I’ve come to the conclusion that the Christian faith cannot be practiced alone. It’s impossible. In our “personal relationship with Jesus” individualistic culture, that seems anathema, but you just won’t find that kind of individualism in the Bible. The First … Continue reading →
Church attendance is down. That’s partly due to living in a post-churched culture and partly due to more activities that compete for time. People’s schedules are jammed, and for many, church is less essential than so many other agenda items. … Continue reading →
A little background: When the church first started, it met with a lot of opposition. It was a pre-churched culture, where people didn’t know what Christianity was about and had never heard of some Hebrew preacher named Jesus of Nazareth. … Continue reading →
English: Christ came into Galilee. Parros. In the Bowyer Bible in Bolton Museum, England. Print 4257. From “An Illustrated Commentary on the Gospel of Mark” by Phillip Medhurst. Section C. Jesus goes public. Mark 1:14-20. http://pdfcast.org/pdf/an-illustrated-commentary-by-phillip-medhurst-on-… (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Why do some people succeed in life, when others don’t?
In the crowd was a woman who had been suffering from chronic bleeding for twelve years. Although she had been under the care of many doctors and had spent all her money, she had not been helped at all. Actually, she had become worse. Since she had heard about Jesus, she came from behind in the crowd and touched his clothes. She said, “If I can just touch his clothes, I’ll get well.” Her bleeding stopped immediately. She felt cured from her illness. At that moment Jesus felt power had gone out of him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” His disciples said to him, “How can you ask, ‘Who touched me,’ when you see the crowd pressing you on all sides?” But he kept looking around to see the woman who had done this. The woman trembled with fear. She knew what had happened to her. So she quickly bowed in front of him and told him the whole truth. Jesus told her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace! Be cured from your illness.” (Mark 5:25-34, GWV)
If you like to read the really strange stories in the Bible, the Gospel of Mark is a good place to start. The central point of the Gospel of Mark is that Jesus is God, and God is different from the rest of us.This story (which appears in slightly different forms in Matthew and Luke) is a perfect example, but at the same time, it shows who Jesus, as God, really is.
Because of the Old Testament purity laws, anyone with a discharge of any kind was not allowed into the temple. That meant that, for twelve years, this woman was unable to come into the presence of God to receive forgiveness of her sins. So in desperation, when Jesus, God present among his people, came to her neighborhood, she reached out to touch him with the hope that she would be cured.
God came to live among us to give us hope. But so many people in our own community completely lack hope. When I was growing up, I knew that I was going to college. I fully expected to live a reasonably comfortable life. I had stability, consistency, encouragement, and the full love and support of my family, not to mention knowledge of and faith in my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. In short, I grew up with hope. The same is true for most of you, and if you’re reading this, even if you didn’t grow up with that hope, you probably have it now.
But imagine living in a home where there is no hope. Poverty, abuse or neglect, or any number of other factors pile up, leaving you feeling like not only is life not fair, but the deck is specifically stacked against you. Because you don’t even know that there is such a thing as hope, you don’t even know how to reach for it. Your life is so chaotic, you can’t find employment, and even when you can, it either pays just enough to make you in ineligible for government aid, but still unable to provide for your family, or the chaos leaves you so unable to concentrate and so disorganized, you can’t even make it to work reliably, or you don’t know how to dress for a job interview, or you can’t afford the clothes to wear to the job interview.
Those of us with hope have a few choices to make. We can close our eyes and ears and pretend such a thing doesn’t exist or that the problem is so great, there’s nothing we can do. Or we can look down our noses at them, and thank God that we have our acts together, and why don’t those people just take some responsibility for themselves?
Or, since we have the greatest hope ever, the love of God in Christ, we can take that hope to those without hope. That is what God has called us to do. You see, no amount of government aid will bring hope to the hopeless. It may sustain them while they despair, but only Christ can bring hope where there is no hope to be found. Our leadership is researching the different options available to us to figure out the best method that we can use to bring hope to those without hope, And once we have the details, we will make them available to you, but be assured that it won’t be easy. But Jesus didn’t call us to go the easy path. He called us to pick up our crosses and follow him. He went to the cross to save us, and so we are called to pick up our crosses that others may be saved. It’s going to take commitment and time, but for your time investment, the return on it is eternity for someone else. You’ll never find a better interest rate. It is my hope and prayer that, when the time comes, all of you will, like Isaiah, say, “Here I am. Send me!”
“How horrible it will be for you, scribes and Pharisees! You hypocrites! You are like whitewashed graves that look beautiful on the outside but inside are full of dead people’s bones and every kind of impurity. So on the outside you look as though you have God’s approval, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:27, 28, GWV)
Next time you come to worship, look around the room. Which of those people do you know of that are struggling with pornography addiction or have struggling marriages? Which abuse their spouses or are complete slaves to money? You don’t know, do you? But then again, do they know about your sins?
We tend to cover up our sins, especially around other Christians. We don’t want them to see those things that we are not particularly proud of. But Christianity is at its core all about confessing sins and receiving forgiveness. Instead, we point to all kinds of things like familiarity with hymns, familiarity with Bible trivia, participation in church activities or meetings, having a name on a membership roster, or God’s Big Attendance Book. And we measure ourselves against other people instead of comparing our lives to that of Jesus, as if we’re good Christians as long as we jump through more hoops than average.
If we say, “We aren’t sinful” we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. God is faithful and reliable. If we confess our sins, he forgives them and cleanses us from everything we’ve done wrong. (1 John 1:8, 9, GWV)
The expression is “dead orthodoxy”. It means having all of your teachings right, but not actually living the faith. Too often, we emphasize truth without actually living the truth, and for fear of offending anyone, we don’t confront sin, so it can never be confessed and forgiven. Or we point to the actions but give little credence to the internal working of the Holy Spirit to produce faith, because we can’t see it in others.
So what’s the difference between faith in action and faith in actions? Consider this statement: “Jesus didn’t come to make bad people good. He came to make dead people live.” Agreeing to the truth of a series of principles isn’t faith. Satan believes that truth even more than we do. And “being good” out of a sense of duty isn’t faith. That’s the same self-righteousness that Jesus’ enemies were famous for. Saving faith is coming to terms with the fact that Jesus died for you because you needed Him to. Faith holds tightly to God’s forgiveness and works to purge sinful and loveless actions and attitudes like you’d spit out a hamburger when you see the maggots in the meat. And true faith is never selfish. It finds serving others irresistible, like smiling when seeing a baby laugh, and faith gets frustrated not with the amount of sacrificial love that others need from us, but our limitations in not being able to do more.
“So how do I get that kind of faith that finds joy in self-sacrifice?” You can’t will yourself to enjoy it any more than I can decide to like eating beef tongue. Only the Holy Spirit can change your heart, but He does so through His Word. Get involved in a Bible class, and if none available work with your schedule, put one together with your friends or family or just you and your spouse. If that’s not an option for you, spend some personal time with God each day. Get a Bible in an easy-to-read translation (check with me for suggestions if you’re not sure), and start with John or Romans. I suggest following these steps:
- Read a section (from one heading to the next).
- Ask, “What is God telling me here?”
- Ask, “Because of this, what sin do I need to get out of my life?”
- Admit that sin to God and know that Jesus died to forgive that sin, so God forgives you.
- Thank God for His love, and ask for opportunities to live that change in your life.
- Repeat these steps as much as you can.
God, give everyone who reads this new life with an insatiable hunger for Your love, not only to be filled with it, but that it overflow into the lives of others, that those others see the change and say, “You’re different. What happened?”
Focus on a Cavalier Baritone player at Drum Corps International World Finals. Taken on August 7, 2004 in Denver. –C.lettinga 19:15, 15 August 2006 (UTC)c.lettinga (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
If you go to a football game with our family, you might hear one of my kids say, “Get off the field! Bring on the band!” They’re not much into sports, but they love music, and in the fall, you’ll often find us at local marching band competitions.
A few years ago, my oldest daughter spent a summer playing for the Colt Cadets drum corps. It was a grueling summer that pushed her like I’ve never seen. Middle and high school students travelled around the country in packed busses, slept on gym floors in schools without air conditioning, and spent almost every waking moment running around football fields in formation so fast that I’d be out of breath, but somehow they had enough breath left to fill stadiums with brass music, competing against college music majors.
The whole summer, they played the same set of songs, but no two shows were the same, because each time they had their task just about perfect, the directors changed the routine to make it more difficult, pushing them to complete tasks they never thought possible, and as they grew in skill and athleticism, they also grew in confidence and maturity.
Why is it that a youth drum corps can demand more of people than a church whose God calls us to love with every fiber of our being? Both are voluntary. What’s the difference?
The difference is perceived value. Those kids wanted to improve their skill and be better than when they started. They believed that such improvement was possible and worth the effort. And seeing the initial growth, they expected that they would continue to grow and improve. Here’s a sampling of what you need to make that work:
1. They knew they weren’t experts. This can be tough to admit. As a pastor, in my training and coaching over the past few years, I’ve learned a lot about what I didn’t know and what I needed to change. It was hard to accept that I’ve been doing things wrong or poorly for my entire ministry up to this point, especially difficult when it was something I considered one of my strengths. What about your spiritual maturity? If you’re not Jesus, admit that you have room for growth and may be wrong about your approach to spirituality.
2. They wanted to improve. Because we know we’ll never be perfect like Jesus on this side of heaven, we can easily say, “No point trying.” But while those kids knew they wouldn’t be the best in the world, they knew they’d be better. I imagine some of you don’t believe you can ever experience such change in your spiritual life. God says otherwise: “Rain and snow come down from the sky. They do not go back again until they water the earth. They make it sprout and grow so that it produces seed for farmers and food for people to eat. My word, which comes from my mouth, is like the rain and snow. It will not come back to me without results. It will accomplish whatever I want and achieve whatever I send it to do.” (Isaiah 55:10, 11, GWV) A disciple of Jesus Christ can no more grow without regular time spent with eyes or ears applied to the Scriptures than a trumpeter can grow without mouth to a trumpet mouthpiece.
3. They knew it would take discipline. Notice the word “disciple” in “discipline”? As Lutherans, we get so hung up on God’s grace and salvation apart from works, that we forget that, once we have been saved by grace through faith (Eph 2:8-9), that spiritual exercise is necessary to make us stronger so we’re more aware of God’s love for us and the opportunity to love those around us.
“Dear brothers and sisters, pattern your lives after mine, and learn from those who follow our example. For I have told you often before, and I say it again with tears in my eyes, that there are many whose conduct shows they are really enemies of the cross of Christ. They are headed for destruction. Their god is their appetite, they brag about shameful things, and they think only about this life here on earth. But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior. He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same power with which he will bring everything under his control.” (Php 3:17-21, NLT)
And that leads to the final component:
4. They had hands-on guidance to help them train. Imagine the drum corps leaders telling the kids to each practice at home or on a local football field, and they’d never practice together until the performance. Can you hear the brass clanging as trumpets and trombones crash into each other? We so often think that we can figure this all out on our own, since we have the Biblical example, but there’s no substitute for discipleship in groups. If you’re not meeting regularly with other Christians around God’s Word, you’re like a one-person football team. Get involved with one or start one. By this fall, we hope to have many more opportunities, but don’t wait until then anymore than you’d wait a few months to eat because you knew you were going to a good restaurant for your birthday.
You need to grow. You can grow. It takes work and help. It’s worth the effort. I have yet to meet someone who experienced spiritual growth and regretted it. The only regrets I’ve ever heard were, “Why did I wait so long?”
I’m proud to be a pastor of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and believe our teachings are true, because they’re all Biblical, but I’m not so arrogant as to think we do everything right. One of the ways we’ve failed is to define being a disciple of Jesus Christ as memorizing Luther’s Small Catechism (and a little Scripture and maybe a few hymns, but mostly the catechism) and attending worship regularly. Most of the emphasis is on gaining knowledge, but if knowledge alone defined being Jesus’ disciple, the devil would be the greatest disciple ever, since he knows the Bible well enough to twist it to deceive us. And if wisdom alone were enough, Solomon would have never fallen into idolatry so deeply. Discipleship isn’t a seminary degree.
But then, what does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus Christ? What do we have to do? How is our relationship with God different from that of the apostles? How could Paul and so many Christians not only in the early church, but still today, face torture and even death and thank God for the opportunity even as they looked into the mouth of a hungry lion or live imprisoned in a shipping carton with barely enough opening to allow breathing that serves as their entire home, including dining room and bathroom? What does it take to have the kind of faith that can endure such things and still look forward to the rest of the day? Imagine one of the highlights of your week being when you write out your tithe check, because you’re so excited about the blessings God has given you and can’t wait to see how He’s going to use your offering to change lives! What if, having the ball of faith, you knew where to run with it?
First, a few disclaimers: You can’t do anything to be saved. Jesus already did everything necessary by dying on the cross, rising again, and sending the Holy Spirit to give you faith. Second, you can’t will yourself to have more faith. That comes by hearing and reading the Word of God. But what does God’s Word say about this?
So get rid of all immoral behavior and all the wicked things you do. Humbly accept the word that God has placed in you. This word can save you. Do what God’s word says. Don’t merely listen to it, or you will fool yourselves. If someone listens to God’s word but doesn’t do what it says, he is like a person who looks at his face in a mirror, studies his features, goes away, and immediately forgets what he looks like. However, the person who continues to study God’s perfect teachings that make people free and who remains committed to them will be blessed. People like that don’t merely listen and forget; they actually do what God’s teachings say. If a person thinks that he is religious but can’t control his tongue, he is fooling himself. That person’s religion is worthless. Pure, unstained religion, according to God our Father, is to take care of orphans and widows when they suffer and to remain uncorrupted by this world. (James 1:21-27, GWV)
What Lutheran pastors are afraid to tell you is that yes, because God has set us free from sin, He doesn’t want us to go back to it. He expects that the Holy Spirit will turn our hearts to Him so we actually grow in faith. Growth is noticeable and measurable, like babies who progress from milk to pureed food to porterhouse steaks. In spiritual terms, such growth occurs in the heart as we trust God more and more, which leads to choices made out of trust instead of fear.
While we’re working on a full-blown discipleship system that surpasses anything else in effectiveness, the most important part of discipleship is being in God’s Word, so you can get a start by just committing to read the Bible. To get started, let me suggest that you set aside 10 minutes more per day than you do now. Go to bed 15 minutes later with Bible in hand or on your phone (Check out youversion.com for the best free digital Bible). Read it over breakfast or lunch. Get a free audio Bible from audiotreasure.com, and listen during your commute, pausing to think about what God is speaking into your life. Follow these easy steps suggested by Martin Luther:
- Read a passage (sentence or paragraph) and answer, “What did I learn from this?”
- Based on what I learned, what sin do I need to repent of?
- Confess that sin to God and thank Him for forgiving you.
- Figure out what you need to change in your life to avoid that sin in the future and ask God to help you commit to that change.
If you want to go all in on this, get a friend or two to meet with you every week to follow this process together. (You can do this with your spouse, but having friends of the same sex will allow you to be more candid if there’s sin in your heart that would hurt your spouse to hear about.)
Imagine how different your life would be just by following these four steps. Since the Bible covers every aspect of our lives, this personal study will bring God into every corner and help you see not only His influence and love, but the direction He has for you.
Now imagine how our community would change if every member of Shepherd of the Ridge began this discipline. As our perspective changed, thus changing our lives, that change would flow through the community. But don’t just think about it. Do what it says.
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They will come, and you will see them. They will ask questions like, “Where do I pay?” and they won’t know where to sit. They’ll scout the place out before bringing their kids. They’ll look around constantly to make sure they’re doing what everyone else is doing. They’ll check what you’re wearing to figure out whether they’re overdressed or underdressed. And they’ll be terrified. But they’ll also find themselves in awe and wonder of a God who can love them, a Supreme Being greater than the universe that wants to be in a relationship with them, and a pure and just God Who at the same time forgives all sin.
They’re the unchurched, but they won’t come unless they have a compelling reason to. And they have lots of compelling reasons not to. Now, you may be tempted to think, “But they just should!” But that makes church sound like Metamucil: It’s not pleasant, but it’ll clear the bad stuff out of you!
Missional living is about showing people that faith defines who you are instead of being something you do. And it’s more than being nice: it’s living sacrificially. “These things that I once considered valuable, I now consider worthless for Christ. It’s far more than that! I consider everything else worthless because I’m much better off knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. It’s because of him that I think of everything as worthless. I threw it all away in order to gain Christ” (Philippians 3:7-8, GWV) Some pastors call it, “Living the Six,” or living out your faith the other six days of the week like you do Sunday morning. And what happens when we do that?
In the same way let your light shine in front of people. Then they will see the good that you do and praise your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:16, GWV)
As Christians, we live in such a way that it will lead people to praise God. Think about that as you plan your day, your week, your life. “How can I live that people will be so amazed by the love I show that it will move them to praise God for me?” That’s a tall order, isn’t it? Yet that’s the kind of life Jesus calls us, His disciples, to live. He calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves, love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us. What does that look like? St. Paul spells it out for us in a familiar passage often read at weddings (then forgotten before the reception!).
Read this passage, and think about your spouse. (If you’re not married, think about a family member or good friend.)
I may speak in the languages of humans and of angels. But if I don’t have love, I am a loud gong or a clashing cymbal. I may have the gift to speak what God has revealed, and I may understand all mysteries and have all knowledge. I may even have enough faith to move mountains. But if I don’t have love, I am nothing. I may even give away all that I have and give up my body to be burned. But if I don’t have love, none of these things will help me. Love is patient. Love is kind. Love isn’t jealous. It doesn’t sing its own praises. It isn’t arrogant. It isn’t rude. It doesn’t think about itself. It isn’t irritable. It doesn’t keep track of wrongs. It isn’t happy when injustice is done, but it is happy with the truth. Love never stops being patient, never stops believing, never stops hoping, never gives up. (1 Corinthians 13:1-7, GWV)
How greatly have you failed in this kind of love?
Now read it again, but think about the people in our community who don’t know Jesus. Seriously, read it again. Have you been loving to your community? No? Jesus forgives you. He didn’t just come to model that love, but to live that love and die that love for you as well as for those who don’t even know that.
But read it one more time, and as you read each sentence, pray, “God, show me how to love that way, the way You loved me.” Memorize it. Tape it to your car’s dashboard. Attach it to your computer monitor or your TV or bathroom mirror. Set it on your dinner table. Paste it in an email and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org so it keeps getting sent back to you every day. And read it, praying again and again that God show you how to live that kind of love.
When we read about Jesus washing His disciples’ feet, we don’t bat an eye, because our feet, at worst, have sweaty lint on them. To get an idea of the kind of life Jesus was demonstrating, contemplate volunteering (i.e. no paycheck) to change adult diapers in the local Alzheimer’s unit. Every day. Third shift.
If God hasn’t called you into charitable elderly care, in what ways is He calling you to live like that? Because when you do, people who don’t know Jesus will come to know you. And they will wonder what makes you tick, why you’d live your life in a way that may seem admirable, but just doesn’t make sense. And when they hear about Jesus, they’ll realize that the Almighty God did exactly that for them, all the way to the cross and back. And they’ll change their Sunday morning plans.
Image by jimforest via Flickr
On Maundy Thursday, Lutherans love to get to the Last Supper, where Jesus began the practice of giving us His Body and Blood for the forgiveness of our sins through bread and wine. But because we’re so anxious to get to …Continue reading →
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When we have guests or are at a dinner somewhere, we want our children to be polite, so we tell them, “Don’t go back for seconds until everyone else has had some.” This is pretty standard etiquette, but this is also a simple way to show love to others. I imagine most of your families have a similar rule.
But sadly, this rule tends to stop at the buffet line and not follow us out into our lives.
But what if we applied this rule to our lives? How many pairs of shoes do you have? Before getting your second pair of shoes, did you ever think to buy a pair for those who don’t have shoes? TOMS Shoes is a great example of a company that has taken this to heart. For every pair they sell, they donate a pair to someone in a developing country to prevent soil-transmitted diseases.
What about food? What if, for every can of food each of us bought, we donated a can to Community Care or another local food pantry? Think about clothes, toilet paper, and more. Last year, we had a sock drive when we found out the Lorain Haven Center for the homeless needed socks. But what if, instead of having “drives,” we just made a habit of picking up a few extra cans or boxes of food every time we went shopping? Or when getting that new pair of shoes, grabbing a pair of nice shoes off the Clearance rack for someone in need? Or when you need socks, buy an extra bag for someone who doesn’t have “firsts.”
For most of us, a few extra cans in the cart won’t make a noticeable dent in our checking account. (If it does, let us know, and we’ll help you out with some of it!) But when I was at seminary and had access to an on-campus food pantry and resale shop, most of you can’t imagine how much we appreciated that. Others are in worse situations than we are.
Loving your neighbor isn’t just about giving your 10%. Jesus gave us His all. Loving your neighbor as yourself means going beyond the “drives” and letting your life be driven by the One Who was driven to the cross to save you.
But enough talk. Talking won’t help anyone. If you’re interested in helping with this drop me a note or leave a comment. We just need a container to collect items (or maybe two, one for groceries and one for clothes, etc.) and someone willing to deliver the items to Community Care or wherever they’re needed. Everyone else, think about what “seconds” you have in your life, and ask whether you are able to to help provide “firsts” to someone in need.