Service Inside Out

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For the last three years I’ve lived in a tiny town in a county of 15,000 people. There are churches on every corner which means the majority are all very small. This is vastly different from my experience as a city girl, where there are still churches on many corners but there is a plethora of mega churches to choose from.

Here’s what I’ve learned in a place where I’ve had to stop, look, listen, and re-evaluate what I think about “doing church.”

  • I’ve long chosen programs over people. As a city girl, I’ve been a big church gal. The more programs the better. The more activity the better. The full calendar serving as the barometer of my commitment to the Father.
  • I’ve bought into the lie that if we build programs within our walls, the lost will flock to them. It’s just not true. We’re building a lot of programs that only serve those who already know Jesus. And we go home at the end of the night feeling good about ourselves.
  • I’ve believed that we can reach out to others without getting too uncomfortable ourselves. I don’t think I even know what to say about that.

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I think I’ve been too caught up in the wrong definition of service, putting the emphasis on serving people who already know Jesus. Yes, Christians also have problems and needs and we have a responsibility to care for those within the church. Discipleship is important for those who have newly found salvation and freedom in Christ. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with craving the company of other believers. The writer of Romans reminds us,

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Romans 12:10

The truth is that in the church, we already have the answer to our issues. Jesus. Outside the church is where the greatest need lives…the need to be loved and served and to know Jesus.

Living in this area has turned my calendar upside down. As churches here are small, we don’t have a lot of committees and programs and stuff to do. At least not at the church building. These days I go to group worship on Sunday mornings and receive great encouragement from the Word, the worship, and God’s people. That gives me a whole lot of other hours in the week to show love and share Jesus outside the church building.

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This shake-up in my church-going life has had an effect that I didn’t see coming. Oddly enough, lots of my own issues have been solved by serving other people. Taking the focus off myself makes my problems seem not so big or bad or scary anymore.

So yes, we are to love our church family and enjoy spending time with them. We are to disciple and encourage one another. But we have to stop fooling ourselves about our efforts to serve the hurting in our communities around us. Until we take the service inside out, we aren’t going to reach those who are desperately in need of Jesus.

Romans 12 goes on to say,

Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.       Romans 12:13-16

I still enjoy a good church service, especially one filled with many people lifting their voices and their hands to the Lord. And I won’t live on this mountain forever, so someday I may end up back in a big church. Maybe even a big church that has lots of programs for folks on the inside. But for me, it won’t look like it used to. Jesus has shown me that serving from the inside out…serving from a heart that loves Him and loves His people, especially those who are lost…is what is most pleasing to Him.

There can’t be a better reason for taking our service inside out than that.

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AChurch Inside Outs the Summer Blog Tour continues… Remember that you can win a copy of Tim Archer’s new release Church Inside Out, (both the book and workbook) by leaving a comment on this page and then completing the form over HERE.

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Holly Barrett is an ordained minister who has spent over 20 years in volunteer and staff ministry. She currently works as Director of Communications for The Crossnore School in the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains of NC, where it is her privilege to tell the stories of children who are finding hope and healing. Holly is the co-author, with her mother Rachel Solomon, of Gray Hair Talking: Lessons I’m Learning as My Hair is Turning. They plan to release a Bible study later this year and another devotional book in 2017. Holly is also a podcaster having started the podcast, Living a Redeemed Life in 2015. Episodes are available on iTunes or at hollybarrett.org. Holly has two adult children, plus a son-in-love, and three adorable grandchildren. Connect with Holly on her blog at hollybarrett.org or on Twitter and Facebook.

Prayer Inside Out

AChurch Inside Outs the Summer Blog Tour continues… Remember that you can win a copy of Tim Archer’s new release Church Inside Out, both the book and workbook, by leaving a comment on this page and completing the form over HERE.

 

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“The end of the world is coming soon. Therefore, be earnest and disciplined in your prayers.”  1 Peter 4:7 (NLT)

The end and culmination of all things is near. Therefore, be sound-minded and self-controlled for the purpose of prayer [staying balanced and focused on the things of God so that your communication will be clear, reasonable, specific and pleasing to Him.] – 1 Peter 4:7 (AMP)

People who believe the Bible to be inspired have trusted that the end of the world is coming, but it’s been coming for a very long time. But even people who are not too keen on the Bible might look around at our world today and consider that the world might be making it’s way swiftly to the end. The number of nuclear nations grows and as it does there are less reliable hands in control. Crime and war and disease and all manner of issues threaten our planet. Those who are always looking for a ‘sign’ are aware that there is no shortage of signs.

I don’t know what Peter’s original readers thought about his intense descriptions about the end of the world, but none of them lived to see it. What they did see, though, was an end to THEIR worlds through persecution that scattered them and anger towards the Christian community that scandalized them. Whether the end of planet earth is close enough to happen in our lifetime or whether our personal ‘world’ is potentially going to shatter, the answer is to grow in our prayer life.

Prayer shouldn’t come from the outside in. I think that’s what has people turned off about prayer sometimes. They have to sit through the prayers that do not seem to have much to do with them.

At times we repeat memorized prayers quickly and without much connection … emotion … and we wonder why we pray.

Prayer needs to come from the inside out. It needs to be earnest. Prayer that comes from the inside out expresses the intentions of our heart because it comes from the heart. We talk to God about the things that really matter to us. Earnest prayer is not concerned with form or vocabulary. It is more intense because it is more intentional. We pray these prayers most easily when we are forced into a corner by a loss of financial security or the loss of someone we love. We pray from the heart when our friend is hospitalized and we wonder if they will make it. There are situations in life that we face that move us to the earnest prayers God seeks. That’s where we ought to try to live in our prayer life. That takes another quality. Discipline.

Discipline is really the harder part. Praying with discipline might involve praying consistently. Who of us hasn’t had a hard time being consistent in our prayer life? Has anyone else bought a new prayer journal determined to really dig in but you can’t locate it right now and if you could you know there isn’t a single word in it? Can I get a witness? Discipline might also relate to concentration. Using our prayer time to compose ‘to do’ lists for the day is not what I call a powerful prayer time. But it might describe my prayer life sometimes.

Praise 01Earnest and disciplined … Peter says that’s how we ought to pray because the world is coming down around our ears. We’re much too jaded to believe this, so our prayers go on either dry and boring or light and easy. Since this kind of prayer relates to our inward attitudes and thoughts about prayer, here are some ideas to move us toward the kind of prayer God desires:

  1. Remember Confession. In the prayer acrostic ACTSS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication, Submission) confession comes on the heels of praise. When we consider our lives in contrast to the Holy God we serve, confession should come easy…but it doesn’t always. If we want to skip confession we also want to skip the element of our prayers that drives us to a more earnest spirit.
  2. Remember Compassion. Many of us keep up with prayer lists for others. These can grow quite large because of the volume of requests we may see on Facebook or other social media. In which case we are often praying for people we’ve never met in places we’ll never go and for whom we’ll never have an update. Nothing wrong with that, but keep your closest friends and acquaintances in a separate list. When you consider their needs – and in this list you likely know the current needs – practice empathy and imagine what they might need from the Lord. This seems like a good way to tap into earnestness.
  3. Remember Consistency. There are probably no real tricks when it comes to a consistent prayer life. An advertising slogan says ‘Just Do It’. You can set reminders, pray in the same place every day, develop routines that you don’t want to break. I don’t know why it is that we never have trouble remembering to eat at noontime or keep other rituals, but establishing the routine to pray seems more difficult. I think there are many habits that we can do without mental engagement, passion, earnestness … but praying isn’t one of them. At least a lively prayer life isn’t one of those things. Someone smarter than me will have to tell us why we resist such a beautiful gift as spending time with our Abba… why we’re so easily distracted…. why we fall out of prayer patterns so easily. I think the word ‘discipline’ that Peter uses may reveal something. We can be an undisciplined bunch sometimes.

Prayer that comes from the inside out is prayer that is earnest and disciplined. It’s the kind of prayer that our Father desires, but it is also the kind of prayer that keeps us coming back for more. It satisfies our soul … the deepest part of who we are in Christ.

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John  Dobbs and his wife Maggy live in Monroe, Louisiana. He is the minister for the Forsythe Avenue Church of Christ. He is often distracted from an earnest and disciplined prayer life by social media. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter (@johndobbs) and his blog at http://johndobbs.com.

Transformation from the Inside Out

AChurch Inside Outs the Summer Blog Tour continues… Remember that you can win a copy of Tim Archer’s new release Church Inside Out, both the book and workbook, by leaving a comment on this page and completing the form over HERE.

 

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As I observe the Christian world around me (or maybe the entire world around me for that matter), it seems that extremes win the day. I grew up like many Christians have over the past 30 or more years in a faith tradition that was steeped in legalism. God was seen as this angry God who really did not much like his people, but he could be “bought off” with good deeds.

As a reaction to that, we lean over into a world of “justification by faith” to talk about the gospel in such a way that it seems like simply an endeavor of the mind. Believe this, think that, say these words, be immersed in water, and you are “good”. The goal is simply to think certain things and confess certain things with your mouth, and then go to heaven when you die.

For some reason, we never settle in the middle of these extremes with the biblical view that you are loved by God simply because, and that you are saved by faith alone. Therefore, live out your salvation and embark upon a journey of following Christ. We love the extremes it seems.

There has been a lot of scholarship over the past 30 years that has led us to believe that Paul wasn’t plagued with guilt when he wrote Romans, like  say Martin Luther was when he read it. It seems that Paul’s goal was not simply to help get people to heaven when they die (though that is important), but it was to get heaven inside of Christ followers. The gospel was not simply something to be believed, or a formula for salvation from hell at death, but it was a good news event that should dramatically alter the life of those who believe it and follow after this Crucified Christ. To follow Christ is to orient one’s life toward Christ and begin a journey of being formed into His image. It is why Paul would say things about us being transformed from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18).

So I don’t know if you are like me, but I find myself often frustrated. I want to be more patient, loving, kind, gentle, generous, and self-controlled. I want to react differently, or perhaps be less reactionary at times. I wish I was less impatient, less rash, less compulsive, less…well, you name it. It is a bit like my golf game.

golf ball 01I love golf. I don’t think my swing and my game are that bad. In my head, I know how to play the game really well and I can see myself playing well. However, I continually am amazed and frustrated when I go play and I’m not much better than the last time I played. Yet I never think that part of the problem is I don’t practice.

And so it is with my faith. I wish I saw more of the fruit of the Spirit pouring forth in my life, but I do nothing toward that goal.

As Paul is concluding his theological masterpiece, he says, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” – Romans 12:2 (emphasis mine).

Paul seems to believe we can be different, and that we can be transformed from the inside out by the renewing of our minds. The gospel can and ought to transform us now, not just at the end. The deal is though, it isn’t a magic formula that you believe and confess and all of the sudden your life is dramatically changed. Sure there are these monumental moments in our faith, but more and more I think it is about the daily process of pursuing Christ. And it is into this thinking that I believe the spiritual disciplines call out to us. The spiritual disciplines are no magic formula, but they can position us for the Spirit to do its work.

I love the teaching of people like Dallas Willard and Richard Foster. They have a holistic and full view of salvation that it isn’t simply a one time conversion moment, but it is a journey or a process of transformation. Both of these guys also believe that the spiritual disciplines are the “practice” so to speak of the faith. If we want to see transformation in our lives, if we want to be less compulsive and reactionary and more patient and kind, perhaps we ought to do things that position us for the Spirit to make these changes in our lives.

Maybe we incorporate into our daily lives what St. Benedict called a “rule of life”, or “rhythm of life” that practices the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, solitude, silence, hospitality, submission to others, etc. If the goal isn’t simply to get to heaven one day, but to get heaven inside of us, to become people who begin to look and act more like Christ, then maybe these spiritual disciplines are a very practical tool for this inside out transformation, or what Paul calls the “renewing of your mind”.

The western story of Christianity has been hijacked into one that sounds like Jesus came into the world so we could get out of it. The problem is, that is not a very biblical picture of faith. Rather, what if we let go of that story and began seeing that Christ came into this world to get His image inside of it, or inside of us? No we don’t want to conform to the ways of this world, but neither do we want to hide from it. Rather, let us be transformed from the inside out by the renewing of our minds, and through this bear His image to a lost and broken world.

I can guarantee you that practicing the spiritual disciplines will position you for this transformation because I have seen it in my own life. The deal is though, no one can teach you into this change. Rather, you will have to try it. We can talk about the disciplines, but if you really want to see how it might could work in your life, then do it. Slow down, carve out space in your life, and lean into these disciplines. And don’t be surprised if you notice yourself reacting a bit differently, perhaps a bit more like Jesus would react. The Holy Spirit wants to transform you into the image of Christ, but this can only be done from the inside out.

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Ryan LassiterRyan Lassiter is the preaching minister at the Hunter Hills Church of Christ in Prattville AL. Prior to that he served as a minster at the Golf Course Road Church of Christ in Midland TX. He and his wife Sarah have also spent time as missionaries. Ryan graduated with his masters in Missional Leadership from Rochester College and his passion is helping people join God in his mission of redemption and restoration. He blogs at www.ryanlassiter.com.

Experiencing Miracles Inside Out

Today’s guest post is by Jennifer Rundlett. I appreciate Jennifer’s writing because it is so very different from mine. She encourages me to approach Scripture in different ways. You’ll find that this post is a meditation more than a factual argument. To get the most out of it, read it slowly and allow your mind to travel through time as Jennifer guides us to a remote hillside many years ago.

Don’t forget to leave a comment on this page and complete the entry form HERE to win a copy of the newly released book and workbook Church Inside Out.

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Questioning authenticity ~ historical accuracy ~ contextual studies ~ foundational truths…these were the watchwords of my youth.

 And there too, how many times had I practiced making statements that disqualified my faith? Statements such as:

 “We can’t really know the actual day of Jesus’ birth.”

  • “There must have been a logical explanation for the star that led the wise men to see the baby Jesus.”
  • “Since we have no recorded image of Jesus, we can’t know what he truly looked like…”

Which then led me to other kinds of statements such as:

  • “Of course, I don’t really believe that God created the world in a literal 7 days.”
  • “Perhaps there was a logical explanation for all those miracles Jesus performed.”

And even when I suspended my skeptical ways to believe all the accounts of the Bible…the angel’s visitation…Jesus’ virgin birth…

I would hear myself saying:

  • That was then and this is now and those are stories of a by gone time.

However, at some point I realized that these kinds of statements were not cultivating my inner eye of faith. These statements did not develop in me the fruits of the Spirit such as love, joy, peace, patience and kindness. Instead they produced in me the fruits of skepticism ~ scoffing ~ cynicism. As a result my personal dreams became small and my inner fire extinguished.

Recently, my imagination was captured as I gazed at these pictures of The Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes that sits on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee near Capernaum, in a place called Tabgha, Israel.

 

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The Courtyard of The Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha Israel. (Photo public domain, attribute David Shankbone)

This beautiful stone church boasts the actual spot Jesus performed his miraculous feeding of the 5000 with only a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish.  This event was so iconic in the ministry of Jesus and resonated so deeply with the Jewish people, that it has been recorded in all 4 of the gospel accounts of his life. (Matthew 15: 29-39, Mark 6:35-44, Luke 9: 10-17, John 6: 5-13)

It amazes me to see these people living by faith and celebrating this as the actual spot where Jesus performed his miracle of abundance. (You can read a description of a Spanish pilgrim from 380 A.D. by clicking here.)

Letting my mind wonder, it was easy for me to imagine how this spot might have been preserved through the centuries.

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The stone under the altar inside The Church of Multiplication. (Photo is public domain.)

Knowing this, I began to postulate on how important this stone might have become to each passing generation. Thinking on them, I can see how this stone must have invited them to gather and to partake of the communion feast. United by their faith, the many would become one, as they dedicated their lives to God and asked for him to, bless and multiply their offerings to represent his glory throughout the world.

If I stop and silence all the voices inside my head teaching me to be logical and distrust these kinds of things…

If I step out of my comfort zone and grab hold of the thought that maybe it is true…

I can also begin to imagine what it was like for those people who traveled a great distance to sit on a hillside to see with their own eyes the miracles of Jesus. I can then become curious about their individual lives. Who were these people and how were they changed as they witnessed Jesus’ miracle? Why did they leave the comfort of their lives to seek and to hear the voice of Jesus? And if I resolve to bring the scene even closer… I might even begin to imagine myself sitting among them?

These are the kinds of spiritual exercises that can help me to grow in my faith and when I take time to do this, I am led by the Spirit to say with strengthening conviction that God is all powerful and that Jesus became human and dwelt among us performing many great signs and wonders while teaching us how to live transformed lives.

Yes! Jesus died and was buried and on the third day he rose again!!

And because I have allowed my mind to travel back and experience his miracle of abundance, I understand with a deepening faith that these things happened in a real time a place.

This week as you think about your own impossible… let your experience of this miracle fill your heart and let Jesus feed your inner eye of faith with his Spirit so you might live and shine his light outward into your community.

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Jennifer Rundlett.jpgJennifer Rundlett, M.M. is founder of God thru the Arts ministry and author of My Dancing Day: Reflections of the Incarnation in Art and Music. From over 15 years of college classroom experience, she has crafted an inspirational reflective approach to the arts that has inspired her classes as she shares her vision of the loving nature of God. Jennifer blogs regularly at https://jrundlett.wordpress.com/

Now with her new book The Joyful Sound: Reflections on the Life of Christ in Art and Music, she has carefully chosen and arranged over 20 celebrated masterpieces that invite you to encounter Jesus more fully. Through these spiritual exercises you will walk among the first disciples and hear your voice join with the chorus to make a joyful sound. As a special thank you for reading this blog when you follow that link please feel free to use the insider promotional code SWG5K64H. Thank you!

Church Inside Out

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I’ve come to love the story of Basil the Great. He was bishop of Caesarea in the late 4th century. Basil earned his fame as a staunch defender of the Nicene creed, what most of us know as the traditional teaching about the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He worked tirelessly to oppose the teachings of those who saw Jesus as a created being. One of these opponents was the Roman emperor Valens, who banished Basil from the Roman empire on several occasions (though Basil paid no mind to the decrees).

Important though such work was, Basil’s greatest legacy was the Basiliad, the huge hospital/orphanage/hospice/poor house thBasil the Greatat was built outside of Caesarea. When Emperor Valens came to Caesarea to confront Basil face to face, he was so impressed by Basil’s work that he donated imperial land for expansions to the Basiliad.

When Basil died, Gregory of Nazianzus declared, “His words were like thunder because his life was like lightning.”

I love that imagery. I’d love to have it said of me. I’d love to have it said of the church. Words like thunder backed by a life like lightning; that’s what the church needs.

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:

You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14–16)

Far too often our churches are cloistered within four walls, living godly lives that are seen by no one. We become consumed by inward-focused ministries. With all of our energies directed at one another, cabin fever sets in, and the church fights and feuds over minor matters. As we distance ourselves from our communities, we come to fear and distrust the outside world. In the end, having no significant relationship with outsiders, we content ourselves with trying to convert our young people.

That’s not how we were called to live! Peter told his readers:

“Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Peter 2:12)

Our lives are to be lived out in the open. Non-Christians should see our lives and respect them. This is true of us as individuals; it’s also true for the church as a whole.

We’ve got to be the church inside out… insiders going out in order to help outsiders come in.

Jesus has gifted his church with gifts and with leaders to equip her for works of service (Ephesians 4:7-13). One of the main tasks of Christian leaders is to help members find and use their gifts in service to others. Leaders should be aware of the needs of the community around as well as knowing how to help members discover their own giftedness. Elders and ministers need a mechanism for communicating those needs to the body, be it through social networks, phone trees, Bible classes, small groups, or announcements from the pulpit. They also need an awareness that no church can meet every need. It’s possible that some needs will only be prayed about for now, trusting that God will raise up people for those ministries at a future date.

Leaders should be open to proposals for new ways of serving, for new ministries that better fit the current membership and contemporary needs. In the same way, some ministries should be allowed to fall dormant or cease to exist; there is no shame in moving on from a ministry that is no longer bearing fruit.

Church members should be creatively looking for ways to use their gifts to serve the community around them. Where giftedness meets need, that is the Christian’s calling. Sometimes those gifts fit within existing structures in the church; sometimes new ministries will be developed to minister to the community in more appropriate ways.

It’s important that we encourage our members to experiment with new ministries. Leaders should be positive and affirming when faced with ministry proposals, especially “outside the walls” ministries. People need to know that they can try something, evaluate it honestly, and make necessary changes (including suspension of that ministry for a time). As churches step outside of themselves, they will find more unpredictability and a need for more flexibility.

But step out we must. The church needs to be seen by the community, seen as a force for good. We will never be able to speak like thunder, until our lives shine like lightning. Others will never praise God because of us until they see deeds that are truly praiseworthy. I’ll close with a quote from my book Church Inside Out:

As the old refrain says, they won’t care what we know until they know that we care. The world does not want to be preached at. Outsiders don’t want Christians standing inside church buildings pointing fingers out at the rest of the world. But when they see transformed lives reflected in a Christian body that serves its community, they’ll want to hear the message.

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Tim Archer has coordinated the Spanish-speaking Ministries for Hope For Life / Herald of Truth Ministries since 2006. He has spent three decades working in Spanish ministry, including 15 years in Argentina. Tim preaches for the bilingual ministry at the University Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas, where he attends with his wife Carolina, and their two children, Daniel and Andrea. Tim has authored and co-authored several books available HERE. He also writes regularly on his blog: The Kitchen of Half-Baked Thoughts.

Tim’s latest book, Church Inside Out, helps churches motivate their members to be actively ministering to the community around them. To promote the Summer Blog Tour, we’re giving away one set of Church Inside Out, both book and workbook. Just leave a comment below then enter over HERE

Inside Out: The Summer Blog Tour

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We live in a consumeristic world. The engine of our capitalist economy is founded in the thought that more is better. Newer is better. Faster is better. And to the extent that you accept this thought and participate in this market, you are better. You are cooler. You are smarter. Your life is easier. And you will be happier.

Our culture repeatedly encourages us to “try this, taste that, buy these, go there, experience this, watch that, try these”. Whether we realise it or not, this worldview is oriented from the Outside to the Inside.

This philosophy of life begins with the perspective that goodness, joy, completeness, and purpose are “out there”, outside of ourselves. They exist for us to grasp, or at least to pursue with the hope to grasp.

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As I write this, the Cleveland Cavaliers have just won the NBA Championship. It represents the team’s first ever championship and the city’s first professional sports championship in 52 years. I wonder how many fans longed and dreamed of this day. They pour into the streets to greet the players. They throw the team a parade. They feel on top of the world. Then in a few days, a week, perhaps a month they begin to wonder… “When will the Browns win the NFL championship?” or “When will the Indians bring home the MLB championship?” The euphoria subsides and life goes on.

Jesus taught us a different way of viewing the world. He introduced us to the worldview “Inside Out”.

In Mark 7 Jesus addresses a crowd of people who concerned themselves with ritual purity. In this particular instance the discussion revolved around washing hands before a meal. While our mother’s told us this for health reasons, these people believed it would help them maintain purity before God. God himself had earlier given Israel detailed instructions about clean and unclean foods and lifestyle practices. For the people accusing Jesus however, rather than pointing them to God, these instructions had become a goal of their own.

Jesus then makes this astonishing statement to this crowd, “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” (7:15) At the end of this conversation Jesus provides a list of sinful behaviours and concludes “All these evils come from inside and defile a person.

Jesus knew that the state of our hearts determines our outlook on life and our standing before God. Joy or grief. Hatred or love. Generosity or envy. These attitudes may be influenced by events outside of us, but ultimately the state of our hearts, our character, determines how we live our lives and how we respond to our circumstances. With this worldview in mind, as Jesus prepared for his death he comforted his followers with this promise,

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever – the Spirit of truth… You know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.  (John 14:16-17)

Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will be IN his followers. From that point on we consciously live Inside Out. We can find all the peace we need in the Spirit within us. We can find all the joy we need in the Spirit within us. We can find all the courage and all the purpose we need in the Spirit within us. When we find ourselves seeking fulfillment in food, books, pornography, relationships, busyness, or the pursuit of wealth or security, we should recognise that we’re no longer living in the Spirit.

It’s great to have life goals that we pursue, but they don’t define us. Our identity and self-worth has been gifted to us by the presence of the Holy Spirit, and we now travel through life from the Inside Out.

sound-waves 01aOver the next couple of months I’ve coordinated with a great group of church leaders and writers to explore some of the practical applications for individuals and churches of living Inside Out. I believe you’ll be blessed and challenged by their thoughts, so please make an effort to check back to this blog throughout July and August to join this Summer Blog Tour. To promote the Summer Blog Tour, we’re also giving away one set of Church Inside Out, both book and workbook. Just leave a comment below then enter over HERE.sound-waves 01a

 

 

We All Have a God Box

15-03-02/47One of my favorite stories in the Bible revolves around the largely unknown disciple of Jesus: Cleopas. (You can read his story in Luke 24.)

Cleopas was a disciple of Jesus who had traveled to Jerusalem for the Passover. While in Jerusalem he witnessed the crucifixion of his hero. His dreams of joining the Messiah in restoring Israel to glory lay shattered at the foot of the cross.

He stayed in Jerusalem a few days. He gathered with the other disciples and no doubt they exchanged laments at the death of their Messiah.

He listened with amazement when the women returned from the tomb and said they’d found it empty. He pondered the message of the angels who told the women that Jesus was alive. But after John and Peter went to the tomb and came back empty handed, Cleopas gave up.

Confused. Disoriented. Stunned…

Cleopas left his dream. He left the other disciples. He left Jerusalem and returned to the ordinary routines of daily life.

“He had hoped that Jesus was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” Had hoped. But not any more. Now he knew better. As Cleopas trudged the 7 miles back to Emmaus he was wiser for the experience. Everyone knows dead people don’t come alive again. Not prophets. And definitely not Messiah’s. In fact, the Messiah wasn’t even supposed to die!

Whatever those angels were talking about, he didn’t know, but he had work to do. He’d spent enough time following a whisp of a dream, now he needed to make up for all those wasted days he’d spent following Jesus around the countryside.

Subsequent events, such as meeting the resurrected Jesus and sharing a meal with him, proved Cleopas’ despondency misplaced.

As we consider the disparity between Cleopas’ perspective of recent events and the reality of those events we notice how his reaction was largely determined by his initial expectations. Cleopas held a rigid, brittle understanding of how God would work through the Messiah. When events didn’t roll out the way he expected, he gave up. He didn’t even wait around to consider the significance of the empty tomb or the angel’s message. He knew how God would work, and it wasn’t like this.

It’s easy to criticise Cleopas for placing God in a box of his own construction. Yet, we all have boxes of various shapes and sizes in which we place God. Usually, it’s easier to see other people’s boxes, so we often don’t notice our own.

god box 01

Anytime we speak on behalf of God describing what He can’t, won’t, doesn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t, will, or must do, we add another plank to our own God Box. I’m not suggesting that we simply invent statements about God. We usually have Scripture and good reasons to see God as we do. But Cleopas had Scriptures and and good reasons for his view of the Messiah… He was wrong, and sometimes we are also.

I’m not necessarily using the term “God Box” in a negative way. My goal is simply for us to recognise that everyone constructs a unique view of God. This recognition should cultivate a spirit of humility when we make absolute statements that reflect our own God Box.

Let me provide some examples of planks in a God Box:

  • God doesn’t hear the prayers of unbelievers.
  • God won’t save someone from the consequences of their own stupidity.
  • God doesn’t care about human politics.
  • God can’t get me out of this mess.
  • The Holy Spirit can’t inhabit an unbaptized body.
  • God doesn’t perform miracles today.
  • God wouldn’t send a dream to someone today.
  • God won’t condemn you for that.

These restrictive statements may be true (or not), but even if they are, they create a framework for God to fit inside. But God is always bigger than any box we create. And Scripture frequently describes God creating exceptions to principles we regard as rules. It’s not that God is capricious, but he sees a bigger picture than we can hope to see.

Perhaps more surprising is that we can also build our God Box out of permissive statements:

  • God will answer your prayer.
  • God will heal you.
  • God has defeated death.
  • God wants what’s best for you.
  • God understands our weaknesses.
  • God wants everyone to be saved.
  • God cares more about the heart than rigid obedience.
  • God’s grace always wins out over justice.

These lists could go on and on.

When we make statements like these about God we begin to define Him. They represent our efforts to fit a limitless God inside our very limited minds.

Thus we need humility in (at least) two places:

  1. We need humility to allow God to act outside our understanding of Him. God has the freedom and authority to create his own exceptions to our rules.
  2. We need humility to accept that others’ God Boxes may be correct in places ours aren’t.

To Cleopas’ credit, when the risen Messiah revealed himself Cleopas didn’t argue. He didn’t hang his head in shame. He excitedly ran back to Jerusalem to celebrate his errors (God’s good news) with his friends. May we have the humility to acknowledge our errors when we discover them. And may the construction material of our God Box more closely resemble rubber than cast iron, giving it the flexibility to stretch and adjust as our view of God matures throughout life.

Resurrection Life

What is the Gospel? In my spiritual environment throughout my life I suspect that the correct answer would often be, “Hear, Believe, Repent, Confess, be Baptized, Grow in faith”. However, I want to suggest that while all these items are important, they’re a response to the Gospel, not the Gospel itself.

Since I’m preaching from Acts during June, I thought it would be interesting to study the preaching topics of the apostles throughout Acts. What did these first Gospel preachers emphasise? How does it compare to our emphasis today?

The apostle Peter gives the first “sermon” in Acts 2. From the list above we observe Hear (v37), Believe (v37), Repent (v38), and Baptism (v41). Many people understandably regard verses 37 and 38 as the climax of the sermon. But a close reading of the text reveals that the sermon concludes in v36.

The centre point of the sermon can hardly come after the sermon’s conclusion. Verse 37 actually describes the crowd’s response and v38 shares Peter’s answer to their question. So what is the climax of the sermon?

“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”  Acts 2:36

Humanity killed Jesus. Sin and corruption caused Jesus’ death, “But God raised him from the dead.

While Jesus’ resurrection gets a lot of attention each year when Easter rolls around, I was surprised to find that resurrection is a constant theme in the preaching found in Acts.

paul preaching 01

Here’s a list that I’ve compiled from a variety of sermons by various preachers. I may have missed some, but these seem sufficient to establish a theme:

  • Peter – Acts 2:24-40   “But God raised him from the dead…”
  • Peter – Acts 3:11-26     “You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead.”
  • Peter – Acts 4:10           “whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead…”
  • Peter – Acts 5:31            “God exalted him to his own right hand….”
  • Stephen – Acts 7:56     “the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God”
  • Peter – Acts 10:23-40  “but God raised him from the dead…”
  • Paul – Acts 17:16-34     “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead…”
  • Paul – Acts 17:1-4         “The Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead…”
  • Paul – Acts 23:6             “I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection …”
  • Paul – Acts 24:15           “I have … hope… that there will be a resurrection….”
  • Paul – Acts 24:21           “It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial…”
  • Paul – Acts 25:19           “…a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive.”
  • Paul – Acts 26:8            “Why should you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?”
  • Paul – Acts 26:22-3     “Moses said would happen – that the Messiah would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead…”

There are plenty of Biblical sermons that identify sin and call people to repentance, but they do so within a context of resurrection. Resurrection points beyond the guilt and shame to grace, hope and new life.

While the early preaching on the resurrection served an apologetic function, that wasn’t the sole purpose. Jesus’ resurrection proved that his death wasn’t an accident.

While we’re often tempted to stand at the foot of the cross and beat ourselves up in guilt and regret, Jesus’ resurrection demonstrates that the cross is not the end of the story.

While the cross is vital to the Biblical story, it would be a sorry ending if not for the resurrection. By preaching the resurrection, the apostles presented a positive message that empowered people to move forward in relationship with a risen, Christ.

plant new life 01Jesus’ resurrection fulfills a much greater purpose than proving that life exists after death. If Jesus has been raised, then God’s new world, God’s kingdom has indeed arrived. The resurrection provides a whole new way of viewing the world and life itself. It gives purpose to our lives as we move toward a better tomorrow. If God can overcome death, He can overcome obstacle that confronts His kingdom.

God offers forgiveness of our past. He offers His presence in our present. And he offers us a new, resurrected life in our future.

Because we live in the kingdom of God: a kingdom of life, not death; of light not darkness; of hope not despair. Because we live as priests of God indwelt by the Spirit of God we participate in the mission of God, a mission of bringing new life, new creation to a lifeless world.

Making the resurrection a central element of the Gospel changes the entire story that we present to the world. Choosing to focus on our response to the Gospel, rather than the power of God, dilutes the wonder of the resurrection.

Let’s give the last word to Paul:

Acts 26:20-24 (VOICE)

20 I began in Damascus, then continued in Jerusalem, then throughout the Judean countryside, then among the outsiders—telling everyone they must turn from their past and toward God and align their deeds and way of life with this new direction. 21 So then, this is my crime. This is why my Jewish opponents seized me that day in the temple and tried to kill me. 22 God has helped me right up to this very moment, so I can stand here telling my story to both the humble and the powerful alike. I only say what the prophets and Moses said would happen— 23 that the Anointed One must suffer, and then, by being the first to rise from the dead, He would proclaim light to both Jews and outsiders.

Festus (interrupting): 24 You’ve gone crazy, Paul! You’ve read one book too many and have gone insane!

Acts 2: From Pentecost to Baptism

I suspect most Christians know what happens in Acts 2. We might not know what happens in Acts 13, or Luke 7, but we know Acts 2.  It’s commonly known as the birth of the church. However, even those familiar with Acts 2 emphasise different portions of the long chapter. While Pentecostals focus on the first 13 verses the Church of Christ focuses on v38.

Interestingly, I don’t know anyone that focuses on the actual day itself: Pentecost. Or if anyone knows what Pentecost actually meant. We’ve turned Pentecost into a Christian festival and forgotten the original roots.

I’m indebted to my friend Bobby Valentine for his excellent blog post on the feast of Pentecost and it’s relevance to the events of Acts 2. I encourage you to check it out!

In the Old Testament Pentecost is called the Festival of Weeks. (See Deuteronomy 16 and Deuteronomy 26) It celebrates several events:

  1. Israel’s deliverance from Egypt.
  2. Their harvest in their new land.
  3. Renewal of covenant – The festival was held in the 3rd month and the 10 Commandments (Covenant) were given in the 3rd month. (Ex. 19:3-5)

Unlike other visits to the Temple that may have related to personal atonement or worship, the Festival of Weeks involved the whole household. The household would travel together to participate in this celebration at the Temple. In this sense it was a celebration that incorporated equality and inclusiveness before God.

And rejoice before the Lord your God at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name—you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, the Levites in your towns, and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows living among you.(Deuteronomy 16:11)

When the apostle Peter begins his sermon he quotes Joel 2:28-32. This passage also portrays an image of the future kingdom of God that promotes equality and inclusiveness.

In the last days, God says,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your young men will see visions,
    your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
    and they will prophesy.  (Acts 2:17-18)

Understanding the nature of the Pentecost celebration helps us see that the quotation from Joel isn’t an accident. God chose Pentecost as the day to pour out his Spirit upon Jesus’ disciples because the event fulfills Pentecost.

Acts 2:1-4. When the day of Pentecost came. Pastel & pen. 26 May 2012.

 

Is this how you picture the kingdom of God? A place where everyone has a role in serving Him? Notice how inclusive this description in Acts 2 is. I wonder how prepared we are for this. Do we let our sons and daughters know that we see the Spirit of God in them? Do we encourage our young and old men? Do we equip God’s servants for their work?

What if Pentecost came and no one noticed?

What if we took our talented teens and young adults and praised them for their gifts and abilities and helped them focus on school and social activities? What would it look like if we as a church made a point of equipping our youth for ministry for allowing the Spirit to prophesy through them?

What if Pentecost came and our young and old men were focused on their careers. What if we celebrated each of their promotions and professional accomplishments, but overlooked steps of spiritual growth in their lives? What would it look like to honor the visions and dreams the Spirit gives them?

What if Pentecost came and God’s servants were so task-oriented that the spiritual nature of our tasks was forgotten? What would it look like to equip and train each other to see God’s Spirit working through us in the menial tasks? What would it look like to prepare each person to fulfill the Spirit’s mission of sharing the Good News of Jesus?

Because that’s what comes next. The Holy Spirit is poured upon the disciples and they immediately call the city of Jerusalem to repentance while proclaiming Jesus as Messiah. The Holy Spirit equips us all for mission. There’s great equality in this task. It’s not a special commission for the minister or elders, or other people. It’s for all of us.

Bobby includes this great line in his article, “[Jews] came far and wide, confessing with their sons and daughters, the old and the young, the slaves and the free – standing before the Lord as equal human beings – that God had been faithful. He has always been faithful. That he will always be faithful. That we standing in his Presence is proof of his covenant.

This is the mission the Holy Spirit equips us to undertake. We proclaim God’s past, present and future faithfulness to His Creation. We stand in His Presence inviting people to enter into a covenant with God.

Which brings us to v38. Baptism represents a sealing of a deal. An acceptance of God’s covenant. In that short moment immersed in the water each person is equal as a child of God. Regardless of age, sex, race, height, weight, history or future, at that moment they testify to God’s faithfulness. Immersed in the water. Immersed in Christ. We experience deliverance, blessing, and a new covenant.

On that Pentecost day these historical themes from God’s relationship with Israel all converged with the baptism of 3,000, the forgiveness of sins, and the giving of the Holy Spirit. And with each baptism since then the church proclaims salvation for all, the faithfulness of God, and the hopeful joy of covenant with our Creator.

Pentecost: Not a chronological accident, but a vision of God’s kingodm that the church has often overlooked.

 

Father to the Fatherless

 – The True God who inhabits sacred space
    is a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows.
He makes a home for those who are alone.
    He frees the prisoners and leads them to prosper.
Yet those who rebel against Him live in the barren land without His blessings and prosperity.  Psalm 68:5-6 (VOICE)

I’ve been preaching a series of sermons seeking to identify the heart of God. Who is God at his core? What are the values God holds most dearly?

In Psalm 68:5 God identifies himself as “Father to the fatherless”. The name “Father” is often attributed to God throughout Scripture. While it’s true that he is the Father, or Originator, of all humanity, God makes the point that the name is more than a description of origin. He is Father because it’s a role he willfully adopts.

Throughout history children are a footnote. They hold no power or influence. Those without parents have no natural defenders. Those without fathers struggle to find the provisions needed for life. Yet God describes Himself as “Father to the fatherless”. Father to the weakest, to the marginal, to the overlooked and under loved. God is Father.

All followers of Christ should attest to the goodness of God our Father. All of us were fatherless before Christ signed the adoption papers with his blood, called us his brothers (Hebrews 2:11), and through the Holy Spirit welcomed us into the family of God.

If the Spirit of God is leading you, then take comfort in knowing you are His children. You see, you have not received a spirit that returns you to slavery, so you have nothing to fear. The Spirit you have received adopts you and welcomes you into God’s own family. That’s why we call out to Him, “Abba! Father!” as we would address a loving daddy.   Romans 8:14-15 (VOICE)

How close is fatherhood and adoption to God’s heart? According to James 1:27Real, true religion from God the Father’s perspective is about caring for the orphans and widows who suffer needlessly and resisting the evil influence of the world.So how does the church reflect this aspect of our God?

fatherless 02

Here’s a list I’ve compiled a short list of children’s homes and family services affiliated with various Churches of Christ both in the US and around the world. And the good news if you want to practice “Real, true religion…” is that they all accept donations! You can read a good overview of Church of Christ children’s homes HERE. (You can find a longer list HERE, but I have not verified the links.)

Children’s Homes in the US

Adoption & Foster Care Agencies Supported by Churches of Christ

International Child Sponsorship and Orphanages

This list isn’t close to exhaustive, but indicative of the variety of ways Churches of Christ seek to serve God by loving the fatherless.