Category: Faith Unshackled

Why Self-Control is Deceptive

In Titus 2:1-14 Paul writes to tell his apprentice, Titus, how to go about establishing new churches in Crete. In this particular passage he lists specific instructions for training four different demographic groups within the church.Consider for a moment which virtue would you most emphasise to young Christians in fledgling churches?

Paul tells Titus four times to teach these different groups self-control.  Older men, be self-controlled. Older women urge younger women to practice self-control. Young men, be self-controlled.

If only telling someone to be self-controlled brought the desired results. I think we all know it’s not that simple.

Let’s remember where this topic comes from… This series on Faith Unshackled spent two weeks looking at things we believe. Then over the last two weeks we looked at things God wants his people to be doing. Those things are important, but they don’t amount to much if they don’t change who we become.

While churches often refuse to fellowship with other churches over beliefs and practices I’ve never heard a congregation criticised  because the church doesn’t exhibit God’s patience or self control. Yet one of the great consequences of the cross is that is that God transforms us into his image. 2 Corinthians 3:17-18 says, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. [unshackled faith] And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

What we believe, and what we practice are important, because they influence who we become. But don’t lose sight that God is working in our lives, not only helping us to do or think better, but to become like Him. We shouldn’t set goals to adjust who we’re becoming if we’re unwilling to change what we believe, what we practice, and how we let God work in our lives.

Bringing this specifically back to self-control…I do want to make a couple of points about Titus 2.

  1. The key verse in this passage is v12. Verse 12 splits neatly into two halves. The first is what to avoid. The second tells what to become. Throughout this passage, Paul’s primary concern isn’t whether or not you had donuts for breakfast. (Although that may well be a secondary application.) Rather, when Paul talks about self-control, his focus is upon sin.

    Say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions. Resisting the temptation of sin is important. It takes self-control because sin is attractive.

  1. Is Paul then saying then that teaching self-control means that he expects perfection from everyone? I don’t think so. It’s the grace of God that teaches us to say No….. It’s the grace of God that’s working in our lives to mold us into the image of God. So here’s how I understand this whole thing to be working…

self control 01

The pictures above show a couple of common perceptions about self-control. Many of us get fooled by the word “self” in self-control.  We take all the responsibility upon ourselves. But that’s not God’s use of the term.

When God talks of self-control, He encourages us to let the Holy Spirit control us. As we think about the person God wants us to become, it’s not just coincidence that Paul includes self-control in his list of the Fruit of the Spirit over in Galatians 5:23.

When we face temptations, rather than struggling with that temptation ourselves, God wants us to pray, to trust Him, to ask Him to take control of our lives and guide our choices. When we take the virtue ‘self-control’ too literally we deny God a place in our lives.

Christian self-control means knowing when to concede greater control of our life to God.

Finally, self-control involves more than avoiding sin. Godly self-control will also motivate us to live in a manner that brings him glory. Self-control means loving my neighbour more than my television. Self-control helps me attend worship services regularly and invest in the lives of other believers. Self-control helps me listen when my impulse is to react. Because self-control means knowing when to concede greater control of my life to God.

One author I read summarised this perspective with this comment. Self-control is not only about the discipline to stop doing things that destroy us, but also about the discipline to do the things that build us up. When we develop a healthy discipline to engage in the spiritual practices, we speed up our growth rate.

As Paul told Titus, regardless of our age or gender, we all need self-control to recognise our need for God’s Spirit to empower us as we put aside sin and live within the kingdom of heaven. This is a crucial step in our journey toward spiritual maturity.

Less Dogma – More Doing

As I think about this summer blog tour theme of “Faith Unshackled”, I have been thinking about what often shackles our faith. And sometimes, I think we have just made it too complicated. It is like we say, “It can’t be that simple!” and then start arguing doctrine, dogma, and Scripture to avoid the obvious.

Faith Unshackled 01

I have been studying a great deal lately the greatest commandments. There are a few different versions of this in the gospels, but my favorite has become the one recorded in Mark 12. One of the scribes sees that Jesus is a legit teacher, so he asks him the big question. “Which commandment is the first of all?” In other words, what matters the most to God? Most of us know the story. Jesus says something like,

Love God with all you have, and love your neighbor as yourself.” But in Mark’s recording, the scribe gives Jesus a robust “Amen!” “You are right he says!” Then he goes on to repeat back essentially what Jesus has already said and the scribe tacks on, “this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices”. But here is the part I love. After the scribe says this, Jesus says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.

Wait? Loving God and loving neighbor puts us in a place where Jesus basically says, “You’re getting it now. You’re getting closer. You’re discovering the way of the kingdom”?! Can that be?!

Overwhelmingly churches (mine included) give a list of core values and beliefs that are something like, “We believe in God, we believe in the Bible, we believe in salvation, we believe in baptism” and on and on.

But for some reason, I have never seen a church say, “Our core belief is this: love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Then love your neighbor as yourself. Do this and you are near the kingdom of God.”

That seems a bit too simple doesn’t it? Yet, that is more important than all of the burnt offerings and sacrifices. Or, if I might contextualize and paraphrase it a bit, that is more important than all of our “right beliefs”, “sound doctrine”, etc.

Then we have Matthew 25. I have heard multiple sermons and lessons on this text and how it teaches the reality of final judgment, which by the way I affirm. However, do we ever ponder the question, “What does Jesus say puts one on the wrong side?” If we do, the answer isn’t burnt offerings, sacrifices, correct doctrine, worship service attendance, reading the Bible, understanding baptism, etc. (though those are all REALLY important to talk about and do). Rather, the answer is those that gave food and drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, visited the prisoners, visited the sick, and welcomed the strangers. I think it would be fair to put that under the heading of “loving God and loving neighbor”.

love god peopleSo when I think about unshackled faith that lives for Jesus with reckless abandon, I think it is best we get back to the basics. The church has been like the football team that has come up with really great offensive and defensive schemes, but forgot to teach the basics of blocking and tackling.

My prayer is that we could continue the important discussions about doctrine, Scripture, and beliefs, but that we would not neglect the seemingly simple and most important. My prayer is that we would get back to the basics. Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself. And by the way, I don’t think you can do one without the other. Maybe the best way to love God is to get back to the basics and go love a neighbor. Maybe then the kingdom of God will come near.

sound-waves 01aRyan LassiterRyan Lassiter is the husband of Sarah, and father of 3 (almost 4!) beautiful children. He is also the preaching minister at the Hunter Hills Church of Christ in Prattville AL, 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.

Can we be Friends?

This week’s sermon is available HERE.

Last Sunday I talked about the need for all Christians to pursue spiritual maturity. In the process I presented some research results from the REVEAL study of spiritual growth. As the researchers collated their results, they grouped healthy spiritual practices into 4 groups:

  • Beliefs and Attitudes;
  • Organized Church Activities;
  • Personal Spiritual Practices; and
  • Spiritual Activities with Others.

It seems to me that those first three groups are the ones we emphasise the most. We do a lot of teaching to establish Biblical beliefs. We encourage participation in church activities, particularly Bible Classes and worship. We also encourage people to pray and read Scripture for themselves. But perhaps when we look at that list we’re not even sure what “Spiritual Activities with Others” means. So here’s another list for you.

Activities with Others

Of these four, I’ll focus today on the top two: Spiritual Friendships and Spiritual Mentors. It seems to me that we often value Christian friendships among teens as we pour many resources into ministries for teens. However, we don’t make the same emphasis among general church members.

We settle for people showing up on Sunday and don’t impose the expectation that they spend time with other Christians outside of Sunday worship service. We know that Christians need one another to experience the fullness of Christ, but perhaps we often think that Bible studies fulfill all the “one another” instructions in Scripture.

I expect that some of my readers will think the church already values spiritual friendships. You may be right. But let me pose a scenario and gauge your response…

board games group

You hear of a church down the road that cancels their Wednesday night Bible Class because they decide that they study the Bible as a group sufficiently on Sunday. Instead, they now meet in homes and play board games, and cards. Sometimes they watch movies together, while some of the groups bake together or discussing books they’re reading together.

What you may not have heard is that each of these groups close their time together with 20-30 minutes of prayer. But still, all that play time in place of Bible Study!

Perhaps we feel uncomfortable toward this church because while we acknowledge the theory regarding the importance of spiritual friendships, we don’t actually value them all that highly. We may not have thought of it in these terms, but we would prefer for people who aren’t friends to study the Bible together, than to not study the Bible and work on building friendships.

Perhaps we feel uncomfortable praising spiritual friendships, because we don’t have any ourselves.

  • Do your friends encourage your faith?
  • Do your friends pray for, and with, you?
  • Do you pray for, and with, your friends?
  • Can you ask your friends about Scriptures you’ve been reading?
  • Do your friends get excited about sharing God’s love with others?
  • Do your friends help you date, or parent, in a God-honor way?

I believe that many of Christians will acknowledge the importance of spiritual friendships to their walk with Christ. We’ll acknowledge that God has placed us in His church and made us part of his body which belongs and works together. But I suspect that many Christians fail to prioritize spiritual friendships or allow their personal spiritual practices to bleed over into our relationships with others.

It’s true, that many Christians can say that their best friends also attend church with them, but that by itself doesn’t make the friendship spiritual. Spiritual friendships intentionally include spiritual conversations, spiritual checkups, and spiritual practices.

 

Can I Measure Spiritual Maturity?

The sermon on this topic is available HERE.

Most Christians recognise that God makes a claim upon our lives that nothing else in our lives be more important that our commitment to Him. He’s our #1.

But what does that look like?

street preacher

When I hear talk like that I picture street corner preachers proclaiming the need for repentance and breathing damnation all at the same time.

I picture my chiropractor who greets each crack of my back with a “Hallelujah” or “Thank-you Jesus”.

I imagine people in the workplace who are most known for the disapproval of the latest social trend for the last twenty years who also tell everyone that they should be in church on on Sunday.

As I think a little more deeply, I recognise that making God #1 will look different for everyone. So how can we tell if others are making God their priority? More importantly, how can we tell if we have idols in our own lives?

One helpful way of addressing these questions, is to change the question. Making God our life’s priority covers a lot of ground. It also indicates that it’s something we do, and then it stays that way. If we’re honest, we’ll concede that giving God priority is a growth process that takes years, and we probably never master it completely.

So here’s a bite size question that I find more helpful.

Am I committed to spiritual growth?

All of us want to say “Yes” to that question, but how are we pursuing spiritual growth. I find that most Christians have few tangible steps they can take toward spiritual maturity beyond the big three of: Pray, Read the Bible, and Attend Church.

I doubt that spiritual growth is a “one size fits all” process, but in recent years I’ve stumbled across material from Willow Creek Community Church and Real Life Ministries that I’ve found helpful.

The Willow Creek REVEAL survey identified four stages of spiritual maturity. You can see them in the picture below along with an indicative saying from each stage.

REVEAL growth continuum.jpg

While it’s interesting to consider we might currently stand on this continuum. More important for our question “Am I committed to Spiritual Growth?” is understanding how a person moves from one stage to another. The REVEAL survey provides some ideas there also.

The survey results can be broken down into 4 areas of spiritual life. A spiritually mature Christian will seek to grow in all four areas, but the temptation is to ignore those which feel less comfortable to us. The four areas are:

  1. Spiritual beliefs and attitudes
  2. Organized church activities
  3. Personal spiritual practices
  4. Spiritual activities with others

I can’t list all the catalysts for movement without this post becoming ridiculously long. You can get all the survey results and discussion in a recent book titled MOVE. But here are the Top 5 catalysts for each area of movement:

Moving From Exploring Christ to Growing in Christ

  1. Belief in Salvation by Grace
  2. Belief in the Trinity
  3. Church Activity Serve in a church ministry 1-2 times a month
  4. Spiritual Practice Prayer for Guidance
  5. Spiritual Practice Reflection on Scripture

Bible study 02Moving From Growing in Christ to Close to Christ

  1. Belief in a Personal God
  2. Spiritual Practice Prayer for Guidance
  3. Spiritual Practice Reflection on Scripture
  4. Spiritual Practice Solitude
  5. Spiritual Activity with Others Evangelism

Moving From Close to Christ to Christ-Centered

  1. Belief Giving Away My Life (“I am willing to surrender everything that is important in my life to Jesus Christ.”)
  2. Belief Christ is First
  3. Belief Identity in Christ
  4. Belief Authority of the Bible
  5. Spiritual Practice Reflection on Scripture

In his book “Real -Life Discipleship“, Jim Putman, describes the stages of spiritual maturity in terms of stages of life: Infant, Child, Young Adult, and Parent.

I love his vision of a mature Christian as a parent. A Christian is not mature because they know Bible details. A Christian is not mature because they’re always talking about Jesus. A person is mature because they’re investing in the lives of people around them. Sometimes they’re leading people into relationship with Jesus. Other times they’re helping younger Christians grow.

A christian who regards themselves as mature but isn’t passing on their faith to another generation of believers through personal effort (not by paying the preacher) is deceiving themselves.

There’s a lot to consider here and each of these ideas have thick books behind them. My primary goal is to encourage each of us to continue our quest to grow in Christ: To grow toward spiritual maturity. As we do this we’ll discover that Christ is #1 in our lives.

Trusting Faith

Faith Unshackled 01

Words do not stay the same. The definition or influence of a word can change over time. Sometimes they are overused and lose their power. Words that were once quite meaningful can become meaningless. Christianity is a religion that relies on certain words. The Bible is a story, and you cannot tell a story without words. Some of these words are essential to Christianity, and yet Christianity is a religion that has been around for many, many years. Christians have clung to important words while also dealing with an ever-changing world where the meaning of words can change.

Faith is one of the most significant words belonging to Christianity, but what does it mean? Over the years, many have equated it with belief. For these individuals, faith is the same as mental assent, but I believe a careful reading of the Bible will prove this definition to be inadequate. Certainly, belief is an element of faith, but it goes deeper than what a person may hold to be true.

Several times in the Gospel of Mark, faith is contrasted with fear (Mark 5:36). One of the most famous stories where this occurs is when Jesus calms a storm (Mark 4:35-41). You can imagine how frightening it would be to be on a small boat in the middle of a lake during a storm. Your boat could be capsized by the wind and waves. You would be susceptible to lightning strikes. You would essentially be helpless until you could reach shore. This is the situation that the disciples found themselves in. They were scared, and through it all Jesus slept. Finally, they decide to wake him. He calms the storm, and then says, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40).

hands 01If faith were merely belief, then fear would have no power over it. It’s possible to believe and at the same time be afraid. Faith is more closely related to trust. When we trust, fear goes away. This is what Jesus was looking for in the boat. The disciples were believers, but they did not have trusting faith. If they would have had faith in Jesus, then they would not have been afraid.

The contrast between faith and fear that Mark provides is helpful in evaluating our level of faith. It might be difficult for some to gauge their commitment to God adequately.  We are great at critiquing others and not so great at self-criticism. However, if we think of fear as the opposite of faith, then it is much easier to identify areas where we are afraid. Wherever we find fear, we will likely also find a lack of faith. If we fear the political future of America, then we need to trust that God is sovereign over all. If we fear our neighbors who do not look like us, then we need to seek to love them all the more while trusting that God has created all people in his image. If we fear what will happen to the economy or where our next check will come from, then we need to trust that God will provide.

Radical faith is when we put our trust in God even when the future seems uncertain. We see this in story after story in the Bible beginning with Abraham. What we discover from Scripture is that God is always faithful. It would be difficult to trust in a chair that looks weak and fragile, and that has never been set in by you or someone you know. There would be no reason to trust the chair. However, if you saw a big sturdy chair that always provided a safe and secure seat for anyone who rested in it, then you would have no problem trusting the chair. God gives us every reason to trust him. We can always depend on God.

sound-waves 01a06 - Scott Elliot picScott Elliott is a graduate of Oklahoma State University and Austin Graduate School of Theology. He lives in La Grange, TX and is the minister for the La Grange Church of Christ. He is married and has two sons. He enjoys writing about the Christian faith and posting the occasional film review. His articles and reviews have appeared in RELEVANT magazine, Englewood Review of Books, and other publications. You can find regular blog posts on the Start2Finish platform HERE.

God Uses Us: Shackles and All

I was in the cemetery at my grandmother’s resting place.  This particular memorial park was an exclusively flat-stone only grounds, and each stone had a metal vase that you twisted out of the middle of the stone and turned over to display flowers.  My aunt had tried to pull it out for Mother’s Day, but it was stuck.  I was down on my hands and knees using a pocketknife trying to pry the vase free, it wasn’t budging!  I look over and my daughter is on her knees with her hands folded.  I asked what she is doing and she responded, “I’m praying that God will help you get the vase unstuck.”  Frustrated and very sweaty, I was baffled because I was sure the good Lord had more important things on his plate than helping me turn a vase over…I mean, God doesn’t really work that way does he?  When I returned to my car, I was blown away that at the very moment I was working, prying, and feeling defeated by a gravestone, my seven year old was praying.

Faith Unshackled 01

Sometimes the things we perceive as strengths can become the most restrictive shackles to our faith. I think the ancient story of Adam and Eve still plays out in us…you see, I was reminded in that moment and many others that I have chosen to feast on the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Moreover, I have studied the Bible and with that understanding comes the “shackle” of trusting myself to define not only if something is good or evil, but if God is likely to act or not act in a given situation. I think there are too many times where my familiarity with God through the Bible allows me to arrogantly move without an element of trust—to serve before prayer, as if God already affirms what I have decided to do.

As I reflect on this type of “faith,” I think it is why I tend to accomplish only the things I am naturally good at doing, never venturing into the unknown, uncomfortable, or uncontrollable.  Those ministry opportunities or missions are just too sizable for my skills…it would take more than what I have.  I believe that true faith gives LIFE (like the other tree in the garden) and often moves beyond our knowledge, skills, and experience.

Products of a fallen and broken world, I think that all of us come to God with a shackled faith of some sort. And I must admit that I like my shackles because they provide me with a way of understanding faith and they allow me to know that I am growing in faith.

Whenever I ask the question, “Does God really work that way?” I am beginning to see that question as a growth question because it is a direct attack on my knowledge and experience.  When I reread the scriptures asking the question, “What does the Bible really say about this?” I see this question as a challenge to my study and the past interpretations.  And when I finally take an opportunity to trust God and lean on God, when I find myself on a plane to Africa, having dinner with a stranger, opening up a Bible study, or praying that God would intervene in our heroin crisis…I realize that God is in the process of breaking my shackles and setting me free to trust him more.

We all have shackles, and God calls us anyway.  As I think about what it means to live an unshackled faith, I think about the New Creation described at the end of Revelation.  I think about all of the brokenness we have, all of the obstacles that make us cry to God to increase our faith, relieve our doubts, and give us greater perseverance.  But there is great day coming when our faith will become sight.  John says that God will, “…dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)

Today we battle our shackles, but we learn to trust God, to believe God, and one day our hope is to be unshackled, face to face with God Almighty, Creator of the unbroken world!

Y1LqPrayer:  Creator God, call us to greater works and allow us the opportunity to trust in You more and more as that great day gets closer and closer.  Our desire is to be set free from the shackles that hold us back.  I pray that you reveal to me the limits of my faith so that I can identify my shackles and receive healing and wholeness from You.  Come Lord Jesus, so that our faith can become sight and our brokenness can be fully restored.  Lord God make all things new and that includes me, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

sound-waves 01a

Jonathan Woodall - picJonathan Woodall serves the GracePointe Church of Christ in Elizabethtown, PA.  He is married to Hayley and they have two children. Jonathan spent ten years in campus ministry at Soma Memphis serving the University of Memphis and served as a worship minister at the White Station Church of Christ.  Jonathan has a desire to see the church reach the next generation and is particularly drawn to the communication of God’s story through preaching and teaching, especially as it pertains to our contemporary context. Jonathan’s blog can be found at www.jonathanfwoodall.com and the church website is www.gracepointechurchofchrist.org  (PS – if you are coming to Hershey, PA for a vacation or whatever, come worship with us!) 

God’s not a Conservative

  • I have often heard Christians describe “conservatism” as though it’s a fruit of the Spirit.
  • I know of church leaders who when faced with a decision about a ministry or application of Scripture will seek to identify the conservative choice, because they’ve predetermined that it’s the correct one.
  • I’ve been part of a dying church with close to $200,000 in reserve simply to help it through some rainy day in the future.
  • I know Christian worried that today’s culture will corrupt our youth. These same people fail to see that culture has influenced their own perception of God.

Churches have a lot of unusual words as part of their normal conversation. One of those words is STEWARDSHIP. The churchy definition of this word is: there’s about to be a sermon on giving more money to the church.

In contrast, the Bible definition of stewardship goes more like this: Everything in Creation belongs to God, and He’s given humanity the responsibility of taking care of it as He would. According to Genesis 1:26 God created humanity in His own image so that we could rule over and care for creation.

Stewardship is a fundamental purpose of human life.

Christians should be people who take this responsibility seriously. We don’t just care for Creation on behalf of God, we carefully manage all the resources that he provides us.

However, many Christians face the temptation to base their role of God’s caretaker, or manager, upon the philosophy of conservatism. We adopt the mindset that our job is to manage God’s resources carefully, and we use words like “frugal, wisdom, and fiscally responsible” to justify our worldview.

Jesus told (at least) two parables that challenge this conservative perspective.

PARABLE 1: The Parable of the Bags of Gold (Matt. 25:14-30)

In this parable describing the kingdom of heaven, three servants were given bags of gold and told to care for it as their boss would. They knew that the boss wanted them to earn a return on the money, but the most conservative servant decided to bury his gold to ensure its safety. When the boss returns from his travels he is irate with the conservative servant.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe lesson here is that God intends us to use the resources he provides to enhance the mission of the kingdom. This involves risk. Conservatism seeks to minimise risk, but in this parable the boss wants his manager to take some risks. The safest option is not the best option.

A key to this story is the statement in v24 “I knew you are a hard man….“. If we are to manage God’s resources the way He would, we need to ground our approach in the character of God. Many Christians have sadly lost sight that our God takes risks.

I’m not suggesting recklessness such as Jesus jumping off the temple roof because God had promised that he wouldn’t break any bones. I’m thinking more of the presence of two trees in the Garden of Eden. As any of us who’ve been through a romantic break-up know… The decision to love involves risk. God is love at his core, so the presence of two trees demonstrates his willingness to risk rejection for the sake of love. As does the third tree on Calvary.

Sometimes churches will be taken advantage of. Sometimes ministry ideas will fall flat. Sometimes we’ll use our gifts to preach or teach and we’ll say things that are wrong. Sometimes we’ll do things that in hindsight were just foolishness. And I’m confident that God says, “I’m so glad you didn’t bury those resources. Dust yourself off. Rub the sore spot. Let’s try again. The reward will be worth the risks.”

PARABLE 2: The Workers in the Vineyard (Matt 20:1-16)

In this story about Gentiles entering the kingdom of God, the farmer recruits workers throughout the day. He promises all of them a day’s pay, regardless of when they start. Needless to say, at the end of the day those who’ve been working since sunrise aren’t thrilled to see those that arrived during afternoon tea receiving the same pay.

Parable of Vineyard Workers

By Jacob Willemsz de Wet, mid-17th century –  Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org.

While this parable isn’t specifically about stewardship, the dramatic hinge of the story depends upon the audience thinking God is a just God who gives everyone what they have earned. Instead, Jesus surprises everyone by describing God as generous, who’ll give what He wants to who He wants! “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (v15)

Many Christians see stewardship in terms of a bank. God has given us resources. These resources might include the church building, the church treasury, personal wages, individual skills. And in our worldview, we’re the bank. God intends for us to protect his resources and use them very wisely.

This means we have rules about using the church building. This means we don’t give money to people who aren’t good managers of their personal finances. This means we provide for our family first before we give to the church. This means I have to use my skills to work hard to make sure my family is provided for.

But what if our generous God gave us these resources not to act as his stewards by preserving them, but for giving them away? What if he’s saying, “I trust you to distribute these funds as I would distribute them.” What if it’s okay that we have to spend God’s money to repair a hole in the wall of the church building because a group from the community was breaking rules and running and throwing balls when they used it last week?  What if generosity is more important that frugality?

God wants us to serve as managers of His resources, but the type of managers we’d expect. He wants us to be risky managers and he wants us to be generous managers.

Which means, God doesn’t want us to be conservative in representing Him while serving His world. Too often we have allowed cultural values of independence, self-determination, and wealth accumulation to influence our perception of God, that in turn influences the way we fulfill our function as God’s stewards.

Your Shackles Have Names

John Dobbs moved to Monroe, Louisiana, just a couple of months before I moved to New York almost 10 years ago. We have stayed in touch through the years and I’m constantly encouraged by his friendship and love for Christ and His church. I hope you’ll be encouraged by his thoughts as we continue the 2017 Summer Blog Tour.

Faith Unshackled 01

Who am I to do such a thing?

I’m not good enough.

I don’t have what it takes.

Someone else would do it better.

When you have visions of great things you’d like to do for God, are your visions followed with thoughts like those above? If so, you are not alone. Those are the kinds of statements made by some of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament, just before God used them to do incredible works. Men like Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah were normal people of faith being unshackled to do amazing things empowered by an awesome God.

I believe it is one of the tasks of faith to name the shackles that bind us and keep us from the things we would like to do for God. In naming them, we identify the reality and pry apart the grip they have on our lives. What is keeping you from doing something for God that you have dreamed of but never taken steps toward?

EXCUSES If you are like me you get defensive when someone identifies your perfectly good reasons as ‘excuses’. We need to be honest with ourselves. Are we making up excuses so that we do not have to experience the potential of failure as we try to do something great for God?

I don’t know how to speak because I’m only a child. – Jeremiah 1:6

SHAME Maybe we think that if we try – and fail – in service to God that this is somehow a terrible thing. Jeremiah preached for forty years without a single recorded positive response to his messages. He struggled, but he didn’t quit trying.

I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. – Isaiah 6:5

SIN The biggest shackle of all. We feel unqualified because we wrestle with sin – and maybe one ‘besetting sin’ – that just won’t go away. As we attempt to glorify God in our lives how easy it would be for someone to point out our flaws. They could paint us as a hypocrite. Sin takes feelings of shame and rationalizing excuses and forms a weapon that destroys our hearts.

Who am I … What am I supposed to say? – Exodus 4:11,13

I encourage us all today to stop letting our shackles keep us from an exciting journey of faith. Yes, we need to name our shackles and identify them as weapons – weapons our enemy is using to diminish our work for God.

No weapon fashioned against you will succeed, and you may condemn every tongue that disputes with you. This is the heritage of the Lord’s servants,  whose righteousness comes from me, says the Lord. – Isaiah 54:17

Read again the powerful armor God has provided every Christian to withstand the weapons of the enemy in Ephesians 6:10-18. Remind yourself of the power of the cross and the assurance of the resurrection to defeat sin and give you new life. Ultimately everything we do for God is not controlled by our hands. He uses us in ways we couldn’t have guessed. His surprises keep us attentive as we walk by faith. We will begin to notice that we are not, by our efforts, directing God’s work. When we walk by faith we are falling into His works in such a way that the old excuses, shame, and sin are remnants of the shackled life that is now free.

Be mindful that no one does this perfectly. Don’t ever let a failure keep you from taking the next step with God. He’s never used anyone who wasn’t a failure in some respect or another. Remember that you do not have to see the end of the story, you just need to walk in the story.

We live by faith and not by sight. – 2 Corinthians 5:7

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10 - John Dobbs picJohn Dobbs is the minister of the Forsythe Church of Christ in Monroe, Louisiana (http://facoc.org). You can find him on Facebook, Twitter (@johndobbs, @facoc) and Instagram (@bigpoppa1130). Weekly sermons can be heard at http://forsythechurch.podbean.com/ (or on Forsythe’s podcast on iTunes). Even with all of that social media, there’s a special place in his heart for his blog located at http://johndobbs.com. Happily married to Maggy for 30 years with two children and two grandchildren.

The Light of Faith

The first guest article in the 2017 Summer Blog Tour comes from Jennifer Rundlett. Jennifer, the founder of God thru the Arts Ministries, maintains a presence in the community with her active lecture and concert series highlighting the spiritual connections throughout the arts. Author of My Dancing Day: Reflections of the Incarnation in Art and Music, and The Joyful Sound: Reflections on the Life of Christ in Art and Music she regularly posts devotional blogs on God thru the Arts at http://www.jrundlett.wordpress.com

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We all can get burned out from time to time…

and our once full throated song can become a half-hearted tune that we push through as we become absent minded about the glorious light of our faith.

How can we cope with these times of the “doldrums” in our walk with God?

How can we encourage the sweet wind of the Holy Spirit to blow through us to re-kindle our inner fire?

Our faith is a precious treasure, a gift that should be nurtured in the best of times, so we might thrive, but also so we might navigate the storms ahead without losing our way.

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you O God. ~ Psalm 42:1

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Rouen Cathedral: Facade Morning Effect, 1892-1894 Claude Monet, oil on canvas, Museum Folkway Essen Germany.

This week, as I was considering the images of our faith, I was attracted to Claude Monet’s series of paintings on the Rouen Cathedral.

Monet was the founder of the 19th century French Impressionism movement. He was controversial for his time because he became fascinated with capturing on canvas the effects of light on one subject. To do this, he left the sanctuary of his studio and went directly to the outdoors to experience the changing effects natural light would have on a particular scene.

The National Gallery of Art describes this series of paintings as Monet’s desire to capture the “effects of light and weather” and he does this by painting the facade of this church some 30 times over many months as he rented rooms across from the Cathedral in late January of 1892 and stayed until spring.

Monet describes:
To me the motif itself is an insignificant factor…What I wanted to reproduce is what exists between the motif and me. 

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Claude Monet (French, 1840 – 1926), Rouen Cathedral, West Façade, 1894, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, National Gallery of Art Washington D.C.

This got me thinking about how many ways we use the word light to represent our faith and how our understanding of it can change over our lifetime.

  • Light represents seeing
  • It can also symbolize hope
  • A knowledge of a great truth…something that defines us and gives us purpose.
  • Our understanding of Light, gives us an impression of God.
  • Our attention to the light can fill us up until we overflow
  • Experiencing the warmth of God’s light tells us we are loved by our creator.

What do you think of when you talk about God’s light?

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Rouen Cathedral, West Façade, Sunlight, 1894, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, National Gallery of Art Washington D.C.

When I look at these paintings, I’m impressed and inspired by the thought of his devotion to capture the beauty of the light day after day.

Like Monet, I believe, that often what it takes to thrive in our spirituality is to stop-look-and listen- every day.

I want to encourage you to commit to a regular time of devotion to our Lord. Here are just a few ideas of things I have discovered along the way that rejuvenated my devotional time:

  • Rise early: Easier said than done, but try going to bed earlier so you can set your clock an hour earlier to spend time in prayer and devotion with our Lord. If the tasks of your day keep rushing in, make a quick to do list, then set it aside. It will be there when you are done and your time in prayer will help you remain in God’s peace as you enter your day.
  • A special place: whether it is in your home or office, create a special devotional space and fill it with items that will help you look forward to your quiet time with God. Perhaps you will light a candle or maybe you will have your special mug and favorite blend of coffee, these things can heighten your senses and help you relax allowing you to become more present as you attend to God’s voice.
  • Keep a prayer journal: I have always struggled with maintaining regular prayer practice, until I started writing my prayers. Now it is more of a conversation. I allow myself to write in a free form flowing in and out of prayer and regularly making note of where I noticed God in my day. You can also jot down Bible scriptures or favorite quotes. I’m always amazed at how writing something down helps me to hardwire the passage and meditate on a personal meaning for me.
  • Amazon Wish List: Start a wish list on amazon of all the books you would like to read. Anytime you hear about a book from a friend on Facebook or Twitter you can automatically add it to your list. Goodreads and Spotify are also wonderful social networks that can help you find recommendations for books and music to keep your devotional time fresh and inspiring.
  • Silence: Resolve to ask God questions and follow it by a period of silence…you will be amazed at how God will speak to your heart and open your eyes to new insights, discoveries and people all around you.

You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you. ~ Isaiah 26:3

Solitude is the practice of being absent from people and things to attend to God. Silence is the practice of quieting every inner and outer voice to attend to God.” ~ Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality p. 161

Like Monet, let us attend to the light of our faith so that we might notice all the beauty and all the little details of His divine love in our lives.

Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry we do not lose heart…For God, who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. ~ 2 Corinthians 4: 1, 6

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Jennifer’s latest book is The Joyful Sound: Reflections on the Life of Christ in Art and Music. This book is filled with beautifully written devotionals that will move you through the life of Christ, awakening your senses and your faith. Enhanced by poetry, musical selections, devotional prayers, and journaling suggestions, this book will rejuvenate your private prayer, Bible class discussion, and enhance your journey of spiritual formation.

You can purchase the book HERE (Use Blog Tour Discount code: 4SRV37GX to receive $8.00 off.)

“Jennifer Rundlett invites us to experience the stories of Jesus through the arts, and provides a rich resource and guide for visualizing, embracing, and hearing those stories in fresh and new ways. If you want to feel the stories of Jesus anew, practice the exercises in this book and learn to sing a new song.”
—JOHN MARK HICKS, professor of theology Lipscomb University and author of Come to the Table.

Don’t Domesticate Your Faith

Over the next couple of months this blog will be hosting a series of posts by guest bloggers as we again participate in our annual Summer Blog Tour. I hope you follow along, check out each author’s personal blog, and find ways to unshackle your faith.  You can download previous blog tours here.

Faith Unshackled 01In 2017 my church has adopted the theme “Faith Unshackled”. Intentionally ambiguous, this theme could be interpreted and applied in different ways. Inherent to the concept is the possibility that our faith may be shackled, restricted or limited.

Before I can decide if my faith languishes below God’s intention for me, I must understand the possibilities.

The word faith simply means to trust someone else. When that someone else is God, then the things we trust him with can be big things. But sometimes the things God wants us to trust him with are bigger than we’re ready to risk.

Jesus understood the dynamic nature of our faith in God. Our faith grows over time. As we establish a track record with God, our capacity to trust him with bigger areas and issues in our lives grows. Because faith does not grow along a straight line, the fragility of our faith means that some days we gladly trust God with everything, and then at other days we wonder if we can trust him with anything.

I know Jesus understands this phenomena because he witnessed it in his closest disciples.

In Matthew 17 a group of disciples attempted to cast out a demon… and failed. They approach Jesus seeking insight into why their efforts failed. Jesus responds with a well-known statement that I’m not sure encourages his disciples that they only need a little faith, or scolds them for not having even the smallest amount of faith.

“Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”   Matthew 17:20

In the chapter prior, Jesus had given his disciples a big, enormous, radical faith challenge:

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” Matthew 16:24-25

Both of these challenges from Jesus describe faith leading to radical outcomes. Yet so often we limit our faith to praying that Sister Jones’ kidney stone will pass quickly. In this process we reduce faith that was intended to be bold, radical and world-changing, and we domesticate it. We reduce faith to something manageable. Rather than inspiring courage, innovation and adventures for God, we transform it into a safety net in case of emergencies and kidney stones. Of course God cares about kidney stones and the suffering of his children, but the possibilities of faith extend much further.

In the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus sends his disciples to the ends of the earth. He reminds them of his supreme power and promises his presence wherever they go. Then he watches to see their faith in action.

Today, I write about this moment that took place 2000 years ago on the shores of Galilee, from a time and country never imagined all those years ago. My existence and love for Christ demonstrate the power of those disciples’ faith.

As my church explores what it means for us to live with Unshackled Faith, I have encouraged us not to leave our faith chained to the pew. We must demonstrate our faith in God to those around us.

This may mean involving oneself in church ministries such as our community garden, or apartment cookouts. Unshackled Faith could also mean hosting a cookout and inviting church members we’ve never eaten with before, just because we’re committed to following Christ together. Or maybe we’re finding ways to bring unchurched and churched friends together in non-threatening social settings. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is prompting us to launch a new ministry or add our energy to an existing one.

We all have our comfort zones. The thing is, comfort zones don’t require faith.