Archive for May, 2010


Rediscover Your Spiritual Roots

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Your life is rooted in story and those stories have shaped you to become the person you are today. Your life is surrounded by images that remind you of those stories. A birth certificate. A T-ball trophy. A tassle. A wedding ring. A scar. But our story does not begin with our birth and delivery into this world. It goes back to our parents story of origin. How they met, married, and lived influences your story as well. Of course, your parents story was shaped by their parents and so forth for generation upon generation.

The same principle is true of your spiritual life. Your story is not a story of faith in isolation. People from generations past worked and labored in faith, shaped by the breezes of the Spirit of God. Their stories of faith have led you to become a person of faith. Just as you have physical roots that run deep and long, you have spiritual roots that date back to the first century.
For the next 90 days I’m asking you to join me in a special challenge to read through the entire New Testament. The purpose is not so you can say you have accomplished a goal, though that’s never bad. The purpose is to help you rediscover your spiritual roots. The story of Jesus, the apostles, and the early church is your spiritual lineage. I hope you’ll find a readable translation and commit to 15 minutes per day. It could change your life. And who knows…your story may become part of an ongoing legacy that overlaps the story of one who has yet to experience the wonderful grace of Jesus! To learn more about this, visit There you will find many helpful resources to guide you through this experience. Enjoy!
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Characteristics of Compassion

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In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus taught his disciples about his return and the subsequent judgment to follow. In the previous section, Jesus had given the parable of the talents, in which the disciples were challenged to remember that at the return of Christ people will be judged for their faithful obedience and how they have used what we’ve been given.

A lot of ink has been spilled on the passage about the sheep and the goats. Admittedly, it is a difficult passage, containing many Semitisms and cultural distinctives. However, at face value the text seems to boil down to this simple point: we will be judged according to the compassion we show to those in need.

Last night I taught from this passage, and offered three simple characteristics of compassion. First, compassion is mercy in action. It’s not a feeling or an emotion, such as sympathy or empathy. It’s tangibly acting on a need. The word compassion simply means “to suffer with.” So to show compassion is to walk along side those who suffer and to enter their experience of suffering. (Matthew 25:35-36)

A second characteristic of compassion is that compassion takes the initiative. It is intentional. It’s not passive or reactive. It is responsive. In the passage of concern, Jesus commended those who offered him food, water, shelter, clothing, hospitality, medical care and visitiation. Those who were commended answered blankly, “When did we see you…?” I think it’s fascinating that those who were commended for serving Jesus did not necessarily see the face of Jesus in the faces of those they served. But they did it anyway, and were rewarded accordingly. (Matthew 25:37-39) Their compassion was unconditional, as if to suggest that not everyone has the purest of motives in showing mercy.

A final characteristic I would offer is that compassion puts one in close proximity with those in need. Jesus said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40, HCSB). Jesus calls those who suffer his brothers and sisters. He holds the suffering close to his heart as he would his own family. Only when we are willing to enter the world of the suffering and dwell in close proximity will we really begin to make an impact. The thing about being the incarnational presence of Christ in the world is that you have to be present. You have to enter their world, serve their needs, and listen to their stories. And story is the power that unlocks the heart.


The 90 Day New Testament Challenge

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June 1st I’m challenging our congregation to take on the 90 Day New Testament Challenge. This is largely due to our need to reconnect with our spiritual roots as the people of God. The challenge will require a person to read roughly three chapters per day, but I believe that it is an investment well worth the while.

In order to support our members participation, we have developed a website. Find, and check out some of the simple features, such as an online Bible. We’ve also made available an online reading plan as well as a place where you can subscribe to a daily text message that will remind you of each day’s reading assignment. We have also made the site interactive, in that you can go online and post comments or reflections from your reading.

I’m really looking forward to what God is going to do through our corporate reading of Scripture!

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Binding and Loosing

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Last weekend I preached a passage that I have preached as frequently as any I have preached in my ministry, Matthew 16:13-19. It is very familiar, and my guess is that anyone who has attended church for any length of time at all has heard a sermon from this text.

The great thing about the passage is that it is unusually rich in language and word play, giving the preacher multiple exegetical options and angles. One that I discovered in my study last week, thanks to Ben Witherington III, is the Semitism found in verse 19. The verse reads as follows,

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19, HCSB).

Typically, this is taken as Jesus’ authorization to declare his word of forgiveness to those who repent and enter into the Kingdom of God. In other words, when someone responds to the grace of Christ, we can authoritatively declare them as members of God’s kingdom, and if someone rejects the grace of Christ, we can declare them as outside of the Kingdom. That alone is pretty heady stuff. That’s the common take.

Witherington broadens this a bit, citing for his case the Semitism of “binding and loosing.” This would have been in reference to the Rabbinical teachers of the first century, who were viewed as having authority to bind law and loose law upon adherents to Judaism. If one broadens the length of the view, “binding and loosing” can extend beyond merely the ability to pronounce grace and forgiveness.

What I did with this, ultimately, was to juxtapose the Semitism over and against Jesus’ declaration that he “will build his Church,” and that it would prevail against ultimate evil, specifically death, the grave, and hell. One can take Jesus’ words and be confidently optimistic about the future impact of the church.

The limitation is in our willingness to bind and loose, or in more contemporary language, forbid and permit. Jesus set forth his plan and promise, unveiling the redemptive mission of the church. However, it would seem that heaven itself will not override our own disobedience to the mission, and the obstacles we place in the path of the mission, not least of which is our fallen insistence that the people who come into church must become like those in the church.

So I concluded by asking rhetorically, “What are you binding? What are you loosing? What are you forbidding? What are you permitting?” Anyone with access to Google can quickly discern that the state of the church in America is not trending positively. Mainline denominations and conservative evangelical denominations alike are routinely reporting declining numbers. If you take out the anomaly of the big box mega-churches, those numbers are even more grave.

How can that be, given Jesus’ optimistic outlook? Is the problem heaven? Shall we continue to blame the culture and the communities we serve? Or do we need to look in the mirror, and ask ourselves what we are “binding and loosing?”

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How Much is Enough? (Part 3)

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In Richard Foster’s book, Celebration of Discipline, the author offers 10 Principles for Fleshing out Simplicity for today. They are listed as follows:

1. Buy things for their usefulness, not their status.
2. Reject anything that produces control (obsessions, addictions) over your life.
3. Develop the habit of giving things away.
4. Be skeptical of the promise of gadgets.
5. Learn to enjoy things without having to own them.
6. Develop a deeper appreciation for your creation.
7. Refuse debt, no matter how tempting the payment plan or interest rate may be.
8. Obey Jesus instruction about plain, honest speech.
9. Reject anything that breeds the oppression of others.
10. Shun anything that distracts you from Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 6:33.

Remember, internal realities are not real unless they have an external expression, and to exercise external expressions without an internal center produces legalism.


Simple Life

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One of the resources I used for the weekend series I recently concluded was Simple Life by Thom and Art Rainer. Simple Life is a companion piece to the book Simple Church, utilizing the same concepts except focusing them on one’s personal life.

Based on a research sample of 1,077 people, team Rainer conducted surveys and personal interviews to identify the struggles and concerns of our fellow Americans. The resulting research became the outline of the book addressing our lack of margin in four key areas of life: enough time to get everything done, finding balance in relationships, having enough money, and connecting with God.

The authors applied the same steps to help create simplicity in life that they applied to help create simplicity in the local church. These steps are described as ways to help create margin and space in our fast and cluttered lives. Step one is to establish clarity, which is to say that you have a plan and that the plan clearly states where you want to go. Step two is movement, which is the intentional step by step process that one takes to move forward down the desired path. Step three is alignment, which is the (sometimes) painful elimination of things both bad and good that will help one focus on the best. Finally, step four is focus, which is the diligence to say no to the good so that you can say yes to the best.

Simple Life is very practical. Though it is written by Christians for a Christian audience, it is not overtly theological. For those looking for some basic steps to bring order into the chaos that is their lives, the book will be valuable. For those looking for more of a theological foundation as to how to live life as God intended, they may want to look at Richard Foster’s Freedom of Simplicity.

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How Much is Enough? (part 2)

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Jesus devoted much of the Sermon on the Mount to a discussion about wealth and riches.
Matthew 6:19-33. In this lengthy text, Jesus advocated favoring heavenly treasures over earthly treasures. He gives three supporting reasons for his argument.
1. The world is an uncertain place (Matthew 6:19-20). Stuff will deteriorate, if it is not stolen by thieves first.
2. Whatever we fix as our treasure will obsess our entire life (Matthew 6:21). Your life will orbit your treasure.
3. Provision for our needs has already been made (Matthew 6:25-32). While we work and are encouraged to work, our work is performed in trust, not in anxious concern.

So how did we end up in so much trouble?

First, I believe we have become consumed by consumerism. Overconsumption results when we desire something beyond our reach. We reach because we feel incomplete. In order to complete the void in our lives we reach for “plastic saviors” that will help us create the image and identity that we want but is not real.

Second, we have failed to understand the biblical teaching of stewardship. The first step in understanding stewardship is to acknowledge God’s ownership of all things. We are not owners, we are managers of the gifts and blessings that God has entrusted to us to serve the world.

Third, we have failed to seek first the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33). It has been said that purity of heart is to will one thing. But because we lack a divine center our need for security has led us to an insane attachment to things. If we do not seek the kingdom of God first we will not seek it at all. Seeking the kingdom first produces three core attitudes about wealth and riches: (1) What I have is a gift from God; (2) What I have is cared for by God; and (3) What I have is available to others.

No matter what our earthly treasures may be, we have to be careful about holding them too tightly because they will weigh us down and then let us down. Jesus challenge to us is to prefer eternal treasure that lasts forever.
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Last week I spent two days onsite at Crow Creek Reservation in Ft. Thompson, South Dakota, with four members of our congregation. It was about the 12th time I’ve been there in the last three years. Our congregation has worked very hard to make a difference in this community, named the poorest county in America in the 2000 U.S. Census.

One of the great things about the 21st century is that missions and mission opportunities have been moved to the bottom shelf within reach of everyone. When I was a kid, mission work was outsourced to professionals who were trained and sent to do the work. Missionaries were the special forces of the Kingdom of God, conducting guerrilla warfare in Jesus’ name both home and abroad. Meanwhile back at the local church we were asked to pray, give, and watch slide show presentations from the professionals who had furloughed home for a brief time of “R and R” before heading back to the front lines.

But today, anyone can go on a mission trip. And anyone can plan and lead a mission trip. This is very cool! However, there are some things that I’d like to pass along as words of advice to those of you who may be headed out with a church group this summer.

1. Make the trip about them, not about you.
One of the things we heard repeatedly from our friends in South Dakota was that church groups conveyed the feeling that they had come to the reservation to do a week’s worth of work so they could return home and feel good about themselves, as though to appease their own conscience. If you want to make an impact, it has to be about the people you serve. It can never be about you or your group.

2. Do what they need, not what you think they need.
Sometimes mission trips are birthed out of a desire to use one’s gifts or talents for the good of others. This is not necessarily bad, but if your gifts and talents are not what is needed at a particular venue, you may want to either change venues or adjust your approach. I highly recommend pre-trip visits to see the community and to inquire about what they actually need to have done. Listen carefully, then follow through.

3. Spare no expense.
One of our early trips to Crow Creek revealed the need for school clothes. However, the locals were a bit skeptical about our enthusiasm to bring clothes. The reason? All kinds of churches had trucked up clothes that were old, worn, soiled, and damaged. So we heard that comment and returned home and conducted a clothing drive which provided one outfit (shirt and pants), one pair of shoes, undergarments, and a winter coat for every elementary aged child in the school. All brand new. There’s a difference between meeting a need and cleaning out a closet. One serves a community. The other serves self.

4. Finish the job.
At the top of this post is a picture of an Episcopal Church in Ft. Thompson. Years ago a church mission group came to the reservation and decided to paint the church. When time ran out at the end of the week, the group loaded up and left. They had painted the entire church with the exception of the steeple. The blue steeple of this simple house of faith stands as a symbolic reminder to us each time we visit of the importance of finishing the job.

5. Make sure to return.
The power of mission work is not in the work. It’s in the relationships that are forged through returning time and time again. Our church has chosen to focus on developing lasting and meaningful relationships. One person in our church has been 20 times in the past three years. To him, the people of Crow Creek are friends. Granted, choosing to focus your trips to one venue may not enable your church to see several parts of the country. But you will make a greater impact on the lives of people because you’ve cared enough to actually get to know them.

I hope that you’ll discover the value of doing “hands on” missions. If you’ll follow these simple words of advice, you will touch a life. Then you can feel good.

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How Much is Enough?

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“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.” (Luke 4:18-19, NLT)

Jesus sought to lift the burdens of people. He spoke repeatedly and pointedly about one of the greatest burdens they bore, the burden of money. In Jesus’ day, people were facing four challenges related to money and wealth.

First, people were broken by the effort to obtain wealth. They were vulnerable to the belief that it was their own responsibility to provide for their own needs. (cf. 1 Timothy 6:9-10) Second, people were crushed by their failure to obtain wealth. In the first century, wealth was believed to be the clearest indicator of God’s favor. Poverty, on the other hand, was believed to be the clearest indicator of God’s disapproval of their lives. Next, people were burdened by maintaining and keeping the wealth they had already obtained. In Matthew 13:22, Jesus refers to the “deceitfulness of riches.” The reason riches are deceitful is because riches tempt us to trust them. Finally, people were weighted down trying to make sure their futures were secure.

In many ways we are no different today. One of the resources I used for the Enough series was a book by Thom and Art Rainer titled Simple Life. According to their research, team Rainer published these frank, albeit not surprising statistics.

50% of Americans do not have enough income to pay their monthly bills.
46% of Americans believe they have too much credit card debt.
72% of Americans do not have at least 6 months living expenses saved in case of emergency.
51% of Americans believe they are underinsured.
73% of Americans do not believe they can retire comfortably.
60% of Americans say that finances are the major stress point in their families.

Tomorrow I’ll share what Jesus had to say about money from the Sermon on the Mount.

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By way of quick review, Psalm 128 begins with a word of instruction on how to become a blessed and happy person. It all hinges on having the fear of the Lord at the center of your life and the Word of God at the circumference of your life.

When the center and the circumference is in place, God promises to care for four essentials: our needs, our attitudes, our futures, and our families. What do the blessed do with their blessings? What are they for? That’s the subject of the concluding verses of this Psalm.

“May the Lord bless you from Zion (the spiritual dwelling place of God), so that you will see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life, and will see your children’s children! Peace be with Israel” (Psalm 128:5-6, HCSB).

Notice the flow of David’s thought process. He began with “you,” and expanded the thought to “Jerusalem,” ending with “Israel.” Do you see it? God blesses your life so that you will have an impact on those around you. It begins in your life and your home, and spills over into the community and ultimately your nation and world. God blesses us so that we will in turn become a blessing to others.

Israel struggled immensely with what to do with their blessings. From time to time, the people of Israel would confuse the favor of God with being the favorite of God. When we comprehend the blessing of God as his favor, we understand that his favor is not just for us. His blessings are given to us and through us. But when we take the blessings of God and make them about us we become indulgent and deserving. God’s blessings are available to us, and he promises to give them to us. He gives “grace upon grace” as we take those blessings and bless those around us.

Categories : Blessing, Enough, Psalms
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