Challenges for a New Year – Part 4

So far I’ve offered three ideas for ways to invest more spiritually in the coming year. Here they are in bullet-point form:

  • Attend church more consistently
  • Go beyond attendance and get involved in church activity
  • Commit to giving financially to support the ministry of the church.

Here are two more ideas to consider:

Maybe this is the year you step forward and are baptized.

It’s funny, but baptism can be an intimidating thing.

First off you get wet. Which seems fine at a pool or at the beach. But maybe a bit odd at church.

Second, baptism happens in front of a lot of people. Which can be intimidating.

But, baptism is something the Bible calls us to do!

It is the symbolic declaration of the work that Jesus has done in our lives.

And it is an incredible blessing to the church family.

My encouragement: Ask God to remove your fears and fill you with a determination to honor Him through baptism.

Note: When it comes to baptism, I’ve never heard anyone say, “I wish I hadn’t done that!”

What is much more typical is to hear, “Why did I wait so long.”

Here’s the second thought for a New Year’s resolution:

Maybe this is the year you commit to knowing your Bible better, and in turn, seek to apply it to your life.

The more you know your way around your Bible, the better equipped you will be to help yourself as well as others.

For many of us, the idea of studying and meditating on the Bible seems huge…it’s such a big Book.

But the advice for spending time in the Bible is the same advice for how you handle a huge meal: You take it one bite at a time.

Sometimes people try to read through the Bible quickly, with the goal being quantity over quality.

But I believe the best way to spend time in the word is not just to read but to reflect.

Another great way is to join others in the effort. Get in a group that systematically works their way through the Scriptures!

When I study a passage of the Bible, I always have three questions in mind to process:

  1. What does it say?
  2. What does it mean?
  3. What am I supposed to do?

These three questions help keep the Bible from becoming stale or distant or rote.

About the Bible, Charles Spurgeon said this:

If you wish to know God you must know his word; if you wish to perceive his power you must see how he works by his word; if you wish to know his purpose before it is actually brought to pass you can only discover it by his word.

 

Challenges for a New Year – Part 3

In the last post I wrote a bit about making church attendance more of a priority. In today’s post I offer a few more challenges for going spiritually deeper in 2017.

Consider this:

Perhaps this is the year that to move beyond simply attending church and finding our way deeper into the life of the church.

Being here consistently on Sundays is a great thing…but the life of the church is designed to be an all-week experience!

Why?

Because we need connection.

We need growth.

We need to find ways to serve.

Maybe this is the year that you move from being more of a spectator to being a participant.

Here’s another area of spiritual development to think about:

Maybe his is the year we get serious about giving.

It’s interesting, Jesus talked about the handling of money and material possessions more than any other topic.

More than heaven. More than hell.

11 of Jesus’ 39 parables centered around money!

Got a hunch why?

I think He knew that this can be stubborn, difficult area for us.

The Bible tells us: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.

I remember when I was young I felt like church was pretty cool because I could enjoy a lot of stuff for free.

I could come to youth group free!

I could play basketball in the gym free!

Sadly, it never really dawned on me that there we’re people faithfully investing in God’s work so goofballs like me might hear about Jesus.

Centuries ago Martin Luther said this: There are three conversions necessary: the conversion of the heart, the mind and the wallet.

When we give to God’s work, we aren’t just unloading our money but rather we are making a spiritual investment – and investment that has eternal dividends.

Proverbs 3:9 says,

Honor the LORD with your wealth and with the firstfruits of all your produce;

The idea of firstfruits is that we don’t we seek to give to God with what is leftover, but that we give to Him before we do anything else.

In other words, our giving should be deliberate, consistent and sacrificial.

Might this be the year that you join in the eternal investment of lives transformed by Jesus?

 

Challenges for a New Year – Part 2

The new year is a great time to think about areas of our spiritual life that need attention.

Over the next few posts I’m going to share a few areas that perhaps could use a bit of attention in our lives.

Here’s the first consideration:

Maybe we really need to commit to faithfully attending church.

Sometimes our church attendance can seem a bit erratic.

Our efforts to get to be with God’s people are often hindered by our emotions, our plans, our our level of energy.

In other words, we make getting to church  more of an issue of feelings rather than faithfulness.

Hebrews 10:24-25 tells us,

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

Can I be honest? I’m sometimes amazed with the people I see week after week, month after month, year after year, consistently make their way to church.

Why?

Because there are so many things calling us away from church. Things like day trips, vacations, or sports.

It’s so easy to say, “Aw, let’s live a little…it’s the weekend!”

But sometimes it just gets easier and easier to find another reason to not make our way to church!

Here’s one thing Sara and I decided many years ago: no “too-late” Saturday nights.

Friday night? We stay up late!

But Saturday night? We make sure we’re home in time that everyone gets a good night’s rest and is able to function on Sunday mornings.

One last note: this post isn’t about keeping perfect attendance or worrying if we ever miss church.

God’s not trying to put a guilt trip on us.

He simply knows what’s good for us.

Challenges for a New Year – Part 1

For many, the new year is seen as logical time to reevaluate our lives, and if there is anything we see that could use a little attention, we decide what action is most fitting.

For some it’s in the area of FITNESS

Some people use this time of year to assess their FINANCIAL situation

For many, this is a time to rethink their VOCATION

Still others will consider ways to become more ORGANIZED, or to RENEW RELATIONSHIPS or FINISH SOMETHING THAT NEVER GOT COMPLETED

Now, truth be told, we could do these things at any time of the year.

But there’s something about that date: January 1!

Now, all of these types of resolutions are good.

I think it’s wise to look at our life in order to shore up or weaknesses as well as build on our strengths.

Yet, as important as all these things are, I think it goes without saying that the most important part of our life is our SPIRITUAL LIFE.

And, that being the case, I think it is imperative that, time to time, we stop what we are doing and ask ourselves, “How’s it going in my relationship with God?”

Truth be told, if we ever expect to really grow in Christ, we will have to ask ourselves this question over and over again.

Please note that I’m not talking about the status of our salvation…the Bible makes clear that if we have received Christ we are adopted into His family and enjoy all the rights and privileges of sons and daughters.

What I’m speaking about is the development of our faith as well as the development of our practice.

Why? Because one of the desires God has for His children is that they will produce spiritual fruit.

This fruit shows up in many forms:

  • We are to trust God
  • We are to obey His Word
  • We are to care for others
  • We are to serve others
  • We are to share with others

The reality of all this is really brought home when we look at the last verse of Ephesians 2:

Just prior to this verse, Paul spends a lot of time talking about how God saves us…not by our own effort that we may boast, but through faith!

Ephesians 2:10 says:

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Have you ever thought about that?

This verse tells us that God, prior to our salvation has actually pre-prescribed good works – spiritual fruit – that we ought to carry out!

So when it comes to my salvation, God does it all, but when it comes to my spiritual life in Christ, God calls me to action!

Not to earn anything from God. But to serve Him!

So what is it that we are to do?

Although there are basic things that every Christian is called to live out, there are some things that seem to be individualized for each one of our lives!

Sadly, I think many Christians are a bit non-committal (dare I say passive?) about this kind of stuff.

We kind of float along, going with the flow, sticking in the mainstream, doing enough to get by.

I sometimes wonder if God wishes we were a little more pro-active and determinative!

See, I like the determinant attitude of Joshua:

And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house we will serve the Lord. (Joshua 24:15)

Or how about the words of Paul from Romans 1:16?

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

So what are some of the types of things where might be being prompted by God to move forward rather than staying in neutral?

I’ll offer us some ideas in the next few posts.

Christmas: A Time to Celebrate!

For some, the Christmas season feels more like a time to endure, or even survive.

During the Christmas season, it’s not uncommon for some to feel the strain among relationships, while others feel pressure within their bank account.

A few years ago a pastor asked people on the street what they were celebrating at Christmas and here’s a sampling of the responses he received:

  • I’m celebrating the fact that I made it through another year
  • I’m celebrating being home for the holidays
  • I got a Christmas bonus
  • Our son is home from the Middle East
  • I’m celebrating the fact that I’ve finished all my shopping

Now, these are some good reasons to celebrate, but what really struck this pastor was the answer that was noticeably missing from most people’s responses:

The celebration of Jesus!

When we look into the original Christmas story, Jesus’ birth takes center stage.

According to Luke’s Gospel. the angel who announced Christ’s arrival to the shepherds made this declaration:

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people!  Luke 2:10 (KJV)

So what was at the heart of such a joyous and celebrative announcement?

So many possibilities…but let me offer 3

  1. God loves us!
  1. God understands our struggles, our inadequacies and our inabilities!
  1. God sent His Son to help us rediscover life the way God intended it to be lived!

Perhaps one of the best known verses in the Bible makes this declaration:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16 (ESV)

When it comes to Christmas this year, have you been able to celebrate the true reason for this magical season, the fact that the baby in the manger was a God-sent gift to the world to bring peace, hope, light and life to a world scarred by sin and sadness?

If not, it’s not too late to engage and celebrate the real reason for the Christmas season!

The Heartbeat of Christmas: Relational Peace

Here’s an amazing verse from the Bible that talks about God’s initiative in bringing peace between humankind and Himself:

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8 (ESV)

Take note: God didn’t wait until we had our act together to show us His love in sending Jesus.

The truth is we could never get our life so put together for that to happen!

No, God moved forward on our behalf to see that restoration and reconciliation might take place in our lives!

Here’s a grim statistic: During the past 5,560 years there have been almost 15,000 wars.

Human beings seem to have a really hard time sustaining peace.

We are much better at things like arguing, disagreeing, fighting and feuding.

I imagine some of us are actually dreading getting together with relatives on Christmas because our relationships are strained and stressed.

Oh, how you would love to experience a Christmas not marked by bickering,

When the shepherds appeared before the angels, they had had great words of celebration and salvation. As they concluded their proclamation, they ended it with these words that act as a sort of benediction, communicating the desire of heaven:

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. Luke 2:14 (KJV)

God’s desire is that as we are reconciled to Him, we will take that same spirit of charity and graciousness out into the various relationships that fill our lives!

Rick Warren, writing about peace offered up this sobering reality:

  • There will never peace in the world until there is peace within the nations
  • There will never be peace in our nation until there’s peace in our communities
  • There will never be peace until there is peace within our families
  • And there won’t be peace in our families until there’s peace in our individual hearts
  • And that won’t happen until the Prince of Peace, Jesus, reigns in our hearts.

Jesus came at Christmas that we might experience peace with God, peace within ourselves and peace with those around us.

St. Francis of Assisi wrote out this prayer that reflects the desire to see the peace of Christmas reign in his heart:

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is error, truth;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek

To be consoled as to console;

To be understood as to understand;

To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

 

 

Christmas: a Time for Peace, not Pressure.

It seems that most people are in pursuit of the perfect Christmas.

The decorations have to be just right.

The food needs to amaze the palate.

 The gifts must be exactly what everyone wanted.

We fill our minds with mental images of perfect family gatherings full of laughter without a hint of any discord or disagreement.

May I just say…that’s a lot of pressure!

But the truth is, quite often, Christmas can be a bit disappointing…and in some cases it can come off like a dud!

Here’s the truth: There are no perfect Christmases. Because there are no perfect people.

And that’s what Christmas is really all about.

So often, we think that the only way to get close to God is by being perfect…and if we can’t be perfect, than we just need to be better than those around us. In other words, the way to connect with God is through effort, through competition, through striving, and through good behavior.

Yet consider the words of Jesus of whose birth we celebrate:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30 (ESV)

Or how about this stress-relieving passage of scripture found in the Book of Ephesians:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. Ephesians 2:8-9 (ESV)

Isn’t it ironic that for all the time and energy and stress and pressure we put ourselves through during the holiday season, that the point of the holiday is that God, through the person of Jesus, seeks to take the pressure off of us!

I don’t know about your childhood, but my experience with Santa was summed up in being told that if I was good, then I could expect some presents under the tree. But, if I was not-so-good, or all-out naughty, then it might not be such a great year!

That was a lot of stress for a little guy!

But the message of Christmas is that God already knows that we fail and we struggle and that we have shame…

That’s why God sent Jesus!

To heal our hearts

To restore our lives

To give our lives meaning and purpose

To bring peace between us and God

Christmas is God’s reminder that we can’t do it on our own, and that He is more than willing to help us!

Too often, I believe that when it comes to Christmas, we’ve got our focus on a lot of the wrong things.

Instead of pursuing the perfect Christmas, may we pour our energy into pursuing the perfect Savior.

 

 

The Reason for Christmas

Sometimes the only time people hear about Jesus is during the Christmas season.

Maybe you’ve noticed: although much of the Christmas music that gets pumped into the shopping malls is focused on reindeer, snowmen and Christmas trees, here and there you’ll actually here songs that describe the birth of Jesus, and, in fact, even refer to the reason of his coming.

(And of course network TV plays “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which culminates with Linus’ speech taken right from the pages of the Bible!)

The birth of Jesus signaled the fact that God was beginning a rescue operation to deliver people from the burden and penalty of sin!

Going back to that scene where the angels appeared to the shepherds we also learn the reason for the celebration:

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. Luke 2:11 (KJV)

In sending Jesus, God was putting into motion a plan that’s end goal was reconciling lost people back into a right relationship with Him.

It’s important to remember that this reconciliation wasn’t made possible through Jesus’ birth, but rather it came through His death.

33 years after entering into the world in the tiny town of Bethlehem, Jesus would give up His life as a sinless sacrifice to God, so that we might find deliverance from sin!

2 Corinthians 5:21 captures the essence of how this works:

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (ESV)

In Christ, our Savior and Deliverer we find freedom, that apart from knowing, him we will never be able to find…

  • Freedom from guilt over the past that keeps us from experiencing God’s plan for our future…
  • Freedom from bitterness and resentment that threaten to ruin our health and destroy our relationships
  • Freedom from harmful, addictive habits that only serve as cheap substitutes for the blessings that God wishes to bestow upon our lives
  • Freedom from the fear of death because, in Christ, we understand that we are saved to spend the rest of time with Him in heaven.

The Bible says in Hebrews 2:14-15

Since we, God’s children, are human beings—made of flesh and blood—he became flesh and blood too by being born in human form; for only as a human being could he die and in dying break the power of the devil who had the power of death. 15 Only in that way could he deliver those who through fear of death have been living all their lives as slaves to constant dread. (TLB)

Imagine this Christmas after all the gifts were opened, you notice that one present remained. A present without a tag. What would you do with it? Would you leave it alone? Or would open it up?

My guess is most people couldn’t resist the urge to figure out what it was!

Jesus is God’s gift to humanity. Yet so many people fail to investigage Jesus. And as a result they fail to receive Jesus as their Savior.

To not experience salvation through Christ is like getting a present and forgetting, or even worse, refusing to open it!

By grace, God given us Jesus so that we might be rescued from sin and introduced to life as He designed it.

All it takes is a humble prayer of acknowledging our need to be saved and faith in the person and work of Jesus to turn a life upside-down and right-side up.

Christmas: What’s in a Name?

We think very carefully about how we name things in our lives.

Take for example naming a business.

An AOL article aimed at small business described a poll taken to discover some of the best and worst business names

At the top of the list? Google, Paypal, JiffyLube, Twitter and Under Armor.

A few of those business that took up space in the bottom of the poll included:

…a web conferencing company called DIM-DIM

…a bank merger that resulted in the naming of the 5th 3rd Bank

…and of course the ever exciting Boring Business Systems

How about our pets?

Some people can spend days…even weeks agonizing over choosing the just-right  name for a newly acquired dog, cat, fish or hamster!!!

Of course, naming our children can be quite arduous. Every year the Social Security Administration releases a list of the top 10 names for newborn boys and girls:

For 2015 girls it was  Emma, Olivia, Sophia, Ava, Isabella, Mia, Abigail, Emily, Charlotte and Harper.

The top boys names for 2015 were Noah, Liam, Mason, Jacob, William, Ethan, James, Alexander, Michael, Benjamin.

One list of names I came across in was a list of actual names that came out of the 60’s…you know, the days when some people lived in communes and embraced the hippie lifestyle…As a result of that era, it is entirely possible to bump into people today who are known as: Morning, Carrot, Sunshine, Fender, Gravy and Doobie.

Bible names are especially interesting because they often describe the person who possessed the name:

Esau means “Hairy.”

Jacob equals “Heal Grabber.”

Barnabas translates “Son of Encouragement.”

When it comes to the name of Jesus, we can learn much about His attribute, His character…even His mission.

Consider this passage of Scripture found in the first chapter of Matthew’s gospel. It’s a section of scripture where Matthew writes about a dream that Joseph received from God in which an angel of the Lord spoke to him:

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Matthew 1:18-21 (ESV)

Notice the specific instructions on the name that Joseph was to give the soon-to-be-born infant

He was to be given the name JESUS, because He would save His people from their sins.

The name “Jesus” is the Greek version of the Hebrew name “Joshua”

It’s meaning is simple: “God Saves”

The angel instructed Joseph to give the child a specific name that would reflect the activity the God would be doing through Him!

Simply put, Joseph was being informed that this Jesus would be the central figure who would deliver people from the guilt and bondage and the of their sins!

When it comes to Christmas, the name given to Jesus is not only pleasing to the ear, but refreshing to the heart.

Because the name of Jesus reveals what God seeks to do for us through His Son.

 

Christian Connection

The Bible calls the people of God to something called fellowship; the simple concept that, as followers of Jesus, we do better when we do life together.

Scientists have studied those who live in independence and isolation and determined that a lack of connection with humanity can be hazardous to your health!

  • In 2006, a study of 2,800 women who had breast cancer showed those who saw few friends or family were as much as five times more likely to die of their disease than women with many social contacts.
  • Psychologists at University of Chicago and Ohio State University have shown that people who are socially isolated develop changes in their immune system, which leads to a condition called chronic inflammation.

It’s also interesting that early on in the book of Genesis, God made the statement that it is NOT GOOD for man to be alone.

This is why understanding Christian fellowship is so important.

So what is fellowship?

The word used in the original Greek writings of the Bible is the word KOINONIA

It is defined as “sharing in what we have in common.”

Words that are related to the word KOINONIA include words like participation, partnership and communion

When we practice biblical KOINONIA, we move from being overly independent and isolated to becoming more engaged and involved!

Now the basis of Christian KOINONIA centers on the one thing we all have in common: a relationship Jesus Christ!

As different as we all are, whether it be racially, economically, politically, nationality and so on, we can rally around one truth: That Jesus is our Lord and Savior!

Of our commonality in Jesus, John MacArthur writes:

Anybody in fellowship with Jesus Christ is also in fellowship with anybody else in fellowship with Jesus Christ.  Our common ground is that which is pulsing through the life of every Christian – the heartbeat of God!

Think about it like this: As Christians, you and I have family members who live all around this great big planet we inhabit!

We can travel to Asia, Africa, South America or Australia and have automatic connection with those who have embraced the Gospel message of Jesus…even if we have language barriers!

Think about some of the things we share in common with our brothers and sisters in Christ, whether across the street or around the world:

  • We worship the same God
  • We’ve experienced rescue from our sin
  • We’ve been given eternal life
  • We’ve been adopted into God’s family
  • We’ve been filled with the Holy Spirit
  • God has given all of us spiritual gifts
  • We share the same mission

The truth of the matter is this: In Christ WE ARE connected, whether we realize it or not…the question is this: DO WE LIVE LIKE IT?

In other words, are we practicing the fellowship we possess? Do we find our lives richly weaving into the lives of other Christians?

People we pray with.

People we encourage. 

People we laugh with. 

People we cry with. 

People we learn with. 

People we fail with. 

People we care for. 

People who care for us.

People with whom we share our spiritual gifts. 

People with whom we share with from our resources.

That’s what authentic fellowship looks like