Maturing in Faith

Philippians 4:13Andrée Seu Peterson, in an article entitled “Learning Curves” in World magazine asks the question. “Why would you ever assume that you can’t do all things by Christ who strengthens you?” (World Magazine, March 4, 2017, p. 63). The Bible tells us we can, of course, but the devil and our human nature keep telling us we can’t.

We should never let stumbles or setbacks along the way in our Christian walk prevent us from moving forward, from carrying on, from dusting ourselves off and getting back to work. We must always look at any failure (large or small, real or perceived) as a learning experience. “How can I do that better the next time?” “What can I do to adjust my approach?” “What do I need to avoid?”

We as humans are not perfect, yet Jesus makes us perfect through his death and resurrection, so we need to let him guide us through troubling times. That’s what maturing in faith is all about. We need to never give up in our witnessing for Christ, in our connecting with him, in our building of relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ, in our complete and total trust in him. He gives us the right words to say, the appropriate actions to take, the correct stance to have when confronting the next inevitable struggle.

The Bible is clear on this:

Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. —2 Peter 1:5-8

Our goal is to grow in Christ and never give up. Remember that the next time a bad day hits you hard. You truly can do all things through Christ who strengthens you!

 

What Is a Bible Study Exactly?

Bible studyThe answer to the question of what a Bible study is seems at first glance to be a simple one: an in-depth look at Scripture. But a recent article in Christianity Today entitled “Let Bible Studies Be Bible Studies” reveals that the answer can actually be fairly complex in our church today.

“Over time, ‘Bible study’ has become a catchall to describe all kinds of gatherings,” the writer of the article, Jan Wilkin, explains. “As we have expanded our use of the term, we have decreased the number of actual Bible studies we offer” (Christianity Today, March 2017, p. 26).

Churches indeed in many cases have shifted away from offering basic Bible studies in favor of studies that are topical or devotional in nature. Many now resemble more of a book club than a theology course.

Wilkin contends that this has led to a decline in Bible literacy in today’s Christians. There is still value to be gained by engaging in a line-by-line study of Deuteronomy, for example. It is still important to hone our ability to observe, interpret and apply biblical texts. It is still good for us to know the structure and order of the books of the Bible and to be able to know and find the chapter and verse of a meaningful passage.

Topical and devotional gatherings have strong purpose and meaning, of course, but they should not be a replacement for traditional Bible study. The maintaining of Bible literacy among Christians is at stake.

Wilkin suggests that we as church leaders are clear in our terminology of what is being offered in our congregations. Reserve the term “Bible study” for classes that are basic studies of Scripture, and call anything else “Topical Discussions On … ” or “Devotional Reflections About … ” Then the participant will better know what to anticipate.

Wilkin says that it sends a good message to your congregation to always offer something that is clearly a “Bible study,” because it shows that we as a Church make Bible knowledge a priority.

While there is nothing wrong with topical discussions and devotional reflection gatherings, we as the Church should never let good old-fashioned Bible study fall by the wayside.

The Bible Reads Us

Bible reading

Let the Bible read you.

In the Winter/Spring 2017 issue of the Concordia Journal, Prof. Erik Herrmann says in an article on the relevance of remembering the Reformation, “There is a saying that ‘there are some books that you read, and then there are some books that read you.’ For Luther, the Bible was that second kind of book. He did not see the Scriptures primarily as the object of our interpretation, but rather we are the objects as the Scriptures interpret us” (Concordia Journal, Winter/Spring 2017, p. 24).

Letting the Bible read us instead of us reading the Bible completely changes our approach to the study of Scripture. We are not to lay our own thoughts and opinions and values onto Scripture. Instead, we need to let the messages of Scripture overlay onto us and reveal where we are at in our spiritual lives.

Out initial tendencies when reading the Bible are to say, “Well, this is what it means for us today” or “What I think they meant was…” We need to be careful as Christians never to put our own personal spin on Scripture. That is not what it is for. It is not a tool that can be reshaped to match our own will or desires.

By letting the Bible read us, we let the words of Scripture wash over us and let it tell us where we are at. The messages may be hard to hear. “You are a stiff-necked people,” “O ye of little faith,” “You were not willing” may be directed at us sometimes, and we are then called to confess and seek forgiveness, to “return to God with our whole heart,” as the Scriptures say (Exodus 32:9, Matthew 14:31, Luke 13:34, Joel 2:12).

Letting the Bible read us opens us up to hearing familiar passages in new and different ways that speak to our current circumstances. The words are the same, but they can have an entirely different impact on us as adults than they did when we were children, for example. That is the Bible reading us.

And that is what happened so profoundly to Martin Luther leading up to the Reformation. The Bible spoke to him in a new way when he read Romans 1:7:

For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

That verse read him and helped him to see that righteousness did not come from him, but from faith in Christ. That aha moment in Luther’s life is called the “tower experience,” and Luther described the revelation this way:

“I felt I had been born anew and that the gates of heaven had been opened. The whole of scripture had new meaning. And from that point the phrase, ‘the justice of God’ no longer filled me with hatred, but rather became unspeakably sweet by virtue of a great love.”

I pray that we all have our own similar “tower experiences” as we let the Bible read us.

 

Recapturing Awe

aweIn the Bible we often read about how the people of God were in awe of God and Jesus:

The Israelites trembled when they say the thunder and lightning and trumpet blasts announcing the presence of God on Mt. Sinai.

The wise men bowed down and worshiped Jesus when they came into his presence bearing gifts.

The disciples marveled at Jesus when he stilled the storm.

A Samaritan healed of leprosy fell at Jesus’ feet, giving thanks.

Unadulterated awe is something that is hard to come by these days in our modern society. What is awe? Psychologist Dacher Keltner puts it this way, “Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast or beyond human scale, that transcends our current understanding of things” (Parade Magazine, October 9, 2016, p. 6).

Looking at the stars, standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon or staring up at El Capitan in Yosemite can elicit a feeling of awe for us. But in general, it seems that we have lost that sensation of  awe in our daily lives.

But awe-inspiring circumstances continue to exist all around us, We just need to be on the lookout for them. A flower blooms where once we  saw only dirt. The sun rises each morning to dispel the darkness of night. The clouds drop rain upon dry land. Awe-inspiring, indeed. But we can so easily take them all for granted.

When we take a step back and actually think about the many things we see every day, we can’t help but see the amazing hand of God at work.

That is why it is good to us to recapture of sense of awe on a regular basis. At Newcomers High School in Long Island City, N.Y., for example, teacher Julie Mann takes her students on “Awe Walks” to connect with nature and art (Parade Magazine, October 9, 2016, p. 7).

We can do the same thing to connect ourselves more and more to God.

“Awe Walks” give people a sense that life is still good, Mann said.

“Awe Walks” can help us as Christians remember that God is still good.

So get out and “Awe Walk” as much as you can to reconnect with God and renew your spirit. Just a jaunt around the block or a quick hike in the woods can give your faith life a a boost. Be awed by something every day!

Embracing Informality

emojisAnother new reality of communication outlined by Pastor Matt Peeples is that communication is becoming increasingly informal. The formal memos are gone, the business letters on crisp parchment paper are no longer needed. Important business matters are now commonly related through mass emails often containing emoticons. Instant messages are used to call meetings and gather information. We can get texts from our bosses any time of day or night. The rules of grammar and spelling and complete sentences are no longer seen as too necessary. Many words are shortened.

What does this mean for the church? As I see it, it means the eventual decline of formal newsletters and paper bulletins packed with information. News that needs to be shared with the entire congregation can be sent through a tweet or email. If there is any kind of paper handout that needs to be shared, there needs to be lots of pictures and icons and, yes, emojis to grab people’s attention.

In some ways, as a proofreader, the lack of formality and grammar in communication can bother me. It may seem lazy or irreverent when done in a church setting at first blush. But it other ways, it frees church leaders to not be too concerned about issues of proper rules of English. The bottom line is: did you get your message across? Then the communication was a success!

Informality in communication is actually an extension of the prevalence of informality in our culture in general. People wear jeans, t-shirts and flip-flops to church and no one bats an eye anymore. Some children call their parents “dude,” and it is seen as a term of endearment. The music we sing within the walls of church includes guitars and drums and keyboards in addition to organs.

Like it or not, it is time to embrace informality, even the church. I have come to realize that informality in today’s world is not a sign of disrespect or irreverence, but an indication of friendliness and compassion and familiarity. It is a sign that we are in this together and this is who we really are and we are comfortable enough with one another to call each other “dude,” in the name of the Lord.

The Benedict Option

BenedictIn their March 2017 Christianity Today did a cover article on the Benedict Option and I was recently in an acquisitions meeting in which the Benedict Option was discussed. So I did some digging into the topic and here is what I found:

The “Benedict Option” means partaking in a communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life.

Now I am getting a better sense of why this concept is being discussed with more frequency as our secular society is tending to go more and more off course from traditional Christian values.

Christians are craving a way to get things back on track at least in their own lives and in their own communities of faith, and the Benedict Option is one way Catholics and now many Protestant Christians are moving toward. Many are literally moving to communities that practice Benedictine tenets, while others are simply incorporating the ideas of the Benedict Option into their current faith lives wherever they may be.

The phrase Benedict Option comes from Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 book After Virture, referencing Benedict of Nursia (now St. Benedict). Benedict was am Italian monk living from 480-543 A.D. Benedict founded twelve communities for monks in Italy. Benedict’s main achievement is his “Rule of Saint Benedict,” containing precepts for his monks. As a result, his Rule became one of the most influential religious rules in Western Christendom. For this reason, Benedict is often called the founder of western monasticism.

The three vows taken by a Benedictine monk are the vow of obedience, the the vow of stability and the vow of conversion of life.

The vow of obedience is seen by Benedict as a complete abandonment of our own will to the will of the Father. Benedictine monks approached every task, no matter how menial, as a call to participate in the obedience of Jesus, who was fully obedient to his Father, even unto death on a cross. There is a sense in the vow of obedience that what might be considered impossible for us is completely possible with God, and we need to trust in that power and strength in order to accomplish the task set before us. The takeaway for me on this vow is that we should preface everything we do by saying to ourselves, “If the Lord wills, we will do this or that” (James 4:15).

The vow of stability meant to the Benedictine that he would remain in the community where he was for the rest of his life. It is a commitment of love to the community for God’s sake, to be of service to the brothers whom God has brought together in a particular place to perform his work. The takeaway for me from this vow for our lives today is that we should “bloom where we are planted.”

The last vow a Benedictine monk takes is the vow of conversion of life. The vow means to continually  strive for conversion in one’s own personal behavior and to faithfully persevere in living the monastic observance as it is lived within the monastery. The monk vows to never become complacent or slothful in his efforts to grow in holiness, or careless or lazy in performing his religious duties in community life. A commitment to poverty and chastity was part of this vow, as well. For me this vow recalls for me this Bible verse: “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). We are still a work in progress and we should always keep growing in our faith.

Consider ways in which you can incorporate any or all of these concepts into your faith life today.

The White Helmets

white helmetI watched a story on 60 Minutes in December 2016 on the White Helmets.

The White Helmets, officially called The Syrian Civil Defense, is a volunteer corps of Syrians who act as first responders in the Syrian civil war, which is now in its sixth year. The group’s charter is simple: to carry out search-and-rescue operations to save the maximum number of lives. The group has rescued more than 60,000 people.

At great risk to their own safety and lives, these men in white helmets scour the aftermaths of bombing, clawing through the rubble to see a hand waving or a tiny voice crying from a survivor.

I found it incredibly moving when they showed the White Helmets noticing just the top of the head of a small child. They sprung into action, feverishly using their hands to dig around the child and pull the entire body out of the broken cement and twisted metal and into the arms of a worker ready to whisk the little one off for medical treatment.

Survivors spoke of how they felt as if they would soon die and had given up all hope shortly before they heard the footsteps of the White Helmets.

I find so many parallels in this story to our life in Christ. How many of us know of people who are buried under rubble of one kind or another: sickness, injury, disease, addiction, anger, abuse, unbelief, grief. depression, etc.? And how many times have you heard of people saying that at just the moment when they felt all hope was lost in their particular situation, they heard the footsteps of someone who lifted them out of their struggle and gave them a new lease on life with just a phone call, a hug, a kind word, a recovery plan, a new medication?

We can be those “White Helmets,” so to speak, who lift up those in the most desperate of need. They are all around us, but we cannot always see them right away. We have to listen for their cries, watch for their hands waving, notice something out of place. It might be dangerous for us to reach out to them, but we must do all we can to rescue the people whose lives are flickering out.

We have the capacity to help and serve because we have in us the power of Christ, whose footsteps came to us when we were as good as dead in the rubble our sins and disobedience and who lifted us up and out of the destruction to live a new life in him through his resurrection. Because Christ gave us a new lease on life in this way, we are able to do all we can for others by his strength at work through us. Become a part of Christ’s search-and-rescue team today.

Watch the 60 Minutes story about the White Helmets at this link:

http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/the-white-helmets/

The Advance Team

advance teamIn Holy Vocabulary: Rescuing the Language of Faith, Michael Kelley compares the Church to a military advance team called the Delta Force. “The Delta Force is an advance team of specially trained agents who act as the precursor for the army. They perform secret missions, do the hard prep work, and engage the enemy before the entire army arrives. They are the ones who announce that the full army is going to invade” (p. 104).

I like the picture that paints of the value and position of the church. We are doing necessary and important work. Our calling is to wake people up to the reality of what is yet to come: the holy invasion of Christ and all his angels to take believers back with him to heaven.

This is serious business and not to be taken lightly. We have a message to bring to people that has life-and-death consequences: Follow Christ and live or face the death that is hurtling toward us brought on by sin and the devil, which our mortal enemies, literally.

Every day in the Church involves s skirmish, a battle of some sort against these enemies of ours and enemies of Christ, and we as the Church need to show the world that we have the power of Christ on our side to do battle with them and win. We have the very armor of God to protect us. (See Ephesians 6:13-17).

But what is also involved is the act of preparing the way, in much the same way that John the Baptist did in advance of the first coming of Christ. We too need to be the voices crying in the wilderness, boldly speaking about the Way, the Truth and the Life in ways that people will listen to us. I am not saying we need to wear camel’s hair and eat locusts, but we do need to portray in some way that we as the Church are different from the rest of the world and draw people into our congregations to learn more. There, as John did, we can bring people to be baptized, to repent of their sins and to set their minds on the coming King.

We do not want people to be surprised by the Second Coming of our King, but to be ready. That helps me to see in a new way the urgency and vitality of the Church. The work of the Church is not something we can choose to be a part of or not a part of. It is something that we have to do, that we get to do, that we have been specially selected to do. It is an honor and a privilege to bring more and more people to the knowledge of salvation won for us by Christ on the ultimate battlefield of Calvary.

 

 

Butterflies

butterflyTherefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 2 Corinthians 5:17

The company logo of Creative Communications is the butterfly. I see it so much that I take it for granted, but on this Easter Day, I look at it with fresh eyes and see the miracle it represents.

The butterfly is truly a “new creation” that comes out of a cocoon (a tomb of sorts) after a period of time. What once was a scrawny, wormy like creature that was only able to crawl on the ground is now a colorful, beautiful, glorious creation that can fly to great heights.

What a wonderful picture of what happened through the resurrection of Christ. We who were once lowly creatures who roamed the earth in sin are now made new beings that are filled with his life and are able to soar for him spiritually speaking in this life and on the Last Day, we will fly to be with him in heaven.

The wonderful news of Easter is that because Christ went through this transformation from death on the cross, to three days in the tomb, to resurrection life, we too will rise from death and the grave to a glorious eternal life.

Every day is now an Easter Day, a day for us to celebrate that we are now God’s “butterflies,” so to speak, able to flit from place to place to spread the good news that Jesus is alive and we will be alive with him forevermore.

Creative Communications is just one small part of this picture as it spreads this good news through packages of church resources sent across the globe. But the greater impact is the new life that each of us can share in what we say and do in the name of our risen Christ to all we meet every day.

 

The Model Prayer

Lord’s PrayerAuthor Michael Kelley in the book Holy Vocabulary: Rescuing the Language of Faith, takes a good, hard look at how we approach the Lord’s Prayer.

“in modern usage,” he says, “the prayer has become something of an incantation, recited laboriously before a sports event or a civic meeting. It’s become a tool we use in an attempt to guarantee God’s endorsement of whatever we’re about to do” (p. 30).

Sounds somewhat harsh at first reading, but the more I think about it, the more he is right about how I personally approach the Lord’s Prayer from time to time: something to just say, get through and check off to say I talked to God today.

But Kelley suggests that we look at the prayer differently. “A better description for this prayer,” he says, “might be ‘The Model Prayer,’ since Jesus never meant for his specific prayer to be repeated over and over again. Jesus advised that his followers pray like this—not pray exactly like this” (p.30; see Matthew 6:8).

In fact, in the verses right before the words of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus cautions against any kind of praying that amounts to mindless repetition:

 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. … And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.” —Matthew 6:5, 7

The idea of looking at the Lord’s Prayer as a Model Prayer helps me to break out of the monotony of simply repeating the prayer. Now when I pray it in church or other places, I think of ways in which I can make it may own—emphasizing certain words that strike me more on that day and thinking of specific situations in my life this week that fall into the realm of each petition.

In many ways, Jesus gave us a framework to work with in giving us the Lord’s Prayer and he wants us give “meat to the bones,” so to speak, by making his prayer our prayer.

Take time this week to write your own prayer based on the concepts of the model prayer of the Lord’s Prayer Christ gave us.

Here’s an example: O dearest Dad above, you are in perfect control of everything in my life. Help me to listen to you and follow your plan for me in this world that you are the head of. Thanks for all the things you have given me. I know I have messed up and deserve only punishment, but I ask you to take away all that I have done wrong and I ask that you help me to be just as generous to others who hurt me. Keep me focused on your path and not be led astray and get me out of any trouble that comes along. I know that all things are in your hands. Amen.

Already in the writing of this, I could feel myself becoming more personal, more real, more in touch with my true circumstances in my conversation with God.

The bottom line is that God wants us to be ourselves with him when we pray, and we need to do all we can to make sure that happens in our prayer life, especially during this holy season of Lent.