children. One day Terah took his son Abram, his daughter in law Sarai, and his grandson Lot, and moved away from Ur of the Chaldeans. He was headed for the land of Canaan, but they stopped at Haran and settled there. Terah lived for 205 years and died while still in Haran” (Genesis 11:27-31, NLT).

A bit of background may be helpful. Ur was a community located on the Euphrates River north of the Persian Gulf in what we would call modern day Iraq. Because of the waterway, Ur was a highly developed area of commerce and religious worship. The passage doesn’t give a specific reason as to why Terah loaded up the family wagon to leave, but there are several plausible reasons for the move.

It could have been the prudent thing to do. Some fifty years following his departure, Ur was overthrown and destroyed. Perhaps there had been rumblings of a potential threat of invasion. The geographical location of Ur would have made it a desirable location of foreign governments.

Another reason may have been his intent to improve his situation in life. While Ur was known for commerce and religion, it would not have been the epicenter of either. Any wealth Terah and his family had acquired in Ur could have been grown and developed by moving to a more fluid environment.

But the reason we typically accept for leaving Ur is God’s call to Abram. Genesis 12:1-3, reinforced by Acts 7 and Hebrews 11, informs the reader than God’s call upon Abram’s life occurred while he was in Ur. Terah is given respect as the main character by virtue of his parental position, but the work taking place in these initial stages is in the life of Abram.

Abram’s calling was a call to leave one place in order to go to another. That’s pretty obvious. But the spiritual truth at work is that none of us can climb the next rung until we remove our foot from the rung we’re standing on. Or, as one author wrote, “Breakthroughs are always break withs.”

In order to experience the next rung we, like Abram, have to take steps of steady obedience in the same direction. But it also requires we exercise faith. Abram was far more certain of the place he was to leave than the place he was going. He obeyed, walking by faith.

Like Abram, we have the experience of going from and going to. And like Abram, we share in this ongoing pattern of the Christian experience. Seldom do we get to have the best of both worlds…to have our cake and eat it too. (People may take a vacation to an island resort, but they usually end up right back where they started.) These destinations may be unclear and uncertain, as is the journey toward the new destination is unknown. But there is joy in both the journey and the arrival. It just takes one step, repeated many times over.

Next week I’ll examine the second feature of the story, which is the distractions we face along the way. Thanks for reading the Out of Ur weekly email newsletter. If you’ve enjoyed it or know someone who may, feel free to forward it to their inbox.

Categories : Out of Ur
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Jan
24

Talk Like TED

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I did my doctoral studies in the field of preaching, and consequently have read approximately 100 books on the topic. Each one of these has contributed to my thinking and practice of preaching and public speaking. Some time ago my friend Cliff Jenkins recommended a book by Carmine Gallo that may be one of the most practical helps for those who speak to audiences whether religious or secular. The name of the book is Talk Like TED.

For years “TED Talks” have served as an influential platform for sharing insights and ideas. Some of the most popular presentations have garnered millions of views on YouTube and other media outlets. They have propelled the careers and book sales of presenters. Regardless of the topic or the presenter, these TED talks share one common denominator: they are all outstanding. Carmine Gallo has evaluated hundreds of TED talks and gleaned nine distinguishing features of each to help each of us become better communicators.

#1 UNLEASH THE MASTER WITHIN. You can’t inspire others if you’re not inspired by the topic. Each presenter is clearly passionate about their subject matter.

#2 MASTER THE ART OF STORYTELLING. Passion is best expressed through storytelling, not imperatives. The best stories illustrate and illuminate the subject and inspire listeners to take action.

#3 HAVE A CONVERSATION. Become so familiar with your subject matter that your pace, timing, and gestures become natural and unforced.

#4 TEACH SOMETHING NEW. Reveal information that is either completely new, is packaged differently, or offers a novel way to solve an old problem.

#5 DELIVER JAW DROPPING MOMENTS. Make your presentation memorable and stamp it in their minds.

#6 LIGHTEN UP. Use humor to poke fun at yourself as well as your topic.

#7 CONFINE YOUR PRESENTATION TO 18 MINUTES. Constrained presentations require greater creativity. What is left unsaid makes what is said even stronger.

#8 PAINT A MENTAL PICTURE WITH MULTISENSORY EXPERIENCES. Since the brain doesn’t think without a picture, create images through images, videos and props. Give your topic multiple voices to engage the minds of the listeners.

#9 STAY IN YOUR LANE. Don’t be something other than who you are. Be authentic, open and transparent. People can generally spot inauthenticity. Authenticity is the key ingredient to gaining the trust of the listener.

Gallo’s book should be considered a must read for anyone who speaks publicly. His insights from the presenters of TED talks are both timely and timeless. If you think about it, you’ll find at 2,000 years ago Jesus Christ implemented these principles, and we’re still talking about his presentations today.

Categories : Books, Preaching
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Jan
17

What Do You Want?

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Imagine that Jesus walked into your community. Crowds are pressing around him and the disciples are trying to clear a path like a first century secret service. Now think about a need in your life that is beyond overwhelming. You’ve tried everything and everyone, but there is no relief. What would you do if Jesus came walking into your space?

Mark’s gospel tells a story about a blind man named Bartimaeus. I’ll call him Bart for short. The Bible gives few details about Bart. We know he’s blind and has to beg for money. We also are told his father’s name–Timaeus, which indicates that he may have been from a family of some means or standing in the community, perhaps meaning that they had given up on Bart. Remember, he was a beggar. When Bart heard Jesus was en route he prayed what has now become known as the “Jesus Prayer.” “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me” (Mark 10:47, 48). The secret service tried to quiet Bart, but to no avail. When Jesus heard him pray he summoned him and asked a simple question. “What do you want me to do for you?”

Talk about a blank check! Bart wasn’t timid. He answered Jesus with direct precision. “I want to see!” And Jesus granted his request.

When I first read this passage last week my first thought was, “so what’s the big deal? The guy is blind. Of course he wants to see.” But as I meditate on Bart’s answer I have come to the conclusion that his request was for empowerment, not enablement. For Bart, sight was the ability to be free of dependence upon others for the things we take for granted. The ability to travel and the capacity to earn a living were wrapped in that request for sight, not to mention the chance to enjoy the beauty of creation. He could have asked to be able to have someone help him with his personal needs and for food and housing so he wouldn’t have to beg. But he wanted to be empowered. And with his new found empowerment he followed Jesus down the road (Mark 10:52).

Blind Bart is a simple lesson about prayer. Many times I find myself praying for enablement when I should be praying for empowerment. Sometimes my requests are generalized when then should be specific. And more often than I want to admit, my requests are passive instead of active, meaning they are for my own comfort and well being instead of for following Jesus and being of service to those around me. Like Bart, I want to pray for the root, and not just the fruit.

What do you want Jesus to do for you that will empower you to be who he created you to be?

Categories : Prayer
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People who regularly attend church services or who have joined a local faith community have particular giving habits and patterns. It’s important that those who steward the financial resources of a congregation understand that donors are not motivated equally by every appeal. In my pastoral experience, there are eight different pockets of giving in a congregation.

First, there is the regular giver to the general fund. These are the people who are committed to the core values and mission of the church and support the operating budget on a regular basis with their tithes and offerings. These funds represent the basic support structure for fixed expenses as well as the program ministries of the church.

Next is the giver who supports the building fund or the debt retirement from a previous capital campaign. They are motivated by capital improvements whether it is new construction or the renovation of a facility that needs modernization.

Third is the donor who values missions and missionaries. They are generous givers to annual mission offerings through their denomination and/or toward individual missionaries that the church supports. These gifts are usually significant and rightfully so, given the fact that many denominations require their affiliate missionaries to raise their own support. Some church members may be giving to missionaries directly, bypassing the church offering plate.

Then we have those who support benevolence ministries or social programs within the community. Churches may make appeals for these funds above and beyond the operating budget. These needs will touch some of the members who will in turn give generously of both their time and money.

Giving pocket number five is those who support the program ministries of the church. Ministries to children, youth and music are often underfunded because that’s how churches balance their budgets. Fixed expenses are, well, fixed. At the end of the day, utilities, insurance and payroll are not going to be cut for programs that can either reduce or even eliminate their plans for the year. Some congregants will provide support to these ministries out side of their regular giving because they know they are the key to vitality.

Number six is the giver that supports parachurch ministries such as the Gideon’s International, Focus on the Family, or Operation Shoebox. While churches may have some of these organizations in their budget, some people may be motivated to give directly to them.

Seventh, are the financial supporters of memorial funds. These can be tricky for pastors and stewards to navigate for a couple of reasons. One reason is that the memorial has to be honored in perpetuity. Every established church has to determine how to maintain an item that has been given in memory of a person regardless of whether or not anyone in the church remembers the decedent. Another reason it is tricky is that the family of the deceased may want to direct memorials to an item that the church either doesn’t need or toward and item that is out of the price range of the request. Wise and gentle leadership will need to work patiently with families to help provide guidance and support as they make their decisions. Memorial gifts can be an excellent opportunity to seek win-win solutions that honors the member and helps the church.

Finally, there is the member who has committed to remember the church through a planned gift. Planned giving can make a significant impact on a church’s financial well being. Pastors may be surprised how willing faithful congregants will be to remember the church in their estate planning if they will simply plant the seed with a nine word question. “Have you considered including our church in your estate?” Perhaps they have on their own accord. Perhaps they are willing, but haven’t been asked. Pastors do not have to be attorneys or financial planners to ask this question. If the member is motivated, they will do the rest.

So what are the takeaways from knowing about eight pockets of stewardship?

  1. People have finite resources, so choose wisely how they will give. Every offering appeal will diminish the ultimate goal of advancing the mission and ministry of your church. Churches are wise to limit endless appeals in favor of a unified budget that is inclusive of the values and partnerships that have been established.
  2. Evaluate the number of appeals your church makes each year. Pastors will focus primarily on the offering appeal during the service. But the wise pastor will also do his or her best to eliminate giving fatigue. Your coffee and hospitality counter is an ask. The missionary offering is an ask. The youth bake sale is an ask. So is the $10 for the kids to attend Bible School. The benevolence need is an ask, right down to the canned food drive and the request for gently used clothes. How many “asks” is your church making on a given week? In a month or year? We should not be amazed that people complain that all the church does is ask for money even if the pastor preaches on giving once or twice per year.
  3. Not every donor is motivated by all requests. In the aforementioned list of eight, some will give generously toward two or three, while someone else may give toward a different three or four. Seldom will you find a member who will generously support all eight. It is critical to know your audience and to time and make your appeals strategically to maximize impact.
Categories : Giving, Stewardship
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Jesus asked him, “Would you like to get well?” “I can’t, sir,” the sick man said, “for I have no one to put me into the pool when the water bubbles up. Someone else always gets there ahead of me.” Jesus told him, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!” (John 5:5-8, NLT)

John chapter 5 opens with a curious story about a man who had been been disabled for 38 years lying by a pool of water. Evidently there was a phenomenon of miraculous healing power associated with the pool, for randomly an angel would come and “trouble” the water, and whoever could get into the pool first would be healed of their physical malady. There was a crowd of people there around the pool, waiting for that opportune time. Suffering has lots of company. Apparently there was no numbering system like we have at the DMV that would order the crowd into a “now serving number 231” kind of system. If you could be first, you would reap the benefits.

Of all the people who were crowded around the pool, Jesus took note of this particular man. Jesus directed a very important question to him and him alone. “Would you like to get well?” Now that question required a simple yes or no response. One would assume that the man’s response would have been a no brainer. But instead of saying “yes,” the man began to do what many often do. He made excuses and affixed blame. He blamed others for not attending to his needs, and he blamed a system that was put in place that made the playing field not level. In today’s culture he might have said, “It’s not fair,” or “I’m not lucky.”

Jesus, patiently listened to the excuses, and then told him to stand up, pick up his mat, and walk. I imagine that the thought must have flashed in the disabled man’s mind, “I can’t do that.” The thing about Jesus is that he will always ask us to do something we cannot accomplish on our own. But this flash of doubt was erased as the man experienced total healing. It wasn’t gradual, it was immediate. He dutifully rolled up his mat and began walking, when he is then confronted by the religious leaders for violating the Sabbath by carrying his mat. He defended his action, explaining that a man had healed him and told him to pick up his mat and walk. The religious leaders inquired who would do such a thing. And, “the man didn’t know” (John 5:13).

Legalism and religion will always find something wrong with the miraculous work that God is doing in your life. It’ll be the wrong day, like the Sabbath, or the wrong way, like not getting into the pool, or achieve the wrong outcome, like carrying your mat. That principle was true over and over in the ministry of Jesus, and one would think that 2,000 years later it would change. But it has not.

The story concludes with the man in the Temple. Jesus, who found him at the pool now finds him in the Temple. Wholeness will take you places your brokenness will never take you. And in that moment you can be open to the deeper work of God in your life. “Now you are well, stop sinning” (John 5:14). Many times our obvious problems are merely symptoms of more significant internal issues within our lives. To the naked eye, the man was disabled. In this instance, the divine eyes of Jesus saw something internal that no one else could see. The man thought his problem was his disability that confined him to a mat for nearly four decades. But without the internal healing of forgiveness and wholeness, nothing that really mattered would have changed. It’s the internal disability that either keeps us on the mat, or causes us to return to the mat time and time again. You may not be able to change how you got on the mat, but you don’t have to stay on it.

Categories : Change, Jesus, John
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For nearly a year we have wrestled with the world wide pandemic, and as long as we have witnessed the struggle we have celebrated our health care community. These doctors and nurses have been on the “front lines” of dealing with the most severe cases that require hospitalization. Our health care workers have been honored in various ways and have been highlighted on newscasts with frequency. I join those who celebrate them, for it is deserved.

But there is a vocation among us that has equally labored during the pandemic who remain largely anonymous. They have worked around the clock, dealing with COVID-19 decedents and their families without attention as they go about their essential work. Who, you may ask, is this group? It is our nation’s funeral directors.

People usually don’t think of funeral directors and staff until absolutely necessary. Yet, they remain on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, bypassing weekends, holidays and paid time off because death doesn’t wear a watch, keep a calendar, or respect anyone’s plans. This is the responsibility that funeral directors signed up for. And in most cases, they serve quietly, faithfully, and for far less remuneration that one might think. For example, the average starting salary for a funeral director in my state (Iowa) is around $36,000 per year.

The pandemic has placed our funeral directors at constant risk. The burden of embalming or cremating a COVID positive case requires directors to utilize the same PPE that any hospital professional would require. Funeral directors also have to creatively help families grieve the loss of their loved one, working within the boundaries of masks, limited gatherings, and the stipulations of local churches that permit funeral services in their houses of worship. Like churches, they master live streaming to allow friends of the departed to attend services virtually. In addition, they stand alone during arrangements to provide counsel, support and understanding, compassionately listening to family members who are in the initial stages of grief.

So what can pastors, churches and church volunteers do to support this important act of service provided by our local funeral homes?

  1. Commit to cooperative service that makes the family’s needs the priority. In other words, endeavor to come alongside the funeral director to provide support for the family through the ongoing process of bereavement from the death notification, through the arrangements, during the funeral and interment, and toward the coming months of follow up. While I personally do not advocate directly participating in the arrangements, the pastor’s availability to answer funeral director’s questions about service arrangements, dates, times, music, etc. is helpful.
  2. Communicate clearly the expectations and regulations your congregation has put in place during the coronavirus pandemic, and then own them. I did a funeral this past summer where the church had established rules about wearing masks and social distancing that the pastor expected the funeral directors to enforce. That was unfair. If you have guidelines in place, communicate them to the funeral director and, at a minimum, help police the behavior of attenders.
  3. Extend hospitality to the funeral directors and their staffs. Make sure they know where restrooms are located. Inform them of your church’s customs and preferences. Let them know where the family gathers prior to the service. And perhaps, offer them a cup of coffee or a bottle of water.
  4. Treat them as the professionals they are. It takes four years of education, a year long internship and a passing grade from the state board of examination for them to be qualified to do the job. They have an incredible amount of experience and are fluent in every faith tradition in your community regardless the size. They know what they are doing, and deserve to be respected accordingly.
  5. Finally, lead your congregations to include them in their pandemic prayer lists alongside first responders and health care professionals. Their work involves incredible exposure and personal risk, and in many cases, will leave the most long lasting impression upon the family.

If you’re a pastor, I encourage you to have a conversation with one or more funeral directors in your community. Ask questions, and learn the stuff you didn’t learn in seminary. It will benefit you as you serve the people in your congregation. If you’re not a pastor, feel free to forward this along to the person who you would ask to attend to your final wishes.

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For the past several years I’ve been invited to participate in a stewardship study conducted by Brian Kluth in partnership with Christianity Today that explores stewardship trends among American churches. This year’s survey was complied from the responses of nearly 1,100 churches from all 50 states. Of the respondents, 60% represent churches of 200 or less and 18% are between 200-500 in attendance. The COVID-19 pandemic tinted this year’s results in an interesting way. Here are some of the highlights from the executive summary.

  1. Giving has stabilized or increased for most churches. 22% have seen increases while another 42% have seen stability. Still, 36% of the churches have seen a decrease in giving since the shutdowns began. These numbers correlate with the fact that during the same time period 21% of American households experienced a decrease in personal income.
  2. Another corresponding reason is the decrease in the in person worship attendance for those who have opened for public worship. 58% of the churches who have re-opened have reported less than half the attenders they had prior to coronavirus. Online worship attendance is also beginning to trend down since the onset of the pandemic.
  3. Optimism about future budget requirements is marginal. 12% of churches expect salaries and benefits for staff will be decreased. 25% believe that major projects and purchases will be delayed. 19% believe that funding for programs will decrease, and 8% anticipate that support to missions and denominational entities will be reduced.
  4. Pastors are hopeful about the viability of their congregations. 63% believe their churches will stabilize and another 46% believe their churches will become stronger and grow. However, 16% of pastors anticipate their congregations will face and struggle with difficult decisions. And, 7% believe their churches will either merge with another congregation or close. This corresponds with the data from Barna Research in mid 2020 that projected one in five churches will close in the next 18 months due to the impact of the coronavirus.

So what does this mean for church stewardship in 2021? Here are some observations and predictions I have for the future.

  1. Churches will need to maintain and continue to develop their digital footprint. The coronavirus caught a lot of churches on their heels when the shutdowns began. They did not offer an online worship experience and neither were they equipped to do online giving. Many, if not most churches, successfully mitigated this vacancy in the past nine months to an impressive degree. However, it must continue to be in place and enhanced because whether we intended or not, technology has given people permission to decrease their in person worship if they come back at all. This may necessitate a revision of staff job descriptions and the reallocation of budgeted resources.
  2. Churches cannot expect to return to February, 2020. Coronavirus has signaled a significant shift in culture both at home and abroad. In my opinion the worst thing a church could do is expect a reset and carry on as if the virus was simply a blip on the radar. We need to eliminate the phrase, “get back to normal.” Churches that desire to be both efficient and effective in the future are going to have to re-engineer programs and outreach for maximum impact. In short, the church of the future cannot continue to maintain a campus centric ministry (“y’all come!”). The church of the future will need to creatively think of possibilities and opportunities “beyond the walls.”
  3. Finally, the path forward, especially for the smaller congregations of 200 or less, will be cooperative kingdom collaboration. Churches will need to be open to sharing resources, facilities, programs and even personnel in order to provide ministry for and with their congregations. Of course many congregations have done this previously, mostly around social needs in their respective communities such as food pantries and clothing ministries. Going forward, this may extend to many of the traditional ministries (in particular children and youth) that have previously been held close to the vest.

My prayer is for you in 2021. God is not finished with his church. If there was ever a time to pray and seek God’s will for the future, it is now.

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Jan
03

The #1 Enemy of Change

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Welcome to 2021. For most of us, it couldn’t get here fast enough. This past year was tough of many. Individuals, family units, businesses and churches all faced struggles they had never before experienced. The sunrise of the New Year brings cautious optimism as we contemplate what we want and need in the upcoming weeks. Some of us will have aspirations and make resolutions, half of which will be abandoned by the end of January. Others will formalize goals, complete with action plans and deadlines for achievement. But without maintaining the rigors of daily, incremental steps toward those goals, these too will be unaccomplished.

We are generally comfortable with the idea that we are not perfect, and the largest room in the house is the room for improvement. Herein lies the challenge. I have always identified with the apostle Paul’s words in Romans 7:15-16, where he said, “I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.” Sound familiar?

The number one enemy of change, in my opinion, is ambivalence. Ambivalence sees both the reason to change and the reason not to change simultaneously. It is wanting and not wanting something at the same time, or wanting both of two incompatible things. People who are stuck in ambivalence live in the language of “yes, but.” It’s a bit like having a committee inside your head with members who argue back and forth about the proper steps forward. In short, ambivalent people “want to want to change.” I think you’ll agree, ambivalence is a pretty rotten place to be stuck.

The good news is that ambivalence is a normal process on the pathway to change. If you’re ambivalent about a change you need to make in the coming year, well, welcome to the human race. Miller and Rollnick, in their book Motivational Interviewing, offer seven steps out of the muck of ambivalence, the first of which is DESIRE. It is the language of wanting. Next is ABILITY, where one assesses their own ability of achieve the change that is desired. Next comes SPECIFIC REASONS, where a person lists all of the positive outcomes that could be possible in the change is implemented. The fourth step is NEED, where the process shifts from “I want” to “I need.” This transition affixes a sense of urgency.

Step five is COMMITMENT, which begins to signal the possibility of action toward the change. This step is most easily identified by promise making and the solicitation of accountability. Next to last is ACTIVATION, which bridges the commitment to the final step toward action. Activation uses words like “willing” or “ready.” The final step is ACTION, where the person begins to take the necessary steps toward making the change. Action could be something as simple as purchasing a FitBit all the way to checking oneself into a treatment center.

In summary, the likelihood of change is small unless the above steps are taken in order. For the apostle Paul, he recognized as much in his struggle. He carries his struggle in Romans 7 to an important question. Romans 7:24 states, “Oh, what a miserable man I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death?” Notice he didn’t write, “What will free me.” His question is “who,” and the answer is the person of Jesus Christ (7:25). He realized that he did not have the ability to accomplish the needed and necessary changes in his life without the help of a power that is greater than himself. That is the power he needed, and that is the power I need myself.

Categories : Change, New Year
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Dec
28

Welcome to Out of Ur!

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This past year has brought forward some new opportunities for me, the greatest of which is my venture into online ministry platforms. Many of you may be aware that since 2007 I have blogged at this site. For some time I took a break, but have re-committed to regular posts as I continue to work on the infrastructure of the site that had been neglected.

In addition, I’m excited to announce that beginning January 4, 2021, I will be publishing a weekly email newsletter that will have a little something for the people in the pew as well as something for those in the pulpit. You can subscribe to the Out of Ur Newsletter free of charge by emailing outofur@timdeatrick.com or through Facebook instant messenger.

Speaking of Facebook, I would like to invite you to follow the Out of Ur platforms on social media. You can find the Out of Ur Facebook page at “Out of Ur.” On Twitter you can use the handle @outofur, and on Instagram at @outofurpodcast. Please feel free to follow or like any of the social media platforms you utilize, and above all, feel free to share the news with anyone you may think might be interested.

Which brings me to the final piece of this announcement. The Out of Ur Podcast will feature a variety of topics and interviews beginning March 1. You’ll want to stay tuned for more information about the podcast and where to access it.

All Out of Ur activity will be accessible at this website. So if all else fails, you can always check in here.

I’m excited for 2021! And I’m excited to share what I’ve been doing and learning during the year of our pandemic, 2020. Until then, be blessed, and have a blessed New Year!

Categories : Out of Ur
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This past year has been unique, to say the least. One of the disruptions of 2020 was my reading patterns. I did not reach my initial reading goal, but did come across some interesting books that I found beneficial. Here’s the list.

In the field of Personal Development:
Anger Intelligence, by Mitchell Messer
It Takes What it Takes, by Trevor Moawad
The 12 Week Year, by Brian Moran
Talk Like TED, by Carmine Gallo
The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel Van Der Kolk

In the field of Pastoral Ministry and Leadership:
Pastor Paul, by Scot McKnight
Present Future, by Reggie McNeal
The Vision Driven Leader, by Michael Hyatt
What Jesus Started, by Steve Addison

For Spiritual Formation and Culture:
The Way of the Warrior, by Erwin McManus
The Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wangerin
Walking with God in Pain and Suffering, by Tim Keller
The Last Arrow, by Erwin McManus
White Fragility, by Robin DeAngelo
Genesis for Normal People, by Pete Enns

And, my 36th complete read of the Bible.

Unfortunately at the end of this month I’ll have around a dozen titles that I haven’t cracked, but I’m excited to dive into them over the holidays and into the next year. What were some of your favorite reads of 2020?

Categories : Books
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May
05

The Fourth Man, Part 2

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The three young men demonstrated a risky faith by challenging the king’s nutritional demands. Their proposal proved to everyone that they had the better diet. But in Daniel 3, their faith shifted from risky to radical as they proposed that they had a better God.

Daniel 3 is the fertile soil of children who grow up in Church. Without dramatic effect, the story is simple enough. Nebuchadnezzer created an idol and required everyone to bow before it whenever the music played. Our three young heroes refused to bow and were brough before the king. When the king questioned them, their response was bold.

“O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us. He will rescue us from your power, your Majesty. But even if he doesn’t we want to make it clear to you that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up” (Daniel 3:17-18).

Nebuchadnezzer listened to their response and had “mad respect.” He was angry, but had enough respect to have them bound by his strongest men.

As the story progresses, the King looks into the furnace and notices there is a fourth man. Let’s do the math. Three young men went into the fire, and one additional is present for a total of four.

Let me take a quick left turn. I think the fact that the story is about three men speaks to the importance of community in the midst of challenging times. How much harder would it have been for any of the three to face the king’s wrath as individuals? (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12) Which brings me to this question. Who is with you in “the fire” of trial and tribulation?

But it wasn’t just a community, it was a spiritual community. The fourth man, I believe, is a pre-incarnate appearance of none other than Jesus Christ. This phenomenon is known as a theophany. We don’t know when he went into the furnace or how long he stayed, but we do know that when Shadrach, Meschah and Abednego came out their bonds had been burned away and they didn’t even smell of smoke.

The good news of the story is that they were delievered from the fiery furnace. But I think their real deliverance came at the moment of their confession and profession of faith. Just like you, and just like me.

Categories : Faith
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May
04

The Fourth Man

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I grew up in church, where Bible stories were plentiful. There were stories of boys defeating giants and nations crossing seas on dry ground while enemies were detained by pillars of fire. Old, crusty prophets stood their ground against entitled pagan kings and were fed by ravens. These stories were formative in my concept of who God is and what He could do. Which is why I love the stories from the Book of Daniel.

Daniel begins with Israel in captivity in the land of Babylon. King Nebucanezzar was large and in charge, and looked to the Israelites to find the best of those who could enhance his world dominion. Out of his quest came four: Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These four were summonsed to begin training to be among Nebucanezzar’s elite. When they entered the corps of the elite they were introduced to a diet, which they rejected. The diet was composed of meat and wine, which people in our 21st century American culture would be standard. But the young Hebrew men were committed to their own cultural diet of vegetables, fruit and water.

Their insitence provided and opportunity to present a challenge to the Babylonians, which, as the story goes, the Hebrews famously won. After the test, their eyes were brighter and everyone looked healthier. The Babalonians conceded that the Hebrews had a beter diet.

This story represents a risky faith. We have a better way, and we’ll prove it. But the rest of the story of the Book of Daniel moves beyond a risky faith to a radical faith which claimed that the God of the Hebrews was superior to the gods of the Babalonians.

This is where we live in our culture today. Like the four Hebrew young men, modern Christians can make assertations regarding the logic of risky faith. Yes, our “diet” can be verified as better than others. But what happens when we move our competion beyond the physical realm of food and exercise to the realm of the spiritual?

Tomorrow I’ll get into the conflict between three of these yound men and the spiritual battle regarding the object of our worship. In the meantime, be well and be safe!

Categories : Faith
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What lessons are available in the cave? Let me share four for your consideration. First, when you find yourself in a cave, remember you’re in the cave with a King. Those who gathered there may not have recognized David as such in that moment, but it was true nonetheless. This reminds us that we are not alone! King Jesus is with us in the depths and darkness of the caves of life.

Second, the king understands your situation. David understood the displacement, the distress, the discontent and the grief of all of the cumulative grief and loss. I can imagine David listening to each person who arrived at Abdullam, nodding with empathy as they shared their stories. Jesus, of course, was “a man of grief, acquainted with sorrows.” Hebrews points out that he experienced what we experience while he was here on earth. We’re not only in the cave with a King, we’re in the cave with a king that understands.

The third lesson we can learn is that we don’t have to stay in the cave forever. Caves are temporary shelters, not permanent homes. David went into the cave, but eventually emerged as God led him into the next phase of his life and leadership. Don’t forget that Jesus experienced a cave for three days. On the other side of the cave is a resurrection to something new and remarkable.

Finally, caves have a purpose. They help us discover our meaning, our purpose, our calling and our mission. Sometimes those things can only be learned in the experiences of the cave. It is critical that we don’t waste our dwelling time and miss the opportunity that lies before us as we emerge. Those who joined David in the cave experienced transformation. The entered a people who were rejected by society and struggling with personal challenges. But they emerged as an army that would become renoun as David’s mighty men of valor. God has something for us on the other side if we walk by faith. Your life, like their’s can be transformed into something beautiful and beneficial.

What is God revealing to you about you in your confinement? What are the possibilities that are on the other side?

Categories : Spiritual Formation
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“So David left Gath and escaped to the cave of Abdullam.” (1 Samuel 22:1)

For many of us, these past six weeks have created a deep sense of isolation and loneliness. Social distancing is poor phrasing, because we are by nature social creatures. I prefer to call it physical distancing. Even though our physical proximities are limited, we can still have social nearness through technology. Regardless of what we call it, it is an isolation that we neither created or have chosen.

I’ve always enjoyed the story of David in the cave of Abdullam because of the multiple layers of spiritual lessons it provides. David is known for his famous victory over the giant. But thereafter the story takes an unforeseen shift. In quick succession, David lost his job, his wife, his home, his counselor, his best friend and his self respect. 1 Samuel 21 concludes with saliva running down his beard, scratching the gate of the enemy like a madman.It was his lowest moment to this point in his life. During this period he penned Psalm 142, where he laments, “no one cares for my soul.”

Desperate and on the run, David looked for a place of peace, a respite of sorts. A place to regroup and think. But in the very next verse, his family arrived. There are two mentions of his family prior to this point, and neither are positive. The first is when Samuel went to the house of Jesse to anoint one of his sons as king. Jesse did not esteem David enough to call him from the shepherd’s field to be presented. The second was prior to the battle with Goliath, where his brother Eliab criticized his presence and youthful curiosity. Let’s not think that the family’s arrival cues a system of support. By familial association, David’s family became collateral damage. Because he was on the run, they were on the run.

But wait, there’s more. Soon after more began to arrive. There were those in trouble or distress, literally “under pressure or stress.” There were also those who were in debt, followed by those who were discontent, experiencing a deep bitterness of soul due to mistreatment or injustice. That’s quite a collection of people!

I believe that David had a choice. He could have chosen to walk away, saying “who needs it? I have my own problems.” But he didn’t run away like many do instead of facing their problems. He didn’t see the burden, he saw the blessing.

Caves bring the blessing of clarity to our lives. The cave was an opportunity for David to deal with an important question: Do I really want to be king? Is this what it looks like to be a king? Look at these people! Here he learned that if he could lead anyone, he could lead everyone.

It reminds me of Jesus, whose ministry followers were similarly in distress, in debt or discontented.

So here’s today’s question. What is the great thing that God has for you that your confinement is providing clarity? Tomorrow I’ll post the rest of my thoughts and share four lessons we learn in the cave.

Categories : Spiritual Formation
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The COVID-19 pandemic has many thinking about scarcity. I can remember my dad tell stories about rationing during World War II. While we’re not there (yet), there are those I talk to who have concerns about the availability of toilet paper, disinfecting wipes, hand soap, and hand sanitizer. These conversations reminded me of what Michael Hyatt described as scarcity thinking and abundance thinking in his book, Your Best Year Ever.

Scarcity thinkers are entitled and fearful, while abundance thinkers are thankful and confident.

Scarcity thinkers believe there will never be enough, while abundance thinkers believe there’s always more where that came from.

Scarcity thinkers are stingy with their knowledge, contacts and compassion, while abundance thinkers are happy to share their knowledge, contacts and compassion with others.

Scarcity thinkers assume they are the way they are, while abundance thinkers assume they can learn, grow and develop.

Scarcity thinkers default to suspicion and aloofness, while abundance thinkers default to trust and openness.

Scarcity thinkers resent competition, believing that it makes the pie smaller and them weaker. Abundance thinkers welcome competition, believing that it makes the pie bigger and them better.

Scarcity thinkers are pessimistic about the future, believing there are tough times ahead. On the other hand, abundance thinkers are optimistic about the future, believing the best is yet to come.

Scarcity thinkers see and focus on challenges as obstacles, while abundance thinkers see challenges as opportunities.

Finally, scarcity thinkers think small and avoid risk, while abundance thinkers think big and embrace risk.

You may have seen something like this from another source. You may even have something to add to Hyatt’s list. As people of faith and children of an Almighty God who created the universe, I’m not sure we have the option to choose scarcity. Scarcity is motivated by fear. Abundance is motivated by faith in the God who has promised a more abundant and meaninful life right now (John 10:10).

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Apr
13

The Law of the Harvest

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Over the weekend I finished It Takes What it Takes, by Trevor Moawad. If you’re unfamiliar with him, he’s a mental coach who works with professional athletes and NCAA athletic programs. The quote that stood out to me from the book is as follows: “You are what you do, and you’ve become what you’ve done.” Simply put, you have to accept the responsibility for the choices that we have made, and if you don’t like what you see in your life, change your behavior(s).

That bold statement reminded me of a verse I’ve been meditating upon for the past two weeks. “Don’t be misled–you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant” (Galatians 6:7, NLT) You probably are more familiar with older translations which say, “You reap what you sow.”

Paul packed a lot in that simple verse, which is more clearly understood as The Law of the Harvest.

Law #1: You reap what you sow. Simply, if you plant corn, you can expect a harvest of corn, versus beans or wheat. Like begets like.

Law #2: You reap more than you sow. In the world of agriculture, the farmer has faith that the one seed he plants in the ground will yield exponetially more. One seed of corn may produce hundreds of kernels on multiple ears from a single stalk.

Law #3: You reap later than you sow. An experienced farmer knows that it takes many days and weeks for the seed to produce a harvest. The harvest always comes later…sometimes much later than we expect.

The Law of the Harvest reminds me that what I do today will beget something similar, sometimes much greater, somewhere in the future. This principle is neutral. You can plant good seeds of good deeds and habits that reap a greater reward in the future. A person can also plant bad seed which will obey the same principles.

Each day we have the choice before us as to what we will plant. Each seed that is sown is not an isolated act or incidence. It will produce a large return at a later time. So let’s choose wisely each day.

Apr
08

Prayer for the Week

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Father, I abandon myself into your hands.

Do with me what you will.

Whatever you may do, I thank you, I am ready for all, I accept all.

Let only your will be done in me and in all your creatures.

I wish no more than this, O Lord.

Into your hands I commend my soul.

I offer it to you with all the love of my heart, for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself, to surrender myself into your hands without reserve and with boundless confidence, for you are my Father.

Amen

–by Charles De Foucauld

Categories : Easter, Prayer
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Apr
06

Disrupting Thinking

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My wife is an elementary reading teacher, specializing in helping kids with reading comprehension, accuracy and fluency. She spends her days in small circles of children helping them improve what would arguably be the most important skill anyone could possess. Because of her dedication as a teacher she is always looking for ways to improve her craft so she can be on top of her game day in and day out. One of the resources she has shared with me is a book titled, Disrupting Thinking, by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst.

Beers and Probst teach a three-fold technique for comprehension that I think is applicable to how we read and understand the Bible. Since many of us have a little more discretionary time on our hands due to COVID-19, I want to share what I think are the most transferrable concepts from this approach to reading.

First, begin with the book, which for my purposes is the Bible. When you read a passage ask these questions: Who is speaking? Who is the passage addressed to? What is this verse or these verses about? In other words, who is saying what to whom?

Next, move to your own thinking about the text. What surprised me about the verse(s)? What does the writer think I already know? What changed, challenged, or confused my thinking? What did I notice? This is your mental interaction with what you’ve read. But don’t stop there!

The final phase is to move the passage from your head to your heart. Here are two important questions: What did I learn about me from reading the text? And, How will this help me as a person of faith grow and mature?

To me, the approach is designed to create the discipline of moving the text on a page of the Bible to a cognitive interaction which results in personal action. Good books of all genres are transformative, and the most transformative book ever composed is sacred Scripture. The Bible is more than a compliation of stories, it is life giving. But it only gives life when it intersects with your faith being lived out on a daily basis. Next time you read a passage from the Bible, take a moment, and a pen and notebook for that matter, and walk through the process I’ve outlined. See if it makes a difference.

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Apr
03

The Key to Our Strength

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One of the recurring themes of the Psalms is the question, “How long, O Lord?” That seems particularly relevant given the times we live in. But it wasn’t just the Psalmist who raised this question while enduring hardship. Its a theme that runs through the Old Testament that also serves as the context for one of the more familiar verses of Isaiah.

The setting of Isaiah 40 is a prophetic word of hope that is offered to a people who are preparing for exile and captivity. Israel’s deportation to Babylon is one of the key events for the people of God who had once been delivered from slavery in Egypt. The prophet voices the questions of the people in chapter 40:27: “O Jacob, how can you say the Lord does not see your troubles? O Israel, how can you say that God ignores your rights?” Those seem to been the questions that many people are asking today.

In the context of the setting, Isaiah reminds the people of several important truths about how to endure suffering and displacement, first of which is to remember the strength of God. God has clearly demonstrated his strength in his creation. “Look up to the heavens, Who created the stars? He brings them out like an army, one after another, not a single one is missing. Because of his great power and incomprehensible strength, not a single one is missing. Have you not heard? Have you not understood? The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding” (Isaiah 40:26, 28). One needs to look no further than outside their window to see evidence of God’s power. Its displayed throughout the universe.

The second word of encouragement that Isaiah offers is that God’s strength is transferrable. “He gives power to the weak; and strength to the powerless. Even youths will become weak and tired, and young men will fall in exhaustion” (Isaiah 40:29-30). This strength that God possesses is available and transferrable to those who seem to be in obvious need as well as those who are presumed to be strong because they are young. Everyone is succeptable to weakness and powerlessness. Everyone is eligible to receive God’s strength which is perfected in our weakness.

So here’s the key. “But those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary, They will walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31). God’s strength is not only transferrable, its a renewable resource. And that strength is renewed through the process of waiting and trusting in the Lord.

Christine Caine once said that “Patience is my capacity to tolerate delay. Its trusting that God is good, that God does good, and that he knows what he’s doing no matter how long it takes; no matter what his purpose is.” Waiting enables us to find renewal and rest, which in turn allows us to reorient ourselves to our situation and realign ourselves with God.

“How long, O Lord?” As long as it takes. But waiting time is not wasted time. During our present challenges, remember that God is at work in our world as well as in our individual lives. You have what it takes to endure!

Categories : Patience
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Throughout history, nothing has been more polarizing than suffering. Some will view human suffering as a reason to not believe in God, while others will see suffering as a reason to run directly into the arms of God. This is the time for us to say to our cities and communities, “hope is right in front of you!” The Church has had a disaster plan in place for 2,000 years — the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In that momentous act, Jesus conquered sin, death and the grave. With that said, let me share three observations for the Church.

First, the light is on. While we may not be “here” in our facilities, we’re actually everywhere! The buildings we occupy once or twice a week are not representative of our reach. Wherever we live and wherever we go we are mobilized for the cause of the Kingdom and the sake of the gospel.

Next, the Church is not in retreat. We’ve merely repositioned ourselves for ministry. If you’ve ever wondered what Jesus meant about new wineskins, this is it! We need to remember that the first building constructed for the exclusive purpose of Christian worship was not erected until A.D. 350. For the first three and one half centuries the gospel flourished without a building. I think we can do this!

Finally, we need our individual members now more than ever because our communities need us collectively. We’re better together. Lovingly meeting the needs of the members of our communities is the most relevant thing we can do. Let’s be the Church of Jesus Christ!

Categories : Church
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Lord Jesus Christ,

We are so thankful that you have said, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

We are thankful for the ease with which you walked upon this earth, the generosity and kindness you showed to people, the devotion with which you cared for those who were out of the way and in trouble, the extent to which you even loved your enemies and laid down your life for them.

We are so thankful to believe that this is a life for us, a life without lack; a life of sufficiency. It’s so clear in you, the sufficiency of your Father and the fullness of life that was poured through you, and we’re so thankful that you have promised the same love, the same life, the same joy, and the same power for us.

Lord, slip up on us today. Get past our defenses, our worries, our concerns. Gently open our souls and speak your word into them. We believe you want to do it, and we wait for you to do it now.

In your name, Amen

Categories : Prayer
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Mar
21

Words on Worry

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“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?” (Matthew 6:25)

Worry is the anxiety we feel that is fostered by uncertainty regarding the future. Jesus spoke these words in the middle of The Sermon on the Mount, giving six reasons why we are not to worry.

Do not worry because you are valuable to God! “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6:26)

Worry does not change anything! “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (Matthew 6:27)

God regularly demonstrates his faithfulness to his children! “Andy why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:28-30)

Worry produces conflict with our faith and trust in God! “So do not worry, saying ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after these things.” (Matthew 6:31-32)

God already knows your needs! “…and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.” (Matthew 6:32)

Our priority is to focus on God’s kingdom and trust his promises to care for us! “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:33-34)

Jesus offered those words nearly 2,000 years ago. And they are just as relevant today!

Be blessed today,

Pastor Tim

Categories : Worry
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Mar
13

Our Response to COVID-19

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Dear First Baptist Family and Friends,

As you know, this is the time of year when the spread of viruses represents a significant concern for many individuals and families in our community.  This year, in particular, these concerns have been increased given the rapid spread influenza, pneumonia, and COVID-19 (coronavirus).
 
Out of our responsibility as Shepherds and leaders, and particularly in support of members of our community who would be most vulnerable to these conditions, our Church Staff and Executive Board are implementing the following preventative measures to do our part to ensure as safe an environment for church members as possible:

We are encouraging everyone to please stay home if you are showing any signs of illness.  Remember that you can live stream our services at our website (www.fbcdsm.org/media) or watch them at your convenience. If you cannot attend worship, you can also make contributions online (www.fbcdsm.org/ways-to-give.aspx).

During worship we are encouraging the alternative form of greeting one another by placing your hand over your heart as a sign of Christian love. In similar manner, greeters will now wave to everyone rather than shaking hands or hugging.

We are suspending communion through the month of April. We will also suspend providing donut holes before and after worship through the month of April. Coffee will continue to be provided on Sunday morning by servers.

Any food, including Wednesday night dinners, will be plated and served individually by people wearing food service gloves.

Those who have volunteered to make hospital visits will suspend their ministry. The Pastoral Staff will continue to provide pastoral care to those who are admitted to the hospital as permitted.

Frequent hand washing with soap and water is encouraged! Hand sanitizer is available in each class room as well as in the Narthex.

Please make sure to cough or sneeze into your elbow, turning away from others as much as possible. Kleenex tissues are available throughout the building.

In addition to our regular cleaning, we will be regularly cleaning and disinfecting all doorknobs, handles, and frequently used surfaces at the Church.

Parents: please remember that we always regularly wipe down all toys in the nursery.

We appreciate your willingness to work together to promote the health and well-being of our entire community.  We will continue to monitor the latest recommendations from governmental agencies and hope that these measures will soon be unnecessary. You can find the latest information at The Iowa Department of Public Health website (www.idph.iowa.gov) or the National Center for Disease Control website (www.cdc.gov).

To that end, let us be faithful and vigilant in our prayer for those nations, communities, families and individuals most affected by this outbreak, and for the medical personnel and government officials seeking to respond. Finally, let us show respect to those who are deeply concerned about these viruses and resist any temptation to invalidate their concerns or personal precautions.
 
God’s blessings to you all,      
The Church Staff and Executive Board of First Baptist Church
Categories : Uncategorized
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“The Kingdom of God deals not only with the immortal soul of mortals, but with their bodies, their nourishment, their homes, their cleanliness, and it makes those who serve these fundamental needs of life veritable ministers of God. Are they not serving the common good? Are they not working sacramental miracles by cooperating with that mysterious power which satisfies the want of every living thing by making the grain and tree to grow? If they do their job well, that job itself is their chief ministry to others and part of their worship to God. Whenever they strive to increase their serviceableness to humanity, they make another advance toward the Kingdom of God.”

“We praise thee, O God, for our friends, the doctors and nurses who seek the healing of our bodies. We bless thee for their gentleness and patience, for their knowledge and skill. Make thou our doctors the prophets and soldiers of thy kingdom, which is the reign of cleanliness and self-restraint and the dominion of health and joyous life. Strengthen in their whole profession the consciousness that their calling is holy and they they, too, are disciples of the saving Christ. Amen.” — Walter Rauschenbusch, as quoted by Dennis L. Johnson, To Live in God.

Categories : Prayer
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From his abundance we have all received one gracious blessing after another” (John 1:16, NLT)

Thanksgiving is a wonderful opportunity for us to consider the blessings of God that we might ordinarily overlook. When given the opportunity to take inventory, we quickly realize that we are amazed at how much we have received from God, so much in fact, that it makes our burdens and challenges pale in comparison.

In his epic introduction, the Apostle John presents his theology of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. This year, the sixteenth verse became the basis of last week’s sermon. The word picture that John offers is one of waves that come crashing into the seashore. If you’ve been to the ocean, you know that ocean waves come continuously without pause. They don’t stop. Ever. And that image is how John wants us to think of the gracious blessings of God.

These continuous blessings contain invitations for us to respond. Each blessing is an opportunity for us to acknowledge and respond to God with praise, thanksgiving, and love. The key is how we respond. In the narrative of our Lord, we see three responses to his blessings.

Some are receptive, such as the woman in Mark 14:1-9, who anointed Jesus prior to his crucifixion by breaking an alabaster jar of expensive perfume. The text reports that it was a magnanimous offering worth one year’s wages. While there is some debate regarding the identity of the woman, it appears clear that she had experienced forgiveness for what many may have considered unforgivable. She responded to Jesus grace with confession and contrition which resulted in transformation. Grace changes lives.

Others, on the other hand, are resistant. Three of the four gospels record a story of a wealthy young man who approached Jesus one day inquiring what must be done to receive eternal life. Jesus, in response to the “rich young ruler” cited commandments 5-10. The young man said, “check! What remains?” Jesus said that he needed to sell everything and follow him. The young man, torn between two interests, went away sorrowful. The idolatrous grip of money was overwhelming. It is apparent that he wanted to add Jesus to his divided heart. Grace doesn’t work that way. So he walked.

While some are receptive and others are resistant, there is a third type — those who actually resent grace. John 6 is devoted to the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. Free bread and fish was more than enough reason for Jesus’ audience to drop everything to “follow” him. Jesus recognized their shallow pursuits, stopped, and said, “Unless you eat my bread and drink my blood, you cannot be my disciple.” They were offended by Jesus’ words and followed him no more. They were interested in bread, but not the bread of life.

God’s waves of grace, the bread of life, is what we’re offered. And its beneficial. But we have to respond. May we continue to be receptive to the waves of God’s grace, and allow him to continue his work of transformation in our lives!

Categories : Thanksgiving
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Oct
02

Your Table is Ready

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I like to try new restaurants, but I’m challenged with a problem you may find relatable. I have chronic order envy. If you’re not familiar with order envy, its basically evaluating my order against the orders made by others in my dinner party and comparing mine to theirs. It seems that I usually wish I had ordered what someone else ordered.

Psalm 23:4 makes a shift in location. The Psalmist transitions from being out of doors…green pastures…still waters…a valley of shadows…to indoors. In Bible times, people only ate with trusted friends and family. The table was reserved for the closest, most trusted relationships. But in Psalm 23, this table is set in the presence of enemies. It sounds strange to us, but it was even more strange to David’s original audience.

But King David was not the only one who experienced this phenomenon. Hundreds of years later, Jesus found himself in a similar position at the last supper. John 13:1ff tells the story of Jesus inviting the disciples to “table” to observe the Passover in preparation for the crucifixion that would happen the following day. Who are his guests?

One of the guests was Peter, who denied him later that night. Another was Judas Iscariot who had already planned the insidious act of betrayal of Christ.

Yet Jesus was resolved to behave with radical inclusivity as a means of introducing the Kingdom of God. He humbly served those at the table, Peter and Judas included, by washing their feet. He behaved with a redemptive spirit as he offered Judas the “sop” as an act of honor and an invitation to friendship. Then he relinquished control as he watched Judas exit the dinner to carry out his plan.

Paul does not directly cite this event in Romans 12:17-21, but I think it must have been on his mind. He counseled the Roman readers to do the right thing by overcoming evil with good and then leave their enemies in hands of God. The behavior of those who wish me harm is not my problem. The behavior of those who attempt to do wrong does not make me exempt from doing the right thing. That’s hard, but Jesus did it. And he expects me to do the same.

Categories : Fear
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Sep
26

Block and Tackle

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Football season is in full swing. For many, its the most wonderful time of the year. I remember when my son started playing tackle football. One of the key components of practice was The Oklahoma Drill. Football fans and former players alike know the Oklahoma Drill as a measurement of strength on strength. Two players are lined up across from each other like gladiators and compete against each other. The drill reinforces the fundamentals of the game of football. Blocking and tackling. As the television analysts like to say, “the game is won or lost in the trenches.”

Old Testament shepherds were also concerned with the basic fundamentals of caring for the sheep. Psalm 23:4 reminds us that “Your and and your staff protect and comfort me.” Shepherds were equipped with these two devices. The rod was a short stick that may have resembled a billy club. Legend has it that young shepherds had to cut a sapling and then carve their own rod, making it a custom piece that fit his hand. The rod could be used to club an animal that threatened the sheep. It could also be thrown with deadly accuracy. The purpose of the rod was for protection.

The other piece of equipment was the staff. We have envisioned the staff as a long stick with a crook at the top. The staff was used by the shepherd to guide the sheep and keep them on the proper course. The purpose of the staff, therefore, was to provide guidance.

Looking at Psalm 23:4 as a unit of thought, we learn that God’s presence, protection and guidance all go together. The protection and guidance of God is based on relationship more that responsibility. Meaning, the closer we draw to God, the more we experience his presence. And the God who is present in our lives is armed and equipped to guide us brings comfort to our souls in the midst of all fears.

Categories : Fear
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Sep
23

Reframing the Narrative

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Paul not only found joy in his relationships, Philippians 1:20-30 also informs us that Paul was able to find joy through the acceptance of his circumstances. He was in prison. He wasn’t in denial of this adversity. Rather, he chose to reframe the physical realm into the spiritual realm. How did he do that, and what can we learn?

The first thing Paul offered was a humble view of reality. (Philippians 1:19-20) He maintained confidence that he would be delivered, although he was not certain what form that deliverance would take. Would deliverance mean that he would be released from prison? Or would he be executed? He acknowledged the reality of death, and his only desire was that if execution was in his future that he would not recant his faith.

Second, Paul possessed a clear priority. (Philippians 1:21) He never lost sight of Christ as his ultimate goal and priority in living. The word “gain is a financial term, meaning dividend. He understood that whatever happened to him, his investment would pay a rich reward!

Next, Paul’s attitude was positive. He was able to view his challenge as a “win-win.” (Philippians 1:22-26) The word “desire” is used 31 times in the New Testament and is usually associated with strong, sexual lust. Paul’s positive outlook saw the benefits of heaven, and on the other hand the benefit of others faith and growth should he be released. Interestingly enough, he’s good either way.

Finally, Paul maintained a healthy self identity. (Philippians 1:27-30) He could have worn the label “inmate,” but instead chose a healthy self identity. He was and continued to be a child of God, and would never accept anything less. He was not focused on who he was, but on whose he was.

What is the narrative you’ve chosen about your adversity? Like Paul, let joy reframe the narrative until the unseen becomes as clear as what is seen.

Categories : Joy
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Sep
22

Live Stream @ FBCDSM

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For the past year, the Tech Team at First Baptist Church has been working to develop a live video stream of our Sunday Morning Worship services. Through the dedicated work of these talented members, we are up and running!

The full worship service streams live each week beginning at 10:00 am. Following the live stream, the sermon videos are archived on our website to allow people to watch them at their convenience. The production quality is in high definition, making the viewing experience comfortable and enjoyable.

We made this investment for several reasons. First, we wanted our services to be accessible to people who cannot be present with us in person. From people who are traveling to those who are home bound, we have discovered that the live stream provides the viewer with a sense of community, albeit virtual. Another reason we made this step was to provide people who are exploring faith or looking for a church home a safe and anonymous experience prior to taking the step to worship with us in person. Finally, we wanted to provide support to small communities of faith that are either without a pastor or who can no longer afford a pastor. As we move forward, I’m sure there will be many other reasons that we’ll discover.

I’d like to invite you to check it out. You can find the live stream, the archived video, and yes, even the archived audio only sermons at www.fbcdsm.org/media. There you will find the links and clear instructions on how to engage.

My prayer is that God will use our new ministry for his Glory. And, we’re thankful to Him for the technology that makes it possible!

Categories : Sermons, Worship
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This was the August 29 daily reading from A Year With C.S. Lewis. It was originally published in his book The Weight of Glory.

“I find that when I think I am asking God to forgive me I am often in reality (unless I watch my self very carefully) asking Him to do something quite different. I am asking Him not to forgive me but to excuse me. But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing. Forgiveness says, ‘Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology; I will never hold it against you and everything between us two will be exactly as it was before.’ But excusing says, ‘I see that you couldn’t help it or didn’t mean it; you weren’t really to blame.’ If one was not really to blame then there is nothing to forgive. In that sense forgiveness and excusing are almost opposites. Of course, in dozens of cases, either between God and man, or between one man and another, there may be a mixture of the two. Part of what seemed at first to be the sins turns out to be nobody’s fault and is excused; the bit that is left over is forgiven.

But the trouble is that what we call ‘asking forgiveness’ very often really consists in asking God to accept our excuses.

What leads us into this mistake is the fact that there usually is some amount of excuse, some extenuating circumstances. We are so very anxious to point those out to God (and to ourselves) that we are apt to forget the really important thing; that is, the bit left over, the bit which the excuses don’t cover, the bit which is inexcusable but not, thank God, unforgivable. And if we forget this, we shall go away imagining that we have repented and been forgiven when all that has really happened is that we have satisfied ourselves with our own excuses. They may be very bad excuses; we are all too easily satisfied about ourselves.”

Categories : Forgiveness
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Aug
29

Present Tense

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Like some children, I grew up afraid of the dark. My strong, depression era dad could not justify the electricity expense for a nightlight, so I was left to sort it out on my own. My mother did help by offering these comforting words: There’s nothing there in the dark that isn’t there in the light. Believe it or not, that calmed my overactive imagination.

Fear establishes the limits of our lives. If you’re afraid of heights, you stay low. If you’re afraid of water, you stay dry. If you’re afraid of the dark, you stay near the light.

Psalm 23:4 describes evil through the imagery of a valley of dark shadows. Darkness is often a metaphor for darkness in Scripture. For example, at the crucifixion the sky became dark during the middle of the day for “a space of about three hours.” Paul said that evil people prefer darkness to light because light exposes their evil deeds. The good news is that Revelation reports that the lights are always on in heaven!

Back to Psalm 23:4. Even though we walk through the valley of dark shadows, we fear no evil. That reminds me that in those moments I am to be tenacious, not tentative. Evil is not diminished. It is real. It exists. God never promised that evil would never touch my life. He does promise that I don’t have to face it alone. I am not powerless in the face of evil, for God is with me. Even when all other companions must turn back, God is there.

My response to evil, therefore, is to not allow it to rule my life with fear. I am to be ruled by faith. I don’t have to be brave and courageous. I have to trust that God is bigger that whatever I’m facing. So what happens when my life is ruled by fear instead of faith?

Numbers 13-14 tells the story of the children of Israel at Kadesh Barnea. Having traveled some 200 miles from Egypt, spies were sent into the land of promise on a recon mission for 40 days. They came back with “an evil report,” meaning that while they could confirm the land was bountiful, there was no way the people of the land could be conquered. Discord set in and the people rebelled in spite of Caleb and Joshua’s protests. Imagine how they allowed fear to overrule their faith one mile from the promised land, especially in light of the deliverances they had experienced–everything from the plagues to the parting of the Red Sea!

Which brings me to this question. What will it take for you to trust that God is with you? What does God have to do to prove himself once again that he’s faithful? This is when we have to learn to preach the gospel to ourselves. God understands the pain of evil, which is why Jesus came to earth and went to the cross. But on the other side of that cross stands a garden of resurrection. That’s the gospel! Preach it to yourself!

Categories : Evil, Fear
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Aug
17

On Liturgical Worship

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This was in today’s reading from The Book of Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.

When a song isn’t working for you (during worship), consider praising God, because that probably means it is working for someone else who is very different from you. Offer your worship as a sacrifice rather than requiring others to sacrifice for your pleasure or contentment. There is something to the notion of becoming one as God is one; it doesn’t mean we are all the same; it just means that we are united by one Spirit. After all, we can only become one if there are many of us to begin with.

Liturgy puts a brake on narcissism. Certainly, there is something beautiful about contemporary worship, where we can take old things things and add a little spice them, like singing hymns to rock tunes or reciting creeds as spoken word rhymes. But liturgy protects us from simply making worship into a self pleasing act. So if a song or prayer doesn’t quite work for you, be thankful that it is probably really resonating with someone who is different from you, and offer a sacrifice of praise (Hebrews 13:15).

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Aug
12

Know Fear

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What fears lurk in your heart? Crime? Racial tension? Terrorism? The political landscape? The economy? Failure? Disappointing others? Insignificance? Loneliness? Change? Missed opportunities? Aging? Illness? Dying?

Fear is a difficult thing to admit. Often we will use euphemisms like being stressed out or overwhelmed to avoid this confession. Regardless of what you call it, its real, and its presence is making itself known in American culture like never before.

The primary Greek word for fear is phobos, as in phobia. It is considered a neutral word, meaning that our understanding is based on the context of usage. On one hand it can mean cowardice, and on the other it can describe a truly religious person.

It was used in three ways in classical Greek. First, it could convey the idea of running away from danger. Second, it could refer to the opposite of courage as one seeks to avoid danger. Finally, it could describe the awe or reverence one possesses for an exalted ruler or person who is infinitely superior. In all, the word is used some 47 times in the New Testament, and generally speaks of fear in a positive sense as in the “fear of the Lord,” or as a description our appropriate response to evil.

It goes without saying that fear is part of our neurological hardwiring. It can produce a necessary and helpful signal that we need when facing danger. With almost no conscious help from us, fear tries to keep us safe. Gavin de Becker even calls fear, “a brilliant internal guardian.” At the level of intuition, fear is a gift that can potentially save our lives.

Unfortunately, much of our fear is manufactured. Motivational speaker Zig Ziglar used to call fear, “False Evidence Appearing Real.” Like an illusionist, fear leads us to believe things that are not real. We see the magician saw the assistant in half, knowing full well its a trick, but at the same time wanting to believe what we have seen that cannot be explained.

I like what Paul wrote to Timothy about fear. He boldly said, “God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7, NLT). Its interesting that Paul does not use the word phobos, but instead uses a stronger word — deilos. This word is always used in the negative sense, and refers to a deep cowardice that one has. Paul wanted Timothy, and us for that matter, to know that this kind of fear does not come from God. Did you notice that the word “spirit” is in lower case? So as we experience life we have to make a choice about which spirit is going to govern our thoughts and feelings. If my spirit is in control, I’m going to be vulnerable to all manner of fear. But if God’s Spirit is in control, I have the resources needed to prevent me from becoming paralyzed by something that may or may not happen. Power, love and self-discipline are resources available to me only through God’s Spirit.

In his book Unafraid, Pastor Adam Hamilton used an acronym of his own to help us navigate the fears that plague us. Check it out:

Face your fears with faith.

Examine your assumptions in light of the facts.

Attack your anxieties with action.

Release your cares to God.

There’s a lot of unpacking there that I could do, but I’ll let the four principles speak for themselves. The point is that God has already provided the resources you need to live unafraid.

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Aug
07

Joy Through Acceptance

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Viktor Frankl knew the reality of suffering and deprivation as a prisoner of war in World War 2. His experience in Nazi prison camps enabled him to see life at its worst. Some individuals survived the horrors of those camps, while many did not. Frankl wanted to know why. After studying his fellow prisoners, Frankl concluded, “Everything can be taken from men but one thing…the last of all human freedoms…the ability to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

In the first century, there were very few buildings dedicated solely to the purpose of incarceration. Often, prison cells were a part of a larger building that was used for other purposes. The most unpleasant of these would have a limited number of cells below ground, with a central cell used for the most dangerous prisoners. Dangerous criminals would have been whipped and then locked in stocks in the inner most cell. In other instances, people could be placed under house arrest, where a guard would be posted in regular living quarters. During his ministry, Paul experienced both extremes of Roman imprisonment. Imprisonment was not a punishment for a crimes. A person was only imprisoned to be held while awaiting trial.

Even in this circumstance, Paul could see the good contained within his adversity. In Philippians 1:12-14, he wrote, “that everything that has happened to me here has helped to spread the good news. For everyone here, including the whole palace guard, knows that I am in chains because of Christ.” Paul maintained that his imprisonment is to Christ, not Rome. He was jailed for proclaiming an illegal religion that contradicted Ceasar’s insistence of lordship. The palace guard was an elite company of soldiers comprised of 10,000 men. They were the emperor’s special task force that was highly trained. In all likelihood, Paul was chained to one of those guards, wrist to wrist, 24 hours a day. He was the positive in his adversity because he seized the opportunity to advance (literally, “cut through”) the gospel.

Not only did Paul have a unique opportunity to share the gospel with influential men, his attitude was contagious, as other believers became emboldened. Like King David, we see that giant killers raise up giant killers.

Paul was not only able to see the good in his circumstance, he could celebrate the good within his circumstance. He wrote, “so I rejoice, and I will continue to rejoice.” (Philippians 1:18) Paul had a big picture focus. He didn’t allow the imperfections of others to cause him to lose his joy.

Finally, Paul remained hopeful within his adversity. In verse 19, he wrote, “For I know that as you pray for me and the Spirit of Christ helps me, this will lead to my deliverance.” He knew that there was something good on the other side of his imprisonment. That good could be his release from prison. But because of his faith, the good could also mean that if he was not released from jail he would be released to life eternal in heaven.

Like Paul, we need to remember the life of Jesus. On the other side of the cross lies a garden of resurrection. That truth does not just apply to Jesus and Paul. That truth is our reality as well.

Categories : Joy
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Aug
05

Joy in Connections

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I never get tired of seeing those television news clips or viral videos of deployed soldiers returning home to surprise their families. These gotcha moments occur anywhere from school classrooms to professional sports stadiums. Those stories make me happy, and always bring a smile to my face. But what if it was my son or daughter returning home? That’s one difference between happiness and joy…a connection.

The Book of Philippians is, in part, an epistle that is about joy. In Paul’s letter we find several ways that he experienced and expressed joy. The first eleven verses of chapter one describes his joy in the relationships he had formed with the people of that faith community.

For Paul, the foundation of all connected relationships began with his relationship with Christ. Christ influenced all of his relationships regardless of their roles or functions. Because of his relationship with Christ, Paul had deep gratitude for these men and women. They were not burdens–they were blessings, and expressed that gratitude in the language of prayer.

Paul’s use of the word fellowship in this passage is not a reference to Sunday-after-church-potlucks. True Christian fellowship (koinonia) happens when people partner together for a common cause. So these relationships fostered shared mission and ministry among the people

Not only was Paul thankful, his heart was filled with love. In addition to sharing the common bond of mission and ministry, they share the common bond of adversity. They did not recoil from Paul’s challenges to live lives of service.

Beyond their fellowship and shared adversity, Paul was also able to celebrate their authenticity. As they grew together in the Lord while in the midst of obstacles, their character became more and more sincere.

These three characteristics of connected relationships–a common cause, a common adversity, and sincerity in the face of struggle, produced fruitfulness in their lives. God was working in this congregation so that he could work through this congregation. This truth brought great joy to Paul.

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Jul
25

Discovering Joy

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“Joy is the serious business of heaven.” — C.S. Lewis

I find the concept of joy to be elusive. Not just for me, but for people in our Christian communities. Part of the reason is that we have made joy synonymous with happiness. While that comparison may work in secular culture, it does not work in Scripture. Happiness, which is rooted in “happenings,” is based on external factors and forces. For example, if someone gives me a gift, I become happy. But that happiness is fleeting, not unlike the child on Christmas morning that soon turns his attention from the new toy to the box that packaged it.

Joy is internal. And because it is internal, it is insulated from external factors and forces that rage against one’s life. Jesus was a man of complete and continuous joy, and maintained that joy despite a wide variety of disappointments and frustrations.

So how do we comprehend joy? I liken joy to the tree described in Psalm 1:1-2: “Oh, the joys of those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or stand around with sinners, or join in with mockers. But they delight in the law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night. They are like trees planted along the riverbank, bearing fruit each season. Their leaves never wither, and they prosper in all they do.”

If joy is likened to a tree, that tree is rooted in righteousness. It is planted with intent by God’s design and desire. Its not an accident. It’s fertile, meaning it has the possibility to reach its potential. And it’s designed to bear fruit.

The tree is designed to withstand all seasons of life. There are season of growth, fruit bearing, rest and lament. Each season is necessary to the process of joy. Think about what a 200 year old oak tree has withstood. It stands, having weathered all kinds of challenges. While the tree is weathered, it does not wither. Leaves fall from the tree in autumn, but leaves that wither are a sign of death.

Like those massive trees, you have been designed to prosper, meaning that you have the potential to thrive and increase your capacity. Every new tree will strive to survive. But in time, the tree begins to thrive. As the tree thrives they develop the capacity to prevail. And the capacity to prevail when the pressures of life come allow us to anticipate and even expect those pressures and face them victoriously.

Don’t let your demand and entitlement for happiness diminish your pursuit of joy. Joy is within your reach. You just need to grow your root system deeper.

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