Seeking to Love

2018 Blog Tour cI sat across the table with one of my closest friends and mentors, lamenting to him, “Since when did discipleship become only about Bible study?” Later that day, I read this: “You are hungry for knowledge; you thirstily drink up biblical ideas; you long to be Christlike; yet all of that knowledge doesn’t seem to translate into a way of life. It seems we can’t think our way to holiness.”* You’re good, God…

“Would you disciple this person?” I remember asking a mature Christian of a new Christian. “Sure, but I don’t have a lesson plan or a bunch of studies ready,” was the reply. It was a reasonable response, after all, as part of my schooling I was tasked to write a 12-month discipling study; it’s little wonder that many people don’t have that lying around…

“Let’s form a teaching schedule from real-life principles that our teens face, with every lesson geared towards reinforcing that one principle a quarter,” came the cry at the educational curriculum meeting. “But, how do we make sure we teach all of Scripture?” came the earnest, if expected, critique…

“What’d you think of the lesson?” I asked of someone visiting a class taught by one of my favorite in-house Bible teachers. “Fine,” she replied, “but he didn’t use very many verses…”

fisherman 01

For 4 months the fly fishing rod produced no fish but much suffering, yet here in my hand it was again. I had only just learned the (still too thick) line and (way too big) bug to tie on, and so I cast with hope. With barely any knowledge of how or why it would, a hooked trout shook my rod for the first time, and a passion for the sport, nurtured in suffering, was born that continues today.

In a tradition that emphasizes Bible study as the goal of assembly, a contrast strikes me. Is there value in knowledge and study? Absolutely. But to what end? Often, this leads to assumptions that the more we know, the more God-like we are. Personal experience has taught me that’s vehemently false as a rule. This also assumes humans are mainly thinking beings, and that learning can and will change habits. This is how services and Bible classes are geared, and we lament when those raised to know everything from Scripture fall away. Except we don’t apply this logic to other disciplines such as exercise, or on-the-job training, or nutrition, or even fly-fishing.

Jesus didn’t ask Peter what he knew about Himself in John 21:15, Jesus asked if Peter loved him. Jesus didn’t say in John 14:15 that if you know more about Me you’ll keep My commands, but if you love Me. This isn’t a false dichotomy – what we love is what drives us, motivates us, and orients our life, far more than knowledge alone. We know this because we can know the benefits of exercise all we want, and never do it. We can know that cake is bad for us, and still eat it. And we can know about Jesus without ever truly loving Him.

What if discipleship was less about learning about Jesus, and more about loving Jesus more? What if church services were less about information and more about transformation? What if our goal was less about making sure the whole Bible is covered and more about covering our whole selves with the love of God seen in Jesus? What if our goal was less a habit of church attendance and more about attending the habits of the church that lead us to be more, or less, like Jesus? What if we spent less time learning about being a Christian, and more time living like Jesus?

Bible study is essential, no doubt. Should the whole Bible be taught and preached? Absolutely. But knowledge alone isn’t the thing which will keep Christians faithful. Simply knowing about your spouse isn’t what keeps you married. Love: what you love, whom you love, and why you love, is what God is after – that you desire Him above all else, and orient your life to keep Him oriented as your goal. We’re not to know as Christ knew, are to love as Christ loved.

Four months of habitual fishless fly-fishing that finally produced one fish lead to a passion, one that then produced a love to learn more, fish more, and do what was needed to transform into a better fly-fisher. If a tiny little trout could produce that much life-change in the hobbies of a man, where could truly discipling, not just teaching, someone to where they catch the smallest glimmer of true Christ-likeness in themselves lead? Perhaps, just perhaps, it could lead to truly becoming what we love. In one case, an able fly-fisher. I’ll take Christ over a trout every day.


Thomas Pruett - pic

Thomas Pruett is a disciple of Jesus, a husband to Amy, a father of four Ms, who prefers to be outside when possible and with coffee when indoors. He currently serves the Northern Hills Church of Christ in western South Dakota and will transition to serve the Circle Church of Christ in Corvallis, Oregon starting in February 2019. He rambles usually every week at www.northernhillscofc.org/blog.

Advertisements

Seeking God’s People

Hosea.
A testimony to God’s steadfast lovingkindness towards Israel and Judah.

2018 Blog Tour c

From the start, Hosea tells the story of our God whose unfailing love paves the way for the redemption of God’s people even as they commit adultery with every lover they can find.

Read Hosea 1-2. Note the intentionality of the writing. Pay attention to the meaning of the names. Let the movement of the plot become apparent. Watch carefully what God is doing behind the scenes.

It is astounding. It is delightful. It is transforming.

The book is likely written in the final days before Israel’s exile during the rapid succession of kings (six in twenty-five years). God pled with God’s people through many prophets to turn back from their idolatrous ways to avoid the cleansing God would bring through the exile.

In verse 1:2, Hosea is instructed by God to go take a wife, Gomer, from among to harlots and to have children with her, an analogy for Israel and Judah’s adultery.

Three children are born.

The first is named Jezreel in reference to a massacre in 1 Kings 9-10.

The second child is a daughter named Lo-ruhamah, meaning “she has not obtained compassion.” God tells Hosea to name the innocent this for, “…I will no longer have compassion on the house of Israel, that I should ever forgive them” (1:6b).

A third child is born. Another son. His name means “not my people.” Verse 1:9 reads:

And the Lord said, “Name him Lo-ammi, for you are not My people and I am not your God.

Chapter two opens with the two younger siblings instructed to contend with their mother for her harlotry. Hosea writes of how Gomer cheated on the children’s father and warns the father will strip the mother naked and leave her exposed unless she repents of her adultery and no compassion will be had for the woman’s children.

Such brutality is shocking to modern Western readers.

But then something beautiful happens in 2:6.

https://i1.wp.com/brians-walks.co.uk/photos/a-coast-to-coast-cycle-path-cleator-to-moor-row.jpgThe harlot’s husband says something even more shocking!

He tells the children of prostitution that even as their mother pursues her lovers, she will never overtake them. He has put a hedge up along her way. He has walled the paths so that she can run, but she cannot hide from him. She can seek her false lovers, but she will never find fulfillment with them.

‘Then she will say, “I will go back to my first husband,
For it was better for me then than now!”‘

What Israel does not know is that God provided for all her needs while she chased her false lovers. The grain, the new wine, the oil. Even the silver and gold which she and her lovers sacrificed to Baal were lavished upon the her by the harlot’s husband, God.

Still, God says, she will be punished for her unfaithfulness in the sight of her lovers.

But then. Oh, then, declares the Lord, “I will allure her” (2:14b).

Did you hear that? God will allure the bride who ran off after all her lovers, chasing them with God’s own gold and silver, new wine and oil.

God loves God’s bride so richly, so heavenly, that even the ones called “Not My People” and “She Has Not Obtained Compassion” are worthy of God’s alluring efforts.

“Therefore, behold, I will allure her
     Bring her into the wilderness,
     And speak kindly to her” (2:14).

And God does. After the adultery/idolatry is removed from the people by means of the exile, the people are brought back to their land. The bride returns to her first love.

“And it will come about in that day,” declares the Lord, “That you will call Me Ishi [husband]” (2:16).

See the source imageHosea 2 ends like a letter between two lovers. No more false lovers, no more war. Israel will lie down in safety, betrothed to God forever in righteousness and justice, in lovingkindness and in compassion.

God will betroth God’s bride to himself in faithfulness and she will know the Lord.
And God will respond.
God will respond in the heavens and Israel will respond on the earth.
And the earth will respond with grain and wine and oil 2:18-23.

In grand triumph, the children return:

I will also have compassion on
     her who had not obtained compassion,
And I will say to those who
    were not My people,
‘You are My people!’
And they will say, Thou art my God!’ (2:23 b,c)

(Be still in that for a moment. Let the beauty of what just happened wash over you.)


This is the story of God and Israel.

It is my story.
My precious love story with God who allures me.

Yes. God strips me bare and uncovers my nakedness in front of my false gods.
Then God removes those unkind lovers from my lips and betroths me to God forever.

This is also your story.
(Be still in that for a moment. Let the beauty of what just happened wash over you.)


God is always seeking God’s people. Providing for them.
Loving you steadfastly and making a way for you to be found.

Let God’s lovingkindness and compassion wash over you.
God calls you God’s people.


christine parker - pic

Christine Fox Parker serves as President/Executive Director of PorchSwing Ministries, Inc., a non-profit ministry she founded to offer healing and safe space to survivors of all forms of church abuse and to educate churches and Christian institutions in creating safer spaces and improving care for abuse survivors. She earned a Masters in Christian Ministry and a Master’s in Counseling from Harding School of Theology.

A popular speaker and teacher across the country, Christine co-edited and contributed to Surrendering to Hope: Guidance for God’s Broken, published by Leafwood Press in May 2018.

Connect with Christine on her websites at www.porchswingministries.org and www.christinefoxparker.com .

 

 

Disordered Loves

A long time ago, our friend Augustine talked about disordered loves. His contention was things tend to be good in and of themselves but the way we often use those good things is problematic. God created these things, after all – and he called them very good – but these good things were created within an order and with purpose. God’s good creation was meant to work a certain way. So our problem, Augustine says, is that we get our loves out of order. We neglect some things while trying to use other things to do more than they were ever meant to do.

2018 Blog Tour c

I think there’s a lot of truth to what Augustine is laying on us here. I think about Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:1-21. He bookends this teaching with dual warnings about being careful where we look for our treasures and rewards. Don’t give or pray or fast to impress people. (This was a culture, after all, where giving, praying, and fasting carried major social capital.) If that’s where we’re placing our worth and identity we’ll get our reward, but be careful: those neighbors we’ve worked so hard to impress with our shows of generosity, pious prayers, and righteous displays of fasting simply cannot bear the weight our bid for approval, worth, and meaning places on them. Investing ourselves in such storehouses inevitably leads to loss because, “moth and rust consume” and “thieves break in and steal.”

Augustine reminds us it’s not that our neighbors are bad – or even that we should avoid their approval. Rather, when we make the approval and validation of our neighbors the locus of our worth and identity, the place where we store our treasures, we’ve gotten things out of order. We look for something from our neighbors they cannot possibly deliver in any meaningful way. Only God can. It is only in rooting who we are in God’s estimation of us that we can hope to find lasting worth and meaning and identity. This is “where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

In Matthew 6:21, Jesus ends by reminding us our hearts will follow our treasures. Another way of saying that is this: You will spend your life chasing the treasure you seek. More, other friends as diverse as Aristotle, Aquinas, and James KA Smith remind us that it is in this chase that we become who we are. The chase forms us, for good or ill.

What am I seeking? That’s the question we’ve been assigned to ponder and I spend a lot of time doing that. I too often recognize the ways I chase the wrong sorts of treasure – when I place too much stock in whether or not my friends and neighbors think I’m funny or smart or successful or good. I’ve had to deal with all the ways I’ve hitched my identity to being a vocational minister, and I’ve had to figure out what I’m worth now that I’m not that anymore. More, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that pursuing those treasures has often made me a more selfish person because it’s hard to both love and use my neighbors to satisfy my own neurotic needs. The only path forward I’ve discovered is to begin putting those loves back in order. This is, after all, the way Jesus showed us.

What do I seek? It has to be God. I stink at the pursuit. I struggle with it. I often get sidetracked and turned around. But, nothing else will do. Nothing else can.


Rob Sparks - picRob Sparks is a Jesus follower, a father and husband, a nerd, and a paper pusher. He worships and serves with the Fernvale Church of Christ in Middle Tennessee and occasionally blogs at robrsparks.wordpress.com

Seeking “Gentiles”

blur cartography close up concept

Photo by slon_dot_pics on Pexels.com

In Romans 11:13 Paul describes himself as “the apostle to the Gentiles.” This isn’t the main point of the chapter, but it reveals that Paul possessed a clear understanding of his ministry and calling from God.

God didn’t call Paul to stand by the temple gates in Jerusalem and hand out Jesus tracts to those coming to worship. Although Paul healed people at times, God didn’t call Paul to establish a healing ministry at Jesus empty tomb. Paul’s mission didn’t exclude Jews, but he was called to ensure that his mission, and God’s kingdom, always included gentiles.

I suspect that many Christians lack a sense of calling and purpose in their Christian walk. Our Christian mission has a global, nondiscriminatory element to it. Jesus himself taught us “Go into all the world and make disciples” and  “A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.” Which makes the specificity of Paul’s calling all the more interesting.

Sometimes God continues to call people to serve and share the Gospel with particular foreign nations. I have friends in a variety of African, South American and Asian nations endeavouring to introduce people to Jesus. At first glance, this international mission work seems like the closest approximation of Paul’s calling.

I believe that God also calls each christian to narrow their beam of light. In that sense we’re more like a rotating lighthouse that shines it’s light in different directions at different times. We may have a stationary light at the top of the lighthouse that people can see from all directions, but the strong light focuses its beam in one location at a time.

lighthouse night 01

The question really isn’t whether  we have “gentiles” in our lives. Rather, the question comes down to whether or not we’re willing to accept our proximity to them as our God-given calling.

The word “apostle” comes from the Greek word for messenger. In this sense we can all describe ourselves as the “apostle / messenger to the ____________”. Who might God be calling you to shine His light upon?

  • Family
  • Co-workers
  • Children’s friends
  • Neighbours
  • Immigrants
  • Teenage mothers
  • People in recovery
  • Special needs families
  • A local elementary school
  • Homeless
  • LGBT
  • College students
  • White collar professionals
  • First responders

When I was in university studying accounting, I had a commercial law professor, Dr. James Wong. He passed away several years ago, but he remains a great example to me of someone who let his light shine. Here are three examples I know of.

  1. Students: I first met Dr Wong outside the classroom when I chose to attend a “Staff & Students” Bible study I saw advertised. Dr Wong was the only staff member and there weren’t many students, but it became a source of encouragement for me. The group primarily consisted of students from Hong Kong and southeast Asia. Dr Wong and his wife, Sharon, served these students not just through a Bible study but in helping them adjust to life on a Tasmanian university campus. He was an apostle to these students.
  2. Professional colleagues: Dr Wong felt that churches often struggled to connect with white collar professionals. As a lawyer himself, he felt a strong desire to share the Gospel with this community. To accomplish this end he self-published a book of testimonies from various successful Christian lawyers, doctors, accountants, engineers and others. It never became a best seller, but it was how he carried out his calling to be an apostle to the professional community.
  3. Northern Tasmania: Dr Wong and Sharon weren’t from Tasmania, but they lived there for many years. They gave themselves the goal of delivering gospel tracts to every home in Launceston. When they accomplished that they continued to expand their efforts. Over the years they had traveled as far as 100kms from home to fulfill their mission of sharing the Gospel with as many of their neighbours as possible. We might question the effectiveness of tracts in letterboxes, but not their commitment to letting God’s light shine through them to a specific region of “gentiles”.

Who are your “gentiles”? Who are you seeking?

Should Christians Read the Old Testament?

2018 Blog Tour c

What am I Seeking when I Study the Old Testament?

The short answer to this question is “God.”

I was first moved to study the Old Testament by a scholar who exhibited a communion with God through the text. He was a poet and convicted me of the inexhaustible wealth of the Hebrew Scriptures. He showed me that it was more than just a series of books that talked about God, but it was a meeting place to come face to face with the Creator of the universe.

The purpose of Bible study is experiencing God and growing into his mission. This goes for scholarly and devotional reading alike. No matter our exegetical abilities, when we read the Bible we ought to concern ourselves with knowing God. Ideally, close readings, attention to detail, and scholarly inquiry only deepens our understanding. Certainly, God is beyond our comprehension, but we are not left without a clue. The more we study Scripture, the more opportunity we have for knowing the fullness of God.

I seek to know Scripture like I know an old hymn. I want to know the lyrics, the historical references, the metaphors, the poetic rhythms. But it is not just for study sake; I want to sing the song. As the great Zion song says, “I heard their song and strove to join.

Admittedly, I sometimes find myself devoting vast amounts of time to the study of the minutia of Scripture that does not seem to have much to do with knowing God. I sometimes miss the forest (God) for the trees (particular texts), but the right corrective to this is not to ignore the trees. Even the minutia, properly framed, filters up to knowing God more fully. I will attempt to illustrate with a few examples.

Wrestling with God through text criticism

wrestle God comicText criticism gives us a window into ancient interpretation. [There’s a good explanation of text criticism HERE.] Sometimes variants in the manuscripts are just scribal errors, but often variants reveal disagreements or shifts among interpreters. For example, Job 13:15a, is translated by the NRSV as “See, he will kill me; I have no hope,” but the ESV has “Though he slay me, I will hope in him.” The reason for the difference is a textual variant: the Hebrew word here is lō’ meaning “not,” but another ancient tradition reads meaning “to him.” The two Hebrew words sound identical. So does Job say that he does not have hope or does Job say that he will still hope in him? I think that it is fairly clear that the NRSV is more in tune with the book of Job and the variant “in him” is a later effort to make Job seem less despairing. But back to our question, what does this variant have to do with knowing God? Simply put, we cannot make the big points without observing the details. In this case, we get an insight into how our ancestors in faith heard and wrestled with the character of Job. Job is a book about the human experience of suffering and how one relates to God in the midst of suffering. This small little word matters to the portrayal of despair. In my experience, it contributes to my own wrestling with God as I observe injustices and resolve to speak to God without restraint. So the text critical question filters up to wrestling with God when the realities of injustice hit home. One can certainly wrestle with God without knowing Hebrew or this text critical issue, but the closer we look the more we bring to the table.

The awe and wonder of wordplay

I love wordplay and a good poetic turn of phrase. For example, in Isaiah 5:7, a parabolic song about a failed vineyard concludes with God expecting mishpat (justice), but getting mishpaḥ (violence), expecting ṣedaqah (righteousness) but getting ṣe‘aqah (an outcry). This pair of wordplay is obvious in the Hebrew and contributes to the richness of the poem. What I love about close study of the Old Testament is that it slows me down and draws my attention to the creative detail of Scripture. God is a poet. The better we understand His poems, the fuller our communion with Him.

I do not study the Old Testament to prove or disprove its history or to contradict science. In my experience, these are unfruitful and misguided pursuits for the most part. Additionally, my primary reason for studying the OT is not to establish doctrine. Doctrine is important, no doubt, and the Old Testament certainly espouses doctrines, but these are typically secondary gleanings from the primary story of God among His people.

I study the Old Testament to learn from Israel’s witness to the character and actions of God, so that I might more fully understand the wonders of God’s work in the present. I want to sing the song of the Old Testament, which not only requires me to learn the lyrics and the tune, but also to join the chorus. The text hymns its King in strains divine. I hear the song and strive to join.


 Lance Hawley - picLance Hawley is an Assistant Professor of Old Testament and biblical Hebrew at Harding School of Theology in Memphis. His research focuses on the book of Job and Hebrew poetry. He also has a major interest in biblical law and biblical canon as essential topics of study for followers of Jesus. Before joining the HST faculty, Lance served as a church planter in Madison, WI for ten years. He has a passion for the spiritual formation of missional communities.

Lance and his wife, Laura, have three children.

Seeking People to Love

Tabitha seeking

“Evangelism” can be a dirty word.

Mother Teresa 01

Consider this critique of Mother Teresa, “It’s good to work for a cause with selfless intentions. But Mother Teresa’s work had ulterior motive, which was to convert the person who was being served to Christianity.”  Yes, you read that correctly. The idea that a Christian might want to share their faith with others can completely undermine a lifetime devoted to improving the lot of some of the world’s most desperate people.

Despite critics who view evangelism, or proselytizing, as they call it, as a negative behaviour, it remains core to following Jesus. Whether we consider the imperative of the Great Commission, or the Lost Parables of Luke 15, we see God’s desire that people who don’t know Him come to know Him. He desires the lost to be saved. He longs for the sinner to be cleansed. He hopes for the distant to draw near to Him. And he uses Christians to accomplish His purposes.

When many people think of evangelism, we think of Mormon missionaries, or Jehovah’s Witnesses, constantly doorknocking neighborhoods and trying to have life changing conversations with us at the most inconvenient moments. Many Christians grew up in churches that regularly doorknocked and many still do.

But not all evangelism requires cold-calling on people and hoping we catch them at a time when we’re not a nuisance and they’re wanting to talk with someone.

If we’re not careful, sharing our faith can seem a lot like a sales job. It’s as though I need to convince you that out of all the life insurance products available on the market, my life insurance is the best one for you… and your family… and your friends. If I do it right, my sales will grow. The company will grow. My commissions will grow. And it really doesn’t matter whether or not I’m telling you the truth, as long as I can get you to believe my life insurance product is the best.

Success electronic commerce concept

In contrast to this skepticism, Christians share our faith with others because we believe that the message of Jesus is one of life-changing goodness. Having experience God’s goodness, we want others to experience it also. Having seen light in a sea of darkness, we want to point others to that light also. We do this, not to increase our own equity, or to kingdom build, or spiritually colonise other cultures, but because we love others. Because we love other people we want them to experience the best life possible: to experience Jesus.

This week’s sermon looked briefly at two different approaches to making a God difference in people’s lives.

The Apostle Peter
Based on Acts 9:32 it seems that Peter had taken on the task of visiting groups of believers, churches, scattered around Judea and possibly Samaria. No doubt his goal was to encourage these charter members of the Jesus community. In this way Peter contributed to the growth of the church. He participated in implementing Jesus design from Acts 1:8, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Peter had moved from Step 1: Jerusalem, and was now implementing Step 2: Judea and Samaria. In our text Peter finds himself on the coastal plain, and area not given a lot of attention throughout the Gospels. In Acts 10 Peter initiates the final step in Jesus outline: the ends of the earth, as he breaks through the Jew-Gentile barrier by baptizing a Roman.

Peter fits the mold of a typical evangelist. He’s a traveling preacher and as an apostle is able to perform healing miracles that attract a crowd. When he visits a town he preaches about Jesus and we’re told in Acts 9:35 “All those who lived [there] saw [the lame man walking] and turned to the Lord.

As a preacher who can’t perform healing miracles, I believe there’s still a role for Peters in the work of the church. There’s a need for people to travel to unfamiliar places and tell others about the Good News of Jesus. These may be international missionaries, or domestic church planters, but they’re needed. The lost need to be saved, and the saved need to be taught and encouraged. Peters can do this.

map world 01

Tabitha (Dorcas)
The text next introduces us to Tabitha. She is apparently a woman of means who uses her wealth to “do good and help the poor“, particularly widows. Tabitha didn’t travel. She wasn’t prominent on the speaker circuit. Tabitha achieved influence in her community through her compassion and generosity.

Tabitha was loved so much that when she died, the church sent for the apostle Peter in the hope that he could restore her to life, which he did. After she sat up, “Peter called for the believers, especially the widows…” It’s impossible to know for certain, but I like to think that Tabitha was indiscriminate in selecting the widows and other poor citizens whom she cared for. Then, as she loved her neighbours, the neighbours saw Jesus, came to love him, and became disciples of Jesus. These women may have started out as widows, but because of Tabitha’s generosity they became believers.

Today
Sometimes people dismiss the idea of entering full-time ministry by saying “that’s not for everyone”. And they’re right. But it is for some people. The church still needs Peters. And the 12 year old Peters sitting in churches around the world need others to encourage them. They need spiritual mentors to recognise their faith and gifts and inspire them to use those gifts in God’s service, full-time.

Sometimes when people dismiss the idea of full-time ministry, they say “everyone’s a minister”. And they’re right. The church needs more Tabithas. Sadly, many of those who say this, do very little. Perhaps its because while they recognise that we’re all called to serve we don’t always have clear models of what ministry from the pew looks like. The preachers have taken too much of the limelight. Tabitha provides a model we can all follow. Do good and help the poor. Who knows, you may even bring them to Jesus.

Enough Seeking Already!

This week’s guest post on the 2018 Blog Tour comes from Dr Mark Adams. His blog is really well done, so do yourself a favour and check it out HERE.

2018 Blog Tour c

“It was in the last place I looked.”

One of my least favorite expressions follows an anxious search for keys, wallets, and phones. Having scoured the house, the office, or the last place someone visited, when they find what they’ve been seeking, they might exclaim, “Wouldn’t you know it? I found it in the last place I looked for it!”

My inner response is always, “If you’ve already found it, why would you continue looking?” Nobody ever says, “Hey, now that I have my car keys in hand, I’m going to check a few more places to see if they’re there, also.” While there are aspects of our Christian journey that involve a continual seeking and searching, such as a deeper understanding of God’s inexhaustible love and mercy, there are some things that we should stop seeking the way that we had before we were Christians. Here are three things that Christians can stop seeking.

  1. You can stop seeking people’s applause and approval.

The great goal for which all Christians are striving is to stand in the presence of God, and to hear God say, “Well done!” We earnestly seek God’s applause. In Christ, we are confident that there is “now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” This frees us to live out of our joy and appreciation for the love God has poured on us with lavishness.

Likewise, it matters to us that people can see the good things that we do because of our faith, and even if they don’t join us, they can still glorify God because of what God has done through us. We care that people will assume things about God because of what they see in us.

approved 01Even so, as Christians, we need not seek people’s applause and approval the way that the world does. If your sense of self-worth and happiness derives only from what people think and say about you, you’re going to be drinking from a water source that will generally leave you thirsty. People are fickle. They can love someone one minute and turn on them the next minute for a variety of reasons these days, and the function of the always-present smartphone combined with social media only exacerbates and hastens the problem. If you subject your well-being to the hands of people who are chasing after popularity of their own, no matter how much you’ve been liked or admired, you’re still going to have to keep seeking their approval.

Do you understand that God loves you as his own, irrespective of any other factor you could think up or present? Even if your walk involves the occasional stumble or tumble, you rest safe in the Grace of God whose love for you existed even before you did. You can stop seeking people’s applause and approval because God has the final word, and God loves you dearly. As he demonstrated in Christ, he would rather die than try to imagine Eternity without you there.

  1. You can stop seeking to establish your value through your own competence.

I struggle with anxiety if I feel underprepared for a situation. I work on my sermons and classes far in advance. I try to study every angle of something about which I believe people might ask me. I’ve always worked hard to be a resourceful person, to whom people feel they can turn if they need knowledge and insight. Sometimes, this can become an idol.

Your idol may not be an idol of knowledge, but there are probably other ways you try to establish your worth through what you can do. Are you the person who can get things done? Are you the person who always directs or volunteers in a certain way? Are you the person on whom everyone has to depend when they need a certain thing?

It is one thing to be a valuable asset because of your love for the greater community. It is another thing to share your gifts and talents, but to have strings attached for what you expect in return. It is a blessing to be able to share, to give, and to inspire. But when we must be seen a certain way because of what we can do, we have stopped relying on God for our sense of worth and have settled for an idol, who will leave us unsatisfied. Your gifts are yours for the building up of the body of Christ. Use them for the good of others, and stop seeking to establish your worth through what you can do, rather than through the way God has valued you.

  1. You can stop seeking to prove your worth through your possessions.

StockSnap clothing 02Christians in the West have a hard time letting go of our cultural tendency to buy things for their status rather than for their usefulness. Name brands, vehicle sizes and features, and a variety of clothing and personal ornamentation do and will continue to grab the world’s attention. It is this tendency, I believe, that Paul is addressing when he warns about the importance of dressing with modesty. Even though he would probably be in agreement with our general aversion to dressing overly “sexy,” Paul is concerned that when a person shows off their value through what they use to clothe themselves, they necessarily exclude and demean the poor among us who have no ability to succeed in a contest of possession acquisition.

Let us not forget that those of us who have been baptized into Christ have clothed ourselves with Christ. Jesus is our brand. Jesus is our identity. Jesus is our greatest treasure and our highest hope.

Before you make your next purchase, you might ask yourself:

  • Is this valuable for how it is useful, or for how it will make people see me?
  • Does my displaying of this item potentially alienate someone who can’t afford one of the same?
  • Do I get uneasy at the thought of people not seeing me as successful for wearing a lesser brand?

Until we stand before God, may we always seek God with a holy hunger. May we never exhaust our desire to learn and embody God’s love. But for now, let’s remember that we’ve already found what matters most. We can stop worrying so much about what other people think about us. We can quit trying to prove how strong we are on our own. If we were really so strong, we wouldn’t have needed a Savior. We can stop distracting people from a treasure of ultimate worth by obsessing over things we know we’ll be donating to Goodwill next year. One of the many ways Jesus lightens our burdens is by helping us to release what we no longer need to seek. 


Version 3Dr. Mark Adams is the preaching minister for the Kings Crossing Church of Christ in Corpus Christi, Texas. He is married to his wife Carolina, whom he met when the two of them were students together at Harding University. He is also a graduate of Lipscomb University. You can learn more about Mark at his website: https://kingdomupgrowth.com

 

Seeking a Purpose

This blog post is based on a sermon that you can listen to HERE.

James John SeekingThe Gospels tell two stories of private interactions between Jesus and his disciples that provide a glimpse into the ambitions of Jesus’ closest disciples.

  1. The Twelve argue among themselves over who is the greatest. (Mark 9:34)
  2. James and John request the seats either side of Jesus’ throne in his kingdom. (Mark 10:35-37)

In most discussions of these texts that I’ve heard, people generally criticise the disciples for using Jesus to obtain personal gain. This seems valid criticism. The disciples’ motives seem selfish and unholy.

When we arrive at this conclusion, it appears that we now understand the text as a warning against pride and selfishness and we can move on to the next passage. However, I believe that we can glean more from this text before moving on.

We could easily observe the disciples’ behaviour and conclude that the desire to succeed or achieve as a Jesus follower is an improper desire. Instead, we should endeavour to make our goals and ambitions consistent with God’s will.

Greatness is a worthy goal. How we define greatness is vital. Jesus provides a definition in Mark 9:35 “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last,and servant of all.” Importantly, Jesus doesn’t say, “Don’t aspire to greatness.” Rather he describes a holy path to greatness.

James and John made the mistake of seeking something that wasn’t theirs to seek, or even Jesus’ to give. I wonder, if they had asked Jesus to give them the ministry of primary apostolic healers if Jesus wouldn’t have honoured that request.

greatness 01

So how about us?

The idea of spiritual ambitions seems dangerous to most Christians I know. Yes, Paul tells Timothy to identify men that desire the role of shepherd in the church. But if someone starts wanting that role too much, we get nervous. This creates the problem of discerning the difference between ‘ambition’ and ‘excessive ambition’. So more often than not we frown upon ambition as pride and therefore an ungodly attitude.

Fear of ambitious Christians results in churches filled with people who have few goals and dreams for where their faith could take them. Without goals how can a person determine the next step in their faith walk?

This is a long introduction to what I hope will prove to be a helpful list of concrete ambitions Christians can choose. While I recognise the danger of trying to put the Holy Spirit in a box or define his job, I also realise that I don’t function well in the abstract. Simply telling me to, “walk by faith” doesn’t help me very much, I need more definite instructions. So, here are some ideas, and I’d love for you to add some of yours in the comments section below!

Possible Goals for Spiritual Growth

  1. Read the Bible all the way through.
  2. Lead a ministry at church.
  3. Start an NPO to make a difference in the lives of your community.
  4. Become a small group leader.
  5. Go on a 24hr silent retreat.
  6. Baptize someone.
  7. Go on a mission trip.
  8. Teach a children’s Bible class
  9. Increase your giving. (Aim at a specific percentage.)
  10. Memorize Scripture.
  11. Read the Bible daily.  (Find all sorts of reading plans HERE.)
  12. Attend a Bible or ministry conference/workshop.
  13. Raise a godly family.
  14. Host a small group in your home.
  15. Take Bible courses from a college. (So many are offered online now.)
  16. Intentionally encourage someone every day. (Be able to name that person at the end of the day.)
  17. Make a friend of someone from a different faith background.
  18. Strive to live in such a way that others will describe you as generous.
  19. Reach a point where you can honestly say that you love your enemies. In the meantime, pray good things for them and their families.
  20. Spiritually mentor someone.
  21. Tell a nonbeliever why you’re a Christian.
  22. Regularly practice fasting.
  23. Visit the Holy Land.
  24. Create a work of art (painting, sculpting, song, poem, whatever) that explores an aspect of your faith.
  25. Share a meal with all your neighbors (one at a time).
  26. Identify an organization you can volunteer at regularly.
  27. Lead a ministry at your church.
  28. Become a foreign missionary.
  29. Regularly read the Bible and have spiritual conversations with your grand/children.
  30. Cook a meal for someone else each month/week. Maybe they eat it with you. Maybe you just deliver it.
  31. Pray with another person (not always the same person) each week.
  32. Give money to a mission work, or new church plant in the U.S..
  33. Make a new friend with someone from a different ethnic background.
  34. Adopt a college student.
  35. Read a religious book other than the Bible each year/6 months.
  36. Become a full-time minister.
  37. Commit to being an ethical voice in your workplace.
  38. Raise money for worthy causes.
  39. Attend every church work day.
  40. Prioritise Sunday worship with the body of Christ.
  41. Intentionally express gratitude to someone every day.
  42. Love your spouse, so that they know it.

Most of these goals take more than a moment to fulfill. They’re something to work towards, to aspire to complete. Because spiritual growth is a process.

I dream of the day when I might ask each member of my congregation, “Which aspect of your walk with God are you working on at the moment?” and they’d have a response that was ambitious rather than guilt-ridden.

This list results from random brainstorming rather than profound meditation. I hope it provides a spark for you set some spiritual goals that you might pursue spiritual greatness by becoming the servant of all.

Your Eyes Reveal It All!

This is the 4th post on the 2018 Blog Tour. I first ran into Jonathan many moons ago when we were both involved in campus ministry. Now we both preach for churches in neighboring states. I hope you find his thoughts encouraging, and take a few moments to visit his blog.

2018 Blog Tour cAs soon as I heard the theme for this year’s blog tour, my mind immediately went to a short passage in Matthew 6.  I love this passage.  First, I like it because the ancient conceptualization of the human eye as a “lamp” is intriguing to me.  Second, the passage is really about the notion of focus and the idea that what you seek is ultimately what you find.  So, let me share the passage with you, taking into consideration the overview provided by Matt in his post pertaining to the Sermon on the Mount.

6:22 The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, 23 but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

So, let’s have some fun!  It only seems right to share some pictures with you and ask what it is that you see in the picture?

Here is the first one…

And the second…

And one more…

Now, to the passage.  The eye was seen as the body’s lamp because just like lighting a lamp allowed you to see the room in the dark, so to opening the eye allowed you to see the world.  So, if you had a healthy eye, you could see pretty well.  However, if you have a “bad” eye, that is an eye that is unhealthy, then you can’t see very well.  Blindness was a condition in which the eye couldn’t be “switched on” and so the body could not move about in the light…but stumbled around in the darkness.

In context, sandwiched between the warning not to store up materialistic treasures where moth and rust destroy, and thieves steal; and the reality check that a servant cannot serve two masters at the same time—our eye as the lamp passage serves to tell us that the ability to see and to focus on what is right in the sight of God is extremely important.

In the pictures above, there isn’t a right answer!  Congrats!  You saw a duck or a rabbit in the first picture based upon the aspects of the picture you focused on.  In the second picture, you either saw a young woman or an elderly woman again based upon the aspects of the picture you focused on.  In the third picture, you either saw a vase or two side profiles looking at each other depending on your eyes’ focus.  It is a fun experiment to do, and perhaps you saw both options in each picture. (Or you can go back and try to see the other option)

When it comes to the eyes of faith that Jesus asks us to develop in his Sermon on the Mount, the aspects of life you focus on really do matter.  Jesus asks us to focus on people and relationships instead of stuff and possessions…heavenly treasure that makes us rich in the ways of God.  Jesus continues that we cannot serve money and God.  Our eyes must be healthy, they must be focused, and they are a gateway to our, “shining before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

So, what are you seeking?

  • If you were to evaluate what your eyes tend to watch, what would it be? Another way to say it, what catches your eye?
  • Would you say that you have “blind-spots?” What are persons and things that you might fail to see?
  • When people use you as a “lamp” to light up the darkness…what do they see from your good works?
  • How healthy are our eyes of faith?

Your eyes may just reveal it all!


Jonathan Woodall - picJonathan Woodall is the minister for the GracePointe church of Christ in Elizabethtown, PA and blogs on the church website www.gracepointechurchofchrist.org and on his personal page at www.jonathanfwoodall.com.  He is the spouse of Hayley and they have two children–Brynn and Aidric.  Jonathan has also served as a worship minister, campus minister, and adjunct instructor of communication.

Seeking the Good of Others

You can listen to the sermon this blog post derives from, HERE.

My attention was captured by a phrase in the last verse of the book of Esther. How does the book end? With Esther living happily ever after as the hero in the story?

No. It concludes with the summary that “Mordecai the Jew was second in rank to King Xerxes, preeminent among the Jews, and held in high esteem by his many fellow Jews, because he worked for the good of his people and spoke up for the welfare of all the Jews.

mordecai haman 01

“The Triumph of Mordecai” by Pieter Lastman (1583-1633)

Mordecai may have worked for the good of his people, the Jews, but he wasn’t the Jewish Ambassador to Persia. Mordecai was the second in rank over the entire Persian population. He may have advocated for the Jews, but he would have only kept his position by being a responsible ruler for all people.

In accepting his promotion to second in rank to King Xerxes, Mordecai was choosing to work for an ungodly king. Persia may have treated the Jews and Jerusalem better than the Babylonians (who destroyed the city), but it didn’t make them godly. Paganism would still infiltrate all areas of palace life.

Mordecai was choosing to work with an empire that expanded rapidly and destroyed nations in their path in a manner similar to the treatment Judah received.

Mordecai chose to work for and with the enemy.

Yes, his niece, Esther, was married to Xerxes, but she didn’t have a choice in the matter. That’s pretty much the point of the whole book!

Mordecai provides an example of living out the counsel the prophet Jeremiah had given years earlier,

Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”  ~ Jeremiah 29:5-7

That last verse is a tough one. Seek the peace and prosperity of the city you land in. Pray for the city, the pagans, the people who burnt your city, the soldiers who carried you in chains to Babylon. Pray for your enemies. Your prosperity is tied to theirs. Jeremiah’s thought is a precursor to the saying that “a rising tide lifts all boats”.

Most of my readers haven’t been exiled to your current city, but this verse should challenge us. It sounds nice and fuzzy to seek the peace and prosperity of the place I live. Perhaps I’ll get to experience some of that prosperity. Then I realize that I’m to pray for the peace and prosperity of the WHOLE city.

I naturally want to limit that prayer. I want to pray that the government makes wise decisions for the good of the citizens. I want to pray that my church will expand. I want to pray that the good people will be recognized and rewarded. I want to pray that crime will decrease. I want to pray for people I like: people like me.

But when Jeremiah says to pray for the city, he’s referring to the Jew’s enemies. He wants the Jews to pray for the people who’ve captured and brought them to this place. He wants the Jews to pray that the pagans may experience peace and prosperity. He wants the Jews to pray that the cruel king may live in peace and prosper.

SW city 02

What does that look like for us?  Maybe, we also need to pray…

  • that followers of other religions in our city will experience peace and safety.
  • that the homeless and destitute in our city will find security and prosperity.
  • that supporters on the other side of the political divide will live in peace and that they will prosper.
  • that those intent of crime and violence will find peace and a constructive object for their energies.
  • that those in leadership will prioritise the peace and prosperity of their citizens while pursuing it in their personal lives also.
  • that those in captivity may return to their families and experience peace and well-being.

As Christians, we believe that ultimate peace and fulfillment in life comes from Jesus. We should certainly pray for the expansion of his kingdom in our city. We also need to recognise that Christians have a responsibility to contribute to our communities in a way that “sinners” will benefit from our presence. God doesn’t give us the discretion of choosing who receives our kindness. This illustrates why Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” is still so radical and fundamental to our faith. God’s children are to seek the good of the whole city.