Category: Discipleship

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.

Who Benefits From Your Faith?

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I have no regrets about my faith upbringing. My family and small church nurtured and encouraged my faith. They gave me opportunities to ask questions, exercise gifts, and participate in the mission of God.

However, somewhere along the line I began to assume the idea that there was one correct answer to every faith question. If my answer was “I don’t know”, that was acceptable, but it meant that I didn’t know the correct answer.

As my faith has grown I’ve come to appreciate that the bigness of God often means that limiting ourselves to just one correct answer sells God short.

One example of narrowing an answer too much concerns our salvation. Why did I become a disciple of Jesus? My standard answer sounds something like, “I became a Christian because I didn’t want to spend eternity in Hell and I wanted my sins forgiven.”

I’m confident millions of other Christians through the years have responded to the Gospel for similar reasons.

While in an ideal world people would respond to the Gospel as a loving response to the love of God our motives are usually much more self-centred than that. But we don’t need stay that way.

In Ephesians 3:1 Paul describes himself as “the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles.” Most scholars agree that Paul probably wrote this letter from a Roman prison. They also agree that he was imprisoned as a consequence of his ministry. However, it’s notable that Paul doesn’t describe himself as “the prisoner of Rome…“, but as the prisoner of Christ Jesus.

As a prisoner of Christ Jesus, Paul was committed to the person and mission of Jesus. In Romans 6:19 Paul describes how we’re all captive slaves to something,

 Forgive me for using casual language to compensate for your natural weakness of human understanding. I want to be perfectly clear. In the same way you gave your bodily members away as slaves to corrupt and lawless living and found yourselves deeper in your unruly lives, now devote your members as slaves to right and reconciled lives so you will find yourselves deeper in holy living.”  (VOICE)

By calling himself a “prisoner of Christ Jesus” Paul  references his status as a disciple of Christ. With that in mind the next phrase challenges our generally accepted understanding of salvation.

conversation-coffee-01Paul is a prisoner of Christ, a disciple of Christ, a follower of Jesus, for the sake of you Gentiles.

We might not describe ourselves as followers of Jesus for the sake of ME. But when escaping hell is our primary reason for accepting God’s salvation, then it really is all about me.

The problem here is not that I need forgiveness. There’s nothing wrong with preferring to spend eternity with God than without God. The difficulty arises when our primary reason for relationship with God revolves around my well-being.

This naturally brings us to the vital question, “For whose sake are you a prisoner of Christ Jesus?”  “Who benefits from you being a Christian?

Jesus lived his life for the benefit of others. Paul lived his life for the benefit of others.

  • Who do we live to benefit?
  • Who does our church exist to bless?
  • Who notices our faith?
  • Who would miss God’s presence if we weren’t present?

Too often it seems Christians feel like prisoners of Christ, trapped in a list of wrongs and right. How that picture changes when we’re prisoners of Christ Jesus for the sake of our neighbors.

 

Are You Preaching Peace?

No other New Testament passage addresses race relations in the church as directly as Ephesians 2. In verses 11-22 Paul addresses both Jewish and Gentile Christians urging them to adopt an attitude of humility. Both groups depend upon Christ for their salvation and in that truth both groups should find unity.

The key verse found in this passage is verse 15b-16,

His desire was to create in His body one new humanity from the two opposing groups, thus creating peace. Effectively the cross becomes God’s means to kill off the hostility once and for all so that He is able to reconcile them both to God in this one new body. (VOICE)

For most of my life I have focused upon the role Jesus’ death on the cross plays in allowing God to forgive our sins. Forgiveness and restored relationship with God epitomise the cross.

So when I read these verses in Ephesians 2 I’m forced to expand my understanding of the cross. We’re told here that Jesus died to break down walls between Jews and Gentiles. To welcome them both in to the kingdom of God.

This is where the Bible gets tough for us. If Jesus died to remove barriers and dividing walls. If Jesus came to preach peace. Then this is an element of the Gospel that we must proclaim also. If God could make one new humanity out of Jews and Gentiles, what can he do with us?

The church doesn’t have the luxury of preaching oneness in Christ and peace with God while having nothing practical to say to our society caught up in racial tension in cities across the country. However, the church has a credibility problem. We want to tell Charlotte, Baton Rouge, Ferguson, San Diego, etc that Jesus brings peace and removes the “dividing wall of hostility”, but in too many cases the church is as segregated, or more so, as our communities.

light-rainbow-01If Jesus died to remove barriers between people so that people could be reconciled to God, then what are we doing about that?

As a first baby step we challenged the church to make October a “Month of Hospitality”. Over the next 30 days we propose to remove some barriers by having each member enjoy a meal (or coffee, etc) with another member on the other side of a common dividing barrier:

  • Racial divisions;
  • Age divisions;
  • Education divisions;
  • Income divisions;
  • Political divisions;
  • Marital status divisions; and
  • Others.

Why only apply this challenge to members in the church? Because, if we can’t overcome the barriers that exist within the church, we have no credibility to tell the world that we bring a message of God’s peace and reconciliation. 

What will you do to live out the Gospel that breaks down barriers?

Missional, From the Inside Out

The word “missional” has been terribly abused in its first couple of decades of wide circulation. Theologically, the word simply describes God’s ongoing work in the world—and the church that intentionally participates in that work. There are multiple facets to that work and our participation in it, and perhaps this explains why the word has been stretched around so many different kinds of churches or styles of discipleship. We understand ourselves to be participating in God’s mission as we spread the news of Jesus’s redemptive work in our community and around the globe, as we encourage each other to follow Jesus, and as we pursue the conditions of justice, righteousness and peace. None of these are the full breadth of what God wants for this world, but in each of them we engage with values near to the heart of God!

Our churches pursue each facet collectively, working together for the purposes of evangelization, transformation, and justice—and churches can implement structural shifts to facilitate progress in each cause. We can create systems that create opportunities for faith sharing, venues in which transformation is more likely to occur, and initiatives that push against standing systems of injustice.

diamond3Whether we’re the leaders fashioning the new programs or congregants supporting and participating in the moves, we can too easily begin to think that the structural changes mark us as “missional”. However, those structural shifts can only move us so far! Church programming and structure may create the conditions in which we move towards mission, and poor structures can get in the way of such practices or implicitly devalue them. Structure has its place, and should be approached with intentionality. However, creating the structures should not be understood as the heart of the work itself—the work itself is a matter of flesh, blood and spirit.

Flesh, Blood, and Spirit

The missional work of evangelization occurs when flesh and blood humans filled with the Spirit of God reach out to their known and loved neighbors with the good news of Jesus. The missional work of discipleship takes place when people of flesh and blood, acting by the power of God’s Spirit, encourage and teach each other about the way of Jesus, giving testimony of Jesus’s work. Justice progresses as Spirit-driven people stand in solidarity with the oppressed, whom they have come to see and love because of their transformation in Christ.

The heart of missional christianity isn’t a matter of organization, but of embodiment. While the church’s programming might provide the sort of vehicle or venue in which these things happen, the structure itself won’t succeed until it is filled by the right kind of transformed people—the new humanity, formed from the inside out for the purposes of God’s mission in the world. That formation takes places when we, both as communities and as individuals, nurture the sorts of mentalities and habits that encourage people to align with the mission of God and to engage in it.

The inventory of those mentalities and habits is surely diverse and contains some familiar things, like the virtues of faith, hope, and love that the church has long sought to nurture, and the habits of prayer and listening to the word that have been a part of both the gatherings of God’s people and the classical understandings of their individual devotional practices. These are well and good, and contribute to our transformation into people aligned with the mission of God, but I want to suggest a further practice, one that I see both in the life of the early church and in the missional movement of our own time: the nurture of a particular obsession.

missio dei 01.jpgObsessed with the Missio Dei

The Missio Dei is a fancy Latin phrase meaning “the mission of God”. It’s a bit of shorthand meant to point us towards what God is doing in the world—something we train ourselves to discover by drinking deeply of God’s story in the scriptures, and which we prayerfully seek by the Spirit of God in our own time. Becoming obsessed with the Missio Dei means that at every turn in our lives, we are always asking, “What might God want to happen here?” or “How can I join in what God might be working towards by what I say and do in this moment?”.

These are the sorts of questions the early church obsessed over. Missional churches have these questions embedded in their culture, whether or not they ever use the fancy Latin phrase or have super-sophisticated “missional” structures. Missional people can’t help but ask what God wants in the world, and how they can bear witness to God’s desires and God’s work towards fulfilling those intentions.

Each encounter with the word, each gathering with the church, and every moment in the neighborhood is an opportunity to deepen our understanding of God’s mission in the world. That obsession is planted deep within our hearts, and keeps gnawing at our souls. Like a deep mystery, it holds us in vigilant tension, so that every moment we are ready to perceive the clues that might shed light on what God is really at work doing. The seed of that obsession grows from the inside out, until its fruit becomes apparent in the world. It is an internal drive that fuels every external step we take.

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10 Steven Hovater - picSteven Hovater is the preaching and outreach minister at the Church of Christ at Cedar Lane in Tullahoma, Tennessee.  He loves walking slow with his wife Kelly and running fast with their four kids. Occasionally, he blogs at stevenhovater.com., and loves interacting with people on twitter (@stevenhovater).

 

 

sound-waves 01aChurch Inside OutAs part of our Summer Blog Tour you can win a copy of Tim Archer’s newly  released book and accompanying workbook Church Inside Out by leaving a comment on this page and then completing the form over HERE.

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.

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.

 

How to Rewrite the Bible

My life’s goal is to guided as many people as possible into a loving relationship with God. A significant part of that mission is to help people appreciate, value and even love, the Bible: God’s message to us.

The Bible has been around for a long time.

Bible WritingThe canon of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) was well established by the 3rd or 2nd century before Christ. The New Testament authors completed their writings by approximately the end of the first century AD. Then the early church reached a general consensus on which books to include in the biblical canon during the fourth century. All of that is a long time ago.

For centuries people have trusted the message the Bible contains for their eternal salvation. Because the Bible is so widely respected courts will ask people to swear on the Bible that they’re telling the truth. In popular vernacular the Bible has often been referred to as “The Good Book”.

Considering all the possible names the Bible could be given, the church should quite rightly feel proud that their sacred guide is called “The Good Book”. However, sometimes we may forget that not everything in the Bible is good. For instance in Luke 18:11 we have a prayer that begins, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people….” Jesus cites this “bad” prayer to demonstrate an ungodly attitude of pride. In addition to describing godliness for the people of God, the Bible also contains many examples of negative behaviour that Christians should avoid.

Although a little obscure, Psalm 6 is another passage that contains a negative example for us. The psalm seems to describe the emotional rollercoaster of a poet suffering a severe illness. In verse 2 he cries out, “heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.

Verses 8-10 contain a rebuttal to the psalmist’s enemies that seem to have arrived at his bedside. The author counters his enemies by declaring that God does hear him.

the Lord has heard my weeping.
The Lord has heard my cry for mercy;
    the Lord accepts my prayer.

It seems reasonable to conclude that these assertions shame his enemies because, like Job’s friends, they were whispering in his ear that God had abandoned him.

  • God fearers: They come to the psalmist and tell him that he’s sinned.
  • Non-religious friends: They tell him that God isn’t listening.
  • Pragmatists: They tell him to suck it up that this is just his path in life.
  • Philosophers: They tell him that God wants him to suffer for some unknown reasons.
  • Pessimists: They tell him to get used to a life of suffering because God’s decided not to heal him.

From the psalmist’s perspective, these aren’t good people. He describes them as “people who do evil!”

Rewriting Psalm 6

I pray that most of us will never experience the bones of agony that this psalm describes. So how does this psalm relate to us? Of course there’s more than one answer, but one choice we have is to rewrite the Bible.

Psalm 6 contains two human characters: the psalmist and his enemies. However, since we as readers don’t want to identify ourselves with either of these characters (although that may be necessary at times) we recognize that there’s a third possibility.

This psalm challenges us to change the story. When we see people suffering, how will we respond to them? Will we respond in a way that causes them to see us as the enemy, or in a way that lifts their spirits and points them to God?

If we found ourselves at the psalmist’s bedside, what would we say? What would we do? How could we affirm God’s faithful love in the midst of suffering? Can we speak in a way that challenges the enemies’ doubts and affirms God’s mercy? Do we have an alternative narrative to tell, a rewriting of the story?

These questions don’t have simple answers.

Does our relationship with God equip us to share stories of His faithfulness? Are we prepared to share reasons we trust God and demonstrate why others should also?

I’m not suggesting that the psalmist requires a Bible study as he agonises soaking his bed with his tears. Silence and presence may well provide the most appropriate response.

I am suggesting that we can’t waltz into that situation unprepared and expect to provide greater comfort than the evil companions already there.

Rewriting the Bible

What I have in mind when I speak of rewriting the Bible really isn’t as heretical as it sounds. Rather it’s a challenge to recognise that the Bible’s stories become our stories and each time they do we have an opportunity to write our own ending.

  • Will I sink like Peter when waves seem about to crash upon me, or will I keep my footing and my eyes focused upon God?
  • Will I cultivate gratitude in my life, or will my story reflect the 9 lepers Jesus healed who never said “Thanks”?
  • Will I eat with Jesus each Sunday morning then walk out the doors and sell him short or will that meal solidify my commitment to follow him?
  • Will I give in to peer pressure and deny Jesus as Peter did, or will I write a different conclusion to that story?
  • Will I think like James and John and condemn everyone not quite like me, or can I live with diversity of thought as long Jesus is being honored?

The Bible contains many negative examples so that we can avoid the mistakes and failures of others. Our relationship with God will determine how we respond in those situations. It’s easy to see the shortcomings of others. Each of us must answer the question, “How are we preparing ourselves for a better conclusion to our story?”

Preparing the Way

Isaiah 40 sits at an important junction in the book. From this point the prophet transitions from warning Judah of impending judgement and begins reassuring God’s people that He’ll deliver them from captivity. The very first words of the chapter change the tone as they declare, “Comfort, comfort for my people, says your God.

Then in verses 3-5 we find a passage better known for being applied years later to John the Baptiser. (Mt. 3:3, Mk. 1:3, Jn 1:23)

      A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the LORD;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

At first glance it appears that God commands His people to get busy building a road for Him to travel upon. The instruction actually serves as a figure of speech. At the heart of this passage God lets His people know that nothing can stand between Him and them. The highway figuratively illustrates that God will take a direct route to His people, wherever they are. That provides comfort for a suffering nation.

Hundreds of years later when people asked John the Baptiser, “Who are you?” John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘make straight the way for the Lord.'” (John 1:22-23)

Consistent with the Jewish interpretative tradition of the day, John has searched the Scripture and found a text that describes his mission. John takes what was initially a figurative illustration and adopts it as a literal agenda for his life mission.

repent 01John conducted his ministry on the eastern bank of the Jordan River across from the town of Bethany. He lived in the wilderness outside any city or town. John prepares the way for Jesus by:

  • Demanding repentance and a new way of life
  • Urging justice for the poor, oppressed and suffering
  • Calling for baptism

In return:

  • He promises forgiveness of sins.
  • He anticipates the restoration of Israel.
  • He precedes the Messiah.

But John isn’t the end of the story. Jesus fulfills the remainder of Isaiah’s thought. If John prepared the way for Jesus, Jesus prepares the way for us.

Jesus goes before us. Jesus ultimately goes to the cross for us. He makes a way for us in the wilderness. A way through guilt to forgiveness. A way through condemnation to grace. A way through sin to holiness. A way through this world to eternity.

Jesus makes a way for us to God.

As you would expect with a prophet named “John the Baptiser”, his call to repentance included a call to baptism. Jesus didn’t need repentance, but he chose to be baptised by John. As we follow Jesus into the waters of baptism like him we also:

  • Jesus baptism 01mark a point of surrender to God. In baptism we also accept the mission God has for us.
  • encounter God the Father and received the Holy Spirit. We too are anointed. When we are baptized, God says over us, “This is my child whom I love. I am delighted with you!”
  • identify with sinners. Jesus chose to identify himself WITH sinners. He didn’t become human to stand on the banks of our fallenness and hurt. He jumped right in and lived with us. In our baptism we identify ourselves AS sinners in need of forgiveness. And so, John’s message of salvation and forgiveness is pertinent for us also. We accept God’s forgiveness while living sinful lives among other sinners.

Through Jesus, God makes a way for us.

You and I are not the end of the story. God has a made a way for us to receive His salvation. Now He will use us to prepare the way for someone else. In this mission we can again learn from John the Baptiser. In Luke 7 John hasn’t seen the results of Jesus’ ministry that he expected, so, from jail, he sends his disciples to double check with Jesus that he really is the Messiah. As people preparing the way, we will often find ourselves second guessing our efforts. Where’s the fruit? Am I really being effective? Is God working through my efforts? Because our preferred timing is seldom the same as God’s timing.

Keep going. Don’t give up. Jesus told John, “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” Don’t become preoccupied with results, just fulfill the mission God gives you.

As Jesus prepares the way to the Father for you, you participate in His mission preparing the way for others.

**For the points on baptism I’m indebted to John Mark Hicks and his book Enter the Water, Come to the Table.

**BONUS: And because Isaiah brings to mind several songs… here are some videos I found:

The last few verses of the chapter contains the wonderful imagery of God giving strength to the weary so that they soar like eagles. This picture has inspired many songs.

Alive and Active

book comes alive 01

In Sunday’s sermon I suggested that Christians often talk about the Bible from memory. This came up because my assigned topic for the week was the birth of Christ. We hear the story of Christ’s birth so much each Christmas that I estimate that most regularly attending church members would have no problem listing at least 80% of all the significant elements of the story.

However, if we adopt the attitude that “we’ve already read it one hundred times”, or “we already know the story”, we reduce the likelihood that we’ll read it again. Instead, we’ll rely on a summary version stored in our memory banks.

What we may not realise is that when we rely upon our memory of a story, we’ve effectively taken God’s word and turn it into a collection of information that we either know or don’t know. In most cases as we tell the story of Jesus’ birth from memory we’ll tell a story that describes main events, but misses the divine wording. So we know that that angels praised God before the shepherds, but we forget the exact words they used.

When we rely upon our memory of the story, it’s going to be extremely difficult to differentiate between the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Does that matter? Well, it did to Matthew and Luke. They each included and excluded material for a reason, but we’ll never come to consider the reason if we rely on our recollection of the story.

It’s important to read the Bible, even those parts we already know. Too often we read Scripture as though we’re preparing for a test: an eternal Bible Bowl.

We read to find answers.

We read to accumulate knowledge.

We read because we’re told we should.

We read to find that verse to win that argument.

While each of these reading motivations have their place, it’s not the type of reading the Bible itself envisages.

The Bible is not merely information.

The Bible is not a collection of facts.

The Bible is not an answer book.

The Bible is not a history book.

Hebrews 4:12 vividly describes the dynamic function of God’s Word, For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. That sure doesn’t sound like preparing for a quiz, does it?

Perhaps the language of God’s word penetrating and dividing soul and spirit sounds threatening. Yet, as we mature in Christ, we come to long for Him to mold us into his image. To reveal our weaknesses and utilise our strengths. This doesn’t mean the process is easy or comfortable, but we recognise that it’s for our benefit.

God intends us to read the Bible not just for information, but to shine a light on our lives and examine our relationship with God.

God intends for us to read Scripture without demanding answers to our questions, but allowing God to scrutinise us with His questions.

God intends for us to read His Word allowing His Spirit to guide our thoughts and hearts as we read.

When we rely on our memory to summarise a passage of Scripture or describe an event, we eliminate the possibility that a particular word or phrase of Scripture will speak to us. We will find ourselves forever stuck with our previously developed wording, meaning and significance, which limits our capacity for spiritual growth.

Spending time In God’s word, is the same as spending time with God. Sadly, we don’t always make these meetings because we’re not always looking for a Bible that is “alive and active“. And we don’t always welcome a God who’s “alive and active” in our lives.

Where do you meet with God?

[Just after I posted this blog, a friend shared this video with me. It’s a perfect match, and Bill Hybels does a great job of presenting a different, but important, perspective on this topic.]

The Power of Another’s Story

Our Bibles contain four gospels. Each gospel author includes different details, different wording and sometimes different events in telling the story. As early as the second century Christian leaders began the quest to harmonise the four gospels.

gospels four harmony 01Scholars often undertook this project to defend the Bible against claims of contradictions. Others sought to harmonise the gospel accounts as an attempt to identify “what really happened”. Like a jigsaw, if each gospel contributes a unique detail, then by assembling all four details we can get a complete story that we’ll never see by reading each gospel individually. Or so the thinking goes.

Many people go through life with a similar approach to the world we live in. We each tell our life stories based on our knowledge of the truth. At the core of this quest is a belief that a factual event occurred. If we can accurately gather all the facts then we can communicate the exact details of that event. In this way truth will be revealed.

This approach has merit. If carried out precisely we can answer a wide variety of How, What, When, and Who questions. However, this methodology cannot answer the Why questions that are so essential to storytelling. It’s a fact that my grandparents emigrated from Scotland to Australia in the 1950’s. But immigration records will never explain why the made the decision to relocate to the other side of the world. And that Why is key to the story. In the case of Gospel harmonies our quest for factual truth may even distract us from more significant heart truths.

Let’s think about those Why’s using a predictable, routine event: Sunday morning worship.

Why did an event take place? We can easily answer the How, What, When and Who questions of Sunday worship through observation and record keeping. When we turn to consider why people assemble in that place, at that time, there’s suddenly no single accurate answer. Any attempt to harmonise the motivations of the people present each Sunday morning is a generalization at best and at worst woefully inaccurate.

Why did an individual act that way? We might think it’s easier to define the motivation of a particular individual, but if you’re anything like me, that may even change from week to week. Sometimes I attend Sunday worship to worship God. Sometimes I attend because I’m a minister and paid to be there. Sometimes I’m there because I have a responsibility, and sometimes I just long to see friends. Most Sundays I find myself motivated by a complex mix of all these thoughts.

why 01

When we tell our stories, the ‘Why’s of motivation’ provide vital insights as we interpret our world. We also need to deal with the ‘Why’s of interpretation’.

Why is this event significant? We can all agree that Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon was a significant event. It’s highly unlikely that we will all agree on the cause of that significance. Was it because it symbolized American (or human) ingenuity? Was it because it opened the door to further space travel? Was it because it inspired a nation? Was it because of the technological advances it represented? Was it all of the above?

Why does this story need to be told? Stories are summaries. We summarise our lives. We summarise events. We summarise history. Because we summarise, we naturally editorialise. We make decisions about what information to include and omit.

We omit things on purpose. We omit some stories because they contain shame. We gloss over some events because we deem them trivial. We leave out details because we want to portray ourselves in a particular light. Sometimes we shorten our stories simply because of time constraints.

In a similar fashion we tell stories for a purpose. We seek to inspire others. We long to preserve our legacy within our family or maybe in a broader sphere. We tell stories to persuade others to agree with us. We tell stories to warn of dangers. We sometimes tell a story to honor a friend, or to humiliate a rival.

Whatever our motivation in telling a story, the act of storytelling is actually a ‘Why of interpretation’. We tell our stories because they explain the way we see the world.

A collection of facts can’t explain the Why.

Most of us have a story that we live. We’re politically conservative or liberal because we see the world a certain way. We emphasizes certain values and downplay others. We value education or we don’t. We avoid debt, or we don’t. We hold these values because somewhere in our life we were taught or experienced things that formed those values. So the values arise out of our life story, not simply from making judgements within an intellectual vacuum.

In our stories we believe that particular actions will usually result in predetermined results.

In our stories we see an illegal immigrant working a minimum wage job and complain that he’s stolen an American’s job.

In our stories we see single mothers and complain about a system that encourages them to have kids.

In our stories we believe that college education will lead to employment and a happy life.

listen story 01

There’s power in the story of another person: a person with story different to mine.

That illegal immigrant has a story that tells Why they’re here. Perhaps it’s a story of tragedy. Often it’s a story of poverty. And when we learn the storytellers name… we’re no longer talking about illegal immigrants. We’re talking about specific people. People who need Jesus. People we’re called to love. People who can open our eyes to another story.

The single mother you pointed at actually isn’t the Samaritan woman at the well. She didn’t have 6 kids with 5 dads just so she could collect welfare checks. Her Why is more complicated than that. Her husband of 15 years walked out on her one day. Now her kids are rowdy in the restaurant because he used to discipline the other end of table and he’s no longer there. Her story isn’t the one we’ve written for her.

Perhaps there was a day when a college education automatically landed a good job. But education costs increase and expectations of a graduate degree not just a Bachelors also increase. So the debt load rises and the “good job” barely pays the rent and student loans with no hope of owning a house. At the same time there are more college graduates competing for the same jobs. So the story is rewritten and college grad takes whatever job she can because some income is better than none. Someday she’ll have a career… maybe.

And we realise that facts don’t tell a story, because they can’t answer the Why’s.

And we realise that our story is just one side of a story, one facet of a jewel, and we need the stories of others to reveal a reality bigger than we can see or imagine.

And we realise that we need to listen before we speak. To learn before we teach. We realise that other races, other genders, other ages, other nations have stories that add value to our own.

And we realise that God gave us four gospels for a reason.

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An excellent resource on listening to the stories of others is THIS series of blogs by Christena Cleveland on “Listening Well as a Person of Privilege.”