This week’s sermon is available HERE.
Last Sunday I talked about the need for all Christians to pursue spiritual maturity. In the process I presented some research results from the REVEAL study of spiritual growth. As the researchers collated their results, they grouped healthy spiritual practices into 4 groups:
- Beliefs and Attitudes;
- Organized Church Activities;
- Personal Spiritual Practices; and
- Spiritual Activities with Others.
It seems to me that those first three groups are the ones we emphasise the most. We do a lot of teaching to establish Biblical beliefs. We encourage participation in church activities, particularly Bible Classes and worship. We also encourage people to pray and read Scripture for themselves. But perhaps when we look at that list we’re not even sure what “Spiritual Activities with Others” means. So here’s another list for you.
Of these four, I’ll focus today on the top two: Spiritual Friendships and Spiritual Mentors. It seems to me that we often value Christian friendships among teens as we pour many resources into ministries for teens. However, we don’t make the same emphasis among general church members.
We settle for people showing up on Sunday and don’t impose the expectation that they spend time with other Christians outside of Sunday worship service. We know that Christians need one another to experience the fullness of Christ, but perhaps we often think that Bible studies fulfill all the “one another” instructions in Scripture.
I expect that some of my readers will think the church already values spiritual friendships. You may be right. But let me pose a scenario and gauge your response…
You hear of a church down the road that cancels their Wednesday night Bible Class because they decide that they study the Bible as a group sufficiently on Sunday. Instead, they now meet in homes and play board games, and cards. Sometimes they watch movies together, while some of the groups bake together or discussing books they’re reading together.
What you may not have heard is that each of these groups close their time together with 20-30 minutes of prayer. But still, all that play time in place of Bible Study!
Perhaps we feel uncomfortable toward this church because while we acknowledge the theory regarding the importance of spiritual friendships, we don’t actually value them all that highly. We may not have thought of it in these terms, but we would prefer for people who aren’t friends to study the Bible together, than to not study the Bible and work on building friendships.
Perhaps we feel uncomfortable praising spiritual friendships, because we don’t have any ourselves.
- Do your friends encourage your faith?
- Do your friends pray for, and with, you?
- Do you pray for, and with, your friends?
- Can you ask your friends about Scriptures you’ve been reading?
- Do your friends get excited about sharing God’s love with others?
- Do your friends help you date, or parent, in a God-honor way?
I believe that many of Christians will acknowledge the importance of spiritual friendships to their walk with Christ. We’ll acknowledge that God has placed us in His church and made us part of his body which belongs and works together. But I suspect that many Christians fail to prioritize spiritual friendships or allow their personal spiritual practices to bleed over into our relationships with others.
It’s true, that many Christians can say that their best friends also attend church with them, but that by itself doesn’t make the friendship spiritual. Spiritual friendships intentionally include spiritual conversations, spiritual checkups, and spiritual practices.
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.
The 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?”
A couple of weeks ago I told a story during my sermon that a friend shared with me as he explained why he entered ministry. This friend was raised in a small church and wen through all the normal career phases that boys go through: Policeman, Fireman, Soldier, Professional Athlete…. But he ended up going to college and studying Bible.
Everyone I know in ministry has a different story of their calling. God has a large bag of tricks when it comes to getting our attention.
As he told his story, my friend described how frequently the “little old ladies” at his church would tell him that one day he would be a great preacher. “God’s really blessed you with the gift of speaking up the front.” “I can see you really love God and love encouraging others. Keep it up.” These godly women saw and affirmed this teenager’s abilities and planted seeds of calling in his heart and mind. I
have no idea if those ladies ever knew the role they played in this young man’s life, but God used them to bless many through the life and ministry of that boy they encouraged each Sunday.
This weekend I was blessed to visit a little country church on the banks of the Ohio River. About 50 people worshiped together, which seemed the usual number. The building must have been half-full. This church will never have 2,000 members, the community simply isn’t large enough. But I was reminded that God loves each of these people meeting faithfully in this quaint little building every Sunday.
I found myself there yesterday because almost 10 years ago I studied the Bible with Justin. I was a campus minister in Louisiana and Justin’s wife had just started a master’s program at the university. Justin wasn’t a student. I didn’t even know if I was supposed to study with him or refer him to the “grown-up” preacher. But we studied the Bible together regularly for a year or two. To this point in his life Justin had bounced around different churches, but had grown serious about his faith and studying the Bible in his last year of college. So we talked.
After eighteen months or so, Justin moved to the next town down the highway. I studied the Bible with other students. Then I moved to upstate New York. Eventually, Justin moved back to his home in the hills of Ohio. Before long, this church approached Justin and asked him to preach for them!
That was about 5 years ago.
For a while, Justin and I would Skype each week talking about ministry and preaching. Gradually the calls became less frequent. Then they stopped altogether. It’s been several years since Justin and I last talked.
Yesterday I just happened to be in the neighbourhood. So we worshiped, and Justin preached. It was a wonderful experience.
I’m certainly not taking credit for Justin’s preaching or love of God. But I am glad to have been one voice of encouragement along his journey to this place. I never would have predicted that Justin would be full-time preaching for a church. But God didn’t ask me.
This experience reminds me that we never know how God will use the lives of people around us. Sometimes we act as though it’s our job to dispense career advice, or life coaching. Some of us may possess a gift of wisdom to speak guidance into the lives of others. However, most of us have the simple task of pointing others to Christ and letting Him guide their lives.
Are there people around you that make a point of encouraging in their walk with God? You never know what God will do with those seeds.
Lawson Road Church of Christ has traditionally begun the year with a prayer service on the first Sunday; We did this again in 2009. Our theme for the day was our theme for the year, “You Are God’s Building.”
Because we had quite a few different readings and prayers I thought I would list them here so people can review them and consider how the various passages link the theme with our lives.
1. Christ is our Foundation (1 Cor. 3:11)
- The name “Church of Christ” means, “the church that belongs to Christ”. In 1 Cor 6:20 & 7:23 Paul writes “You have been bought with a price.” In each passage the application is different but the underlying message is consistent. Galatians 2:20 puts it this way, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.“
2. Unity within Diversity (1 Cor. 3:17 “You together are [God’s] temple.”)
- To better illustrate this idea we read 1 Cor. 12:12-20 which uses the image of the body to demonstrate that “there are many parts, but one body.” (v20). Earlier 12:4-6 contains a trinitarian statement: many gifts – but one Spirit; many ways to serve – but one Lord; many ways God works in us – but one God. [my paraphrase] It’s not much of a leap to think of the church as one building with many different components. Let’s never confuse unity with uniformity.
3. Hope and Confidence (Heb. 3:1-6)
- Verse 6 particularly makes this point. As long as we are God’s house, we have confidence and hope. Let’s make this a goal.
4. Encourage One Another (Heb. 3:13)
- There’s no direct “building” motif here, but given it’s proximity to 3:1-6 I believe there’s a connection. Verse 6 begins with “We are his house, if indeed we hold firmly…” While v13 concludes with “…so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.” What’s the connection? How can we hold firmly and not be hardened by sin? In part, the answer is to “…encourage one another daily…”.
5. Endure (Ephesians 2:19-22)
- I could also have used Heb. 3:14 to emphasise the need for God’s building (people) to hae endurance, “For if we are faithful to the end, … we will share in all that belongs to Christ.” But we couldn’t really read Heb. 3 that many times in one service. So in Ephesians we see this idea in v20 “Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself.” God’s building has longevity and endurance throughout generations, but there’s also a need for endurance on our part to continue this legacy. How committed are we to God’s building, His church?
I’m also still looking for others to share how this theme connects with you. Or let me know if you’re having a hard time relating it to your life.